Brian Viner: Why should we value vulnerability above ability in our heroes?

'Enery's popularity owes more to his charm and integrity than to his boxing

Hang out the bunting, today is the 70th birthday of Sir Henry Cooper. Our 'Enery. Face of the flu jab and the great smell of Brut. The boxer whose punch shook Muhammad Ali's kinsfolk in Africa. The first man to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year twice. Institution and legend. If today wasn't a bank holiday anyway, it ought to be one to mark the 70th anniversary of the great man's birth.

If you discern a sardonic note, you're only partly right. Six months ago, I had the inestimable pleasure of interviewing Sir Henry at his home near Tonbridge in Kent. He couldn't have been more charming, nor his wife any sweeter. It was as pleasant a couple of hours as I have spent in my journalistic career, and when it was over, Lady Cooper pressed a bottle of chianti into my hand, and said "this is for you and your family, from my hubby and me". Bless.

It seems a betrayal, after enjoying that bottle of chianti, to venture that Cooper's reputation has long since grown out of proportion with his achievements in the ring. But that is the fact of the matter. On his wall in Kent there is a large print of the late Queen Mum, and I wrote at the time that she was one of the few people whose popularity with Middle England exceeded his.

Yet 'Enery's popularity owes more to his charm, his integrity and his stature as a man of the people than to his boxing. He was British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion for the best part of 11 years, no trivial achievement. He had a famous left hook. But when he says, as he has done, that he would have beaten Lennox Lewis, he is inviting us to join him in cloud cuckoo land.

Lewis, in a way, represents the flip side of the Cooper phenomenon. He retired as an indisputably great world champion, and may yet make a successful comeback. People who know much more about boxing than I do say that he was a champion worthy of any era, not just of these heavyweight-impoverished times. George Foreman once told me, between plugs for his lean mean fat grilling machine, that he ranked Lewis as one of history's top 10 heavyweights. But Lewis, although respected by his countryfolk, is not revered. Not like Cooper, or the troubled Frank Bruno.

Partly this is because we're not sure that we are his countryfolk. We don't mind our sporting heroes coming from the West Country, but we'd rather the West Country wasn't Canada. Lewis is still not perceived as "properly" British, even though he spent much of his boyhood in East Ham, being taken to watch football matches at Upton Park. Hell, he's closer to being a cockney than the South Londoner Henry Cooper ever was.

There's more to it than that, however. Lewis is personable, articulate and demonstrably decent, but something is missing, something intangible, that yields real, stir-up-the-masses popularity. Bruno has it; Paul Gascoigne had it in spades. I suppose it is a streak of vulnerability, physically manifest in Henry Cooper around the eyes, where his skin split so easily; emotionally present in Bruno and Gazza. Maybe, for this reason, Britain's highest-achieving sporting stars are rarely destined to be the most enduringly popular. Geoff Boycott and Nick Faldo spring inexorably to mind.

Anyway, here's something to keep your mind ticking on a bank holiday. If Cooper and Bruno (and David Beckham, in the vehement opinion of my colleague James Lawton) are among those who get more acclaim than they deserve, at least in pure terms of their sporting exploits, then who are the men and women who should have had much greater appreciation? Send in your suggestions and I'll revisit the subject in a future column.

For me, the stand-out example is Faldo, winner of six major golf championships, so what did it matter that he could be a surly bugger? Never mind the standing ovation accorded to Bruno every time he turns up at a public event these days, Faldo should get one whenever he walks in a room.

There is injustice, too, in the deployment of cold royal steel. Why was John Charles never knighted, or Bob Paisley? Was it because, in the final analysis, they had the right kind of CV but the wrong kind of personality - too quiet, too modest? Some would say it's because they did not play for or manage Manchester United. But if that's the case, how come nobody has ever bid Sir Norbert Stiles to arise? There are only two Englishmen who have won a World Cup and a European Cup, the supreme footballing double. Sir Bobby Charlton is one; plain Nobby Stiles the other. I look forward to your considered thought on this matter.

But in the meantime, I don't want anything written above to detract from my sincerity in wishing Sir Henry Cooper, a good boxer and a lovely man, an extremely happy 70th birthday.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical / Engineering Manager - West Yorkshire - £50k+

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: The company ...

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS Dynamics N...

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star