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
Monday 03 May 2004
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.
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