Boxing: Our 'Enry turns 75 but losing loved ones is hammer blow

Cooper opens up on fighting Ali (twice), after-dinner gigs and family heartache

Sir Henry Cooper is 75 today and there isn't a sporting soul in the land who won't be wishing boxing's elder statesman many happy returns. But for Our 'Enry it could be happier. It is a bitter-sweet birthday as for the first time in 48 years it is one he will be celebrating without his beloved Albina, the Italian-born wife who died suddenly of a heart attack at their home in Kent just under a year ago. Cooper soldiers on but admits: "It's left a big void in my life. I'll never get over it. I've shed tears every day since. I just can't help myself. I think about her all the time. She was my rock, my inspiration. I suppose I'm coping OK, but you never do really."

Not that Cooper's life is empty. He sees his two sons and two grandchildren most days and remains one of Britain's most in-demand figures. The diary that the delightful Albina, whom he met when she was a 17-year-old waitress in her uncle's Soho restaurant, kept so meticulously is crammed with after-dinner speaking engagements and has rarely shown a blank date since he finished fighting following a still-debated loss as a 37-year-old to Joe Bugner. He still plays golf once or twice a week "but only nine holes as the old plates [feet] are playing me up and I've got this bleedin' whassisname in me chest [a pacemaker fitted three years ago]."

It is 38 years since Cooper last slung his famous left hook, nine since Our 'Enry became Sir Henry, Britain's first boxing knight. Since then a succession of British heavyweights have been and gone, the good, the bad and the pug-ugly. But none, with the possible exception of Frank Bruno, has touched Henry's hem in terms of public endearment. He still talks a good fight, though mainly of yesteryear. "It's a different game now. They get millions." He reckons a Premier League player earns more in a week than he did for twice fighting Muhammad Ali. "I was 20 years too early. I boxed in an era where there were some great fighters, now you can count them on one hand. There were 20 young heavyweights in the country when me and George [his twin brother who fought as Jim] were boxing. Now there's about three or four."

Mention of George again brings tears welling to Cooper's eyes. Another reason for his sadness today is that they won't be sharing birthday celebrations. "I'm afraid he's not so good. We had to take him to hospital again a couple of days ago. It's very sad to see him. He's suffering from one of these muscle-wasting diseases."

Cooper remains an icon not just because of 'Enry's 'Ammer, which famously put the then Cassius Clay on his pants only for him to be saved by the bell in 1963. If Cooper had clouted him 10 seconds earlier it might have changed boxing history.

He will always be remembered for his two fights with Ali, both of which ended with lacerations to his vulnerable eyebrows. Whenever we encountered Ali he always spoke with affection and respect for Cooper. "Say hello to my friend Henry for me," he would ask us while rubbing his jaw. "He hit me so hard he jarred my kinfolk in Africa." "Yeah, he was a real card," says Cooper. "You had to laugh at some of his antics but blimey, was he fast."

Cooper was hardly a heavyweight – not in terms of today's tonnage. The second time he fought Ali, 43 years ago this month, he unofficially weighed well under 13st. "I must have been around 12st 10lb, but Jim [manager Wicks] had two lead soles made which I put in my boxing boots when I got on the scales, and he also slipped me a little lead weight which weighed three or four pounds. I had that in my hand and I weighed 13st 4lb.

"I like the look of David Haye. Like me, he's a small heavyweight. Of all the ones I've seen, he's the one most likely to make something. He's exciting, he's got punchability. But the heavyweight division is the worst its ever been. Look at America, they've no one. The big guys can earn good money discus throwing or shot putting, so why get a punch on the nose? I look at things today and think: 'Gawd blimey, what's 'appened to the game?'

"I know I sound a right old misery, but counter-punching is a dying art and all those ring walks drive me nuts. I've seen them bring in fighters on Harley-Davidsons and magic carpets, and some take 40 minutes to get into the ring. Bleedin' hell, when I was fighting, if you took five minutes to get there, you'd get a slow handclap."

Although it is years since his own sweet smell of success and the great smell of Brut, people still stop and ask if he's splashing it all over with Kevin Keegan. He will be doing so again on Thursday as Brut and the London Ex-Boxers Association are presenting him with a Lifetime Achievement award. It is easy to appreciate the enduring affection for Cooper. He embraces modesty, dignity and an unswerving naturalness which is alien to most of today's untouchable sporting mega-rich. It is good to know that he is still in there punching, 'ammer and tongue.

people And here is why...
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain