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
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The Independent Online

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.