Cooper, the model professional who fought to the top the hard way

Briton will be remembered for losses to Ali but full story is of a boxer who worked hard to become a champion
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The Independent Online

Henry Cooper, who died yesterday, will be remembered by most for his bloody failure in two fights with Muhammad Ali, his anger after losing to Joe Bugner and his long association with Brut.

It is annoying, and was to Cooper, that his other 52 fights, his 17 years as a prize-fighter and most of his truly inspiring wins remain largely forgotten attractions during his remarkable boxing career. He was the consummate professional, meticulous in his preparation and a model pro who never gained more than 10 pounds during any point in his career, which is astonishing.

Cooper belonged to a strong period in British boxing when fighters were not the protected property of either over-cautious promotional companies or short-sighted television companies; each desperate to preserve their investment. In his first three years as a professional, Cooper fought 20 times and was beaten on six occasions, including three times by knockout.

His defeats to former world champion Ingemar Johansson in 1957 and Joe Bygraves earlier the same year served as savage reminders that Cooper was just a punch away from oblivion. "I had to fight for everything back then," said Cooper in later life. "I was not protected and given easy fight after easy fight – I had to fight and prove how good I was."

By the end of 1957, Cooper had twice failed to win the Commonwealth title, had lost out for the British heavyweight championship and had been knocked out cold trying to win the European belt.

In late 1958, Cooper was matched with one of the world's top heavyweights in Zora Folley at Wembley Arena, but Folley, who was the world's No 2 at the time, was not the first choice. The first choice of the promoter, Harry Levene, had been Sonny Liston, another American. It was not a fight that Cooper's long-suffering and infamous manager Jim "The Bishop" Wicks was happy with.

He famously said: "I wouldn't let my 'Enry meet that Liston geezer walking down the street, let alone in the bleeding ring." Liston and Cooper never met and Liston won the world title a few years later.

Cooper beat Folley on points in one of the finest wins by any British heavyweight and went unbeaten in his next six fights, winning and defending the British and Commonwealth titles, before a crazy rematch with Folley was arranged for December 1961. Cooper was knocked out in five rounds.

A couple of domestic wins later and Wembley Stadium was the scene of the first Ali fight in 1963 and predictably Cooper's next loss.

Cooper kept winning and kept tracking Ali's progress until a world title fight was arranged in 1966 at Highbury. The fight ended with Cooper obscured by his own blood and snarling in frustration and anger as he was led back to his corner. The two fighters forged a friendship that was never quite as cheery as some have suggested; Cooper was and remained to the very end a competitor.

Cooper weighed just 13.6st for the Ali rematch and Ali was just 13 and a half pounds heavier; the two would be modern-day cruiserweights and would concede as much as 6st to the present holders of the heavyweight titles.

It is amazing to think that just four months after losing to Ali for the world title Cooper, without an easy win as all boxers would get today, was matched with former champion and leading contender Floyd Patterson. Cooper was knocked out in four rounds.

Cooper kept winning domestic and European title fights and taking care of every possible British fighter, including an emotional night at Wembley against the Blond Bomber, Billy Walker, in 1967. However, he was slowing down, thinning on top and getting old for a heavyweight but he remained a firm attraction at Wembley, where seven of his title fights and several of his big encounters took place.

It was at Wembley in March 1971 that Cooper fought for the last time when he put all three of his belts – the British, Commonwealth and European – on the line against the young upstart of British boxing Bugner. Cooper lost a narrow and disputed decision after 15 torrid rounds. He retired and never came back; Bugner, who in many ways was a better fighter, never recovered from beating Cooper. "The British public hated me from that point because I beat the man that they loved," Bugner said.

Cooper's life and times

1934 Born 3 May in south east London.

1952 Wins first title at amateur level, the ABA light-heavyweight championship.

1952 Represents Great Britain in Helsinki Olympics, losing in second round.

1954 Turns professional following two years of national service.

1955 Suffers first professional defeat at the hands of Italy's Uber Bacilieri.

1959 Wins British and Commonwealth heavyweight belts after beating Brian London.

1963 Sends Cassius Clay to canvas in non-title bout at Wembley. Loses in next round.

1964 Claims vacant European heavyweight crown on points against London.

1967 Wins first of two BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

1968 Adds European crown to British and Commonwealth titles with victory over Karl Mildenberger.

1969 Becomes first boxer to receive OBE.

1971 Loses final bout of 55-fight career (40 wins, 27 KOs) against Joe Bugner.

2000 Knighted for services to boxing.