James Lawton: A true champion with a touching humility

Cooper possessed both a willingness to accept the the most formidable odds, and the easiest of charm. His nature was essentially warm

Sir Henry Cooper, who died yesterday at the age of 76, was more than a brave and talented hero of the British boxing ring. He had something that seems increasingly remote in these days of hugely rewarded, celebrity sportsmen. He had an unprecedented ability to touch the heart of the people.

He was "Our Enery" not just for his superior left hook, which carried him so close to a sensational knock-out of the great Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) at Wembley in 1963, but because he seemed to represent so much of the best of the nation: a disarming humility, a willingness to accept the most formidable odds, which in his case include a bone structure that made his skin vulnerable to the brush of a feather duster, and the easiest of charm.

He was fond of talking of how it was "back in them days," when fighters fought frequently and without a careful eye on gaining maximum reward for the least possible risk.

He fought Ali twice, losing both through cut eyes and the sheer class of the opposition, but he was never bitter about the outcome of the first fight at Wembley stadium, when a superb left hook left Ali pole-axed and rescued only by the artful work of his legendary corner man Angelo Dundee. Later, the brilliant mentor of Ali claimed that he had torn one of his fighter's gloves to buy a little time against the man from south-east London.

Ali reserved for Cooper's punch the praise he allocated only to the most severe threats to his health in the ring. He said it landed so hard it was felt by his kinfolk in Africa.

Cooper fought everyone who was put before him, including American top-liners like Zora Folley, and he also went in, to defeat, against world champion Floyd Patterson. It was a time when heavyweight boxing, and its title, represented the apex of professional sport in America and Britain, and Cooper, under the management of one of boxing's great characters, Jim "The Bishop" Wicks, fought, alongside his twin brother George (who fought under the name Jim), to huge popularity.

He walked away from the ring in his mid-thirties, after a narrow defeat to the up-and-coming Joe Bugner. He lost his British, Commonwealth and European titles that night – a setback that brought the only known and lasting bitterness into his combative life. He found it impossible to forgive the famous referee Harry Gibbs, who raised Bugner's arm in triumph, until many years later.

The crowd were in uproar when Cooper lost his titles. Not, on reflection, because of the outrageousness of the decision, but because a great and popular hero had come to the end of his fighting days.

In fact it was a blow that did little to darken an essentially warm nature, and he was frequently to be seen enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the Soho Italian restaurant owned by his wife's family.

His rewards in the ring were a fraction of those enjoyed by today's WBA world heavyweight champion, David Haye, but Cooper won something that he prized more highly than any fortune, a reality which endured some financial problems at the time of the Lloyd's members' crisis. He sold some of his memorabilia and he remained committed to the celebration of those good days when he was one of the great heroes of the nation.

His death reminds boxing lovers of those days when fighters fought, quite frequently, and with consistent nerve. When Cooper fought Ali the first time, it was said they had to put lead in his boots for the weigh-in. Even then he scaled 27lbs less than his prodigious opponent. But it was the kind of thing they did in "them days".

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