Sir Henry Cooper: Nation still reveres Cooper as lord of the ring

Twice winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award continues to beguile with his charm and generosity
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow evening, Jonny Wilkinson will be ordained BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It will be the 50th time the prestigious award has been dished out, which offers me an irresistible opportunity to interview the former British heavyweight boxing champion Sir Henry Cooper, the first person to win it twice (the other two being Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill).

Cooper, the winner in 1967 and 1970, will be in the studio audience tomorrow, clapping his huge hands as Wilkinson no doubt bashfully accepts his prize. It seems almost blasphemous, incidentally, not to refer to him as Henry, or better still 'enry, but I have to conform to The Independent's house style.

As for Wilkinson, the world's greatest fly-half is learning what Cooper already knows: what it is like to be on the receiving end of a nation's veneration. Not that anyone ever brandished a placard in Trafalgar Square declaring "Henry, I want your babies". Not even, I would guess, Lady Cooper. But has any sportsman ever enjoyed such sustained popularity with the Great British Public? I can't think of one.

The difference between Cooper and Wilkinson, of course, is that the former was, at the highest level, a loser. He fought only once for the world title, against Muhammad Ali at Highbury in 1966, and lost. But he lost graciously, even when Joe Bugner was judged to have outpointed him, in one of boxing's more dubious decisions. That was Cooper's last fight, in 1971.

He exemplified the plucky Englishman, magnanimous in defeat. Whereas Wilkinson exemplifies a new breed of sporting hero; the Englishman as obsessive winner.

Still, it must bug Cooper that he is better remembered for twice coming second - the other occasion was also against Muhammad Ali, in 1963 when Ali was still Cassius Clay and a fight away from claiming Sonny Liston's world title - than for his many victories. After all, he remained the British, European and Commonwealth champion for the best part of 11 years, overcoming some formidable challengers along the way, and but for the iffy calculation in Bugner's favour, would have retired with his titles intact.

He is 69 now, and a bit creaky, although he still cuts an imposing figure. I see him first as he looms out of the mist outside his home on an upmarket housing estate near Tonbridge in Kent. I have phoned for directions, and he has come out to find me. "Are you looking for something?" comes the unmistakable south-east London basso profundo. "You," I reply.

Five minutes later I am sitting comfortably in his lounge, with a mug of tea served by the sweetly attentive Lady C. Dottie, an excitable Jack Russell terrier, has been shut in the kitchen. On the wall in the hall hangs a large print of the late Queen Mum, one of the few people whose popularity with Middle England exceeded Henry's.

We talk for a while about the state of boxing now. Unsurprisingly, he says it's not what it was. "It's still the hardest game in the world," he adds. "So I wouldn't change the money. They get great money, they're entitled to it and good luck to 'em.

"But what's cheapened boxing is all the governing bodies, and all the different weights. Super-this, super-that. There are 17 weights now and five governing bodies. What's five times 17? That's more than 80 world champions. I watch kids fighting for a version of the world title after 10 fights. Christ almighty.

"When I started it was a trade that had to be learnt. There were eight weights from flyweight to heavyweight and one governing body. At the end of my career there were two, the WBC and WBA, and that was alright. But when you've got bleedin' four or five..." He tails off, overcome by indignation.

I ask where he places Lennox Lewis in the pantheon of heavyweight champs? "Well, he's fought dangerous men and beat them. But there aren't the fighters around that there used to be, so you can't make him one of the greats. Having said that, you can only be top man in your era. You can't do better than that." A slurp of tea.

"I always thought he [Lewis] came in the ring too heavy. When we were boxing, you weighed in the same day, one o'clock on the day you fought. Now they weigh in two, sometimes three days before a fight, so with easing off training, and eating, someone like Lewis, who weighs in at 18st 6lb, is going to be nearly 19st. That's much too heavy. At 17st, 17st 2lb, he's the best moving heavyweight in the world today, but you can't cart 19st around the ring for 12 rounds.

"They all do it. They all bulk up to absorb punches. But it don't make for good boxing. There's only one way of boxing now, going forward. Counter-punching is a dying art."

So if Lewis is not among his all-time heavyweight greats, who is? "In my mind there are three. You've got to say Muhammad Ali. And Joe Louis, who defended his title on 25 occasions. But Rocky Marciano was the only undefeated heavyweight champion. Fought 49, won 49. A couple of guys went the distance with him, then he met 'em a second time and knocked 'em sparko."

A chuckle, which elides into a mini-coughing fit. "And I don't think Larry Holmes gets the credit he should, because he beat the idol, Ali. That was the fight that tipped Ali over the top."

In June this year, on the 40th anniversary of the fight at Wembley in which he famously hit Ali so hard that it shook his ancestors in Africa, Cooper picked up the phone to hear a familiar soft mumble. "I had to keep saying 'It's a bad line, Muhammad' because I could hardly hear him. But he's still got that cheeky sense of humour. He asked me how old I was and I said 69. He said 'Man, you are getting old'."

They last met three years ago. "And he had his doctor with him, so when he got up to go out of the room, and I knew he'd be gone for 20 minutes or so because he walks so slow, I asked his doctor about his condition. The whole trouble is because he was so unorthodox. We were always taught as kids that you never turned your head on a punch, you always slipped it." Here, Cooper rises to his feet to demonstrate, rocking back slipping imaginary punches, like a gigantic Norman Wisdom.

"But he used to turn, and he took so many punches to the back of the head that they killed off the cells at the base of the brain. He hasn't got Parkinson's Disease, like an ordinary guy, he's got Parkinson's Syndrome. Those cells, by all accounts, trigger a chemical release into the bloodstream but his are dead so they're not doing that job. That's why his hands shake and all that."

A pause. "Shame, really." I tell Cooper that I know he has talked a million times about his battles with Ali, but I want him to make it a million and one. First, though, he fills me in on his family background, which is no less fascinating.

"My grandad, George Cooper, was an old bare-knuckle fighter. He used to go 20 rounds, bare knuckles. He worked with horses, and where there were stables in them days, there was always bare-knuckle fighting. Grandad was sparring partner to the old British middleweight champion Ted Pritchard, who used to say that grandad could be better than him if he took it seriously. But he had other interests.

"He had a very good singing voice, by all accounts. He died before I was born. In fact he died at a wedding reception, actually while he was singing. Burst a blood vessel. The old bride wasn't too happy. Mind you, nor was grandad."

Another hearty chuckle. I don't doubt the story but I suspect it has gone the distance in countless after-dinner speeches, Cooper's principal source of income these days, and a much-needed one; he reportedly lost a small fortune as a Lloyd's Name (and had to sell his three Lonsdale belts).

"Anyway, we were brought up during the war on a council estate in Bellingham, in the Borough of Lewisham. There was an artillery battery at the end of our street, and when they started up, we knew it was time to get into the air-raid shelter.

"Our mum used to make us run with a cushion on our heads. You could hear the shrapnel dropping on the roof tiles, see. If it had come down, it would have gone straight through the bleedin' cushion. But you know what mums are." Indeed, not that mine has ever had to worry about shrapnel piercing my head, or, for that matter, a right hook knocking it from my shoulders.

Cooper became the Amateur Boxing Association light-heavyweight champion and turned professional in 1954. In 1959 he fought Brian London for the vacant British title, and won. He lost to Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, world champions both, but beat the number one contender, Zora Folley. By 1963 he was himself a leading contender for the world title, with a left hand that demanded respect even from the upstart, Clay.

"We'd read about Clay, of course. We'd heard about the bragging, although that was the only thing that wasn't original about him. He'd seen this wrestler, Gorgeous George, who had permed blond hair, and went into the ring with two women. They'd perfume his corner, and spray disinfectant into his opponent's. Ali, or Clay as he was then, liked that. And he liked the size of the crowds Gorgeous George used to pull."

At the end of the fourth round of that 1963 fight, Clay was famously saved not just by the bell, but by the underhand tactics of his trainer, Angelo Dundee, after being flattened for the first time in his career.

"I've had dinner with Angelo a couple of times," Cooper says, "and he told me there was no way Cassius could have gone on, but on the thumb of his right-hand glove he saw that the stitching had stretched, so he ripped it with his thumb nail, then called the referee over. After that fight they always kept a second pair of gloves under the ring, but they didn't then.

"The referee had to send someone to the dressing-room, 150 yards away, and by the time he got back Clay's had a two-minute interval, which is all a fit man needs."

The rest is boxing history. Cooper was always vulnerable above his left eye, where the skin tissue was thin, and it split against Clay as it would against Clay's later persona as Ali.

"I was never big for a heavyweight," Cooper recalls. "If I was fighting now I'd be a cruiserweight. But I used to love fighting big guys because they were slower, with the exception of Ali. He was big but he moved like a middleweight.

"He and Floyd Patterson and Zora Folley were the best I fought. Floyd had hands just as fast as Ali and could punch harder. Zora Folley could knock you out. Ali couldn't. He relied on fantastic reflexes. And later, when his reflexes slowed down, he was clever.

"He'd let them punch his stomach, punch themselves out, like [George] Foreman, but if you watch you'll see his left hand around the back of their neck, pulling them forward on the balls of their feet, so they didn't get any leverage. Clever."

But not clever enough to avoid terrible damage. Cooper, on the other hand, retired when he said he would - despite that defeat by Bugner - and stayed retired. He might regret those insurance liabilities, but in all other respects he is the picture of contentment.

As I leave, he is standing at the door, waving with one big hand and cuddling Dottie the Jack Russell with the other. Lady Cooper has just given me a bottle of wine "for you and your family, from me and my hubbie". And as cold as it is in the Kent outdoors, I feel enveloped by their warmth. I hope I feel the same, in 30 years' time, leaving the home of Sir Jonny and Lady Wilkinson.

The 50th Sports Personality of the Year is on BBC1 tomorrow, from 8pm.

Sir Henry Cooper the life and times

Born: 3 May, 1934, in London, older than his twin brother George by 20 minutes. Grew up in Bellingham, south London. Keen all-round sportsman at school before turning exclusively to amateur boxing.

1952: Wins first amateur title at 17 - the Amateur Boxing Association light-heavyweight championship. Represents Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Helsinki.

1954: First professional fight on 14 September, against fellow Briton Harry Painter under the guidance of Jim Wicks.

1959: Wins British and Empire heavyweight titles for the first time by beating Brian London. Remains British champion for the next 12 years.

1960: Marries Albine Genepri.

1961: Wins first of a record three Lonsdale belts - the other two coming in 1965 and 1970.

1963: Fights Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium on 18 June, in what is regarded as one of the most famous fights in British boxing history. Cooper floors him with a left hook in round four, but Clay is saved by the bell and has enough time to recover after a split in his glove is discovered. The fight ends in round five when Cooper receives a large cut above his left eye.

1966: Beaten again by Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) after sustaining cuts, in a world title fight at Highbury.

1968: Wins European title.

1971: Retires aged 37 after losing to Joe Bugner on 16 March in questionable points decision. Cooper did not speak to the referee, Harry Gibbs, until shortly before Gibbs died in 1999. Cooper totalled 40 wins, 14 defeats and one draw in his 17-year career.

1975: Appears in the film Royal Flash.

2000: Becomes boxing's first knight in the New Years' Honours List.

2003: Cooper, aged 69, lives in Tonbridge with his wife. They have two sons, both in their 20s - Henry Marco and John Pietro.

He says: "Guys like Lennox Lewis, Herbie Hide, Danny Williams, they are all good fighters - but I would have beaten them."

They say: "There is one figure whose extraordinary popularity, by virtue of the traits he exhibits, marks him out as belonging to that select band, the 'national treasures'. He is Henry Cooper." - Robert Edwards, Cooper's biographer.