Referee who risked the wrath of Cooper and country

Click to follow
WHEN THE bell sounded to end the 15th and final round at Wembley Arena on 16 March 1971, most of the many thousands present and millions more watching on television felt that Henry Cooper had done enough to see off Joe Bugner's challenge for the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight championships.

What followed would lead to a libel suit brought by the referee, Harry Gibbs, against Cooper and the opening of a rift so deep that it was more than 20 years before they again engaged in conversation.

At the bell, employing the seasoned campaigner's trick, Cooper held out a hand inviting Gibbs to raise it in acknowledgement of victory. Instead, Gibbs, a vastly experienced and much esteemed figure in the sport, turned away and held Bugner's right arm aloft.

Some may feel that an appreciation of Gibbs, who died at 79 this week while on holiday in Spain, is too conveniently linked with controversy but that decision reached 28 years ago furthered his reputation as a man of independent virtue.

To suppose, as some did, that Gibbs was looking to the future when he favoured the much younger man (Bugner, at 21, was 16 years Cooper's junior) was a slight that he never entirely cleared from his system.

It did not help that Cooper was held in great affection by the public and the sportswriting fraternity after the improvements that came with age, especially the clattering left hook that dropped the young Cassius Clay in a non-title bout.

In his autobiography, published in 1977, the famed Daily Mirror sports columnist Peter Wilson, who had Cooper ahead by two points, wrote, "It wouldn't have been so incredible if the verdict had been by anyone else but Harry Gibbs. Yet, when I think how many times I have seen him in action, not only in giving eminently fair decisions but handling bouts strictly but with the minimum of interference, one terrible bloomer (in my opinion) isn't too bad a record. I wish I'd had as high a percentage in my columns!"

In view of recent controversies involving the judgement of ringside officials it should be explained that Gibbs was the sole arbiter that night at Wembley (the policy survives for British title fights) and employed the old system of five marks for the winner of a round, scaled down to four and three- quarters and and four and a half, depending on the extent of superiority.

Looking back on the contest 10 years on, Gibbs would say, "I have always felt, as a referee, that at the end of 15 rounds (now 12) a referee who can't find a winner is not worth his salt, although a draw is possible and that one could not have been closer... another thought flashed across my mind. I thought, `Thank God Cooper's an old pro, surely he must have something saved up for the last round.'

"I'm sure that any unbiased observer would agree that no way did Henry win that last round. It was Bugner putting on the pressure, slamming forward with a final fling that gave me no option." On Gibbs' card, it was 733/4 to Bugner, 731/2 to Cooper.

Generally, people went around saying that Gibbs did a great job, and people were right. At no time could his integrity be questioned and he came down hard on liberty takers. Fighters who weren't inclined to give of their best didn't quickly forget the gruff admonishments he delivered.

Once, at the Royal Albert Hall, Gibbs halted proceedings between two pacifists and called them together in the centre of the ring. "Now look," he said. "We've all come here for a fight. You, me and the public. If you don't want to fight we might as well piss off."

As a former fighter and trainer, Gibbs knew just about every trick and how they could be employed to bring about a conclusion that was in the best interests of the man taking punishment. Watching the featherweight contender Frankie Taylor bore in on a tiring opponent, Gibbs whispered in his ear. "If you take a step back he'll fall over and I can count him out," he said.

In researching the life and times of Harry Gibbs, who spent five years as a prisoner of war after being taken captive at Dunkirk, and remembering many tales about him, a thought occurred to me.

It concerns Naseem Hamed's nauseating practice of taunting opponents. Gibbs would not have stood for it for a moment. "Any more of that and you're out of here," he would have said.