SIR HENRY COOPER AND CASSIUS CLAY AKA MUHAMMAD ALI: The Legend Lives On

For those interested in the curiously named Sweet Science, I am off to interview Sir Henry Cooper, who was British Champion for over ten years.

When I was a kid (born in 1965), like so many I was a massive fan of Muhammad Ali. In school, I would hand in assignments on him that weren’t assigned, and so on. But I knew of him in the 1970s. The ‘Fight of the Century’ against Joe Frazier in 1971 (the same year I also fell in love with the Montreal Canadiens) was a dim memory, but I would read about it and hope to see glimpses of it on Wide World of Sports.

And then there was the loss to Ken Norton (the broken jaw) and the revenge victory against Smokin’ Joe, when Tony Perez stopped the second round early (with Joe slightly staggered) thinking he had heard the bell.

Ali’s massive upset of George Foreman coincided with my full awareness of Ali, and of course the Thrilla in Manila with Smokin’ Joe Frazier—one of the most brutal fights in heavyweight history—was the stuff of mythology (unfortunately, for the boxers, it was very real, physically).

Then there were the difficult years. Watching Ali against Norton in 1976 was unbearable for me, waiting for the magic that perhaps was no longer there. It’s funny how much pain you can feel for the one you adore, and forget that Ken is getting hit too!

But back to Henry Cooper. I was born in England, and before I was born, 1963, was the fight against Henry Cooper, that my dad always told me about. Both my dad (b. 1929) and Henry (b. 1934) were from East London (well, Henry actually grew up in South East London but his family was from East London, Bethnal Green, as were mine). They experienced similar upbringings; poverty, the war and so on.

Henry and his twin brother George were evacuated during the German blitz. My dad was in a school for boys about 11 miles outside of London, and remembers the entire sky being lit up orange, and thinking it was amazing.

Incidentally, my father’s father died of TB the year Henry was born.

WEMBLEY, 1963

But, in short—for I must hurry—my dad always told me of the Cassius Clay—Henry Cooper fight at Wembley in 1963, when Sir Henry, with his patented left hook (‘Enery’s Hammer’), caught young Cassius right on the button, flooring the rising star right at the bell ending the fourth round.

It wasn’t enough, but Cassius was definitely in a little trouble and the crowd was in a frenzy. In England the moment is legendary (and wonderfully exaggerated in terms of the delay between rounds—more on that later).

Clay came back and hammered away at Henry’s cut left eye—a terrible cut—and the fight was stopped in the next round. One fight later, Cassius Clay “shook up the world” by defeating the invincible Sonny Liston.

As champion of the world, Clay told the world of his conversion to the nation of Islam (which also shook up the world), and a week or so later had his named changed by Elijah Muhammad to Muhammad Ali. This was also the end of Clay’s relationship with Malcolm X.

The rest, as they do indeed say, is history.

But for those who want to see the punch my old pops described, here it is. If you want to see the famous fourth round, start watching at about the five minute mark—but it’s nostalgic to watch the whole fight. You can really hear the cockney crowd, and see poor Henry’s gushing orbit.

In the fourth you’ll hear the famous British commentator Harry Carpenter presciently saying that Clay is only half there, half trying, but he better watch it because it will only take on left hook by Henry for Clay to know he’s in a fight—and boom!

Lots of love to you, and may your life be fight-free (physically, anyway—everybody needs to be stretched mentally).

Could we all really be souls having human experiences? The thought just crossed my mind, in a much gentler way then a Henry Cooper left hook.

Pete xox

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