Henry Cooper 9


To my generation, Henry Cooper was a real working class hero whose unaffected manner belied his status as a great master of his craft. Possessing incredible courage and skill, he was prevented from becoming world champion only by prominent eyebrow ridges that made his skin cut easily there. Sensibilities change with the years, and I now dislike boxing. But nobody could doubt Henry Cooper’s nobility of spirit, or the genuine warmth and respect between him and Muhammad Ali.

There is a scene in the movie Royal Flash, where the camera is in the place of an opponent boxing Cooper. Anybody who doubts the real skill of the sport should watch that scene. The lightning speed of the moving head, the bewildering feints. Not all the Rocky movies together demonstrated the reality of the sport a fraction as well as that brief scene of Cooper.

I listened to Cooper’s final defeat against Joe Bugner on the radio with my grandfather in his back parlour. The decision was highly unpopular and probably dubious – there was talk of low punches. But Cooper bowed out with grace, and represents a time of innocence when a great champion would go on to invest his little earnings in a grocery shop. Bugner, who had the physique of a Greek God, was to disappoint in the rest of his career by not punching his weight. I seem to recall my grandfather told me that this was because he had once killed a man in the ring; which should be enough to end this thread of boxing romanticism.

They called Cooper “Our Enery” and he did feel like just one of us in a way that sporting superstars somehow don’t any more. His death seems a break with a better past.


9 thoughts on “Henry Cooper

  • Wikispooks

    Thanks for a perceptive and sensitive piece. He was a hero of mine too.

    Like you I’ve also become ambivalent about boxing over the years. It’s a funny thing too because it was the only sport I excelled at as a youngster – and much against my inclinations too.

    In the early sixties it was the practice of the Royal Navy to enter every one of their annual artificer apprentice new-entrants to HMS Fisguard (Torpoint Cornwall)into a knock-out boxing competition. There was no escape either. All were divided roughly into 3 weight divisions of red or blue and the tournament (‘cos that’s what it amounted to) commenced. Some of the ‘fights’ were hilarious with closed eyes and arms flailing in circles – sheer commedy – others were no comedy at all but grim earnest encounters. Much to my horror and surprise I kept winning and so my opponents got better and better. I’d had a few scrapes as a school-kid but that tournament was where I learned what it was to take a real punch to the head. I didn’t end up champ but I did reach the semis and hated every damned minute of it too. It gave me a keen appreciation of ‘the nobel art’ though – because that in essence is what, in those days it was. Our ‘Enery was among the noblest of its practitioners.
    He’ll be sorely missed

  • deep green puddock

    Boxing is a quite the most compelling sport and I think that is partly related to its brutality and the intensity of a one to one contest. The skill is not easily understood by those who have not taken part in boxing. TV rarely captures the action effectively. I did a stint of boxing in my youth,and even became decent enough at it, won a local area championship, and moved up to more serious level, where I got my first real smack on the head, in a training bout, from a person who went on to a commonwealth gold for Scotland. That wallop rendered me to the ‘walking but helpless’ state-a very peculiar situation where consciousness persists but muscle groups cease to work. and that was with large 16 oz gloves.

    I gave up the sport immediately, much to the disgust of the trainer, who used to come round to the house to ask me to go back. My instinct was correct I think and I would not advise anyone to box.
    To be honest it stood me in good stead on the two occasions I have actually had to defend myself in my adult life. I was astonished that the basic skills and the capacity to inflict an accurate punch had remained reasonably intact despite the passage of years, and the notable thing I found was that it was by far the most effective form of personal defence (and retaliation)and quickly led to a ‘reassessment’of the situation by the opponents.

  • alan campbell

    Nice post. Cooper’s career record wasn’t actually that stellar, but he was bigger than his record.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Totally agree, Craig. Bobby Moore was another – see John Pilger’s article on Moore. And Alan (Campbell), Henry Cooper was British, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight Champion and gave one of the greatest boxers of all time a run for his money, so pretty bloomin’ good, eh! He seemed a fixture of one’s childhood in the UK, didn’t he? He had the sort of face you don’t come across much anymore, a kind of mid-C20th face grown from a time when not everything was on-demand. Good bye, Henry Cooper.

  • Paul Johnston

    As you say it was from an era where this most brutal of “sports” still had the capacity to have time for a “gentleman”. Today you can become an unbeaten world champion by simply choosing one of the many belts and then avoiding the other undisputed champions who do the same.
    Anyway RIP ‘Enery!
    Like the link Mary but prefer the one with Barry Sheene 🙂

  • ingo

    He was old school, but also a very good example and role model, despite being a boxer. I make no excuses for boxing, as long as they can keep it clean, there are illegal fights and all sorts of other mixed martial arts/cage fighting going on, all done by fit men and women, feeding the ever increasing ‘couch generation’, snack and fast food markets, just as the vioplent fighting games, played on/offline by ever younger children.
    In the US, so I understand, these young impressionable ‘geeks’ who can use joysticks, have the chance to fly remote control weapons systems, for their country, I should add, violence all round, neatified and bloody, with a little torture thrown in on the side.
    Give me a fair boxing bout anyday. RIP Henry.

  • mary

    And now Seve has gone too. How sad and what a fight he put up against his brain tumour. He was gorgeous.

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