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.