Monday, May 2, 2011

Sir Henry Cooper:

Muhammad Ali's butt met the canvas only three times in his career.

The last (and easily least) was when the grotesquely out-matched Chuck Wepner stepped on Ali's foot and hit him at the same time. The referee missed it, so it counts to this day as a knockdown instead of a trip or slip. Besides this act of clumsiness or cleverness, Wepner has two other claims to fame: he is the model for Rocky Balboa, a third rate club fighter facing the greatest champion of the last half century, and his wonderfully and horribly accurate nickname The Bayonne Bleeder.

The second time Ali was knocked down was by Smokin' Joe Frazier in the first of their three epic fights, the one Frazier deservedly won on the biggest stage in boxing, Madison Square Garden, following the biggest hoopla for a boxing match in this country from then until now.

The first time he took a seat involuntarily in his career, Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, and the brash kid from Kentucky had traveled all the way to London, England to meet the British Commonwealth champion Henry Cooper, later to be known as Sir Henry Cooper. Clay was already running his mouth as he would throughout his career, and in the pre-fight lead-in called Cooper "a bum". Cooper said he put lead weights in his shoes to make it to the heavyweight limit of 175 pounds that night, and no one disagrees that Clay was both taller and heavier than Cooper.

Clay was also a once in a lifetime athlete, a natural 200+ pounder with the speed of a man 50 pounds lighter. Cooper could not believe how deftly the bigger, younger fighter kept away from his blows, but at the end of the fourth, Cassius Clay met 'Enery's 'Ammer, the nickname the British sportswriters gave Cooper's vicious left hook. Clay got lucky and the ropes kept his noggin from bouncing on the ring floor, else he might have been out for the count.

The story gets better. Between rounds, Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, put smelling salts under his fighter's nose, which isn't legal. He also saw a small tear in Clay's glove and made it bigger, so the ref gave him some extra time to repair the glove. Cooper claims it was an extra two minutes, "all the time a fit man needs". In any case, Clay was ready to go the next round and opened cuts on Cooper's face that forced the fight to be stopped in Clay's favor with Cooper ahead on all cards.

After the fight, Clay took back all the unkind things he said about the plucky British bomber and the two men were fast friends ever after.

Once Clay beat Sonny Liston, became the champion and Muhammad Ali all on the same night, he decided to give Henry Cooper another chance. Older and wiser, Ali used his superior size and reach to jab Cooper's face and once again open cuts. This time, he didn't play around. One encounter with 'Enery's 'Ammer was enough. Ali later said Cooper hit him so hard "my ancestors in Africa felt it".

Ali fought several times in Europe, most notably against the Brit Brian London and the German and European champ, the southpaw Karl Mildenberger, but that first fight against Cooper truly stands out.

I have only once heard a discouraging word about the great Henry Cooper, and I only heard since he died yesterday. He never gave the Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo a shot at the Commonwealth championship. The two fighters were about the same age and it would have been a great contrast in styles. Cooper was known for getting cut easily, the weakness Clay/Ali exploited twice, but he had one of the most feared punches in the game. Chuvalo was not as powerful, but he was as tough as a cheap piece of meat fried on a railroad tie. Some clever Trevor at the time said that if they still let heavyweights fight for 55 rounds like they did back in Jack Johnson's time, George Chuvalo would have been the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Let me call this a quibble. The travel costs would have been a lot for either Chuvalo or Cooper, and neither had the name recognition of an Ali or Joe Frazier.

I come to praise Cooper as others bury him. I write this post because a horrible cowardly villain died yesterday and the press can't stop talking about him. A brave and honest man, beloved in his nation to this day also died, dead from a broken heart at the recent loss of several loved ones.

Best wishes to the friends and family of Sir Henry Cooper, from a fan.

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