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Recalling the Time Henry Cooper Came Close to Upsetting Cassius Clay

Rob Lancaster@RobLancs79Featured ColumnistJune 19, 2015

Cassius Clay, bewildered by Henry Cooper's unexpected and ferocious opening attack, is shown pinned on the ropes in the first round of their heavyweight match at Wembley Stadium, London, June 18, 1963.  (AP Photo)
Associated Press

When Muhammad Ali travelled to England to face Henry Cooper for the first time in 1963, he was still a world champion in the making. It was a time when he was still known as Cassius Clay.

The American was young, brash and unbeaten. His 18-0 record was impressive, and a title fight against Sonny Liston was seemingly just around the corner.

The thing with corners, however, is that you never know what you’re going to be faced with until you go around them.

In Ai’s case, what was round the corner was a huge left hook from Cooper.

The Londoner had looked to be a fairly comfortable opponent for the Louisville Lip, who lived up to his nickname with some brash comments in the buildup.

Cooper was not a big heavyweight, but he did possess a big punch. He was also a popular character with the public. Following his death in 2011, journalist John Samuel in the Guardian described Our Henry as “a good boxer, but an outstanding man.”

He was Our Henry, as his nickname suggested. The British public took him to their hearts—he was a gentleman in a gruelling business. But he could fight, and his left hook was such a devastating weapon that it was renamed 'Enry's 'Ammer, as detailed in the aforementioned obituary.

Ali, in contrast, was happy to do his talking inside and outside of the ring.

An Olympic champion at the 1960 Games in Rome, he was a dream for media members and promoters alike. Selling tickets was as much his forte as throwing punches.

When he spouted off prior to his fight with Cooper at Wembley Stadium, his foe did not retaliate. He did not mind hearing Ali's words; as relayed by Huston Horn of Sports Illustrated, Cooper realised Ali's trash talking was benefiting both men: “He’s building up the gate, and I’m on a percentage just like he is.”

At the weigh-in at the Palladium Theatre, Ali said. reported by BoxRec: “You’ve got a Queen. You need a King. I am King.”

He also promised to record a knockout in the fifth round—"It ain't no jive, Henry Cooper will go in five!"—a prediction that would partly come true.

Before Ali was celebrating victory, however, he had to pick himself up off the canvas.

Usually a slow starter, Cooper began impressively. In the closing seconds of the fourth, he threw that trademark left hook. It landed perfectly, as Jack Wood recalled in his original report for the Daily Mail

Clay, perhaps the fastest heavyweight in the world, did not escape completely. At the end of the fourth a terrific left hook from Cooper dumped him on the seat of his scarlet pants for a count of four.

Clay was sitting there, back against the ropes, when the bell sounded.

He got to his feet and tottered to his corner. Frenzied work by his cornermen got him into shape for what proved to be the final round.

That frenzied work Wood mentions included Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, calling the referee over to bring attention to a tear in his fighter’s right glove.

Conspiracy theories have promoted the idea that Dundee produced the tear, or at least made it bigger, to buy his man some time. James Slater of East Side Boxing delved into the matter in an article in 2006, suggesting that the incident ultimately only gained Ali an extra six seconds of rest.

Whatever the length of the delay, Ali had enough time to clear his head and go again.

Cooper later said of the punch, according to Wood’s report: “'I thought that was it. He was in a lot of trouble, his pupils had gone inside his head.”

Sadly for the home favourite, it wasn't quite it. The finish wasn’t too far away, but the bout was turned on its head quickly.

Ali came off his stool for the fifth and quickly went to work. His successful blows rapidly made a mess of Cooper’s face, with a cut over his left eye leaving the Londoner unable to see properly.

Referee Tommy Little had no choice but to step in and call an end to proceedings. Cooper had gone from appearing to be on the brink of a career-defining victory to losing blood at an alarming rate.

Ali had indeed won in five, just as he had predicted he would. Yet he had been given an almighty scare by Cooper, who had been betrayed by his ability to absorb punishment.

In the aftermath, Ali suggested the reason behind his being knocked to the canvas was that he was looking at Elizabeth Taylor, the actress who was present at ringside.

He was, however, extremely complimentary about the man he had just beaten, relayed by London24: “Cooper is the best fighter I ever met. He’s really a great fighter and you can’t take anything away from him. He shook me every time he hit me.”

In his next fight, Ali went on to beat Liston and claim the world title for the first time. 

Yet it is hard not to wonder how different things might have been for both men had 'Enry's 'Ammer landed in the middle of the fourth round rather than at the end.

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