Off The Hook:
Floyd’s London blitz didn’t deter Henry Cooper
By Mike Casey
Folklore has it that Rhymin’ Paul Simon was on his travels in the
sixties when he stopped off at a London gymnasium to watch a heavyweight fighter
working out. Inspired by the young slugger’s sweat and toil, Simon was moved to
write his famous song, The Boxer. The inspiration was Billy Walker, the
immensely popular ‘Blond Bomber’ from West Ham.
Billy was a big hitter and a big eater of punches whose career
was violent, thrilling and short-lived. An amateur sensation, he never learned
enough new tricks to progress to world class among the pros.
But Billy was a smart cookie and a witty fellow to boot. He
didn’t quite have the business acumen of his brother and manager, George, but
Bill was a natural survivor whose hunky good looks and charm enabled him to
prosper in various ventures.
For one thing, he was an associate publisher for that great old
fight magazine, Boxing Illustrated. Perhaps I should explain this. Presiding
over BI, as it was popularly known, was the ubiquitous Bert Sugar, who got the
idea to recruit famous boxers to the editorial staff. As a consequence, Billy
Walker and Floyd Patterson were among those who came on board in the early
seventies with the rather grand job titles of associate publishers.
Bert reasoned, quite logically in theory, that nobody knew boxing
better than boxers. Well, such experiments either work or they don’t. Some
fighters write very eloquently about their profession. Many others do not. Floyd
Patterson was sent off to the Cobo Arena in Detroit to cover Joe Frazier’s title
defence against Bob Foster, and let us say for diplomacy’s sake that Floyd was a
game fighter as a journalist.
Billy Walker, by contrast, simply wrote as he spoke, which was
highly amusingly. His humorous turn of phrase was quite entertaining as he
reported the latest victory of a living legend: the incredible Henry Cooper.
Billy and Floyd had direct links with Henry, which will become
apparent in due course to those who don’t know their history. In November 1970,
as Billy sat at ringside with his notebook, old Henry was still rolling along as
reliably as the River Thames. At the age of thirty-six and with his famous
hairline receding ever further, he regained the European heavyweight
championship with a ninth round stoppage of Jose Urtain at the Empire Pool,
Wembley. It was a comprehensive victory of a cunning old fox over a young
pretender. From behind the bedrock of a ramrod left jab, Cooper outboxed Urtain
with class, controlled power and guile.
Urtain, a thick-set and immensely powerful man from the Basque
region of Spain, had been something of a sensation during his brief period of
fame. A big puncher who simply bulled forward throwing everything he had, Jose
had racked up 31 successive wins and even appeared on the front cover of The
Ring magazine. Tales of his great strength abounded. He was pictured lifting a
car off the ground and strolling around the hills and mountains with animals
casually slung around his mighty shoulders, a la Jim Jeffries from days gone by.
But Jose had been bowling down the kind of skittles that are most
often known as tomato cans in the fight fraternity. Even before Cooper got to
him, Urtain had been exposed by the only two fighters of note he had faced. He
knocked out Germany’s Peter Weiland to win the European crown, but not without a
desperate struggle. And Weiland was probably best known for occasionally taking
to the ring wearing a staggeringly incongruous toupee.
Urtain went on to retain his title against the decent Jurgen Blin,
but the decision was disputed. Then along came old Henry (or ‘Enery as Londoners
knew him) to restore some class and order to European heavyweight boxing. It
seemed he had been doing so forever.
Wrote Billy Walker: “Henry Cooper, with two flags and ‘England’
emblazoned on his robe, jogged down the aisle to make fans rise in appreciation.
He’s 36. They love ‘Enery. You can bet he’ll become Sir some day.
“It was an amazing show by a man whom few would truthfully
consider was the force he was. But ‘Enery has enough going for him to keep the
title, plus the British and Commonwealth for a while.
“Cooper was cut before a decent punch had been thrown. The
Spaniard, fed a long line of patsies, had what they call his moment of truth and
charged into Cooper, drawing blood with his head before the real action started.
“But Cooper learned long ago to live with this handicap. He just
shrugged, thumbed away the blood and poked a left hand out with the accuracy of
a Greenwich Time Signal.”
It was no great surprise to wiser souls that Henry Cooper was
still ticking along, calmly spanking Europe’s best and far exceeding the average
shelf life of boxers of his era. Cooper had always been a practical, realistic
and downright likeable man. He took his defeats with grace and sportsmanship and
didn’t regard a painful reverse as a life crisis. When Ingemar Johansson dropped
the Hammer of Thor on Henry in Sweden, Cooper shrugged and ploughed on. When
Zora Folley stretched him out in London, ‘Enery steamed back and very nearly
knocked out Cassius Clay, the budding genius who would become Muhammad Ali.
Therapy? Tough Londoners of Cooper’s ilk didn’t even know what the word meant.
Henry knew his strengths and he knew his limitations. He also
knew that styles made fights and freely admitted, with refreshing candour, to
steering a wide berth of Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.
When Cooper rose up to rule Europe again by vanquishing Jose
Urtain, it was more than four years after a torrid summer that might have
persuaded lesser men to get another job. In 1966, in what was hoped would be his
greatest year, Henry was kicked back into the pack by two milestone defeats. In
May, he lost to Ali for the second time in a spirited challenge for Muhammad’s
heavyweight championship at the Arsenal Football Stadium in London, the familiar
cut-eye curse coming to visit Cooper again. No disgrace there, but what followed
in September seemed like a calamity to young and impressionable fans like yours
This is where Floyd Patterson re-enters our story. On Tuesday
night, September 20, 1966, the utterly charming and inoffensive Mr Patterson
broke my heart.
I respected Floyd enormously. He was the heavyweight champion
when I was a young boy, with all the glorious charisma that went with that grand
title. The heavyweight champion in those halcyon days (for there was indeed only
one) was more important and vibrant to a growing lad than any president, prime
minister or captain of industry. You ate your greens and the crust on your bread
because Nat Fleischer’s training manual told you that’s what future heavyweight
champions did. The proof was there in the black and white illustrations of the
day. Joe Louis flexed his muscles, Rocky Marciano appropriately held a great
rock above his head and Floyd Patterson chopped down trees in the wild blue
Then Floyd went and spoiled it all by knocking out Henry Cooper
in the fourth round at Wembley. For as much as I liked Floyd, I liked ‘Enery
even more. As an Englishman, I simply had to. It was as natural as liking James
Cooper had that rare brand of charisma that few athletes possess.
He had never been world champion and he was never destined to be, but he was a
revered national hero, a British institution, whose honest and likeable
personality reached people of every colour and creed.
Henry was one of those seemingly ageless fighters whose presence
on the scene was more or less taken for granted. He had been campaigning
professionally since 1954, and there was every reason to suppose that he would
be pushing leather for the rest of his natural life.
He had carved his reputation as one of the world’s leading
heavyweights in the most painstaking fashion, his progress having been
repeatedly checked early in his career by frustrating defeats.
In his thirteenth fight, Cooper lost on points to the brilliantly
skilful Joe Erskine in a British title eliminator, and some time later Henry’s
career nosedived dramatically as he lost four successive fights in the short
span of a year, three of them inside the distance.
He was knocked out by Joe Bygraves and Ingemar Johansson, stopped
by Peter Bates and outscored again by Erskine in a British title challenge.
Henry cut too easily, though not nearly as often as many imagined he did, and he
was not a big man even by the heavyweight standards of his time. Yet he doggedly
persisted, and when he deprived Brian London of the British and Empire titles in
1959, Cooper unknowingly enlisted the first members of his cult following.
His wicked left hook, aptly known as ‘Enery’s ‘Ammer’, became
almost legendary. You could hear the gasps in the crowd whenever he teed off
with that vaunted punch. Cooper was a great finisher too. Nice guy that he
undoubtedly was, he was a killer through and through in the ring. In Cooper,
there was none of the hesitancy or uncertainty that would later hold back Joe
Bugner and Frank Bruno.
Cooper frightened himself with his own power when his punches
left Joe Erskine draped backwards over the ropes in the twelfth round of their
third fight in which Henry finally mastered his former conqueror. Cooper later
confessed that he feared Joe had broken his back.
Henry would prove to be a model champion who handled himself with
class in and out of the ring. He was a sportsman and a gentleman whose good
nature and genuineness were never tainted by his celebrity status. Whether he
was making a speech at a lavish banquet or opening a downtown supermarket,
Cooper remained the same unaffected ‘Enery and the public loved him for it.
If there was a drawback to Cooper’s nice guy image, it was that
he touched his true fans too deeply. Watching a Cooper fight was a tortuous
experience for the faithful, and I was one of the faithful. As hard as you tried
to divorce yourself from the action, you were spirited into Henry’s body to
share every moment of glory and despair.
When winning a fight against Alex Miteff, Cooper was suddenly cut
and floored in the ninth round. The final minutes seemed an eternity to Henry’s
fans before he crossed the finish line and secured the decision.
When Zora Folley, whom Cooper had previously outpointed, took his
revenge with a sudden, second round knockout at Wembley, a black cloud seemed to
descend over the British Isles.
Cooper, however, had a marvellous way of cancelling out the
heartaches with joyous triumphs that made you want to shout his name from the
rooftops. He would frustrate you with aggravating losses to the likes of Roger
Rischer and Amos Johnson, yet win your heart with pulsating victories over Dick
Richardson, Dick Wipperman, Chip Johnson, Jefferson Davis, Hubert Hilton and
It is ironic indeed that the watersheds of Henry’s grand career
were his two fights with Muhammad Ali. Cooper lost both bouts in bloody fashion,
but the bare facts hardly explain the enduring appeal of the Ali-Cooper rivalry.
In their first fight in 1963, Henry came within a whisker of glory with the
greatest left hook he ever threw, a peach of a blow in the fourth round that
swept Ali off his feet near the ropes and sent him crashing to the floor. Did
the bell save the future champ from a knockout? Quite probably. Ali, then in the
guise of the still somewhat fragile Cassius Clay, had yet to inherit the iron
chin and breathtaking confidence that would make him impossible to keep down.
Did Angelo Dundee’s split-glove trickery buy his man extra time? Not to a
significant degree. Put a stopwatch on the action and you will see for yourself.
The moment was lost for Cooper, but what a moment it had been!
Then came the anti-climax of the fifth round when his old susceptibility to cuts
resulted in referee Ike Powell waving him out of action.
The atmosphere was no less exciting three years later when Ali
returned as champion to give Henry his one and only shot at the world title.
Even though there was no mighty left hook and no knockdown in the second
chapter, the big crowd roared Cooper’s name as it prayed for the ‘Ammer to work
its magic. It was a bitter disappointment to the loyal and faithful when blood
suddenly flowed from a cut over Henry’s eye in the sixth round and prompted
referee George Smith to stop the fight.
It seemed that defeat had pushed Henry out of the world
championship picture, but within three months he was given the chance to wipe
the slate clean and renew his challenge for honours against Patterson.
Looking back, it could be argued that the fast and dangerous
Patterson was too severe a test for Cooper so soon after the Ali defeat. In
reality, the fight was a logical step for both Henry and Floyd, an irresistible
match-up between two of the game’s most magnetic fighters in the classic setting
Although never rated a great world champion, Patterson held the
same fascination for Americans as Cooper did for the Brits. Like Henry, Floyd
became increasingly popular as time went on. The previous year, he had packed
Madison Square Garden and treated his disciples to one of his finest
performances in out-slugging the tough George Chuvalo over twelve thrilling
The victory had capped a creditable comeback by a man whose
rollercoaster career had been a curious blend of sensational success and painful
failure. His joy at becoming the youngest ever champion had been dampened by his
emphatic loss of the title to Ingemar Johansson. Floyd’s unprecedented act of
regaining the crown had then been smeared by two shattering defeats to Sonny
It seemed that every sparkling achievement in Patterson’s career
had to be married to a disaster, but then perhaps that was one of the more
perverse reasons for Floyd’s appeal. For Patterson, there was always a mountain
to scale. As he set out from base camp, you could never be sure of the outcome.
There were times when he steered himself dangerously close to the
edge. He outlasted Chuvalo by playing the Canadian slugger at his own brawling
game and was nearly overwhelmed on several occasions during the struggle. But
Floyd won the fight and thus another personal battle. And while the revival of
his fortunes didn’t erase the memories of the Liston defeats, it did lead to a
final fling at his old championship against Ali and another glorious chance to
re-write the history books.
That chance was cruelly destroyed within minutes of the start of
the fight, as a recurring back problem resurfaced in the form of a slipped disc
to plague Floyd at the worst possible time. Paralysed by pain, he became an easy
target for the champion’s fast and accurate blows. For twelve one-sided rounds,
Ali unmercifully taunted and punished Patterson.
So excruciating was the pain in his back that Floyd was later
reported as saying that for the first time in his life he was silently begging
to be knocked out. Yet when he was floored late in the fight and given the
chance to excuse himself from further torture, he discovered that he couldn’t
take the easy option.
When the beating was finally over, Floyd was still obsessed by
the notion that he hadn’t contributed enough to the sport. It was ten months
before he travelled to London for the Cooper fight, but Patterson appeared
relaxed and confident of his chances when he faced the media.
Physically, the two men hardly differed. Their weights were
nearly identical, with Floyd holding a 1 1/4lb edge at 193lbs. Both packed
formidable knockout power. Patterson shared Cooper’s preference for the left
hook as his principal weapon. Most importantly of all, however, both gladiators
were looking to retain their credibility as world title contenders.
Perhaps it was this fact, more than any other, that accounted for
the fast and furious battle that ensued, as Henry and Floyd set off at a
Henry was a picture of confidence as he forced Floyd on the
defensive. Cooper looked dangerous as he fired the big left hook at every
opportunity. So fast and free-flowing was the action that the bell to end the
opening round seemed premature. You felt yourself fidgeting uneasily as you
waited for the battle to resume, gripped by that odd feeling of wanting to see
more whilst wishing for a greater respite to prepare yourself for the next dose
of taxing suspense.
Cooper was no less aggressive in the second round as he hurriedly
pursued Patterson and opened up with another fierce volley of left hooks. Floyd
ducked under the first hook, but Henry continued to steam forward and Patterson
was forced to grab and hold to smother the attack. It was a tactic that Floyd
was to use more than once during the fight, and Cooper’s frustration showed as
he angrily tried to wrestle himself free.
His anger was a contributing factor to the disaster that
ultimately befell him, for it made him reckless and vulnerable to Patterson’s
fast counter attacks. As dominant as Henry looked, there was an ominous air
about Floyd as he would first recoil and then spring forward to deliver a
At one point, after blocking a left hook, he surprised Cooper
with a sudden burst of punches. But Henry would not be deterred and continued to
press the action. The pace of the fight was still remarkably fast and some of
the big punches that missed were as exciting as those that landed.
The third round saw a significant change in the pattern of the
fight, as Patterson promptly took the play away from Cooper with a series of
piston-like jabs that caught Henry flush in the face. Cooper responded viciously
and a solid left hook sent Floyd scurrying back. But the punch produced a
stunning backlash as Patterson streaked forward again and whipped over his own
hook to the jaw to send Henry down seconds before the bell.
The knockdown, like the preceding action, happened so fast that
the crowd could scarcely believe it. Cooper himself looked mildly astonished and
quickly scrambled to his feet as if to convince himself that the incident hadn’t
He seemed to have fully recovered when he came out for the fourth
round, but Patterson had pierced his armour and now held the psychological
advantage. Yet Henry persisted in chasing Floyd, still confident that he could
land the decisive blow.
The more accurate punches were coming from Floyd, and he looked
distinctly menacing as he awaited the next opportunity to strike. His counter
raids were sporadic, since he was still primarily concerned with protecting
himself from Cooper’s storming rushes. But when Patterson’s punches came, they
were disturbingly hard and precise.
As the fight shifted to one of the neutral corners, Cooper missed
with another big punch and Patterson struck. A left-right combination, delivered
once again with incredible speed, cut Henry down and brought blood from his
nose. Those cracking punches had a permanent effect, for while Cooper made it to
his feet at the count of nine, his senses were still scattered and he could do
nothing to avoid the final onslaught.
As Henry took a few faltering steps forward, Floyd fired home the
left-right combination again and Henry crashed face downwards to the canvas. It
was a frightening knockdown, the kind that instantly makes you look for some
kind of movement in the stricken fighter to allay your worst fears.
Henry not only moved but gustily tried to rise, only to fall back
again as referee Wally Thom completed the count.
It was in the following seconds that Floyd Patterson reminded us
of his true personality as he embraced Cooper and tried to console him.
Was Henry Cooper finished? Oh, no. Not him. In his own tough old
mind, he had suffered nothing more than a bad day at the office. Incredibly, he
would go unbeaten for nearly five more years as he re-focused his sights on
British, Commonwealth and European honours.
He kicked off a sparkling 1967 campaign with a points victory
over American Boston Jacobs, which preceded two magnificent defences of Cooper’s
British and Commonwealth titles. Jack Bodell, as awkward a southpaw as there
ever was, gave Henry a few problems in the first round of their Wolverhampton
match but was then decisively stopped in the second.
Our old friend Billy Walker stepped up to the plate next, still
the Golden Boy and hopeful of progressing his erratic career. Billy fought with
typical courage, but Cooper gave him a masterful boxing lesson. Dig out the film
of that fight if you can. You will see a classic, ramrod left jab thrown as
truly and correctly as it should be. There was no pawing or flicking with Cooper
when he employed that punch. He could loosen a man’s teeth with it.
In 1968, Cooper took the European crown from Karl Mildenberger,
but it was in 1969 that Henry posted one of his most spectacular and bravest
triumphs. Defending his European crown in the cauldron of Rome against the rough
and tough Piero Tomasoni, Cooper survived repeated low blows to knock out the
powerful Italian in the fifth round with a beautifully delivered left hook.
Cooper got no help from the officials either. The fight was wild
and here is how Henry described the opening rounds: “In the first round, I
knocked him down with a good left hook. He got up after a count of eight, and,
in fairness to him, he may not have known too much of what happened after. No
mistake, this was a brawl, not a fight. In the second round he just punched
anywhere. One of the punches landed so far below the belt it dented the cup over
my genitals, and I was down on my knees. I’d never been hit so low in all my
life, but there was Dutch referee Ben Bril counting over my head!”
Cooper certainly had balls, even if they were misshapen after the
Rome experience. Thereafter, he just kept trundling along, fashioning all his
experience to see off the pretenders who would come to claim the old man of
boxing. Jack Bodell was defeated a second time and then followed the mastery of
the Spanish bull, Urtain.
When Henry’s rambling, fistic version of War and Peace finally
drew to a close, it was with the controversy that permanently seals the public’s
affection for a hero. Dempsey had his long count against Tunney. Cooper had his
‘decision’ against the young Joe Bugner. Joe edged Henry in the closest of
fifteen round fights, a verdict with which this writer agrees to this day. I
have seen the whole fight many times and always scored it the same.
But the crowd at Wembley on that March night of 1971 was mostly
of the opinion that Cooper had been robbed by the sole official, referee Harry
Gibbs. It was some years before Cooper could forgive Gibbs for raising Bugner’s
It will be many more years indeed before old ‘Enery fades from
the memories of British fight fans.
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