from the Mike Casey Archives...
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 truly.

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 yonder.

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 Bond.

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 Jack Bodell.



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 of Wembley.

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 rounds.

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 Liston.

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 breathtaking pace.

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 rapid-fire combination.

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 occurred.

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 arm.

It will be many more years indeed before old ‘Enery fades from the memories of British fight fans.



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