Our 'Enery symbolised boxing's bygone era
In one small way, the fact Henry Cooper has died before David Haye's heavyweight world title fight against Wladimir Klitschko in July can be seen as a blessing. Our 'Enery, a man already embittered by a sport that bears little resemblance to boxing in his day, would have been thoroughly appalled by the attendant hoopla.
In 2009, when Haye almost fought his Ukrainian rival before the bout fell through, Cooper's fellow south Londoner turned up to a press conference wearing a T-shirt depicting the severed heads of Klitschko and elder brother Vitali. Cooper, rather more grounded than Haye, labelled the stunt "cobblers".
"He doesn't need to do this sort of publicity to put bums on seats," added Cooper. "Rather, I think he's driving bums off seats with his behaviour."
Haye and Cooper personify the changing face of boxing - Photos: Getty
Cooper was right, and Cooper was wrong. He was right in that Haye's behaviour was in dubious taste, wrong in that a stunt like the one Haye pulled is exactly the sort of thing that puts bums on seats nowadays. Boxing ain't what it was in Cooper's day.
I would wager most boxing fans today would identify more with Haye than Cooper. First, Haye is the product of a brasher and more vulgar age - although that does not necessarily make him a bad man. But more so, Haye realises boxing is no longer ingrained in the British consciousness as it was, so he employs the skills of a master huckster to drag it kicking and cursing onto the back pages, where it was a constant presence in Cooper's era.
Cooper, who turned pro in 1954, fought at a time when every man, woman and child in the country knew who the British heavyweight champion was. The sport of boxing - largely about inflicting pain - suited a harder, more masculine age. And if you got above your station, the public panned you for it: "Who does he think he is?" went the refrain.
Stories abound of Cooper, all done up in a white grocer's coat, shuffling around the family shop in Wembley, weighing vegetables, bagging up fruit, no better and no worse than the public who adored him, which was why the public adored him most of all.
The irony is it was Cooper's great pal, Muhammad Ali, who was largely responsible for sensationalising boxing. A fearsome trash-talker, Ali could be witty and charming, but he could also be vicious. Ali, like Haye today, realised that boxing, which was ailing in the United States in the early 1960s, needed a rocket. Without Ali, there would be no Haye.
That said, Ali is probably as baffled by aspects of modern boxing as Cooper was, from the triumphant ring walks to the relative inactivity of fighters to the obsession among promoters and television executives of protecting fighters' records.
Young readers might look at Cooper's record and wonder what the fuss is about: 14 losses in 55 fights, including four in a row between 1956-57. When Amir Khan was knocked out in less than 60 seconds a couple of years ago, many respected boxing writers genuinely thought he was finished. But in the 1950s and '60s, defeats were nowhere near as calamitous.
It should also be pointed out that in those 55 fights, Cooper was the heavier man on only a handful of occasions. Even at a time when heavyweights were far lighter than they are today, Cooper was a pygmy. Unfortunately for him, the cruiserweight division came far too late.
But Cooper was immensely brave, immensely honest, and while he hated losing, he also viewed it as no great shame. In his bravery, honesty and indefatigability, generations of post-War Britons saw themselves: the blood that so often adorned his face was emblematic of an altogether tougher, more resolute, age.
Let's not kid ourselves, not everything was better in Cooper's heyday. But many older readers will view his death as symbolic of the passing of values they consider made this country great. As for the younger readers: just watch those fights and weep. Brutal, eh? Us modern softies have never had it so sweet.