Home

Counting down the Cooper-Ali fight

Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali

After the death of Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer, commentators rushed to pay tribute to a man who was arguably one of sport's greatest behind-the-scenes figures. But is one of the most enduring legends about his ringside tactics really true?

Dundee, who died aged 90 earlier this month, worked alongside Muhammad Ali for 20 years and is credited with helping him achieve his greatest victories.

"Everyone has been saying Dundee was a great trainer," says boxing pundit Steve Bunce, who is part of the BBC's Olympic team.

"But really it's about the 60 seconds between rounds. That's how he made his money; the things he told the fighters and the things he did."

One of the anecdotes recounted time and again, was the 1963 non-title fight between the British boxer Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay.

Clay was an Olympic champion and the top contender for the heavyweight title.

Cooper was the big-punching British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion.

For four rounds, Clay's boxing skills allowed him to stay out of trouble while peppering Cooper's increasingly bloody face with punches. But just before the end of the round, Cooper knocked Clay down with a left hook, a punch so good it had its own nickname, 'Enery's hammer.

Fortunately for Clay, at almost the moment he hit the canvas, the bell went to end the round and a clearly dazed Clay was led to his corner.

This was when Angelo Dundee had to earn his money. In the commentary Harry Carpenter says repeatedly that Clay doesn't know where he is and describes how Angelo Dundee is really giving him a talking to.

Then Carpenter says that something extraordinary has happened and the referee has gone over to talk to the timekeeper. At first, Carpenter can't work out what is going on as the referee walks from timekeeper to Clay's corner but as the seconds tick by he works it out and tells the audience: "I think Clay has got a torn glove."

The story has circulated ever since that Dundee either tore Ali's glove or made an existing tear worse, in order to buy Ali time to recover while the tear was examined - or, in some versions of the story, while a replacement glove was found.

Sir Henry Cooper, knighted by then, told the BBC in 2000 that the confusion resulted in a few minutes' delay between rounds.

He said: "They did the business on the glove. I've had dinner with him [Dundee] a couple of times since then and he's openly admitted it."

But it's possible to cast doubt on this version of events with one of the most technical tools in the data-hungry journalist's arsenal - counting.

Listening to the audio recording of the fight with a stopwatch in hand, the truth emerges.

The gap between rounds one and two was exactly one minute.

The gap between rounds two and three was, again, exactly one minute.

Same again for rounds three and four.

But the gap between rounds four and five - the moment of the torn glove incident - was, precisely, one minute and six seconds.

In other words, only six seconds more than all the other intervals.

But as it was, a myth was born that Dundee had bought Ali minutes of extra time to recover.

"It's staggering how many people made mistakes writing about this. It's just rubbish," says Bunce.

"Sir Henry Cooper insisted it was minutes, most people say it was. But the gloves, they were never taken off. Dundee worked the tear, but by modern standards it was not a delay."

Boxing promoter Frank Warren does not believe Dundee tampered with the gloves at all

"He never said it didn't happen, and he never said it did happen. Angelo Dundee was a very astute guy. It would have helped his reputation as a great cornerman. He was a super, super cornerman. Everyone thought he was a genius [believing he had deliberately torn the glove]. But it just didn't happen."

He thinks Ali won the fight when he wanted to win it.

But why did this story become legendary? Perhaps it was simply a story that suited both sides.

Warren believes it enhanced the reputation of both Dundee and Cooper.

The British public wanted to think the fight could have been a British victory, and the story made them love Cooper even more.