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Our 'Enery symbolised boxing's bygone era

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Ben Dirs | 11:55 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

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

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.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Very nice tribute but a bit hard on "The youth of today". Was 1954 a more masculine age? I'm not sure how you would measure something like that. I'd continue writing but am due or my pedicure any minute now

  • Comment number 2.

    I am old enough to remember lots of Cooper's fights (and those great few years when he was a splendid captain on Question of Sport), and to be honest it's all just like the FA Cup Final -less commercialised, less brash, more anticipated, more watched (and listened to - most fights were only live on radio and shown on TV the next night!) and, we oldies think, therefore much better. But when you see them again, you realise that perhaps the quality was not as high as you thought, although it' all still preferable to what is served up today.

    As for Cooper, he was a classic British sporting hero - good but not quite good enough, a 'nearly man' whose reputation was enchanced by his graciousness, modesty, good humour and personality. God Bless yer, 'Enery

  • Comment number 3.

    Why does David Haye feature so heavily in this piece?

    Why must every gesture or act by Haye be defended?

    It's a bit bewildering to be honest.

    You're points about the passing of simpler times were enough without bringing Hate into it.

    I suppose Haye is popularist and then there are those ring side seats up for grabs.

  • Comment number 4.

    Very good article Ben, I think you were especially spot on about Muhammad Ali starting the trend of the modern arrogant style of boxer.

    The difference is and was, that Ali had two saving graces - firstly, he was something of a genius as a boxer, e.g. his famous "rope a dope" tactics, and he was also very funny, he was often sending himself up with his ridiculous poems and so on about Joe Frazier and the like.

    A lack of sense of humour seems to be a characteristic of modern sportsmen in general, and even Chris Eubank, though funny, took himself rather too seriously for my liking.

    I am a bit appalled at the fact that an article like yours about a national hero like Henry Cooper, a knight of the realm even, gets such few comments here on the day of his death or obituary.

    However, as much as I know millions still love boxing, at the end of the day it is too often about poor people who can find no other way to rise from the gutter to a higher status in life, very often born on the wrong side of the tracks, and risking serious injuries that few in other sports ever do, especially possible brain, eye and ear damage, as well as possible damage to the internal organs.

    We all know Muhammad Ali went on too long, just for the money, and may well have paid for that with his possibly premature deteriorated health.

    Boxing really is the nearest thing to the modern gladiatorial contests, and like those contests, sometimes, though I admit infrequently, does result in death.

    It still therefore remains too much for me, about young men from the wrong side of the tracks, or working or lower class backgrounds, risking getting their brains beaten in to escape from the gutter.

    So yes, it certainly has given the public some excitement, and I have a certain fondness for the days of Henry Cooper, Muhammad Ali and so on, but I think maybe it's had its day, and we shouldn't now in the 21st century be watching two men in a ring possibly murdering each other, or at minimum, seriously beating up the faces of their opponents, as an entertainment.

    Marlon Brando said in the movie "I could have been a contender", but sometimes it's safer and healthier just to be a "bum."

    Nevertheless I wish "our 'Enry" well, wherever he is now, if there really is some kind of "great boxing ring in the sky."

    At minimum, he showed the quality of a true gentlemen, which it appears nearly all of our modern sportsmen could learn from the example of.

    Maybe that's the real reason few here are commenting, because they can't find anything to criticise in him, and sadly, perhaps too many do not really know or remember who he was, which may say a lot about the demographic of the BBC sports site visitors, in that maybe too many older people still don't want to or know how to work a computer, or get on the Internet.

  • Comment number 5.

    matt1815 - First, when I talk about 'the youth of today' I'm including myself in that! It's not meant to be a pop at hoodies etc, I'm just pointing out that life was tougher for most Brits back in 'austerity Britain' than it is today. And yes, I would strongly argue Britain was a more masculine place back then - in the 1950s, the majority of men would have been manual workers, which I would argue is far more masculine than sitting behind a desk. It was, quite simply, a rought, tough man's world, even if you were a woman.

    peterkirk1 - I agree, we all seem to look back through rose-tinted glasses. I dug out an old MOTD 'greatest ever goals' video the other month and, if I'm being totally honest, you see four or five goals every week nowadays that were every bit as good.

    Stronback - David Haye features so heavily because it is a piece about Henry Cooper, formerly the best heavyweight in Britain who has just died, and I am using David Haye, currently the best heavyweight in Britain, to show how boxing and social mores in this country have changed. Not that bewildering.

  • Comment number 6.

    For people of my age, it feels like a slice of childhood has disappeared, so omnipresent was Henry Cooper in one guise or another on the three channels that constituted national TV in the late 60s and early 70s. I'm sorry to hear of his passing, and I've no wish to denigrate his memory, but it's good to read a blog that doesn't completely oversell his abilities as a fighter.

    By British heavyweight standards, Henry was decent, although his 3-2 record against Joe Erskine shows that the record wasn't all one way, even on a domestic level. On an international level, his management wouldn't even countenance Henry sharing a ring with either Sonny Liston or Joe Frazier, which makes all the "what would have happened if Henry had stopped Ali?" articles rather redundant, seeing as Ali's next act after his first fight with Cooper was to beat Liston. Cooper wasn't really a heavyweight in modern terms, as has been widely noted elsewhere. However, neither were Folley, Johansson or Patterson, all of whom defeated Cooper, the last two with dismissive ease. It's a stretch to claim, as many in this country do, that a cruiserweight division in the 1960s would have seen Henry Cooper reign supreme for the whole decade. He was unchallenged in Europe, but the truth is that beyond that, Cooper was never more than a fringe contender.

    As someone once said of John Betjeman in another context, Henry became almost a teddy bear to the nation. He was the comfortable face of pugilism, and however much he bled, boxing never quite seemed so red in tooth and claw when he was involved (at least, not to me!). I mourn his death - he was a symbol of his era, certainly in this country, but as Britain's love of the unchanging pageantry of royal spectacle has so recently and graphically underlined, I'm not that sure that we have altered that much in Britain. Henry was a symbol of the gallant loser that we have always taken to our hearts more than the cocky winner, as you suggest. Men like Frank Bruno have inherited his mantle since Henry hung 'em up, and that love of the runner-up still prevails in many sports in the UK. We're not Australians, when all is said and done, and perhaps that isn't such a bad thing.

  • Comment number 7.

    I dont really see why this tribute has to be used as a then v now kind of comparison. I dont really see the relevancy nor why this is such a constant theme in these blogs.

    What Cooper represented more than anything was a "British" mentality. Down to earth, humble, a tryer, easy to relate to, glorious in defeat - in contrast with a "winning at all costs" attitude more prevalent in other countries. You use Haye as an example of contrasting times but men like Bruno earlier, Benn, Eubank and recently Hatton have all indicated that this attitude is far from dead. I would argue that Haye polarises opinions in Britain and is nowhere near as universally liked as Cooper. The values that made Cooper so well liked are still much appreciated in Britain today. I think that this claim that Haye represents a shift in this in largely false.

    RIP Henry and thanks for the great memories.

  • Comment number 8.

    Yes, quite correct about the 'ole days' A fighter was on every street corner and if you fancied your chances you had a go, and if yu lost there was no pain in losing.
    Henry was of the same substance, it was a another hard way of earning extra money. There were many boxers/fighters around, Brian London, Joe Erskine, Richardson across the water in different directions one had Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, while Archie Moore was still around pounding the pounds and a certain Sonny Liston was coming on the scene. We must not for young Ali, but if one looks at who we Brits had, we were medioco compared to the rest of the world.
    Travel by plane shortened the world stage and we were never on it and have never really been on it for a long time. Boxing in Britain lost its way a long time ago, money is cheap compared to what we had to endure and earn so thanks Henry and all the others who made real boxing, boxing.

  • Comment number 9.

    The era of arrogant brash boxers came way before Ali, Jack Johnson started it at the turn of the century by taunting and stalking Tommy Burns for 2 years to get a fight. In fairness he had his reasons given Burns refused to fight him. My point is i wouldnt blame Ali for creating this prototype of boxer you see in David Haye. Boxing has always had a need for this sort of showman who gets people talking, If boxing fans wanted role models for their champions then 2 Ukrainian doctors who commit such time to charity and one of which has Hayden Panettiere on his arm would be the biggest draws in the world.

  • Comment number 10.

    The real problem boxing has is pay per view. We just don't see it any more.

    Any young lad who watches a boxing match loves it. Just like they love to play with cars.

    They just don't get to watch it any more.

    Something similar is happening to football, the price of tickets and Sky subscription takes it out of the orbit of the poorest in society, who should provide our greatest footballers. I young boys do not watch football, we will be short of top class footballers.

    Remember the world cup, anyone?

  • Comment number 11.

    I am 23 and my only knowledge of Henry Cooper was from my grandparents, his appearance at the final game at Highbury, Flu Jab adverts and appearences on television for various programmes.

    My grandad recalls with a great deal of pride how he knocked down Cassius Clay as was, although ultimately ended losing the fight, was still a great acheivement, I've watched that clip several times on Youtube.

    He will be remembered as an honest, straight forward guy with a hell of a left hook, a true Gentleman and an honest competitor. As well as an Arsenal fan which puts him in my good books. God bless him.

  • Comment number 12.

    Henry Coopers personal attributes helped him to transcend his sport in the eyes of the British public. He'd earned his dues in the ring so no one begrudged him his time in the spotlight through QoSport & Bruts ads (there are other aftershaves available).

    Henry you will always be held-up as a shining example of a true British sportsman and role model, not the mass of wannabies (with a few exceptions) we have today...

  • Comment number 13.

    in all honesty, they dont make em like that anymore. As a boxer, henry was decent enough but as a person he was great. we will never see another boxer held in such high esteem by the british public

  • Comment number 14.

    About 15 years ago I was at Butlins, Bognor. They did a Question of Sport type evening with sports stars team captains. Henry Cooper was one of them. In the afternoon he did a Q & A session with about 100 or so guys my age. He kept us spellbound for god knows how long with his passion and knowledge of his sport. A proper sporting hero.

  • Comment number 15.

    Amazes me that people that were not here on earth at the time can write & speak so informatively about the mood that existed at the time.

    I certainly could not for instance give a view on the mood before my time I would be guessing. Marciano & Cockle or Turpin era yes.

    Also Henry Cooper. Sitting like lots of others listening to the radio commentary with my ear stuck to the radio in the kitchen.


  • Comment number 16.

    Have to say I disagree with World Cup Wally. I enjoy watching poor people fight for my amusement. Usually accompanied by a silver platter of exotic fruit and some wenches to fan me down, I often cackle when a particularly brain mashing blow is landed. Why should this age old privilege be consigned to the past? Why in the 21st century should young ruffians and rapscallions not have the honour of shedding blood for us bourgeois land owners with our Sky subscriptions?

  • Comment number 17.

    Bit of a shocker that after nearly two days this has only garnered a handful of posts, when conversely a quite dull UTD/Arsenal encounter has had literally hundreds. I feel Henry's contribution to the intergrity of British sport over the years warrants a little better than this.

    Still, I'm old fashioned, if not old.

    And I quite like the parallels drawn between Haye & Cooper, new times and old, etc. I think that is the point of the piece, to contrast different times and behaviours, and the fact there is genuinely an argument for and against different approaches to selling/hyping fights. One man's ceiling is another man's floor, and I like Henry's affable and humble schtick, as well as some of the more flambouyant stuff batted about by Ali, and more recently Haye. Not a big Haye fan but did enjoy his 'just so long as we get a ring and a referee who can count to 10 I don't care where the fight is held'!

    Anyway, on to Mr Cooper. My dad met him years ago at a car showroom and went to say hi. Henry chatted for two or three minutes, was a real gent, shook my dad's hand and wished him well. My dad couldn't give two hoots about boxing, but as he relayed the story to us kids you could see the experience had really made his day. That's a common touch Henry had that really is so lacking in many other 'celebrities' nowadays.

    Rest in peace, old man.

  • Comment number 18.

    Our Enry will be very sadly missed but there is one fight that I will remember watching & that was the rematch v Cassious Clay at Highbury just before the 1966 world cup finals,

  • Comment number 19.

    Ah, them were the days!

    When sportsmen knew their place & worked in the fruit shop, Lenny McLean was the king of the cobbles, and the real superstars were psychopaths, murderers & gangsters (usually all three).

    OK, I was nowhere near being around then, but thank fluke the flowerpower era came along and consigned that crap to the history books. Cheers hippies!

  • Comment number 20.

    captaincarrantuohil - "Henry was a symbol of the gallant loser". I'd agree with that, in fact he probably set the template. Although apparently he was always irritated that his three most famous fights were all defeats!

    JoeDavisRoach - Not sure Bruno, Benn, Eubank and Hatton personify "trying" and "neing humble in defeat". Maybe Bruno, but even he was a world champion. Benn, Eubank and Hatton, they were all British winners. And I'd never call either Benn or Eubank humble. As for Haye, I didn't say he was as liked as Cooper, I said most Brits today would be able to relate more with Haye. They are two different things.

    byrne28 - You're right about Johnson, and even the likes of John L Sullivan before him. But Ali was the man who really took boxing into the television age and added that real glamour and glitz and, I suppose you would say, celebrity.

    Laurie - By your argument, no-one would ever have an opinion on anything that happened before they were around, which I suppose would rule out the study of history. I do speak to quite a lot of old people, for example my mum and dad, who are around the same age as Cooper and from the same part of the world.

    G_K - Ronnie was a bloody gentleman...

  • Comment number 21.

    Not sure about all this Ben. There where plenty of distasteful stunts by boxers of bygone eras-Ali pulled plenty of them during the 60s and 70s. Remember the Gorilla suit with Frazier? Public perception of Boxing has changed in the UK and the blame for that lies firmly with the BBC who withdrew from the sport-strangely following Barry Mcguigans 17 million viewers for his title fight, indicating public appetite for the sport was high.

    Few sports can flourish without terrestrial TV coverage, and the BBCs refusal to screen British, European and World Title fights virtually handed the sport to SKY and removed it from public awareness. Boxing has shot itself in many of its toes over the years, but my view is that, if as the BBC did with Mcguigan, they got hold of a fighter like say James degale or Frankie Gavin and screened them from the start of their career, we would again be seeing viewing figures in the millions.

    And Ben, Ali was an important factor in taking boxers into the TV age, but again your history is poor-what about Dempsey, Marciano-both men who took the sport to a much wider public. You also have to remember how big Amateur stars where then-men like Teofilio Stevenson. In any era you can look and find boxers who used whatever media was around at the time to project themselves.

    Henry Cooper was a good heavyweight-he was also a ruthless fighting man, and a genuine top 10 contender at a time when just being a contender meant a great deal. He will be missed I think.

  • Comment number 22.

    in all honesty, the lack of posts is no refelection of the high regard in which henry cooper is held, but is more a reflection of the people who have now left bbc/606

  • Comment number 23.

    Problem from my perspective Ben.

    I do not have a problem with people speaking about what has happened before their time one little bit.

    My problem is that historians speak as if they had encountered persons & happenings as if they were there at the time. This gives a false impression as though this is first hand knowledge which it is not.

    If they qualified their knowledge then it would be realised that they were speaking with knowledge which was second hand.

  • Comment number 24.

    Rubbish article, to be fair, made all the more rubbish by the puny claim/retort that "Haye is the best British heavyweight", and that therefore he, Haye, features prominently in an article about Henry Cooper, who was the best British Heavyweight of his era.

    What a load of old piffle. A decidedly wretched epistle which masquerades as a eulogy to Cooper whilst its true intention is to bolster the flagging reputation of David "Divorce" Haye.

    For openers, the author would do well to point out that Cooper won the British, European and Commonwealth/Empire Heavyweight Titles, none of which were EVER won by Haye. In fact, Haye has never even fought for those titles, which is yet another key difference between Hayes era and Coopers era.

    Not that Mr Dirs has bothered to point this out. In fact, even Lennox Lewis, less than 20 years ago, was fighting for and winning at least two of those titles. So Haye isn't even up to the standards of Lewis era in that regard. Haye represents a complete departure from the long-standing tradition of almost ALL British fighters.

    Is Haye better than Dereck Chisora? We don't know, he's never fought him.

    The reality of the matter is that Haye has never won a meaningful title. The WBA strap he holds was in fact stripped from the then-undefeated Chagaev, and passed onto the entirely undeserving Valuev. Haye then made the correct financial and contractual propitiations and picked himself up a split-decision nod over Valuev. He must have made these propitiations for how else could a British fighter get the nod in Germany??? Ironic is it not that persistent anti-German babblings of the British press should come back to bite them in their corpulent rears at the most inopportune of moments.

    Chagaev, in the meantime, manned up for the slot which Haye had run away from, and was routinely dispatched by Klitschko.

    Ahhh...Klitschko. The perennial bee in the collective British Bonnet. Why won't these "Germans" just clear off and leave us alone????? We need shut of these Klitschkos. They are boring. They are not British. And they are White. Terrible people.

    The blood streaming down Henry Coopers face was no more a sign of manliness than it was the sign of a man who got hit more than his tender skin could bear. Cooper, who was heavier than Rocky Marciano, was not a tiny man for his era, in fact he suffered less weight disparity in his fights with Folley, Clay/Ali, Patterson etc than Haye will ultimately suffer against Wladimir.

    Poor stab at an article- then again writings and musings based more on racial or ethnic designs usually are.

    Klitschko will wipe the floor with Haye.

  • Comment number 25.

    Nonsense: Haye was European Champion at Cruiserweight and unified the Cruiserweight division. Are you saying that he should have started from scratch because he moved up to a higher weight class? That is nonsense. When notable smaller men move up they usually get involved in the world title mix pretty quickly. To say Haye has never won a meaningful title is simply false.

    I also think your insistence on bringing race into the debate is confused and hamfisted. I have no idea what you are getting at with all that 'and they are white. Terrible people'. I assume you are being facetious but cannot decipher what your actual point is. As with your points on boxing, unclear and loaded with bile.

    Fair point on the weight issue with regard to Henry Cooper though.

  • Comment number 26.

    Chris Bevan Nonsense. 5th May

    Firstly, to make it clear, I did not add “Nonsense” to the name that was self inflicted.

    It is very difficult to understand a lot of what can only be described as worse than vitriolic criticism.

    I am first in the queue to voice my thoughts if I consider that matters are not quite right and which I have written about above. But hopefully in the traditions of fairness & respect.

    Firstly the Chris Bevan writings are 75% about somebody other than Henry Cooper & mostly not even connected to Henry Cooper. Certainly not written in the ways & far removed for how Henry Cooper conducted his life.

    Secondly some of the disgusting things written here are far removed from the high traditions & respect for boxing fairness & sportsmanship.


  • Comment number 27.

    Hmmm..........If you read the original "article" by Ben Dirs you will see that precious little of that article concerns Henry Cooper, once again it is little more than a gee-up for the flagging GBH, David Haye.

    "Some of the disgusting things here"....cry me a river sir.

    As for Haye, he never won or fought for the British, European or Empire/Commonwealth Titles, and I reiterate that point. Its another difference between Haye and Cooper that could have been brought up.

  • Comment number 28.

    Viz point 27, I refer to thost titles of the HW division.

    Cruiserweight is, after all, Loserweight.

  • Comment number 29.

    Henry Cooper RIP.

    "When the Eagles are silent the Parrots begin to jabber".
    Winston Churchill.


  • Comment number 30.

    @ Ben Dirs [20]:

    "G_K - Ronnie was a bloody gentleman..."


    You've said a mouthful there, guv, and no mistake!

    Rip yer boat race soon as look at ya, but never swore in front of the ladies.

    Manor just ain't the same wivvaht im - gorn to th dogs, the 'ole bleedin country...

  • Comment number 31.

    Nonsense: The fact remains Haye was European and unified World Champion at Cruiserweight, therefore, you are chatting the latest when you reiterate that he has never won a meaningful title. He has. To hold the fact he isn't fighting people like Derek Chisora on a Frank Warren card at York Hall for the British Heavyweight title is a bit silly really isn't it?


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