When Henry Cooper Nearly Derailed Cassius Clay's Title Hopes

20.07.04 - By Mike Dunn: British boxing legend Henry Cooper is still remembered for it. More than 41 years after the fact, Cooper remains a beloved figure in his native England and when fans reminisce about old ’Enery, they talk about the potent left hook he landed to the jaw of 21-year-old Cassius Clay. And they talk about what might have been ...

On June 18, 1963, the young, brash American Clay entered the ring in venerable Wembley Stadium in London to take on the 29 year-old Cooper, who was a top flight fighter in Europe and the British Empire, but who was not considered by most to be a serious threat to derail Clay’s title ambitions.

Cooper had a record of 27-8-1. He was a capable fighter who had won 12 of his previous 13 bouts, the only defeat being a KO loss to the highly regarded American Zora Folley in December of ’61. The Englishman was a long shot to beat Clay, but an upset was not out of the realm of possibility. Cooper wasn’t flashy, but he did possess a left hook that could separate any heavyweight around from his senses. A decision win for the plodding Englishman over the slippery, fast-moving, fast-punching Clay was very unlikely. Cooper would certainly need to knock Clay out to win. But could it be done? Many of Cooper’s countrymen believed it could happen, even though Cooper at 186 pounds weighed 20 pounds less than the cocky American. Cooper, the pride of Bellingham, had won impressively in his previous two outings, knocking out Joe Erskine in nine rounds and Dick Richardson in five rounds in successful defenses of the Commonwealth (British Empire) and British heavyweight titles. Cooper had the punch if he could somehow find Clay’s chin with it.

The irrepressible Clay, clamoring loudly for a title shot against the stoic Sonny Liston, was unbeaten in 18 contests. His previous bout had been a disappointing, frustrating 10-round decision over the slick Doug Jones in Madison Square Garden on national TV. Clay deserved the decision, but Jones made him miss often and even look amateurish at times. On top of that, Clay had been staggered by Jones in the first round and had been hit several times throughout the fight with well-placed rights. Clay was still the top contender, to be sure, and he was probably the next in line to face Liston after Liston’s obligatory rematch with Floyd Patterson. But Clay was coming off what was for him a mediocre performance. He wanted another fight against a ranked opponent to affirm his status as No. 1 challenger in the mind of the public, and he wanted to stay active and not sit idly by while Liston prepared for his rematch with Patterson in September. Clay’s win over Jones came in March and September was a long way off. So, Clay’s management team looked across the Atlantic. Cooper seemed the perfect foe.

Interest in a fight between Cooper, the Commonwealth and British heavyweight champ, and a top-rated American would have been great under any circumstances, but Clay’s bombast and continual predictions of Cooper’s demise made the public fascination with the bout that much greater. As was his custom, Clay called the round that would see his hands raised in triumph. In this case, a fifth-round KO was the prophecy. Estimates of crowd size that fateful June night range from 35,000 to 50,000. Suffice it to say that Henry’s cause was well-represented by his countrymen. British fight fans came out en masse to support their beloved gladiator and to see if ’Enery’s ’Ammer could finally close the motor mouth of the young Kentuckian.

Clay climbed through the ring ropes at Wembley with a large “crown” on his head fashioned out of cardboard. The idea was to pose as royalty. It only incited the crowd to a fever pitch. Cooper entered the ring to a thunderous ovation. He didn’t have a crown on his head, but it was clear that he was bearing the hopes of every red-blooded English fight fan. The first two rounds of the fight did nothing to diminish the flames of hope for the English fans. In the first round, Cooper came right at Clay and landed some well-placed blows, including a left that brought blood from the American’s nose. Cooper had been outpunched in the second round, but had given a good account of himself. Clay was the sharper, quicker puncher, as expected. But Cooper was not being outclassed. So far, this was not at all a one-sided affair.

Then, early in the third round, the entire complexion of the fight changed when a rapier right cross by Clay opened a cut above Cooper’s left eye. It was apparent right away that this was a bad cut, the kind that could force an early stoppage. Under normal circumstances, the fighter who opens a cut of this nature forces the action in an effort to get the ref to halt matters. Clay took the opposite approach, however. He danced around with his hands dangling from his sides, throwing punches only when necessary to keep Cooper off stride. The British announcer calling the fight for an international TV audience charged Clay with taunting Cooper and with holding Cooper in disdain.While it’s true that Clay was taking Cooper far too lightly, it seems apparent that Clay was holding back in an effort to fulfill his fifth-round prediction. The ploy very nearly backfired.

Phil Faversham, the leading member of Clay’s management team — a group of 10 prominent businessmen from Clay’s hometown of Louisville — angrily yelled at Clay to stop playing and start punching between the third and fourth rounds. But Clay had his own agenda on this night. The fourth round looked much like the third: Clay moving back and from side to side, keeping his hands often at his sides, making faces at Cooper. For his part, Cooper kept moving steadily toward. Several times, he just missed with his hook. It seemed that Clay was playing a dangerous game. The round was just about over when it happened. Cooper finally connected and Clay went down. Hard.

This was no flash knockdown. Clay was the recipient of a perfecty timed hook and sent reeling into the ropes, his body falling against the middle strand of the ropes on the way to the canvas. As everyone in Wembley jumped to their feet in unison, Clay lay on the canvas for a few brief seconds with a look akin to shock on his handsome face. Clay scrambled to his feet as the timekeeper tolled four. Fortunately for the American, the bell rang just as he got up.

Clay had been fortunate in two ways: the punch that floored him came at the very end of the round; the punch that floored him came near the ropes and the ropes cushioned his fall. Under other circumstances, perhaps the outcome would have been different. There’s no denying Clay’s recuperative powers, but there’s also no denying that Clay was more than just dazed. He was hurt. He wouldn’t be hit so hard or shaken so much by a single punch again until March of 1971, when as Muhammad Ali he faced the indominatable Joe Frazier in The Fight of the Century.

One of the myths that has surrounded the Cooper fight concerns what happened in Clay’s corner between the fourth and fifth rounds. Clay’s right glove had a slight tear in it. According to legend, Clay’s trainer Angelo Dundee intentionally made the tear bigger, then informed referee Tommy Little that the glove needed to be changed. Little sent a steward to find another set of gloves for Clay; by the time the new set of gloves was brought in for Clay from the far side of the huge arena, three or four minutes had elapsed. More than enough time for Clay to have his wits about him prior to the start of round five.

I remember hearing this legend repeated as I was growing up and I believed it ... until I actually watched the film of the fight. The film doesn’t lie, or even exaggerate a little. The time that actually lapsed between rounds was between 65 and 70 seconds. That’s it. Dundee did bring Little over to inspect the glove. Apparently, it was determined that the glove didn’t need to be changed because when the bell rang for the fifth round, Clay still had the same right glove on.

The difference in Clay wasn’t the result of extra time in his corner; the difference was in the American’s mindset. Cooper’s left hook hadn’t knocked him senseless, but it did knock some sense into him. Now it was time to get down to business. In short order, Clay’s rapid, stinging punches opened the cut over Cooper’s left eye more severely than before. Referee Little had no choice but to stop it midway through the round. Clay’s prediction about the fifth round had been true, but Clay nearly
blew his chance to challenge Liston for the title because of it.

Clay, of course, went on to face Liston in February of 1964. He “shook up the world” and beat “the big, ugly Bear” convincingly, establishing himself as champion and ultimately catapulting himself into the international spotlight, one of the greatest and most charismatic athletes the world has ever known.

Cooper is still revered as a hero in his native country. He had a second chance at Clay — then known as Ali — with the heavyweight title on the line in 1966. But Ali had learned his lesson well. This time he respected Cooper too much to allow himself to feel the sting of ’Enery’s ’Ammer again. Cooper lasted into the sixth this time, with a cut eye again forcing an early stoppage.

When British fight fans talk of Cooper, it isn’t the second encounter with Ali that they recall. It is rather that fateful June night in 1963 at Wembley Stadium when Cooper’s left hook sent the brash, young American sprawling. When for one glorious moment, it appeared that the courageous Cooper would be the one to shock the world. If only ’Enery had landed the punch earlier in the round. If only the ropes hadn’t cushioned Clay’s crash to the hard canvas. If only ...

Those interested in reading another account of Clay v. Cooper can find a well-written article by Jeff Day in the Time Tunnel archives. It is dated Nov. 14, 2002 and is called simply “Remembering Clay vs. Cooper.”

Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian who resides in Gaylord, Mich.

Article posted on 20.07.2004

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