LONDON – Former heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, who was best known for knocking down Muhammad Ali while he was still known as Cassius Clay, died Sunday. The popular British sportsman was 76.
The first boxer to be knighted and receive the title “Sir” from a British monarch, Cooper died just two days before his 77th birthday after an extended illness, the British Boxing Board of Control said.
“I am at a loss for words over the death of my friend, Henry Cooper,” Muhammad Ali said in a statement.
Cooper floored Ali, then an up-and-coming contender named Clay, in a 1963 non-title fight at Wembley Stadium.
Cooper threw a trademark left hook — known by fans and British boxing writers as “ ’Enry’s ’Ammer” in acknowledgment of his south London accent — toward the end of the fourth round, catching the much larger Ali flush on the jaw and sending him through the ropes and onto the canvas.
Ali, who later said the knock-down punch “not only shook me, it shook my relations in Africa,” won the bout by technical knockout in the next round while trailing on the scorecard.
The two fought again in 1966 at London’s Highbury Stadium. This time Ali, who was the world champion by then, retained his belt by stopping a bloodied Cooper in the sixth round.
Ali said he visited Cooper two summers ago during a visit to Windsor.
“Henry always had a smile for me, a warm and embracing smile,” Ali said. “It was always a pleasure being in Henry’s company. I will miss my ole friend. He was a great fighter and a gentleman. My family and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family and loved ones.”
Cooper, who won the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight titles but never the world crown, was revered in Britain as much for his warm personality and gentlemanly manner as his 40-14-1 record in a professional career spanning more than 16 years.
“He’s not the only one who wasn’t good enough to beat Ali,” said Robert Smith, general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control. “For such a small man, he put up some great performances in a world-class context.
“It’s not just the boxing and your ability; it’s the personality as well. He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on two occasions, which is a tremendous feat for a boxer. Everyone called him Our ’Enry, and he was much loved. He served boxing wonderfully.”
Many fans in the partisan Wembley crowd believed Cooper was denied victory over Ali in the 1963 fight by debatable tactics from his corner.
Trainer Angelo Dundee brought a rip in Ali’s gloves to the attention of the referee and Ali had time to recover while new gloves were located and brought to the ring. He then stopped Cooper in the next round.
Cooper retired in 1971 shortly after losing his British, European and Commonwealth belts to Joe Bugner by a quarter of a point. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000.
“He transcended boxing,” promoter Frank Warren said. “He was a true gentleman of sport and had a huge place in the public’s affection. He never won the world title but he had true British grit, he tried.”