1966: When Mohammed Ali took on South London heavyweight Henry Cooper

On May 21, 1966, Mohammed Ali took on Lambeth born and bred heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper in a fight to retain the world heavyweight championship.

About 40,000 spectators watched at the Arsenal football ground in Highbury, north London as Cooper, aged 32, fought bravely with his big left hooks to battle against Ali’s quick footwork and fast punches.

But, one minute and 38 seconds into the sixth round Cooper’s hopes of world victory were dashed when the referee stopped the fight – a deep gash over his left eye forced him to concede the title to 24-year-old Ali.

Cooper’s manager Jim Wicks, called for Ali to be disqualified, claiming he had butted Cooper with his head. 

Slow motion footage of the fight later showed Mohammed Ali had won the fight legitimately and not from a clash of heads.

Henry Cooper in 1969 (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Ali was left unmarked by the fight apart from some swelling on the cheekbone under his left eye – the result of one of Cooper’s best punches. 

After his win, the American went to Cooper’s dressing room to see him. He said: “I hate to spill blood. It’s against my religion.”

Ali, a committed Muslim, had recently changed his name from Cassius Clay.

After the fight Cooper was sent to Guys Hospital where he had 12 stitches for the cut.

Recalling the fight to Stephen Brunt, for his book Facing Ali, Cooper said: “I still had the style that could upset him. 

“But I must say that he’s a quick learner, Ali.”

Then known as Cassius Clay, Mohammed Ali defeated veteran Pole Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to win gold in the 1960 Summer Olympics (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Cooper and Ali had faced one another in the ring three years before, on June 18, 1963. 

The South Londoner knocked Ali down in Round 4 with a punch that made boxing history –  a left hook travelling five and a half inches at 30mph with 60 times the force of gravity, striking the side of the American’s jaw.

The world came to know it as ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer. But, Ali was saved by the bell when the fight was stopped in Round 5 because of a cut to Cooper’s eye.

Cooper said: “The second fight he learned. He would stand no nonsense. 

“I could not mess around inside. I’ve never been held so bleedin’ tight in my life. 

“In the second fight, I think that’s all I can remember…”

For years afterwards, Ali would pay tribute to Cooper. British boxing writers visiting him in the US would be told: “Give my regards to Henry.”

Throughout his career, Cooper’s record was unmatched by any British fighter of his or any other time – winner of 40 of his 55 contests, 27 by knockout, one drawn, in a 17-year career from 1954 to 1971, winner of three Lonsdale belts for three successive British heavyweight title victories, holder of European and Commonwealth titles for sustained periods and the British for about 11 years. 

Born on May 3, 1934, in Southwark, Cooper always saw himself as an “Elephant” boy, relating to the Elephant and Castle area where his half-Irish grandfather bought and sold horses.

The family moved to a council house on the Bellingham Estate, Farmstead Road, Bellingham, in 1940 before Cooper started his boxing career in 1949.

Henry Cooper’s house on Farmstead Road (Picture: Wikimedia Commons, QuintusPetillius)

He joined the Bellingham Boxing Club at Athelney St School in Bellingham, as an amateur with and won seventy-three of eighty-four contests.

Cooper had a strong regard for the boxers of his time. He retired in 1971, and became a TV commentator for the sport.

But in his later years, he became “disillusioned with boxing”, wanting “straight, hard and fast boxing that he was used to from his times.”

Cooper was critical of the trend for heavyweights to bulk up as he thought it made for one-paced and less entertaining contests.

In his final year, he said that he did not think boxing was “as good as it was”, naming Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, and Amir Khan as “the best of their era”.

After Cooper’s death in 2011, his friend and fellow boxing commentator, John Rawling, said: “If he were to be offered £10,000 to make an after-dinner speech, and it clashed with an unpaid appearance at a boys’ club when he had given his word that he would attend, Henry would unhesitatingly refuse the fat cheque and be there for the youngsters. 

“He was a good boxer, but an outstanding man.”

Picture: Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper following their fight on 18 June 1963 (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

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