Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Death of Our 'Enry

Henry Cooper has died at the age of 76.

Most people may not remember Cooper, a former boxer from England. There probably isn't much reason to remember him, I suppose, but nearly 48 years ago, he fought Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) and did something that few men did during Ali's career.

Cooper knocked him down.

It wasn't the kind of knockdown you probably imagine when you hear that. The men weren't in the middle of the ring when it happened, and Ali didn't go down like a bag of wet cement; rather, they were near the ropes, and Ali's arm got snagged in them, keeping him from falling to the canvas, where his head might well have struck the boards concealed beneath.

If that had happened, it is easy to imagine that Ali might have been knocked out — and Cooper (known affectionately as "Our 'Enry" in the United Kingdom) might have won. The history of heavyweight boxing would have been changed forever.

Ali's next fight was against the heavyweight champ, Sonny Liston. But it might have been Cooper instead.

Ali was spared that because his arm got caught in the rope and held him up as the fourth round came to an end. He was woozy, though, and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, used smelling salts to revive him.

The use of smelling salts was in violation of existing rules, but it wasn't the only questionable tactic Dundee used on that occasion. He also made a tear in one of Ali's gloves and told the referee that new gloves were needed, which further delayed resumption of the bout.

By the time the fighters returned to the ring, Ali had shaken off the fog and was able to concentrate on open cuts on Cooper's face. Before long, blood was streaming down his face like perspiration. Cooper was leading on the judges' scorecards, but the referee nevertheless had to stop the fight and award the decision to Ali.

I've only seen that fight on film — and I never saw it until I was an adult — but I remember seeing pictures of Cooper's blood–streaked face in boxing magazines when I was a child. I found the image very disturbing.

I found it even more disturbing later in life when I saw Dundee being interviewed about the fight, and he readily admitted to both offenses. He seemed proud of what he had done — and I suppose he was. He had kept a young boxing prospect on his path of destiny.

However, Cooper did have a lasting impact on the sport. Spare gloves were required at ringside, but he couldn't make the use of smelling salts illegal. It was illegal already. It just wasn't rigidly enforced on that evening in 1963.

No comments: