Looking back, it’s easy to forget that it was all the way back to the early 70s and its punitive wars Bonaven, Frazier, Norton AND Foremanmany seriously questioned the durability Muhammad Ali. Although now it is rightfully included in any list best chins in boxing history, in 1966 Ali had yet to satisfy critics questioning the solidity of his lower jaw. The fact is that few put in a lot of action “Louisville Mouth” the oft-repeated statement, “I am the greatest!” until his exile and subsequent fights with some of the biggest and greatest heavyweights of the 1970s.
Earlier, a haze of confusion had obscured Ali’s two upset victories Sonny Listonsome concerning second fight as a glaring if inept fix. And in his first title defense, against Floyd Patterson AND George Chuvalo, the beard of the man many still called Cassius Clay had not been seriously tested. Everyone agreed that the most unpopular of the heavyweight champions was incredibly fast and agile, but the question “Will he take it?” it brought back memories of June 18, 1963, and young Clay’s first meeting with Henry Cooper from England.
There are many legends associated with this fight, most of them complete nonsense, but the truth is that Cooper’s style caused Cassius some serious problems. A steady, if unspectacular fighter, Henry had an amazing left hand, both jabbing and hooking, and used it effectively against his larger and faster opponent. The jab disrupted Clay’s timing while the hook repeatedly put him on the defensive. In the first round of this initial bout, Cooper took the fight to the American, crippling and rubbing his larger opponent and even bleeding Clay’s nose, young Cassius casting glances at the referee as if asking, “Is this legal?” At this point, Clay was still a novice in infighting, while Cooper eagerly took every opportunity to get close and slam into the younger man’s body.
What had promised to be competitive was marred in the second round by a gash above Cooper’s left eye. “Our ‘Enry’ cut easily and his delicate skin was the cause of most career failures, but the British and Commonwealth champion pressed for action while Clay seemed reluctant to finish. No doubt this had to do with the Olympian’s pre-fight predictions about the fifth-round stoppage. But his hubris nearly cost him the fight as late in the fourth, a desperate Cooper started hitting with vicious left hooks. He landed three times over Clay’s lower right hand, and the third punch, landing seconds from the end of the round, knocked the future champion down hard for only the second time in his career.
Confusion reigns over what happened next. Boxing lore says that Clay was knocked out of the ring, and when he had barely defeated the Count, he was practically on his feet, saved from being knocked down again by the round-ending bell and his attendants. Not true. Clay fell awkwardly to the ropes but never left the ring. He got up quickly, counting to four, the bell chimed the same as he did, then immediately went to his corner, his legs feeling steady. Legend has it that the badly injured Cassius was then saved thanks to the trainer’s quick thinking Angelo Dundee who intentionally damaged one of Clay’s gloves, the search for new gloves resulted in a long delay during which Clay recovered.
Again, nothing like that happened. In fact, there was a cracked seam in one of Clay’s gloves, and the quick-thinking Dundee, by his own admission, simply spread it a little with his fingers and then brought it to the referee’s attention. The start of round five was delayed, but not by a few minutes as legend has it. The damaged glove was never replaced and the fight resumed. As the timekeeper himself later stated, “I waited until I got a signal from Judge Little to call. When I did, my watch showed that the gap between rounds was actually 1:40.”
But, as is often the case, the facts do not stand in the way of a convincing story. While Clay stopped Cooper in round five thanks to a nasty gash above the Brit’s left eye, the story continues to this day of how ring officials had to go back to the locker room to find spare gloves during the break and that Dundee saved Clay from a near-certain defeat by KO. Admittedly, Dundee gave Clay a little more time to recover from Enry’s “Ammer”, although his ward showed no signs of needing it. But the tempting “what if?” there was a question for those who wanted to believe that Henry Cooper was on the verge of getting a huge upset.
Thus, the controversy surrounding the first Ali vs Cooper encounter fueled intense interest in a rematch three years later. Cooper was reportedly this close to knocking out the current heavyweight king now known as Muhammad Alithat British fans could hardly contain their excitement for the rematch, again in London, this time for the world heavyweight championship. And the fact is that this competition has also been obscured by time.
Few remember how Cooper, an unlucky fighter with eleven defeats to his name, gave Ali his toughest test until his fragile skin betrayed him once again. The opening round belonged to Ali, who slid around the ring, gaining a long left lead, but in the second round, Cooper started to push seriously, taking down the champion more than once, landing a right right early and a hard left hook late. and in the meantime establishing your own effective jab.
If the second was close, the third clearly belonged to a stubborn challenger who was constantly forcing Ali to take a step back or clinch. A pair of hooks went through and a few seconds later an aggressive Cooper landed hard left-right before forcing the champ into the ropes where he connected with two heavy lefts to the body before delivering a rabbit punch. Ali responded to the foul by grabbing Cooper’s head and pulling it down as if trying to get it off the challenger’s shoulders, a move that drew boos from the crowd and a stern warning from the referee, but when the action resumed it was Cooper, not Ali, landing the jab . The champ sped up, bouncing hard against Henry’s skull, but without a doubt the round belonged to ‘Our Enry’.
The pattern continued in the fourth. Henry managed to cut the ring again, start a nasty deal in the middle and in the clinch, hit Ali with his forearm in the face and landed several blows to the kidney. Cooper looked stronger at this point, while the champion was clearly uneasy about the Englishman’s tactics and made a show of complaining to the referee before the Brit landed another clean one-two, a left to the body and then a right to the head. Pulling himself together, Ali finally began to exploit his advantage in range, throwing the jab with conviction and following tight laws while successfully parrying Cooper’s hook.
The fifth saw Ali dance, but Cooper stabs him again, although the Englishman was openly frustrated at not being able to stop the champion for a second. Inside, Henry was the boss, landing a couple of punches with his solid body and then shoving Ali away with his right hand. For the remainder of the round, the boxers traded punches, but none of them had a clear advantage.
Then, as in Ali vs Cooper I, there was an unsatisfying finale. At the start of round six, the brave challenger shoved Ali into a corner and paid for his aggressiveness by being tagged with a slamming right counter, a blow tearing his left eyebrow apart. The injury, which later required sixteen stitches, was immediately visible to all, and blood ran copiously down the challenger’s face. Realizing that the match could be stopped at any moment, Cooper followed Ali as the huge crowd roared.
The master responded by finally opening up with heavy artillery, throwing out a series of right hands and taking full control of the action. The challenger never stopped flapping his wings, but Ali’s punches were the ones that landed cleanly. The one-two concussions forced Cooper into a clinch, and the stoppage of action gave the referee a chance to look at Henry’s injured eye and then stop the fight immediately. There was no alternative; The sight of Cooper was bloody, his blood covering both him and Ali and still gushing from the deep wound.
Boxing writers were never particularly kind to Cooper, and his performances against the more athletically gifted Ali were appreciated by few for their bravery and technical efficiency. But Ali himself recognized them. After their second fight, “The Greatest” told the press that he had never fought a braver man or a tougher opponent. — Michael Karbert