In England last week declamatory verse and vitriol were all the rage. Tory Nigel Birch told the House of Commons that Harold Macmillan, the Profumo-plagued Prime Minister, should resign, and quoted Browning's The Lost Leader ("Let him never come back to us!") in support. Elsewhere in London, Boxer Cassius Clay, quoting himself, said, "It ain't no jive./Henry Cooper will go in five!" And at the Fellowship Inn in Bellingham, in southeast London, the menfolk munched pork pies and lifted their nightly pints of lukewarm bitter in salute to the doggerel posted over the bar by one of the regulars. It made the point that Humble Henry would soundly thrash Gaseous Cassius "and once again prove that very old adage:/Action speaks louder than strong verbal cabbage!" At the end of the week Macmillan and Clay were still in command of things and the "Ode to our 'Enery" had been quietly unpinned at the pub. It was about all the men of Bellingham could do for their friend after his brave and ghastly fight. Just as Clay had promised, Cooper went in five.
Not that the outcome of the fight caused much surprise. Least surprised of all, it seemed, was Henry Cooper, who said, when the brutal business was done, " 'E said 'e would, and 'e did it, and that's 'ow it goes. It can't be 'elped." It was a typical remark for the stolid explasterer with battered good looks who faces life with the patient, unrewarding optimism of an English sundial. For weeks he had lived at the Fellowship, taking his meals there, training in the back room when a wedding reception or tea party did not interfere. He was among friends and did not seem to mind that Clay was all over London calling him a cripple and a bum ("He's building up the gate, and I'm on a percentage just like he is"). When the occasional reporter from the city dropped by, wearing a sympathetic long face, Cooper said, "I don't worry about beating him. I seen him on the telly fighting Doug Jones, and I seen he was flashy and amateurish. So I'm not afraid of the man himself. But a fight is like the stage and one worries about the performance. I don't want to go down there and look like a fool."
Far more inclined to looking the fool—though far less concerned—was Cassius Clay. Since the last week of May, Cassius had been casting his spell of ballyhoo and, though weary of training, weary of hearing himself talk, he kept at it until the first-round bell rang in Wembley Stadium. The day did not pass when his egotistical excesses were not quoted, his bizarre behavior not analyzed. And while few of the papers showed any admiration of Clay as a person, all seemed agreed that he had lifted British boxing out of the doldrums and was all but a cinch to beat Henry Cooper. Somehow that attitude popped up in the most unlikely places. One day, making a mild play for publicity himself, Cooper dropped in at a garden fete, a small charity fair with games of skill and chance at sixpence a go, for his neighborhood's Hither Green Hospital. "Let's just 'ope," said Henry, by way of addressing the crowd of nannies, children and nurses, "that 'e'll be the one needing the 'ospital after the fight and not me." Snorted a Cockney on hearing that: "Then 'e'll 'avc to bounce Clay over the bonce with Bow bells."
The day of the fight dawned in the best tradition of English summer mornings: cold and rainy. But despite the rain almost 2,000 people queued up that morning to see the weigh-in at the Palladium Theatre. In his dressing room, borrowed from Susan Maughan, a currently popular English singer, Cassius tried on the ankle-length red-and-white satin robe he had had tailored in London for ¬£25. Then, on the sudden inspiration of his attorney, Louisville's Gordon Davidson, Clay sent out to a costumers for a crown to wear into the ring that night. Strutting onto the Palladium stage, Clay held his left hand aloft, his lingers spread in an insolent "five," and struck Charles Atlas poses while the crowd fairly bounced with hoarse and happy jeers and boos. Henry Cooper, as amused as anybody, fell into the carnival mood by plucking a hair from Cassius' chest and chucking it toward the footlights while his English brethren yipped in delight. More soberly, the officials announced the weights. At 207 pounds, the heaviest he has ever fought, Clay outweighed Cooper by 22 pounds. Unlike Samson, Clay did not figure that one hair, more or less, would make much difference.
June 30, 1963
Preceded by music by the band of the Coldstream Guards and the grand, tumultuous, shouting and shoving entrance of Elizabeth Taylor in a turquoise ensemble, accompanied by Richard Burton in a rosy flush, Cassius Clay made his 9:15 entrance in the damp and lingering twilight. In the best tradition of English evenings, it was cold and rainy. Half a dozen red-tunicked gentlemen in the ring heralded his approach with a fanfare played on three-foot, flag-draped trumpets, and a spotlight glinted off his purple-and-gold crown. While hoots of derision followed his steps a seething BBC announcer snapped that Clay was "ridiculous" and he "cheapened the fight game." But Cassius was smiling. The noise he heard was in direct proportion to the number of tickets sold (35,000) and his cut of the gate (about $60,000).
Characteristically a slow starter with a stand-up old-lithograph style, Henry Cooper confounded Clay by opening the fight fast and furiously. "1 meant to show the writer critics I knew a trick or two," he said later. Unprepared for Cooper's aggressive rush, Clay reacted by moving away, the worst possible move for a man forced to contend with Cooper's dangerous left hook. Consequently, he was repeatedly hit by Cooper's left and repeatedly driven into the ropes. Something Clay was expecting was Cooper's habit of "throwing sucker shots"—hitting during the breaks. Cooper later denied he committed such a sin, but Clay got a bloody nose coming out of one unclean clinch. It was the first of his career, and he appealed furiously to the referee "for justice." He might better have spent the time meeting Cooper halfway, but he did not and the round went rightfully to Cooper. Dreams of glory went rushing to the heads of onlookers on this 148th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Back in his corner Clay was scolded by his trainer for moving too much and was inflamed by the blood dripping from his nose. He started the second round as enthusiastically as Cooper had started the first. His jabs were directly on target, his combinations precise. He was carrying the fight to Cooper when, toward the end of the round, blood began to flow from a cut beside Cooper's left eye. For Cooper, notoriously thin-skinned, a cut is the same as a snag in a silk stocking: the unraveling takes care of itself. It is too bad it had to happen, because Clay's eventual win—which he would have had anyhow—was marred.
Corner men are like cosmeticians: their handiwork is often unavailing in the hot light of reality. Thus Cooper came into the third round looking, if not feeling, as good as new. But in moments the cut and another had been opened by Clay, and Cooper said that from then on his vision was a blur through a red screen. Cooper's troubles, however, went deeper than those cuts. Clay had figured out his style and was so confident of beating Cooper that he actually stopped throwing punches. Instead, in a show of bad taste and worse sportsmanship, Clay warded off Cooper's lefts and rights by extending his gloves at arm's length, popped his gloves together in Cooper's face, jutted out his chin, daring and defying Cooper to hit it, made foolish faces and literally danced in the ring, his long arms jouncing down by his thighs. "Contemptible cheek," one ringsider called it, but good old Henry Cooper said he had not minded. "I told myself if he keeps this up I'll find an opening and tag him proper."
Stop the nonsense
Bill Faversham minded and between rounds roared to Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, to stop the nonsense. Apparently chastened, Clay kept his hands up in the fourth but continued to prance, and further asserted himself by jabbing casually and by leading with his right hand, a risky and unorthodox procedure. To Cooper's everlasting glory, he eventually found the opening he was looking for and with a lunging, rising left hook tagged Clay's contemptible cheek so proper that Cassius went tumbling into the ropes in a beautiful heap. "The Kentucky Rooster laid an egg," crowed the Evening Standard next day, but Clay's brains were not so scrambled that he could not get up. At the count of three or four (the sound of the bell ending the round was lost in the screams of the crowd) he was on his feet, a trifle shaky and very lucky. "You O.K.?" asked Dundee, pulling him onto his stool. "Yeah," said Cassius in one of his classiest lines yet, "but Cooper's getting tired."
The fifth round—which lasted one minute and 15 seconds—lasted one gruesome minute too long. Clay flung himself on Cooper at the bell, staggered him with his first punch and thereafter simply overran the man. Cooper's chest became a smear of crimson, his face was sickening to behold as the cuts around his eye discharged blood in sobbing, pulsing spurts. Cooper was fending, not fighting, and the referee, with the crowd (including Liz Taylor) pleading for him to hurry, stepped up to Cooper and said, "The fight's over, chum." With the simple eloquence of a very nice, very courageous and very resigned man, Henry Cooper shrugged his shoulders. "But we didn't do so bad for a bum and a cripple, did we?" he said as he was helped from the ring.
Clay, for his part, showed a rare streak of dignity by refusing to put on the make-believe crown that had rested on a white hotel pillow during the fight. The mob booed him as he went to his dressing room, but when he got there he told the press he had woefully underestimated Cooper, had never fought a better man, had never been hit harder and had been hurt—all of which was polite and true. His showing off in the third and fourth rounds, he said, was not to carry Cooper into the predicted fifth round but to disguise the fact that he was in trouble—which was polite but untrue. "He must be the silliest showboat that ever boxed," said Teddy Brenner, the Madison Square Garden matchmaker come to London to see what he could see. "I hate to say it, but maybe the best thing that could happen to him would be to get a licking." And who should walk up at this point? Jack Nilon, Sonny Liston's manager. "We want you bad in September, Cassius," said Jack, mouth watering. "I've come 3,500 miles to get your O.K."
A little later, sitting in the dining room of his Piccadilly hotel with $300 in his pocket and three tee-heeing girls gathered around, Cassius Clay, the grandson of an iceman, tipped his waiter 18 shillings for a two-shilling lemonade and allowed he would fight Liston "if the price is right." Just possibly, the fight Teddy Brenner was talking about and the fight Jack Nilon was talking about could turn out to be one and the same.