A fastidious Cassius Clay managed to avoid Henry Cooper's vulnerable eyebrows for five rounds. But a right in the sixth tapped a geyser, drowning the challenger's hopes for the heavyweight title
May 29, 1966

According to one of the viewpoints of Muhammad Ali—or, as they bill him in England, Formerly Cassius Clay—his defense of the world heavyweight championship against Henry Cooper last week in London was not only unsatisfactory but a bit sickening as well. Before the fight Formerly Cassius had told a friend: "Bang, bang, bang, ding, ding, ding and I'm on my way home." What he hoped to do was to knock out Cooper with a punch or combination of punches that would be clean, decisive and so clearly visible that he would not need a great amount of oratory to explain to the public what had happened. What he absolutely did not want to do was to cut open Cooper's famous brow and win with nothing more established than the fact that blood is red and flows. Strange though it may sound for a man who has had 23 professional fights, Clay is revolted by the sight of blood—his own or anyone else's.

Perhaps the memory of Cooper spurting blood when Clay beat him three years ago contributed to the almost solemn manner the champion adopted during his two weeks in London before the fight. Clay worked without antics. He went on tours of laboring-class areas, shook hands, kissed babies, smiled politely, said thank you and behaved as if he were training for a career in the diplomatic corps. He dined on kosher food, consulted with sheiks, prayed at the mosque and had to be protected from adoring crowds. He usually had Herbert Muhammad, son of Chicago Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad, at his side, but there were few if any militant statements about the white devils. When an African in goatee asked at an early press conference if Clay considered his fight with Cooper as a struggle between black and white, the champion replied, "You look too intelligent to ask that question. I'm ashamed of you."

The British press bought it all. In a land where the custom is to make every story sound like a scoop, Clay was front-page news, and the papers were full of accounts that said, "The new Cassius Clay told me yesterday...." As Clay said later, "They couldn't have treated no president of no country any nicer. I haven't been under no pressure here. The questions are not controversial. I could relax and train. The last time I was in London I wasn't the champion yet, so I was campaigning, hollering and acting crazy. Now I don't have to do that no more."

Meanwhile Henry Cooper was not exactly being ignored. He was photographed holding the cup that was purchased 29 years ago to be presented to the next British boxer to become world heavyweight champion and has yet to have a name inscribed on it. He was quoted at length about his plans to knock out Clay. Much was made of the left hook that did knock down Clay three years ago. Henry's wife, Albina, was photographed holding their 5-year-old son, Henry Marco, who calls his mother "My Queen."

Albina revealed that she intended to be at the Arsenal football ground to watch her husband fight for the first time. Henry revealed that he was using lotions and pills to strengthen the scar tissue on his bony brows. Jarvis Astaire, the closed-circuit television promoter, revealed that his 20 theaters would be sold out, which they almost were. Cooper's manager, Jim Wicks, revealed that he had taught his little dog, Mr. Wicks, to roll over on its back and play dead at the mention of Clay's name. The only person connected with the fight who was seldom quoted was the promoter, Harry Levene, and there was a good reason for that. Levene charges a fee to be interviewed—which makes him unique among promoters.

By the morning of the fight there was a tolerable amount of suspense built up. The odds were 16 to 1 against Cooper winning on points, and only 7 to 1 that Clay would win by a knockout between the third and seventh rounds. But when the fighters went to the Odeon Theater at Leicester Square for the weigh-in, several thousand people gathered at the doors and the bobbies had to block off the area. Cooper, a pleasant man who is a partner in three greengrocer shops, was first to part the red-and-gold curtain and walk onto the stage, accompanied by his twin brother, Jim, who occasionally acts as a decoy to lure the crowds away while Henry escapes through another door. The sight of Cooper at the weigh-in made you feel sympathetic toward him. He was wearing a dress shirt, a raincoat, black street shoes and socks with his bare legs showing beneath the coat, like a man surprised by a police raid, or, as one British writer said, "as if he were off for an uncertain day at the seashore."

Cooper came in at 188 pounds, lighter than expected and then Clay appeared in a white robe to weigh in at an astonishing 201½ pounds, 13 pounds less than for his last fight with George Chuvalo. The two posed for pictures in front of crossed flags of Britain and the United States and spoke modestly for television on a program that starred former British Heavyweight Tommy Farr, who advised his interviewer that, far from wanting to get into the ring with Clay, "it makes me bloody nose bleed to think of it." About all Clay could muster was, "If Allah is willing, I'll be the victor," and suddenly there was the feeling that Clay might be considering Cooper somewhat more seriously than he had Chuvalo or Floyd Patterson.

The Arsenal football ground, a soccer stadium, is out in a London suburb, set in among row houses and apartment buildings occupied by people who are obviously not wealthy. But one great thing London has over most big cities of the world is greenery, and in the neighborhood around Arsenal are trees and little patches of grass, where in a similar neighborhood in New York City there would be concrete and garbage. In the late dusk 40,000 people came pouring into the stadium, and many of them marched straight to the bars. While the preliminary fighters went through their business—Clay's sparring partner, Jimmy Ellis, won impressively on a first-round knockout and caused Astaire to begin casting about for volunteers in the event he had to put an extra fight on the card to occupy the time—the stands filled up with people singing football songs and chanting, " 'Enry! 'Enry! 'Enry!"

The new ring, with its blue ropes and red bunting, was slippery and several prelim fighters fell down, adding more speculation as to what might happen to Clay's speed under those conditions. When Cooper came out shortly after 10 p.m., he was wearing plastic bags over his boxing shoes and striding along behind a man carrying the Union Jack. He looked very calm as the cheers went up.

Clay came down the aisle behind the United States flag and seemed pensive as he climbed into the ring. There is a nice elegance to the British fight ritual. "My lords, ladies and gentlemen," said the ring announcer, "we now have 15 rounds of boxing for the heavyweight championship of the world." The referee, George Smith, a 54-year-old Scot, entered the ring wearing black tuxedo pants, a white shirt with studs and a black bow tie. Clay said a prayer, the bell rang, and Cooper came at him.

Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, expected the champion to begin his fight early. But Clay evidently had forgotten his bang, bang, bang, ding, ding, dinging. Moving to the left away from Cooper's left hook, he nevertheless caught a hard hook to the ribs.

Clay seemed determined not to open up on Cooper's brows but did land a good combination. In the first clinch Cooper held and hit—one of his favorite tactics—and then hit on the break. Clay looked surprised. In Britain the rule is that the referee should not touch the fighters if he can avoid it but break them by command. Clay was expecting the referee to come between them. Instead, as Clay stepped back he caught another left hook. But in the second round Clay was wrestling and holding in the clinches and then leaping back very fast on the break. Smith warned Clay, but the holding was not his fault. He was trying to protect himself until he could break clean.

In the third round the crowd booed Clay for wrestling and Clay protested to the referee that Cooper was causing it. Clay, using his two-inch advantage in reach, was scoring with his left hand, but the fight was even at the end of the third. Cooper was not cut and Clay looked to be in for his hardest fight since becoming champion. In the fourth round Cooper's elbow got into Clay's face in the clinches, and Clay protested to the referee about a low punch. When Smith was unimpressed, Clay increased his pace, put across a combination and two good lefts and won the round. The fifth round was even.

In the sixth it happened. After Cooper connected with two lefts, Clay followed him into a corner, missed with a left hook, then slipped, lunged forward and clubbed a short, chopping right hand onto Cooper's left brow.

The blood shot out at once. Cooper did not merely bleed, he gushed. The cut opened above and slightly to the side of the brow, near the small artery at the temple, and both fighters were immediately splashed with blood.

Clay looked stricken. Assuming the fight would be stopped, he began to retreat. But Smith had been warned not to intervene too quickly. Realizing he had very little time left in the ring, Cooper chased Clay frantically, swinging wild hooks, with the blood pouring into his eyes. At ringside Jarvis Astaire was yelling, "Stop the fight!" a shout that was rapidly taken up. To defend himself against the charging Cooper, Clay fired a few more punches, and the blood splattered onto ringside, but Clay had no stomach for what he was doing. Smith finally stopped the fight at 1:38 of the sixth round. Cooper had proved his courage and had fought very well. Predictably, however, his brows had done him in.

As if from the smell of blood, the ring became chaotic. Photographers and television interviewers swarmed through the ropes. From back on the grass and up in the stands came a dozen or more drunken young toughs. While the bobbies stood with their arms folded, the toughs clambered over the press rows and a few climbed onto the ring apron. One ginger-haired fellow was shouting, "Black nigger," and "Dirty Yanks" and "Kill the nigger."

His friends echoed him, but the ginger-haired fellow showed a serious lack of intelligence by doing his shouting near Cleveland Brown Fullback Jim Brown, who is in London for an acting role in a movie called The Dirty Dozen, and Brown's white friend and fellow actor, Bob Phillips, a former professional football player. Phillips promptly knocked down the ginger-hair, saving Brown the trouble and possibly preventing a full riot, as by then more white toughs had converged and Negroes were climbing over the seats to get to the scene. There were a few more scattered blows in the general milling and more shouts of, "Kill the nigger," and "Dirty Yanks," and someone tried to rap Clay on the head with a cane as he left the ring, but the bobbies woke up somewhat and got the champion out safely.

"Those people must have been trying to pat me on the head to congratulate me," Clay said. "At least I'm not hurt, so I imagine that's what it was. I did hear a few remarks [as did the American TV audience while the ABC crew was trying to fight off some of the invaders. One ABC man suffered a broken finger, and several other pressmen were bruised or cut], and I understand there were two or three title fights outside the ring. But people here have been wonderful to me. A few sore losers can't poison it."

Cooper, who went into the hospital the next day and had 16 stitches taken in his brow, claimed the cut was opened by an accidental butting of heads.

Clay said it was a punch and challenged doubters to study the films. He complained about the referee and dirty fighting in general and admitted his regret at the way the fight ended.

"Blood scares me," he said. "I was more desperate than anyone else when I saw Cooper bleeding so badly. Being a Muslim and religious, I don't have the inner feelings to beat a man when he's hurt. I didn't want that cut no worser." Clay, of course, did not want that cut at all.

PHOTOTaking a fast stand, a desperate, bleeding Cooper waits warily as the circling Clay, thoroughly in command, moves into position for the kill PHOTOAs bobbies look on placidly, Negro-baiting toughs at ringside stir minor riot after the fight. PHOTOUnmarked and unconcerned after successfully defending title, Clay eats chicken à la Henry VIII.