Henry Cooper dominated British boxing for a dozen years, although that alone scarcely explains his claim on his countrymen's affections. Athlete-of-the-year laurels are lavished on him without a thought for Tony Jacklin, the Queen talks boxing with him over lunch at Buckingham Palace and workingmen pay heed when he urges them through lucrative endorsements to drive Austin-Morris motorcars or make their nightly pints of bitter Tavern Keg. It happens that Cooper himself wheels about in a Mercedes and prefers Beaujolais to beer, but his admirers gladly overlook such lapses in product loyalty. It is enough that Our 'Enery, as they call him, is getting on in the world.
Cooper embodies those virtues that Englishmen consider peculiarly their own, which means he is modest to a fault, perennially chipper and fairly brimming with love of family and country. "The mums like me," Cooper says, offering his own explanation of the phenomenon. "I don't put on airs and graces." Almost inevitably, Cooper has become a television personality, starring on a weekly sports quiz show over BBC. His marvelous battle-hardened face seems ashen even in full color, yet there Cooper was on last week's program, peering into the camera through sunken eyes and neatly tossing off the right answer—Floyd Patterson—when asked which Olympic middleweight gold medalist went on to become world heavyweight champion.
The next evening Cooper faced a far tougher question: Could this durable heavyweight, now 36 and past his prime—a prime barren of the world title he coveted—hang onto his British, Commonwealth and European championships a little while longer? The answer came in a tense 15-rounder at Wembley's Empire Pool, where Cooper took on a one-time Hungarian who had baby-doll features but the suitably villainous name of Joe Bugner. The muscular Bugner had the advantage of nearly 16 years and 23 pounds, and if the drama was not quite of Frazier-Ali dimensions, it did have its own passion, much of it erupting when Referee Harry Gibbs, the sole judge, hoisted Bugner's hand in victory—he gave it to Bugner by just a quarter of a point, 73¾-73½—and then wisely made for safety behind a phalanx of uniformed police.
Styled by eager promoters as England's answer to George Foreman, more for his Adonis-like presence than for anything he has done inside the ropes, the brier-haired Bugner said bravely: "I thought I done enough to win." Most of the sellout crowd of 10,450 who cheered Cooper on with dirgeful chants of 'En-er-y, 'En-er-y would have queued up to argue otherwise, and that applies to 37,000 others who looked in from a dozen closed-circuit locations.
March 29, 1971
"Did Henry Cooper win or was he robbed?" London's Evening Standard wryly asked, summing up general bewilderment over Cooper's first loss to a Britisher in nearly 14 years and first to anybody since Patterson knocked him out in 1966. Cooper also questioned the decision, then reached one of his own. In his sweltering dressing room he told sympathizers, "Well, that's it, gentlemen. That's me last fight."
What made Cooper's retirement in defeat all the more poignant was that many of his partisans, anxious to spare him just such a fate, had been urging him to quit for months. Their concern was that he might have lost something in his once-feared left hook, a weapon known far and wide as " 'Enery's 'ammer," this presumably being more lyrical than simply " 'Enery's 'ook." It was Cooper's left hook that briefly floored Cassius Clay in 1963, a feat that three years later, after Clay had become both champion and Muhammad Ali, earned Cooper his only world title shot. As in their first meeting, Cooper was stopped on cuts.
Forced, like England herself, to scale down any lingering ambitions of world power, Cooper withdrew into his own insular reality, contenting himself with beating back all British and European challengers. As he purposefully prepared for the inexperienced Bugner at a gym next door to The Noble Art, an early Victorian pub in North London, the superbly conditioned Cooper had no reason to believe it would be any different this time, and he enjoyed support in the corner betting shop across the street, where wise men with grim faces said it was Cooper at 2 to 5.
If Cooper had any cause for worry, it was Bugner's sharp left jab, this because of 'Enery's tendency to bleed. His eyes are encrusted with scar tissue and he was rinsing his face three times daily with a solution that Jim Wicks, his 76-year-old manager, claimed to have brewed from exotic herbs. One London dermatologist dismissed the solution as "literal and metaphorical eyewash," but Wicks insisted, "I got the recipe from an old sailor. Sometimes you have to listen to old people."
Another reminder of Cooper's vulnerability to cuts came when he suffered a nick under his left eye in training. Interviewed on TV, he mischievously pointed to his right eye as the troublesome one, a ruse that later drew a sharp reaction from Bugner's manager, a diminutive Scotsman named Andy Smith. "They must think we're from the country," said Smith, a curious complaint since he and Bugner are from the country—specifically, from rural Huntingdonshire, where 7-year-old Joszef Bugner settled with his family following the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Joe became an English schoolboy discus champion, and soon after his 15th birthday he walked into Smith's gym in the cattle-marketing town of St. Ives.
"He wanted to learn," recalls Smith. "He's the most disciplined boy I've ever seen." Indeed, during his three-year professional career Bugner has sometimes seemed too disciplined—a cautious, hands-high boxer programmed by Smith to do little more than jab. Considering his heroic stature, 6'4" and 212 pounds, that style has struck detractors—he has heard catcalls at almost every fight—as a lamentable waste of brawn.
Among those who nonetheless harbored high hopes for Bugner was Promoter Harry Levene, who, along with Britain's closed-circuit impresario Jarvis Astaire, visited the challenger's gym one afternoon amid rows of look-alike houses on Lavender Hill in southwest London. Levene was paying Bugner about $48,000, compared with $120,000 for Cooper, but he and Astaire, reckoning that Bugner had his long-term value, were thinking on a scale that would have interested the Lavender Hill Mob itself.
"If Joe Bugner succeeds, we succeed," said Astaire. But his exuberance—he offered Bugner a $600,000 closed-circuit deal as an inducement to beat Cooper—was tempered by a warning to Joe: "Of course, if you beat a folk hero, you won't be too popular."
The match-up, then, was not just between youth and age, not merely a battle of left hands—'Enery's 'ammer and Joe's jab—but also emotional loyalty against pounds-and-pence realism. If it all ended in dispute, the fault rested with deviations from the two prepared scripts. Cooper landed an occasional left hook, but his steely young rival never reacted. Bugner's jabbing, meanwhile, quickly opened cuts around Cooper's eyes, but there was not sufficient bloodshed for the usual cries of "stop the fight," not even from those squeamish souls with a quid or two on Bugner.
No doubt Cooper was disappointed by his failure to destroy Bugner early, but instead of acting his age, he rallied amazingly, dominating the 11th through the 14th rounds with busy body punching and well-calculated swipes from outside. Bugner finally came to life again with an outburst in the 15th round that could almost, but not quite, be termed two-fisted.
That last round made the difference, for it turned out that the hardhearted Mr. Gibbs had the fight scored dead-even at the end of the 14th. After Gibbs raised Bugner's hand in victory and quickly retreated, a barrage of rolled-up programs, orange squash cartons and newly decimalized coin of the realm rained down on the ring leaving the new champion virtually alone, blowing kisses to the booing crowd.
Even allowing for sentiment, the verdict was questionable, one question being why the birthplace of parliamentary government entrusts such matters as a boxing decision to one arbiter. Another is whether the raw but willing Bugner, once he lives down his thankless victory, can ever live up to tomorrow's great expectations. In Henry Cooper, Bugner has a difficult act to follow. The Queen has already awarded Cooper the Order of the British Empire, and there was nothing in last week's defeat to alter a prediction that Wicks made one afternoon following a Cooper workout at the gym next to The Noble Art. "You know," Wicks said as he prepared to go home, perhaps to brew up another batch of eyewash, "I wouldn't be surprised if they make him Sir 'Enery Cooper one of these days."