Boxer Henry Cooper's mixed legacy

Boxers Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali talk as they are paraded during the European Jumping...

Boxers Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali talk as they are paraded during the European Jumping Championships in Windsor in this August 28, 2009 file photo. (REUTERS/Eddie Keogh)

Murray Greig, Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 4:07 AM ET

EDMONTON -  When Henry Cooper challenged Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight championship in 1966, it was a toss-up which would happen first: either Ali would run out of energy or Cooper would run out of blood.    

It was very nearly the latter.

    On that May night at the Arsenal football stadium in London, Ali -- who was famously floored by Cooper in their first fight three years earlier -- sliced and diced his way to a sanguinary sixth-round TKO.

    Four months later, "Hemoglobin Henry" was KO'd by Floyd Patterson, then reeled off seven wins before winding up his 40-14-1 career with a loss to Joe Bugner for the European and Commonwealth crowns in 1971.

    Cooper died on Sunday at age 76 -- just a couple of weeks shy of the 45th anniversary of his one and only shot at the biggest prize in sports.

    Long a favourite of the British press, he was twice voted the U.K.'s sports personality of the year and in 2000 he became the first boxer to be knighted -- but those accolades had more to do with his everyman personality and tireless charity work than for anything he accomplished with his fists.

    As London's Daily Telegraph opined this week: "Mr. Cooper's position in the heart of British sports fans was out of all proportion to his success in the ring."

    My sentiments exactly.

    When it came to risking the British Commonwealth title he finally won on his third try -- a 15-round decision over Brian London in 1959 -- Cooper left a lot to be desired.

    Over his 12 years as Commonwealth champ, he made 10 successful defences, including three against Welshman Joe Erskine and two against fellow Englishman Jack Bodell.

    But for 10 of those 12 years, Cooper was ranked below Canadian champion George Chuvalo in the Commonwealth ratings and only once -- in 1962 -- did he eclipse Chuvalo in the world ratings.

    Despite repeated challenges from Chuvalo's camp for the better part of a decade, Cooper steadfastly refused to fight him.

    "He's ugly ... a dirty roughhouser, like (Sonny) Liston," Cooper told British reporters after watching Chuvalo pulverize Jamaica's Joe Bygraves in 1965.

    Bygraves, a former Commonwealth champ, had KO'd Cooper in 1957.

    When Cooper's manager, Jim Wicks, was asked when his man would finally meet Chuvalo in the ring, Wicks replied: "He doesn't even care to meet him socially."

    Hardly the stuff of legend.

    Between 1963-71, while Chuvalo had two world title bouts (vs. Ernie Terrell in 1965 and Ali in '66) and squared off with fellow Top 10 contenders Patterson, Mike DeJohn, Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, Manuel Ramos, Buster Mathis, Jerry Quarry and George Foreman, Cooper was content to trade punches with powder-puffs like Hubert Hilton, Boston Jacobs and Chip Johnson -- who had a combined record of 29-14-3.

    Take away Sir 'Enry's two fights with Ali and the bouts with Patterson, Bugner and Karl Mildenberger, and the list of his post-1963 opponents reads like the roll call for Obscurity Anonymous.

    What then is Cooper's legacy?

    A good and decent man? Absolutely. A compassionate, caring human being? No question.

    A great champion?

    Not even by British heavyweight standards. Not when compared to the likes of Bob Fitzsimmons, Lennox Lewis, Tommy Farr and Len Harvey.


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