Boxing: Muhammed Ali leads tributes to Henry Cooper

Henry Cooper.
Henry Cooper.
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Legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali led the tributes to his “old friend” Sir Henry Cooper, who died on Sunday, describing him as “a great fighter and a gentleman”.

Cooper passed away at his son’s house at Oxted in Surrey just two days before his 77th birthday.

Arguably Cooper’s most famous fight was a non-title contest against Ali in London in 1963, when he knocked down the man then known as Cassius Clay in the fourth round with a terrific left hook, only for the bout to be stopped a round later because of cuts around Cooper’s eyes.

The two men fought again three years later, with Ali again victorious, and shared a mutual affection and respect for one another.

Three-time world heavyweight champion Ali said in a statement: “I am at a loss for words over the death of my friend, Henry Cooper. I was not aware he was ill.

“I visited with him two summers ago during a brief visit to Windsor as part of the Equestrian Games being held there. He was in good humour and looked quite fit.

“Henry always had a smile for me; a warm and embracing smile. It was always a pleasure being in Henry’s company. I will miss my old friend. He was a great fighter and a gentleman. My family and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family and loved ones.”

Current WBA world heavyweight champion David Haye insisted former British, European and Commonwealth champion Cooper had been a hugely positive influence on his own career.

Haye said: “He was at all the charity dinners and what-not and we’d talk to each other and he’d give me advice and wish me luck, give me his opinion on what he thought I should do and it was always sound advice.

“He’d let you know his opinion - whether you wanted to hear it or not! - and I believe the advice he’s given me over the years is working out because I’m now the heavyweight champion of the world.

“My parents were big fans, I used to watch his fights and the left hook that he hit Ali with, I’ve never seen a left hook thrown as punch-perfectly as that.

“That one shot forever will be remembered in British boxing, and world boxing, history. Muhammad Ali is known as the greatest ever boxer, I think that’s universally acknowledged, and Henry Cooper put him down very badly while he was young, fresh and at his peak.”

WBA light-welterweight champion Amir Khan remembers Cooper, who was knighted in 2000, as someone far removed from the needle which marks the build-up to so many modern fights - with Haye’s upcoming showdown with Wladimir Klitschko a case in point.

“Nowadays you get a lot of trash talking,” said Khan.

“But Henry was known for one thing, and that was when he was inside the ring he was like an animal, but when he was outside the ring he had a lot of respect for his opponents and for his fans.

“In the British boxing hall of fame I’d put him in the top three. Lennox Lewis was one who was great, Sir Henry Cooper was another who was amazing at what he did.”

Former undisputed world heavyweight champion Lewis, for his part, wrote on Twitter: “R.I.P. Sir Henry Cooper. Former British, Commonwealth and European Champion. My deepest condolences to the Cooper family.”

Veteran fight promoter Barry Hearn said of the Ali knockdown: “That night has lived on and been shown so many times. In a perverse way he probably became more famous by losing that fight than winning it. Had he won, the Clay story may not have happened.”

He added on 5 Live: “Henry was one of us, he was one of the people. He wasn’t a stand-offish superstar in his Ferrari, he’d play golf and tell you stories and he had a great sense of humour.

“He realised he wasn’t the greatest heavyweight champion in the world but he delivered one of the most famous punches in boxing history.”

Cooper was involved in 55 professional fights from 1954 to 1971, before going on to be a popular and well-respected summariser on the sport he loved.

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