Sixty years ago today in London, England, a fight took place that grew and grew mythologically, with each passing year adding more and more willing believers of the myth. The myth – that the beloved Henry Cooper was unfairly denied his chance to go for the knockout against the big mouth Cassius Clay because Clay’s trainer/cornerman, the wise Angelo Dundee, had torn a hole in his fighter’s glove and a delay came as the damaged glove was replaced – was eaten up by the British public for decades.
Cooper, badly bleeding, had sensationally decked the unbeaten heavyweight contender, this in round four, just before the bell came to end the round. Clay was seriously hurt. The 21 year old “Louisville Lip” staggered back to his corner, regaining his feet a couple of seconds after sitting down, with Dundee shoving him back down onto his stool, with Angie then breaking open some smelling salts (this being illegal) and forcing them under the nose of his stricken charge.
Clay actually appears to come to his senses in the black and white footage of the fight that has been examined again and again so many times. And then Dundee calls over the referee, Tommy Little, informing the third man of a tear in his fighter’s right glove. When informed that there were no replacement gloves available, Dundee said, ‘Okay, we’ll use these.’ (later, as a result of the Clay-Cooper fight, a mandate was passed that ensured a spare pair of gloves was always present at ringside).
Clay then came out for round five and proceeded to make good on his prediction of stopping “Bum Cooper” in five. The extra time Clay got due to the glove issue? Three, maybe four seconds. And far from causing the tear in the glove, Dundee merely made an already slightly torn glove worse and brought it to the attention of the referee. Yet over the years, thanks in large part to national treasure Cooper himself, the extra time Clay got grew to anywhere from a full minute to two minutes, to even longer. While plenty of people were adamant Dundee damaged a perfectly fine glove.
“Our Enry,” one of the most popular sportsmen in Britain, would appear on TV shows many times over the coming years, talking about the fight. Cooper would recount how, as a fighter he instinctively knew how much time had elapsed in a round or during the break between rounds. Cooper said on at least one occasion how, as he was sat in the corner after flattening the cocksure American, he was thinking to himself, ‘Is he coming out, is he not coming out?’ Yet only something like three or four extra seconds went by. Cooper, a great person and a great fighter, possibly said what he said so many times he ended up believing it himself. Certainly, no TV interviewer ever pulled Henry up on the subject or questioned the actual length of the delay.
People love a great story, we know that. And the fact that Cooper, at the time of his close brush with glory, was facing a not yet popular fighter, in fact a fighter many proud Brits could not stand – Clay still some years away from becoming the legendary Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest” celebrated, loved and admired all over the world – added to the misguided sense of injustice Cooper’s many fans had. The fighter Cooper faced on June 18th of 1963 was everything the average Brit could not stand: mouthy, arrogant and loud. And Clay came out with some pretty derogatory lines upon touching down in merry old England, such as, “You got a Queen but you ain’t got a King. I am King!” And “If this bum Cooper goes past five rounds, I won’t return to the Unites States for 30 days.”
Also, going into the fight, Clay had made a prediction of getting a win inside five, with him adding how “it ain’t no jive” for good measure. Clay had failed to get his prediction right in his previous fight, this a tough one with Doug Jones. The fight began well for 29 year old Cooper, with the big left-hooker bloodying Clay’s nose in the opening round and also winning the second. But Cooper’s bugbear, that of suffering cuts in almost all of his fights, served to haunt him in the third, and Clay began taunting his bleeding foe, even playing with him. Was Clay “carrying” Cooper, intending to then go for the finish he was sure he would get in the fifth, this his prediction round?
Whatever the case, Cooper made Clay pay for his lack of respect, his sizzling left hook, dubbed “Enry’s ‘Ammer” landing flush and knocking Clay down hard, the ropes breaking the visiting fighter’s fall. And there is little doubt heavyweight history would have been changed had Cooper scored his knockdown a good deal earlier in the round. Clay came back with fury in the fifth round, with him opening up with real intent as he landed swift combinations on Cooper’s bloodied face. The blood was now pouring down Cooper’s face, onto his chest and shorts. The fight had to be stopped and it was stopped.
But the myth of the extra seconds (or minutes) given to Clay, the delay robbing Cooper of an all but guaranteed KO win, was born. Yet it is just that, a myth. One British boxing fans believed for decades, only silently abandoning it all these years later.