Heavyweight London-born boxing legend Sir Henry Cooper died this weekend aged 76. Most famous perhaps for flooring boxing legend Cassius Clay in 1963, Sir Henry was a British, Commonwealth and European champion who fought 55 times, won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award twice, and was knighted in 2000.
As an amateur, Sir Henry won 73 of his 84 bouts and represented Great Britain at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. He then began a two-year stint of National Service in the Army.
When the On Her Majesty’s Service buff envelope dropped through the letterbox, twins Henry and George Cooper knew instantly that like thousands of other lads it contained their call-up for National Service:
Well in them days, you knew you had to do it.
Henry’s father fought in the First World War as a boy soldier and again in the Second World War in the medical corps while his elder brother served in the artillery.
Like any national serviceman good at sport, the Cooper brothers had their pick of the regiments, all tantalised by the prospect of recruiting a budding boxing champion. (Ironically, George not Henry caught the eye of the Scots Guards).
And as familiar faces on the boxing circuit, the brothers regularly fought for money in London, where they met Captain Eastlake who ran the boxing team of 4 Battalion, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, known as the ‘Boxers’ Battalion’. Henry recalled being told:
‘Oh, you don’t want to go in the Guards. You’ll have to do all that square-bashing and all that guard duty’, adding, ‘but if you come with us, you’ll get time off for training’.
In return, there were perks like better rations and the odd lie-in. The Forces always kept twins together and the Cooper brothers were no exception.
Recalling his first day, Henry said:
Well, it’s all a bit nerve-wracking because we didn’t know what to expect. We went to Blackdown where we did our basic training. We had to have medicals, strip off in front of doctors, put our arms up and they stuck a needle, one in our shoulder, one in our arm, and we wondered what was going on.
They were hard on you in those days. Thank God we were a little bit better than a lot of the ordinary guys. We were very fit because we’d been training as amateur boxers so the physical fitness side didn’t bother us at all.
Boxing gave them other advantages by all accounts apart from pin-sharp reflexes. Or as Henry put it:
When learning to march, we didn’t have two left feet, so that helped.
Henry said that his precocious sporting talent got him noticed in the most unexpected way, at just 16 years old, when he knocked out his future Company Sergeant Major (CSM), Kavanagh:
I didn’t realise he was the CSM and he could have made our lives a misery. But, thank God, he was a lovely guy. He was very good to us. We all had to be on parade at the same time at seven o’clock and he said ‘boxers fall out and go to the gym’. “We used to go up to the cookhouse and sometimes we cooked our own breakfast - eggs, bacon, sausage; I could have a good fry-up and then worry about training.
There’s no doubt that his dedication paid dividends: Henry was crowned Army Boxing Association champion two years’ running and soon added the Imperial Services Boxing Association title.
Nevertheless, like most servicemen, Army life had its ups and downs, particularly during basic training:
Polishing boots was just boring!
Henry rattled off the normal horror stories - non-stop pressing of uniform, squaring blankets, rising at dawn and spit polishing boots until they shone like mirrors.
By contrast, he got most pleasure when Captain Eastlake organised a weekly bus to take his boxers to London to compete in amateur shows:
We used to come up on the coach and we had all our filthy songs with filthy language that I couldn’t repeat. We used to sing certain songs all in a certain sequence. That was our lucky omen and we didn’t care who we had on board.
Sometimes, colonels and brigadiers would come with us and we’d still sing the songs. They looked shocked but they just accepted it because it was what we did.
Asked what memories he treasured most from those innocent days, Henry cited the camaraderie that comes from living cheek-by-jowl in a room full of boisterous boxers.
After the Army, Henry and George returned to their pre-war trade of plastering, until, by his own admission, Henry started earning ‘biggish money’ in the boxing game.
Henry was more than happy with what he achieved in his glittering career and even at 70 recalled:
When I was a snotty-nosed kid, my mum used to take us up to Buckingham Palace and we used to see the guards outside. In those days, you could march up and down with them. I never, ever dreamt that I’d go there and now I’ve been to Buckingham Palace on 20 different occasions,” he said proudly.
Ambitious Henry was resolutely determined to make it big in boxing. But he was quick to credit the Army with guiding him on his way:
If you’ve been in the Army, you’re very proud of the Army. When you live in a room with 20 other guys the Army teaches you to live and get on with people. Then you build up camaraderie because in the Army you rely on the man next to you if you’re in a war situation.
We could have gone to Mau Mau in Kenya but we didn’t want any of that. We didn’t want to fight wars. We only wanted to fight guys in the ring.