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Cooper Represented Far-off Time

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Boxing lost more than one of its finest, most gracious ambassadors when Sir Henry Cooper passed away. It lost another link to an era of which today's fight fans can only dream.

Cooper was little more than a fringe contender on the night he floored and almost beat Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium in June 1963, a life-changing victory denied by the cut of a glove.

This says much more about the strength of the heavyweight division at the time than it does about Cooper's credentials. Having established domestic dominance and beaten the likes of Roy Harris and Zora Folley, he had every right to share that ring.

It is a favourite pastime of fight fans to debate how old-time stars might have fared in the modern age. Domestic dominance surely would have been a given. A significant ranking would surely have gone hand in hand.

In that year of Cooper's brave challenge to Clay, the heavyweight division was bursting at the seams with talent. The brooding Sonny Liston was champion having hammered Floyd Patterson inside one round.

The Ring Magazine's rankings for that year read like a who's-who of early sixties superstars: Clay as leading contender, followed by Doug Jones, Ernie Terrell, Cleveland Williams, Folley and Eddie Machen.

Williams would retire with a reputation as one of the finest heavyweights never to have claimed the title, having been the victim of arguably Muhammad Ali's best ever performance in Houston in 1966.

Cooper rose to the top in one of the strongest domestic eras, overcoming rugged brawlers like Brian London, Joe Erskine and Dick Richardson: his gruelling 15-round win over London was, in fact, his comeback fight after Clay.

Consider and contrast the Ring Magazine's heavyweight ratings of today. Beyond the Klitschko brothers and David Haye, the division flatlines into the kind of mediocrity all those stars of yesteryear would have feasted upon.

Ranked four, Poland's former light-heavyweight champion Tomasz Adamek, fresh off a one-sided but utterly uninspiring win over Kevin McBride - still trading off his good fortune when Mike Tyson decided to take a seat.

Behind him, the unbeaten but uninspiring Alexander Povetkin; the permanently ailing Ruslan Chagaev, (not so) 'Fast' Eddie Chambers, and Alexander Dimitrenko, of whom all the usual jokes about barely being known in your own household apply.

They are a standard of heavyweight fighter whom even the notorious 'Lost Generation' of early eighties crooks and coke-heads would barely have given so much as a look-in.

Cooper would have been forgiven for casting his experienced eye over the current list of also-rans and wondering how much greater his public affection might have been had he had the fortune to choose this generation for his fighting prime.

Of course, Cooper was not that kind of man. He respected every fighter who ever clambered into the ring and bore no grudges against them - even when the cut glove incident gave him much more cause to complain than most.

That jovial, accommodating attitude is what made Cooper so special, and what maintained his profile long after many of those old domestic rivals of his had retired deep into anonymity.

There is a tendency when nice blokes pass on to inflate their fighting credentials and in Cooper's case to claim that but for the glove incident he may well have gone on to win a world title.

In all honesty, he probably wouldn't have. Clay would have beaten him in a faster rematch. But that is no slight against a fighter who made the most of his talent and served his sport with pride and dignity.

His career provides a salutary lesson for the so-called stars of today. Haye for one could learn from his humility. The others can thank their lucky stars they weren't around to taste the might of 'Enry's 'Ammer.'

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