In 1974, aged seven, I had my hair ruffled by the hand that punched Muhammad Ali to the ground. The owner of the hand towered above me. He was a jovial giant called Henry Cooper. His face bore the scars of more than 50 hard-fought bouts in the ring.
An anti-boxing campaigner, Baroness Summerskill, famously surveyed those pugilized features and asked: “Mr. Cooper, have you looked in the mirror lately and seen the state of your nose?”
“Boxing’s my excuse,” replied ’Enry in his broad cockney accent. “What’s yours?”
Standing there all those years ago, I was basking in the reflected aura of “The Greatest” — Muhammad Ali. Henry Cooper was someone who had gone toe to toe with the most famous boxer of all time, and almost won. In 1963, Cooper and Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) fought a blistering bout in London.
At the end of the fourth round, Cooper unleashed a left hook that knocked Ali off his feet. Ali was saved by the bell. He staggered to his corner, where his trainer, Angelo Dundee, is alleged to have tampered with Ali’s glove in order to buy more recovery time. In the next round, Cooper’s face started to bleed — a tendency to cut was his biggest weakness — and the fight was stopped. The contest is immortalized by an iconic photograph of Ali lying dazed against the ropes with Cooper standing above him.
Boxing makes its own mythology. At the same time that I was meeting Henry Cooper in Kenya, my childhood home, Muhammad Ali was preparing for the fight of his life on the other side of the African continent in Zaire. In what became known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali endured a battering from George Foreman before felling his opponent with a sudden blizzard of punches. It ranks as one of the all-time great moments in the history of world sport.
I celebrated that electrifying turnaround, and continued to idolize Ali. But now, looking back, the Rumble in the Jungle is also indicative of the tawdry side of boxing. The fight was promoted by ex-con Don King, and was funded to the tune of $10 million by Zaire’s tyrannical dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The long-term physical cost of Ali’s celebrated “rope-a-dope” tactics (in which he stood against the ropes and absorbed every punch that Foreman threw at him) is plain to see. Suffering from a form of Parkinson’s Disease caused by his career in the ring, Ali is now a shadow of his former self.
Boxing ought to be one of the purest of sports: two men, evenly matched, fighting honestly until the victor prevails. In reality, modern professional boxing has degenerated into a politicized quagmire of rival governing bodies (dozens of organizations claim ownership of the sport), cynically marketed fights in which the box-office value of the fighters is more important than their sporting prowess, and the stench of corruption.
Added to that, there is the alarming statistic that three-quarters of professional boxers who have had 20 or more fights end up with permanent brain damage.
Should boxing be banned? It’s probably only a matter of time. Already there are signs that the sport is in decline. There was a time when everyone could name the reigning heavyweight world champion. Can you name him now? (It’s a trick question. Thanks to the abundance of governing bodies, there are at least four: two Russians, a Ukrainian and an Uzbek).
“What do you want to be when you grow up, son?” Henry Cooper asked me.
“A boxer or a writer,” I told him.
“Stick to writing,” he advised.
It’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given.
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