On this date 52 years ago, in 1963, one of the most legendary careers in boxing history almost hit an early derailment, when Henry Cooper very nearly knocked out Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassisus Clay) at Wembley Stadium in London. This was Ali’s final fight before winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston. While a knockout loss against Cooper would not have ended Ali’s promising career, it would likely have slowed his march toward Liston and no doubt have damaged his supreme confidence.
Cooper was an undersized heavyweight, tipping in at only about 190 pounds. But there was nothing small about his left hook. He was naturally left handed, but fought in the traditional orthodox stance, making his lead hook truly his power hand. It was such a big punch that it had its own nickname, ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer. .
He connected with it in the closing seconds of Round 4 against Ali, sending him crashing to the canvas. While Ali beat the count, he was clearly out on his feet and was helped back to his stool by trainer Angelo Dundee, a violation of the rules. Dundee also gave Ali smelling salts, a violation of British boxing rules, and later admitted he made a deliberate tear on Ali’s glove to buy more time. There is enduring debate over how much recovery time Ali got from the ruse. Films of the fight make it appear only a matter of 10 seconds or so, while Dundee wrapped tape around the tear.
Cooper started Round 5 aggressively, looking to press his advantage, but Ali had recovered. He countered Cooper with a punch that opened a deep cut under his eye. With Cooper bleeding profusely, the referee was forced to halt the action and declare Ali the winner by TKO. Ali would win a rematch in 1966 by knockout.
A multiple time British Commonwealth and European Heavyweight Champion, Cooper is one of the most beloved figures in British boxing history. He was a media figure in retirement and active for many charities. Despite a long career and numerous knockout losses, he retained good health and an alert mind throughout his long life. He was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1969 and made a full Knight in 2000. A converted Catholic, he was also made a Papal Knight in 1978.