Clay v Cooper: The Night Britain Fell In Love With Muhammad Ali

Cassius Clay came to Britain an enemy, threatening to overthrow the nation's hero in Henry Cooper, but left with a mutual respect that remains to this day.
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In 1974 the BBC broadcasted live boxing from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tens of millions of people tuned in to watch the Rumble in the Jungle as Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a career defining win, much to the delight of the viewers. But why did the British public love Muhammad Ali so much; when did the love affair begin?

Born in 1942 in Louisville, Muhammad Ali came to be one of the most recognisable faces of the 20th century. He combined a self-assured resilience with unparalleled boxing ability, elevating him to the height of fame in the 1960s. No one, not even Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt, has altered a sport in the way Ali did.

Of course, his first escapade to Britain nearly turned all of his dreams into dust. Ali, an Olympic Gold medallist going by his “slave” name of Cassius Clay, was only a raw talent when he came over to fight at the old Wembley Stadium in June 1963. Despite this, he was still widely expected to be too fast, too powerful and too slick for Britain’s Henry Cooper. Ali, knowing that he was on the edge of glory, was eager to announce himself in Britain with a destructive victory that would drive him towards a once in a life time opportunity to fight for the coveted Heavyweight Championship of the World. Cooper, a hugely adored figure across the whole of Great Britain, was on the opposite side of the spectrum.

If Ali was a cheetah, Cooper was a bear: the young American’s speed and talent were matched by Brit’s heart and fearlessness. It was this demeanour that conclusively gave Cooper the edge over lesser opponents. However, none of them were comparable to Ali and few experts believed Cooper’s jagged ring-work would be sufficient to cope with the masterful technical skills of Ali. Cooper had already lost a grand total of seven times in his career whereas Ali was unbeaten. Cooper was determined though, clinging onto the opportunity to propel himself towards stardom outside of his homeland, while his opponent seemed to use the trip as a promotional stunt.

Effectively embarking on a one man tour across London, Ali sparked endless controversy before the aforementioned fight. To the untrained eye, he was rude, foolish, loud and infuriating. However, the merciless comments about Britain and his opponent were all part of a standard, well-practiced routine for Ali; his showboating, backed up by unquestionable confidence, enraged the average fan. This was new for the British public who duly expected foreign visitors to respect the country. Ali broke the norm. He created an opinion to antagonise Cooper, and the general public, to etch himself into their memory. Did he believe it when he said “the cars are too small, the streets are too narrow and I haven’t seen as many pretty girls as I do at home”? Did he mean it when he brutally prophesised a “total elimination” and christened Cooper a “bum”? No. Ali, however, provoked a reaction.

It’s difficult to describe the man using only my words, you could spend days trying to find the way to perfectly portray how he managed to stay arrogant yet seem humble, how he managed to inspire a generation while, at times, appearing to being no more than an outspoken man from Kentucky. The poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling includes a poignant and a rather relevant line: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch… then you will be a man, my son”.

If anyone achieved this, it was Ali. Hearsay at the time had stated that Ali had formed high-profile friendships with the thought-provoking leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and the provocative Civil Rights leader, Malcolm X. Regardless, Ali spoke to everyone. From members of the press to homeless men in the street, from groups of innocent children to ageing pensioners, he spoke to anyone who would listen to him. Normally, it could be perceived as an endearing quality but the British public didn’t endear to him straight away. How could they consider warming to a man who had promised to violently overthrow their hero?

Cooper's pre match evaluation of how Britain had taken to Muhammad Ali claimed, in true British fashion, that “everyone in Britain hates his bloody guts” and he wasn’t wrong. Ali was booed into the weigh-in, booed into the stadium and booed into the ring. But Ali’s talk played on the mind, it was relentless. The British public had been informed by Ali that Cooper would be brutally destroyed and knocked out in the fifth round and normally, this wouldn’t be too hard to shake off as naïve pre-fight confidence. Ali, however, said it with such remarkable confidence that even the British public believed him. It was a tactic that he used time and time again. Ali once famously said: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock them out, I pick the round”.

As the fight began, it was hard to argue with him. His speed was frightening. He was everywhere in the ring, throwing every kind of punch from several different angles. It looked implausibly easy for Ali and Cooper was crumbling.

Most reporters, pundits and fans passed off Ali’s speed as a natural talent that he was blessed to have been born with. But, in truth, it was a hard-earned skill that he’d spent years perfecting. As a youngster he used to beg his brother Rahman to throw rocks at him in an outlandish attempt to improve his agility. The results were evident. Ali moved with the grace of a gazelle and punched as if he was a tiger pouncing on its unassuming prey. Ali owned the ring and Cooper had little reply in the opening rounds. Most experts at ringside wondered how Cooper could catch this gazelle in the ring when he couldn’t even see him. But it was the fourth round when Cooper would land what would become the most famous punch in British boxing history.

It was towards the end of the round when it happened, when Cooper dared to change history. Ali was against the ropes; taunting Cooper and in the process, leaving himself open. Cooper, combining speed and power, connected with a monstrous left hook, flinging Ali back into the ropes and consequently, onto the canvas. Cooper thought that was it, the whole stadium thought that was it. Cooper had seemingly knocked out Cassius Clay in a huge upset.

Then, for Henry Cooper, disaster struck. Disaster in the form of a loud, piercing, irritating ringing noise. A ringing noise that, for Muhammad Ali, seemed as if it was sent from God. It was quite a cliché. Ali was saved by the bell.

Lumped on a stool in his corner with his face no longer looking as pretty as it did just moments earlier, Ali looked as if the world was literally spinning around him while Angelo Dundee, his trainer, bellowed a mix of instructions and criticism at him. The 35,000 in attendance at Wembley, the millions watching the fight, the boxing writers, the trainers, Henry Cooper and even Muhammad Ali himself all collectively pondered over the same question: was the minute long break between rounds enough for Ali to recover? It was question that was never answered.

Angelo Dundee was smart. Many claimed that in the interval Dundee illegally gave Ali smelling salts to revitalise him but while this allegation has never been proved true or false, a separate allegation was found to be true. Dundee had spotted a small tear in one of Ali’s boxing gloves and with nimble fingertips, widened it. The now sizeable cut in Ali’s gloves bought him preciously needed time as the problem was dealt with and Ali was given an extra ten seconds to recover.

Ten seconds, to the average person, is nothing. Conversely, ten seconds, to a hundred metre sprinter, is everything. To a dazed boxer who happens to be one fight away from a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship, it’s even more. The ten seconds granted Ali the extra time he desperately needed. Those additional ten seconds rejuvenated Ali, who came out firing in the fifth round.

Cooper had become impatient; practically chomping at the bit for the start of the fifth round, coming towards Ali in search of the knockout. Cooper had dreamt of this moment, he saw his name up in lights as he walked towards Ali, planning on silencing the youngster. It would push Cooper to a world title fight; it would turn him from a British hero to a global star. Cooper went out swinging.

Ali, though, was too elusive for Cooper’s punches, too shrewd to be caught by another left hook. Ali started to hit Cooper at will, just as he had done in the opening rounds and a cut started to form on Cooper’s face. Throughout Henry Cooper’s career, his nemesis wasn’t in the form of a boxer but in the form of his skin. For reasons unknown, Cooper bled easily; he couldn’t stop cuts from forming when subjected to heavy punishment from other boxers. Cooper’s face was slowly transformed into a crimson mess and the referee couldn’t let Cooper continue. The referee jumped in, stopping the fight at the end of the fifth round.

The deafening boos aimed at Ali died down, some turned to applause. Ali, despite a monumental wobble, had backed up his pre-fight talk. His predicted fifth round knockout came true; his display in the ring was, at times, majestic. His comeback after the knockdown highlighting his heart, proving that there was more to him than his flashy persona on display. 

If Ali had incensed Britain with his smug pre-fight comments then he seduced them with his humble post-fight behaviour. Ali claimed that Cooper was “the best fighter I’ve ever met” and quipped that Cooper hit him so hard that “my ancestors in Africa felt it”. Visiting Cooper in his dressing room after the fight, he apologised for spilling blood and winning in a brutal manner. It was a far cry from the Ali that predicted a “total elimination”. Whether Cooper humbled him or whether his respect for Cooper was lost in his pre-fight antics, Ali made it clear to the press and the British public just how highly he thought of Henry Cooper.

Cooper, unquestionably, did Britain proud against the man who would later become known as ‘The Greatest of All Time’. Had Cooper have knocked Ali down fifteen seconds earlier then Ali may have never won the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Ali may not have fought Liston, Fraizer or Foreman. Ali may have fizzled into obscurity as a nearly man, just one of the thousands that had fallen at the final hurdle. But he didn’t. Ali left the ring victorious, on his first trip to Britain, and sparked a mutual love affair with the nation.

He would fight twice more in the UK, including a one-sided rematch with Henry Cooper three years later for Ali’s World Heavyweight Championship. But for Ali, this was the start of a love affair. He has visited countless times since simply for pleasure. His interviews with David Frost and Michael Parkinson are some of the most fascinating pieces of journalism ever to grace British television screens and when Ali was awarded the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, he flew over to personally accept the award. When exiled and subsequently stripped of the World Heavyweight Championship for refusing to be drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam, the British Boxing Board continued to support him and continued to recognise him as the World Champion. He fell in love with Britain and the British public, just as we did with him.

Ali visited Britain in 2009, a visit that, due to a personal request, included spending time with Sir Henry Cooper, who was knighted in 2000. Ali’s last visit was for the 2012 Olympics in which the 80,000 Britons graced ‘The Greatest’ with a unanimous standing applause. Ali, a Parkinson’s sufferer for three decades now, could no longer display his scintillating wit and no longer walked the earth with an aura of self-assurance but Britain won’t forget the charismatic showman that turned boos into cheers at Wembley in June of 1963. Britain won’t forget Muhammad Ali and I imagine he won’t forget us either.