Childhood & Early Life
Henry Cooper was born on May 3, 1934, in Lambeth, London, England, to Lily and Henry Cooper. He had a twin brother named George. The twins had another elder brother named Bern. The family lived on Farmstead Road in South East London.
His was a middle-class family. His half-Irish grandfather was a horse trader, while his father had served in the ‘Royal Army’ and was also an amateur boxer who visited a local boxing club. During the war, in 1942, Henry’s father left his family to serve his country in Burma. Thus, Lily and her three sons were left to fend for themselves.
Henry and George attended the ‘Athelney Road School,’ when they lived in West Sussex. They had moved to the locality after being evacuated due to the war. Henry also did many odd jobs, such as delivering paper and chopping wood.
George stepped into boxing while he was still in school. One of his neighbors took Henry to a boxing club that he frequented, named the ‘Bellingham Boxing Club.’ Henry began his training there. He started playing amateur games and quickly mastered a few moves.
He joined the ‘Eltham Boxing Club.’ Of the 84 amateur games that he played there, he won 73. This also included two ‘ABA’ light-heavyweight championship titles.
He also joined the ‘Royal Army Ordnance Corps’ as a private, owing to his strong boxing skills. Following the completion of his ‘National Service,’ he turned to professional boxing.
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Both the twins George and Henry began boxing under the management of Jim Wicks. Henry was in his late teenage years when he entered the ring as a professional.
He represented his country in the 1952 ‘Olympic Games’ held in Helsinki. In 1954, he faced British boxer Harry Painter at the ‘Harringay Arena,’ London, in his debut boxing match. The game ran for only one round, as within the first few minutes, Henry delivered a knockout punch on his opponent. He faced three more opponents the same year and won all his matches.
The year 1955 was big for his professional career, as he reached unprecedented levels of fame after winning the first few games that year. He also lost two games, but he was already being hailed as a celebrity by then.
However, he made some mistakes quite early in his career, such as challenging title holders without gathering much experience in professional boxing. In February 1957, he challenged the ‘Commonwealth’ heavyweight title holder Joe Bygraves. Henry had defeated Joe in an early non-title match, but this time, he lost after Joe delivered a knockout punch.
In May 1957, he eyed the European heavyweight title and challenged the title-holder, Ingemar Johansson. He lost the game due to a knockout punch once again. A few months later, he lost another title shot, to Joe Erskine.
However, in January 1959, he was at the peak of his career and won the ‘Commonwealth’ and British heavyweight championships after defeating Brian London. The same year, he ended up defending his ‘Commonwealth’ heavyweight title against Gawie de Klerk. Later that year, he defended his title against former champion Joe Erskine.
In March 1961, he successfully defended his British and ‘Commonwealth’ heavyweight titles against Joe Erskine. In the early 1960s, he was successful in retaining his title against two challengers: Dick Richardson and Joe Erskine.
By then, Henry had made a name for himself as one of the top British boxers of his time. In February 1964, he cemented his place after defending his titles and snatching the European heavyweight title from Brian London.
In the mid-1960s, he continued to defend his title. However, by then, Muhammad Ali’s career was on the rise, and he was slowly making a name for himself as the best boxer in the world. Henry had two famous bouts with Muhammad Ali, one in 1963 and another in 1966.
During their 1963 contest, which was a non-title match, Henry strongly stood his ground against Muhammad. Although he lost the match, it saw him exhibit his immense prowess as a boxer. A strong punch from Ali hit him under his eye, and he began bleeding profusely. The fight had to be stopped, and Ali was declared the winner through a technical knockout.
Their second bout (in 1966) was for a title shot for the ‘WBA,’ the ‘WBC,’ ‘The Ring,’ and the lineal heavyweight titles. Muhammad Ali was more careful this time. However, the game ended in more or less the same way as the previous one. Henry sustained a cut under his eye, and Ali was declared the winner through a technical knockout.
Over the next few years, Henry successful defended his titles. However, he eventually lost them to Joe Bugner, in a game in March 1971. It was also the last game of Henry’s professional boxing career.
However, his last game was marred by controversies. The referee, Harry Gibbs, declared Joe the winner through “quarter of a point margin,” a rule that has now been abolished. This led Henry to lose the ‘Commonwealth,’ European, and British heavyweight titles. Henry did not speak to Gibbs for many years after the game.
Following his retirement from his boxing career, Henry appeared on the ‘BBC’ quiz show titled ‘A Question of Sport.’ He was also seen in many commercials. The British government also used his voice for many service announcements.
He won the ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’ award in both 1967 and 1970. He was also made an ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ and awarded the ‘Knighthood.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Henry Cooper married Albina Genepri in 1960. The couple remained married until her death in 2008. They had two sons, Henry and John.
Henry passed away on May 1, 2011, after a long illness. He was 76 years old at the time of his death.