Cooper captures the hearts of 
a nation before Clay recovers 
to rule the ring at Wembley

THURSDAY marks the 50th anniversary of Henry Cooper knocking down Cassius Clay in their famous heavyweight fight at Wembley Stadium where around 50,000 fight fans paid ticket prices ranging from 12s 6d to over £6 for the privilege.

Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, being knocked down by Henry Cooper. (Picture: PA Wire)

Here is the Press Association’s account of the encounter:

The gods of sport played cruelly with Henry Cooper, heavyweight champion of Britain and the Empire, at the Empire Stadium, Wembley.

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They taunted him and 50,000 chauvinistic spectators with the hope of victory for 12 minutes’ exciting boxing and then they turned down their thumbs.

Cooper, his face a mask of blood from an injury by his left eye, was sent to his corner after 1 min, 15 sec of the fifth round.

Cooper lost through injuries to his fragile eyebrows, as so many of us had expected, but before he left the ring, his head swathed in towels, he had given quite the best performance of his career and sent home many experienced American observers conscious that here was no hollow British champion and here was no invincible Cassius Clay.

Even many minutes after the gladiators had left the great oval, amid boos and cheers, we have to force ourselves to believe that we saw Clay flat on his broad back at the end of the fourth round, but to Cooper’s everlasting glory, it had happened. A perfectly timed left hook caught the American with his hands low once too often and Clay went stumbling back to the ropes. His back bounced on to the ropes and then he came down first on the seat of his trunks and then on his back with his head resting against the bottom rope.

The picture seemed framed for ever. There lay Clay and above him crouched the referee beginning to toll off the seconds. Cooper was in the background, eyes staring out from a face that was a mixture of white, taut skin and smears of blood. But it all turned to mirage as the timekeeper clanged the bell and Clay lumbered to his feet towards the shelter of his corner.

In cold fact, the referee had counted only one when the bell brought the end of the round. But the referee, Mr T Little, ignoring the wave of cheering that burst around the ring, rightly continued his count up to four before Clay was on his feet again. But however short this high point of excitement for Britain, there should be no doubt that Clay was caught and dazed by a good punch. Dazed enough, we can always hope, for Cooper to have taken more advantage of the situation if there had been more time to do so.

The most wonderful aspect of Cooper’s battle under the bruised night sky and weeping clouds was that he had outboxed the American completely in the first two rounds. Clay came into the ring with a justifiable reputation as a clever boxer. However much the occasion smacked of show business rather than sport, as the American appeared wearing a crown, there was enough evidence to be sure he had a fast left hand. But Cooper consistently beat Clay to the left jab and hook in the first six minutes of the bout.

Never before has Cooper started so confidently, been so lacking in nervous tension. Though he weighed only 13st 3 ½ lb, compared to the 14st 11lb of the American, he never seemed to be dominated physically by the taller, longer-armed favourite. Within the first minute, Cooper had landed three left jabs and two left hooks and the second left hook made Clay, already bleeding from the nose, hold, to the delight of the thousands who had come prepared for a massacre or hoping irrationally for a victory.

The first round had enough incident in it to warm us all as we crouched round the ring in a comic assortment of mackintoshes and headgear. Twice Clay was told not to hold and then, when the two men became locked again, he protested fiercely to the referee that Cooper was holding. Mr Little wagged a finger at the bumptious American and then warned Cooper for holding. It was a big round for Cooper, who had taken the right to Clay from the start and in the interval we could hear the chant, “Coo-per, Coo-per” echoing round the stadium.

Clay came out open-mouthed and loose-armed for the second, but he was sent back in a hurry soon enough by three jolting left jabs to the face. The master fencer was being outjabbed and it was as hard to believe as it was exhilarating. Cooper by now had a little nick under his left eye, but it was his round again thanks to his left hand work and, most encouraging, an occasional telling right.

Halfway through the third, the scales came down heavily for the American’s corner. Cooper’s head went back from two fast lefts to his face and as he swivelled about the ring there was blood trickling down his left cheek. Clay gained noticeably in confidence now and the last minute he was showing off, slapping his gloves together, bobbing and weaving round the British champion without bothering to launch any real counter-attack.

Cooper’s seconds patched up their man’s injuries well enough in the interval and even though he had to take three more jabs at the beginning of the fourth round there was, at first, no signs of the cut opening. But soon the blood was making the British champion blink and Clay was soon holding his own, though still we waited in vain for the American to show his real supremacy.

Then, against all the odds, came the knock-down and with it the bell that must have extinguished Cooper’s last hopes.

At last Clay realised he had dawdled too long and too dangerously.

He came out for the fifth (the round which, he prophesied, would be the last) far faster than before and a stream of lefts cut into Cooper’s face like bullets.

In just 20 seconds’ violent action the British champion’s face was masked by blood, ringside spectators began to shout for the referee to stop the bout and eventually there was only one course open for the third man.

Cooper had lost but he had won thousands of hearts.