Henry Cooper vs. Cassius Clay, Wembley Stadium 18th June 1963
This programme is signed ‘Cassius Clay The Greatest of All Time’ and dated the day of the fight 6-18-63.
A classic sporting moment, especially if you are English, but is it still possible for sports writers to take on the old classics?
It’s a great year to write about, but how to gloss over John F. Kennedy’s promise of a Civil Rights Bill or his trip to Dallas or Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ and ‘I Have a Dream’ speech? How to touch lightly the unraveling events in Vietnam or the impact they would have on the young Clay?
A year when Spurs were the first English team to win a European trophy, Everton won the league and Man U raised the FA Cup, of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Chuck McKinley at Wimbledon.
‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and ‘Oliver’ first opened in London and Please, Please Me first hit the decks. In America ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ came out as did ‘Surfin’ USA’ and the charts heaved with the likes of Ring of Fire, Da Doo Ron Ron, Wipe Out by the Safaris, Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa and It’s my Party.
The year that saw the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Graham Norton, Graham Poll and Gary Kasparov and the departure of Jean Cocteau, Georges Braques, Edith Piaf, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis as well as, of course, JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald.
It’s a great fight to write about; Clay, at 21, was coming in undefeated on his way to the Heavyweight Championship title and Cooper was thought to be a tough enough 29 year old pro that wasn’t too tough to stand in his way. The British public was electrified by the occasion and live boxing on TV was already big business in the US.
Cassius Clay had arrived in England amid the usual brouhaha and taunted lyrically to anyone who would listen, predicting Coopers end in the fifth round.
Wembley was packed to the rafters on the night with as many as 50,000 fans baying ‘En-ery, En-ery’ but Clay came out with a fanfare and a cardboard crown, ‘I’m the Greatest’ on his back.
Clay was determined to dance, Cooper to get him against the ropes. There was a few hairy moments in the first few rounds and the youngster was bleeding from his nose but seemed to be biding his time and playing with our ‘Enry who was starting to gush from a cut above his left eye.
Cooper lands his famous left hook ‘Enery’s ‘Ammer’ (which ‘traveled 15 times faster than a Saturn V rocket with a force on landing of nearly 3 tons’) right at the end of Round 4 and Clay is dumped on the canvas for only the second time in his career.
The crowd is going mental and the Louisville Lip is clearly out on his feet as he gets helped back to his stool, where illegal smelling salts may have been administered by the fast thinking Angelo Dundee. A split in Clay’s glove is found and enhanced and who really knows how long the break lasted between those pivotal rounds.
Clay comes back out refreshed, destroys Cooper’s eye and gets the questionable honour of a Sonny Liston title fight as his reward. The rest, as they say, is history.
Great people to write about too; almost any history of Mohammed Ali makes good copy as the source is so extraordinarily great and Sir Henry Cooper also makes it into the history books not least as a lovable Cockney icon. What of the life and times of Angelo Dundee or perhaps even Jim Wicks, Cooper’s manager?
For every sports classic there is the accompanying opportunity for a sports journalism classic to rise to the occasion. This story is mostly covered by writers from a few basic angles; the blip in the rise and rise of Ali, the chance that England’s Cooper might have had and the controversy over the ripped glove and the debatably extended break between rounds.
I wanted to know if there was a still pointy angle to be found on this worn Rubik’s Cube of a story and so I read as much as I could about it, looked through the film and photographs of the fight and the times and tried to put myself into the Wembley crowd that night.
In the end I chose to focus on the cracks and not on the slabs, in between rounds from the perspective of Jim Wicks. There was a poetry workshop in the Guardian which seemed to show me a way to do this. By projecting Wicks’ words to Cooper in the corner, at this hugely pivotal moment between the 4th and 5th round, and recording it as a dramatic monologue.
I thought that perhaps by going the Blake route of finding ‘Eternity in an hour’ in a minute, I could capture a meeting point of strands of fate against a cultural and historical backdrop. Coopers peak, Ali’s fortune and determination to overcome Coopers left hook no matter the damage being done to his brain, Dundee’s defence of his boxer and Wicks’ hope for his.
“‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, ‘ave a breeva
You’ve got ‘im san, ‘es ‘ad it
‘E’s flat aat like an ‘alibut ‘enry
‘E’s cuddlin the rope like a baby innee?
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, let me at ‘em eyes o’ yours
‘Or blimey, this ‘uns a deep ‘un, ‘ee ‘yaa
Can you ‘ear ‘em boy? ‘Enery, Enery’
‘E ‘aint no greatest ‘e ‘aint
Fackin’ cardboard crown!
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, you flawed him mate ‘n’ it’s only the fawth
‘N’ ‘e said ‘e’d ‘ave you daan in the fifth
‘N’ ‘e said you wuz a bum, a steppin’ stone
‘Swhy we put the money on…
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, never mind abaat that naa, ‘ee ‘ya press this taal
‘Enery’s ‘ammer ‘ad ‘im ‘enery, ‘e woz saved by the bell
Lets rab you daan, ‘ave a bit a wind
‘E’s ‘arf aat on that stool ‘enry, look at ‘im
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, wot woz it ‘e said?
“Landan bridge is fawlin’ daan and so will Coopa in Landan taan”
Fackin’ jungle bun…awight ‘enry I’ll keep it daan
Awight ‘enry, give it a rest mate, getchyer breff
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, woss awl diss den? Woss up wiv ‘is mit?
Dem fly Yanks, woss up wiv it?
Why’s ‘e pulling dat string aat of it?
Wass ‘e doin? OI, GET AAT OF IT!
‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, they’re tryin’ t’ welch us
“OI STOP PLAYIN’ WIV ‘IS GLOVE!
AY? WOT? NAA MATE, GET ‘IM AAT”
They’re brickin’ it mate that’s the rub
O’ ‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, are you ready?
Don’t let ‘im dance, get ‘im up against the ropes
Keep yer left working boy and keep ‘im awf ‘is toes
Goo on ‘enry san, you keep it up you’ve got this wan
Goo on ‘enry san, you keep it up you’ve got this wan…”
So, not about the boxing classic but an attempt to say something fresh on a hacked out sports writing classic. I challenge any of you, who choose to challenge yourselves, to take a ‘Classic’ moment of sport and find something new to say about it, or a new way to say it, or a fresh angle.
In competition not with file, but with the greats of sports journalism and the great history of the events themselves. The bar isn’t very high at all (see above) and the process may well be hugely rewarding for the writer and certainly for the readers.