Cassius Clay’s fight with ‘Our ‘Enry’, as the English press were determined to call the Lambeth-born Henry Cooper, wasn’t considered to be too dangerous an obstacle to the Olympic Champion’s aspirations to be world heavyweight champion. Clay was the main contender and Cooper weighed almost two stone lighter than his 22 year-old challenger.
The staid English public hadn’t come across anyone quite like Clay (“I am the prettiest … I am the greatest”) and while the Guardian called him a “delightful braggart” he was disliked by many. Three weeks before the fight at Wembley Stadium the American boxer had walked off the BBC’s “Sportsview” while being interviewed by David Coleman. Clay had said that he would “annihilate” Cooper in five rounds, to which Coleman retorted that the British, who were “all Cooper fans” disliked people who “talked too much” and confessed that he, too, was a Cooper supporter. Clay just looked at his watch and said he should be at home in bed and walked off the set. Despite pleas for him to return.
A the end of the the fourth round of the fight, and to loud cheers from the Wembley crowd Cooper landed his left-hook ‘ammer’ flush on Clay’s jaw and the so-called ‘Louisville Lip’ was sent crashing to the floor. Luckily his arms caught on the ropes which broke the fall and then the bell for the end of the round sounded after four seconds. It’s often been said that, against the rules, Clay was guided to his corner by his trainer Angelo Dundee. He wasn’t really, he was two steps away. It is also written that because of a split glove that Dundee was said to have cut himself, the break between the next round was extended for minutes enabling Clay to recover. In reality it was just six seconds longer that the regulation one minute.
Considering he had almost been knocked out in the previous round Clay came out for the fifth fighting on a different level. He unleashed furious combinations with pinpoint accuracy and he didn’t take long before Cooper’s face was so cut up and bloody he looked like a character in a horror film. Despite the knock-down it looked suspiciously like Clay had been fighting well inside himself. The referee soon had no choice but to stop the fight in exactly the round Clay had predicted.
The following year, in February 1964, and despite being 7-1 underdog, Clay beat Sonny Liston after the champion had retired before the bell for the seventh round. Following the win, a joyous Clay pointed to the ringside press and yelled “eat your words!” and then, “I shook up the world!” “I talk to God every day.” “I must be the greatest!” At the age of 22 Clay had become the heavyweight champion of the world. Shortly after the fight he joined the Nation of Islam (he had become friends with Malcolm X two years previously) and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.