Cooper vs Bugner: British Boxing’s Great Myth
Boxing rarely does sentiment, at times the sport almost guarantees that won’t happen. An unwritten rule that the torch must be passed before leaving for pastures new. Old champions, with the odd exception, never seem to leave with a win or dignity. There is always another opponent, always another paycheque that is needed either for the ego or the bank balance. The reasons may differ, the end is always the same.
Henry Cooper was retiring regardless of the result of his fight with Joe Bugner. At 37, the body was telling him enough was enough. His knees were showing signs of the long miles on the road, and his famous over-used left hand was seizing up so much that at times his wife had to comb his hair and even cut up his food. In many ways, time was running out.
Bugner the young upstart, win or lose would be the last man Cooper would ever face in a boxing ring. The nation’s favourite son was defending his British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles on a night that has gone down in British boxing folklore.
It is a fight of much controversy, even over 50 years later. The decision by Harry Gibbs to raise the hand of Bugner is still argued to this very day. Cooper never really ever forgave Gibbs. The resentment was deep and long. Cooper hinted in his 1972 autobiography at dishonesty, Gibbs sued and won. Gibbs and Cooper did eventually shake hands, for charity Cooper joked, shortly before Gibbs’s death in 1999. It took nearly 30 years, and it is doubtful if the bitterness ever left Cooper’s body.
Gibbs needed a police escort out of the Empire Pool ring, the crowd booed with much hate, the myth had already started. The veteran BBC commentator Harry Carpenter said those immortal words:
“He’s given it to Bugner and I find that amazing. How can you take the man’s three titles away like that,” his words added to the fury. The venom would be long-lasting.
Bugner might have left the ring a winner, but in an interview he once said:
“I won but I lost everything. I was hated for it, never allowed to forget it.”
The narrative regarding the scoring of Gibbs, the sole arbiter in the fight, has hardened over time. Cooper denied the emotional farewell many felt he deserved. Bugner the recipient of a gift he had no right to open. But the truth is a long way removed from what some would like you to remember.
It was an extremely close fight, even Cooper was on record as saying he thought he just nicked it by a couple of rounds. Hardly a convincing argument that he was robbed of a decision that was without any doubt. Gibbs gave it to Bugner by a quarter of a point, the slimmest possible margin of victory after 15 hard gruelling rounds. A good fight between two fighters at different stages of their careers. That should be the lasting memory.
Brush away all the cobwebs of a false history, the fight was that close, Gibbs’s verdict was honest and reflective of what he saw. What we all saw. There was no robbery, a fight where either fighter had at least some claim to leave that London ring a triple heavyweight champion. It was just that kind of fight. History isn’t always right. Or kind.
Gibbs always defended his decision and in an age of fights being largely shown on a 24-hour delay, he asked the BBC to show the fight in full and not just the edited highlights. The veteran referee wanted everyone to judge the fight for themselves. With preconceived views already likely to have been formed by the sensationalist tabloid headlines, impartiality would have been hard to find.
Bugner who only turned 21 a few days before the fight found the aftermath difficult to handle. A fighter yes, but still a boy in a man’s body. He said the public or the press never did truly forgive him for a decision reached by another man and claimed he was hounded out of his adopted country.
But Bugner often flattered to deceive, a losing fight with Joe Frazier is often forgotten, Bugner was inspired, maybe his finest night even in defeat. Bugner gave everything that night, too often his critics said he didn’t do that.
Bugner had many false dawns in his numerous comebacks throughout his career. Performances like the one he gave us against Richard Dunn in 1976, when he blasted out the Yorkshire heavyweight inside a round were the exception. Bugner fought with real anger that night. But nights like that were all too rare.
Despite his many critics Bugner was a more than decent heavyweight and was more than competitive in one of the strongest eras in heavyweight history. Another fighter around at the wrong time. A peak Bugner would surely have been a heavyweight champion of the world in the early 80s, a time of the bloated and the uninspired.
After emigrating to Australia in the 80s, where he launched several of his comebacks in the twilight years, Bugner found acceptance. Bugner had his last fight in 1999, by then he held a version of the world heavyweight title that is best forgotten. The initials of the belt matter little in a sport that often dilutes itself. He heavily invested in a vineyard but when it went bust, Bugner lost everything. Recent battles with diabetes and heart problems have added to his woes in later life.
Cooper despite his many achievements is often remembered for the loss to Bugner and the first defeat to a young up and coming American heavyweight in 1963. Cassius Clay got careless in the 4th round and another great exaggeration of the truth began. Another story for a different day. ‘Or Enry’ had a long successful career, the only fighter to win three Lonsdale Belts, and it is a shame he left the sport a bitter man.
Cooper left boxing on a wave of great sympathy and found work easy to come by in retirement. Cooper was the face of Brut, he was a captain on A Question of Sport, a regular on commentary duties for BBC Radio and was incredibly popular on the after-dinner circuit. But there were similarities with his great rival. Like Bugner, Cooper lost most of his life savings when the Lloyd’s of London syndicate collapsed, and he had to auction off his prized Lonsdale Belts. Cooper sadly died in 2011 aged 76.
The false narrative around that famous night takes away plenty from both fighters. Despite losing Cooper should have enjoyed his retirement and the contribution he gave over a long career without the bitterness and resentment that final fight undoubtedly left. Cooper did admit that being remembered for losing certain fights did him no harm at all. Maybe that’s another untold narrative.
Bugner, the innocent victim in a story without substance also deserved better. It was his breakthrough win and it should have been a night of many fond memories. Sadly for Bugner, it was a night he would like to forget.