The last time England had a world heavyweight championship fight, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was still six years away from catching the bullet that set off World War I. After next Saturday's match between Champion Muhammad Ali and Greengrocer Henry Cooper at the Arsenal football stadium, such boxing spectacles in London may not come along as regularly as once every 58 years, since there are fewer than 500 licensed professional fighters in all of England and not enough good heavyweights to overload a canoe.
Considered purely as a fistfight, the Ali-Cooper affair is lacking in conflict, despite desperate publicity attempts to make Cooper's left hook sound like instant anesthesia. But considered as history and with the probability of enough blood to cause spectators to feel satisfactorily guilty, the event has sufficient drama To pull a sellout crowd of 46,000 to Arsenal stadium, to play to at least 20 closed-circuit theaters in England and to be transmitted over Early Bird to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Louisville, where the champion's draft board will be watching with interest.
With that sort of exposure in the offing, the two fighters were invited to tea last week by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who subsequently backed out, officially because of a seamen's strike. "The Prime Minister is not interested in boxing, but he is interested in Anglo-American relations," explained Arthur Lewis, M.P. for West Ham, though the sight of a bleeding Englishman could hardly help either side.
That Cooper will bleed is almost a certainty. He has a great overhanging brow, bulbous cheekbones and so much scar tissue that his eyebrows look as if they had been burned away with a hot iron. In his fight with Clay three years ago, Cooper's brows were gushing blood profusely by the third round, so profusely, in fact, that Elizabeth Taylor at ringside was shouting to stop the mess two rounds before it ended. Cooper's twin brother, Jim, also a fighter and a bleeder of note, had his brow bones filed down by surgery to provide a less craggy landing zone for punches. But for this fight Henry Cooper is resorting to other extremes—sloshing his brows with brine, rubbing them with a salve that has an alum base and taking pills that he says are loaded with special vitamins that strengthen his scars.
When the referee—George Smith, a 54-year-old cashier in the city collector's office in Edinburgh was appointed last week, Cooper's manager immediately warned him not to be misled by a mere torrent of gore. "I want Smith to mind his own business," said Jim Wicks, 73. "How much Henry bleeds is my business, not Smith's. I'm the one who stopped the last fight, and if there's any stopping to be done this time I'll do it. I nearly stopped the last fight in the third round because Henry's face was streaming with blood. But Henry asked me to let him keep on because he could catch Clay. I did and Henry did."
That was the moment that has built the gate for this fight. Cooper caught Cassius Clay—who was not yet Muhammad Ali—in a corner and hit him with a left hook that dumped the future champion. Clay was hurt more by the indignity of it all than by the punch, but there is now a myth that Clay was on the verge of being knocked out, was saved by the bell and was further helped when Trainer Angelo Dundee stalled for time by pointing out that Clay had a split glove.
Downstairs in the Thomas � Beckett pub on Old Kent Road, where Cooper trains, is a pair of framed gloves with a sign that identifies them as the ones that knocked down Clay and, in elaboration: "These gloves did not split." The Thomas � Beckett pub is managed by Tommy Gibbons, a former heavyweight (indigenous, not Shelby, variety). Against one wall is a cage containing a myna bird that says, "What'll you 'ave?" The Fabulous Lino Brothers—music, mime and mirth—perform on the stage, and when Cooper enters to climb the stairs to his tiny gym there is likely to be a rock 'n' roll band warming up while Gibbons hands mugs of dark ale across the bar to men who look as if they work for a living.
The upstairs gym, which was made by knocking out the interior walls of the flat of someone who had Paris scenes on his wallpaper, is small and bare. Where the bedroom was is the ring, which is about the size of most bedrooms in mass-development houses. Ex-Light Heavyweight Champion Georges Carpentier—now a slim and elegant 72—marched off the ring on a visit last week and found it to be four paces square, or 12 feet. The ring for the fight will be 20 feet square. That means that after working in his cramped gym ring, Cooper on fight night will feel as if he is chasing Clay around a pasture.
"It don't matter about the size of the ring," said Wicks. "Henry's got to catch up to Clay anyhow. Besides, we like to work here. Tommy Gibbons is one of my old fighters, and we like to see him do the business."
The day before his visit to Cooper, Carpentier bad made an inspection call on Muhammad Ali's big gym at White City in the headquarters of a parachute regiment. "You ever see a heavyweight faster than me?" Clay had asked, typically, although the champion has been very quiet, serious and almost boyishly shy on this trip to England. "No," replied Carpentier. After watching Cooper spend three rounds aiming left hooks—Cooper's right being used mainly for helping with the shoelaces—at sparring partner Jimmy Fletcher, the Frenchman leaned across the ropes and spoke to the British champion. "Don't give him any space. Stay on top of him," said Carpentier. Cooper nodded. That is precisely the plan, since Cooper's only chance of winning the fight before sickening the referee with blood is to get inside a four-inch-reach disadvantage and hang a left hook on Muhammad Ali's jaw.