British Beef - Cooper v Bugner

In our first British Beef we look back at a bitter feud involving one of the true gentlemen of boxing... the late, great Sir Henry Cooper. He fell out with Joe Bugner long before a punch was thrown but their fall-out lasted for a long, long, long time...

Last Updated: 12/11/13 9:52pm

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We kick off our series by going back more than 40 years, when one of the sport's true gents got involved in a grudge that would last for decades.

There is and always will be bad blood between boxers. Usually it is whipped up pre-fight and is put to bed with a hug and some words of explanation after they have settled their differences in the ring.

Every once in a while, the bad blood goes beyond anything that can be resolved inside the ropes. The grudge that stands out in British boxing not only spanned four decades, but it started once the final bell had sounded - and it featured one of the game's nice guys.

When Joe Bugner and the late Henry Cooper signed to meet for the latter's British, Commonwealth and European titles, they put pen to paper on a fight that would divide an entire nation and dominate their own lives long after they boxed.

Their Wembley showdown in hindsight, had all the right ingredients. Three titles were on the line for a start. At 21, Bugner was the young pup on the scene (although he'd already had an amazing 34 fights), 16 years Cooper's junior.

Enry's 'Ammer: Cooper struggled to make inroads with his left

He had immigrated to these shores from Hungary and had started to emerge as a real threat to the established British favourites, of which 'Our Enry' was the undoubted number one.

Two fights with Muhammad Ali, the first in 1963 in which he had The Greatest in all sorts of trouble, the second in 1966 when only a bad cut stopped him repeating the feat, had cemented Cooper's place as a national treasure.

Glittering

Coming into the Bugner fight he was the reigning Sports Personality of the Year, the second time the public had chosen him, and he was in his third reign as British champion.

Then, a couple of weeks before the fight, Cooper announced that it was to be his last. The glittering career would come to an end at The Empire Pool, Wembley, after 17 years and 55 fights.

From then on the public were only interested in one thing; seeing Cooper walk away with a win. And they would flock in their thousands to be part of his farewell party.

Defeat was unthinkable. And since mixing it with Ali and Floyd Patterson on a world level, Cooper was in good form and had not lost for four years.

Bugner had racked up a series of wins over journeymen and in February, had boxed a stinker of a draw with Bill Drover. He had only been a pro over here for three years and had never been the championship distance. The stage was set for Cooper to put the young pretender in his place and bow out victorious.

Bittersweet: Bugner is declared the winner but would suffer for his success

There was not a great deal of animosity in the build-up. Bugner was no stranger to rubbing people up the wrong way, but as a 21-year-old new to this country, he was not about to start shouting his mouth off.

Clubbing

But this was all about the fight and what happened afterwards, which sets it apart in British boxing.

From the outset, things did not go to plan. 'Enry's 'Ammer, that pulverising left that had put Ali on his backside, made few inroads and it seemed as if years of clubbing opponents incessantly might have finally caught up with both the man and his prized punch.

Bugner, never the most proactive of pugilists, managed to pick Cooper off well and in short, sharp attacks, looked to be ahead in the middle rounds. But, as was his wont, he seemed to ease off as the fight reached its second half and slowly but surely, Cooper clawed his way back, draining every last effort out of the 'Ammer to score well.

So much so that it was, according to referee Harry Gibbs, dead level going into the 15th and final session. In the days before ringside judges for domestic title fights, the third man in the ring was the sole arbiter - and on this occasion, his decision would have massive repercussions long after the Wembley crowd had drifted off to the bars and clubs of north west London to contemplate life without Cooper.

The last round saw Bugner come on strong, Cooper stand his ground, running out of energy but looking like a fighter who thought he had it won - he was the champion, after all.

But when the bell sounded, he threw his arms in the air expecting Gibbs to grab one of them and declare him the winner. Instead, the Chelmsford official stepped straight over to Bugner, lifted his arm aloft and declared him the winner.

Demoralised

The farewell party had been cancelled. The arena erupted in a crescendo of boos. The fighters hugged one another briefly before a barrage of objects headed into the ring, aimed at Bugner or Gibbs, or both.

Even Harry Carpenter, commentating at ringside, could not hide his disbelief at the decision: "How can they take the man's title away like this?".

Facing the truth: Cooper's look says it all

Cooper felt he had done enough to win it and, claims Bugner, thought he "had nicked it" there and then. He was gracious enough to congratulate his victor in the ring but as he left a British ring for the final time, the goodwill stayed behind. Now the grudge would begin.

He was adamant he had won, got that crucial half-point that separated the pair under the old fractional scoring system. He told the world that straight afterwards, had little to say about - and even less to - Bugner. The 21-year-old was given a hero's reception in the Cambridgeshire town where he lived but was shunned by the rest of Britain. Demonised, in his own words.

Bugner became the outcast of British boxing. He got little credit for taking Ali the distance in the suffocating humidity of Kuala Lumpur, the second time he had taken him the distance. While retirement brought more adulation for Cooper, the man who had won the fight, would never win the war he had found himself in.

Performance

Cooper, despite being one of the sport's true gents, refused to talk to Gibbs for a full 28 years afterwards - which shows you how much it hurt - and only did so for a charity event six months before the referee passed way in 1998.

He remained adamant that he "knew certain things went on before the fight". Gibbs, for his part, was compelled to print his scorecard for the fight in his book, long after even the most ardent of fight fans could recall the action.

Bugner though, had to wait longer for his reconciliation. And he had to leave Britain first. Even a classic performance against Joe Frazier in which he lost but put up an admirable fight, did little to change public opinion. He moved to California and took solace in boxing in the States before retiring for the first time in 1977, six years after what should have been his greatest win.

He came back again without any great success but was never based in Britain again. In 1986 emigrated to Australia, leaving behind 15 years of persecution and prejudice, still without word from Cooper.

They eventually met up again in 1997 and even then, Bugner's big bearhug was hardly reciprocated in kind. Cooper though, broke his silence and spoke to the man who had sent him into retirement a beaten fighter.

But by then, Bugner had been vilified, forced away from his adopoted home. He had also come round to the sentimental school of thought that says he didn't win. Or at the very least, he wished he hadn't won.

"I think personally it was one of the most hurtful and painful results a fighter could have had," he would say. "I didn't win. I never won. I was chased out of my beautiful country, England. I've been living overseas for over 35 years now.

"Why? Because I beat a legend. I didn't put my hand up and say I won. Somebody else did it."

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