Steve Bunce remembers Henry Cooper vs Joe Bugner, an unforgettable night in British boxing, 50 years on
IT was just eight nights after the Fight of the Century, another night in a business so remote it is often hard to understand. The fighters, promoters, trainers, managers, the man in the middle and the press were all witnesses to the unforgettable night Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner fought. It was March 16, 1971 and the British, Commonwealth and European titles were the side issue on that Tuesday night. The British public watched and waited; Princess Anne was on red alert.
At the Empire Pool, the murk of smoke drifted high above the ring and reputations were made, threatened and broken. There is a moment before the first bell, with the ring surrounded by darkness, the stark lights, the ropes, the two men in their hopping eagerness, when the scene has the richness of an oil painting; it is art, my friend.
There had been weeks of the two British heavyweights plastered in their glory across the front and back pages of the papers, there was no live television and a nation was waiting for the fight. And the result; people queued by news-stands to get the early edition and first report. Cooper was the public’s darling, Bugner just a kid, a refuge from Hungary.
It is a wonderful fight, full of skill and craft. A real spectacle, the art of jabbing, blocking, moving, thinking. They possibly shared £60,000 – the total is a secret. Harry Levene, the promoter, would never say: “It’s between myself, the fighters and the income tax man.” Jim Wicks, Cooper’s manager, demanded £45,000 for his man: “We deserve 15 grand for each Lonsdale Belt.”
Just like the Garden in New York, the week before, this is another fight with so very few survivors. The trench of witnesses is nearly empty.
There was a tricky start for Bugner in the dressing room before the fight when Harry Gibbs, the referee, came to hand out some old-fashioned advice. The room fell silent, the ex-docker stood in front of big Joe: “No hitting on the back of his head, leave his kidneys alone and no low blows; any holding and I will throw you out.”
“F**k, Harry, am I allowed to touch him?” asked Bugner with a big smile.
“Don’t be cheeky, son,” was the deathless reply. Then Gibbs left – there is no record of Andy Smith, Bugner’s manager, giving Joe the first bollocking of the night. Harry Gibbs was not a man to tread lightly.
Smith did have his say at the end of the 14th round. It was not pleasant and he finished it with a slap for emphasis. Bugner was, it has to be said, letting it slip away; he went out and won the 15th clearly. Smith was later called before the stewards of the British Boxing Board of Control to explain his actions. “I found that out when I was looking at some old minutes,” said Robert Smith, general secretary of the Board and Smith’s son. “I was too young to go to Wembley on the night.” Smith got a slap on the wrist.
“Joe needed a good ticking off for giving away that 14th round,” Smith said later, a diplomatic offering. The fight was close the year before, Smith had sensibly made Joe wait; Bugner was 21 just a few days before the fight, but it was his 35th fight.
At the end of the 10th round, Wicks gave Henry the facts: “You are not being busy enough – he’s going to nick it. It’s time to let this geezer know who’s the guvnor.” Cooper then came on strong, as they say in our trade.
“My eyes and legs are against me, but I’ve been in enough 15-rounders – I know how to win a long fight,” said Cooper before the first bell. He did, and by the start of the 15th round it was tight.
Cooper looked for Gibbs at the end and Bugner never did. It creates a moment frozen in boxing time. Cooper moved and then Gibbs looked away from him.
That is a moment.
“Cor, stone me,” Cooper thought. Gibbs would later sue for comments Cooper made in his autobiography. Gibbs won, by the way. It was bitter.
Gibbs held up Bugner’s gloved fist. On the BBC commentary, Harry Carpenter added his bit to the 50-year debate when he uttered: “How can they take a man’s belt like that?”
There was some debate at ringside: Neil Allen (The Times) agreed with Gibbs, George Whiting (Evening Standard) had it one round to Cooper. Peter Wilson (Daily Mirror) swore that he “did not make it even close” and went for Cooper. The old press machine went to work that night, mostly burying the new kid and praising the fallen idol. Cooper had won his second BBC Sports Personality of the Year at the end of December. He was, even then, a national treasure.
The newspapermen gathered in Cooper’s dressing room, listened to Wicks and fell silent when Henry spoke: “I thought I did enough to win,” he told them and then uttered the unforgettable and sad: “Well, gentlemen, that’s my lot.” It was. Cooper was still only 36, but it was his 55th fight of a long and bloody career.
The press corps, shuffling down the Wembley corridors as a righteous pack, also met with Bugner and he made a mistake: “What ‘appened to your ‘ammer tonight?” he asked the press. You see, Henry belonged to them. It was also a bad impersonation of Wicks. Bugner regrets ever saying it: “I should have kept my mouth shut – Henry was a great man and the public loved him.”
Cooper would later say: “I wanted to go out a winner and not on a sea of sympathy.” There was, however, very little sympathy ever for Joe Bugner.
Reg Gutteridge, who on the night thought Cooper just won, came to Bugner’s defence again and again over the years. “Joe did not deserve the scorn of the public,” Reg told me.
In 2007 I managed to get the pair together. It was tense, Cooper still angry and Bugner still bemused. An attempt at a hug was frosty. After I walked Cooper to his car, I found Bugner sitting alone, shaking his head and upset.
“I was treated like the man who shot Bambi back then and it has not changed,” Bugner told me that afternoon. “I have told him I would never have fought him if I knew this was going to happen. What had I ever done wrong? I was 21, a young fighter just doing my job.”
The debate continues. Bugner has nothing to prove, ever. I still think Bugner won, just. And the final word from Wembley that night goes to Cooper’s devoted wife, the lovely, Albina: “I am delighted Henry will retire, I am so very pleased.”