Following his retirement from the sport, Cooper continued his career as a television and radio personality; he was the first (and is today one of four people) to twice win the public vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award and is thus far the only boxer to be awarded a knighthood.
Cooper was born on 3 May 1934 in Lambeth, London to Henry and Lily Cooper. With identical twin brother, George (1934–2010), and elder brother Bern, he grew up in a council house on Farmstead Road on the Bellingham Estate in South East London. During the Second World War they were evacuated to Lancing on the Sussex coast.
Life was tough in the latter years of the Second World War, and London life especially brought many dangers during the blackout. Henry took up many jobs, including a paper round before school and made money out of recycling golf balls to the clubhouse on the Beckenham course. All three of the Cooper brothers excelled in sport, with George and Henry exercising talents particularly in football and also cricket.
George Cooper, Henry's twin, who boxed as Jim Cooper, died on 11 April 2010 at the age of 75.
Henry Cooper served his National Service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, where he was recruited for his boxing ability.
Cooper died on 1 May 2011 at his son's house near the border of Limpsfield and Oxted, Surrey, after a long illness, 2 days before his 77th birthday.
Although Cooper was left-handed, he used the "orthodox" stance, with his left hand and foot forward, rather than the reversed "southpaw" stance more usually adopted by a left-handed boxer. Opponents were thus hit hardest with left handed punches which Cooper could throw from his front hand, closest to the opponent. At its most effective, the so-called left hook had an upward uppercut-like trajectory. A formidable left jab completed his offensive repertoire. He generally tried to force the action in his bouts. After developing a left shoulder problem in the latter half of his career, Cooper adjusted to put more stress on right-handed punches which he had hitherto neglected.
Cooper was affectionately known in the UK as "Our 'Enery". He started his boxing career in 1949, as an amateur with the Eltham Amateur Boxing Club, and won seventy-three of eighty-four contests. At the age of seventeen, he won the first of two ABA light-heavyweight titles and, before serving in the Army for his two years' National Service, represented Britain in the 1952 Olympics (outpointed in the second stage by Russian Anatoli Petrov). Henry and his twin brother, George (boxing under the name Jim Cooper) turned professional together under the management of Jim Wicks. Wicks never allowed his boxer to be the victim of a mis-match. When promoters were trying to match Cooper with Sonny Liston, Wicks said: "I would not allow 'Enery into the same room as him, let alone the same ring."
Henry was at one time the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion. His early title challenges were unsuccessful, losing to Joe Bygraves for the Commonwealth belt (KO 9), Ingemar Johansson for the European belt (KO 5), and Joe Erskine (PTS 15) for the British and Commonwealth. He then won on points over contender Zora Folley, and took the British and Commonwealth belts from new champion Brian London, in a 15-round decision in January 1959. The winner of the fight was pencilled in to fight for Floyd Patterson's heavyweight title, but Cooper turned down the chance; London fought instead and was knocked out by Patterson in May 1959. Cooper continued to defend his British and Commonwealth belts against all comers, including Dick Richardson (KO 5), Joe Erskine (TKO 5 and TKO 12), Johnny Prescott (TKO 10), and Brian London again (PTS 15), although he lost a rematch with Folley by a second-round KO.
Cooper twice fought Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), firstly in a non-title fight in 1963 at Wembley Stadium, Wembley Park. Ali's mobility, fast reflexes, and unorthodox defensive tactic of pulling back from punches made him a frustratingly elusive opponent. In the final seconds of the fourth round, Cooper felled Ali with an upward angled version of his trademark left hook, "Enry's 'Ammer".
Ali stood up and started towards Angelo Dundee who guided him into the corner. At first Dundee talked and slapped Ali's legs, but after Ali misunderstood and tried to get off the stool, Dundee used smelling salts. Dundee has since claimed to have opened a small tear in one of Ali's gloves and told the referee that his fighter needed a new pair of gloves, thus delaying the start of the 5th round. Cooper insisted that this delay lasted anywhere from three to five seconds according to the footage and that this did not deny him the chance to try to knock Ali out while he was still dazed. Tapes of the fight show that Ali received only an extra six seconds, and the gloves were ultimately not replaced. Cooper started the 5th round aggressively, attempting to make good on his advantage, but a recovered Ali effectively countered and Cooper was hit high on the face with a hard right which opened a severe cut under his eye. Referee Tommy Little was forced to stop the fight, and thus Ali defeated Cooper by technical knockout.
After this fight, a spare pair of gloves was always required at ringside. On the 40th anniversary of the fight, Ali telephoned Cooper to reminisce. In 1966 Cooper fought Ali, now world heavyweight champion, for a second time at Highbury. However, Ali was now alert to the danger posed by Cooper's left and more cautious than he had been in the previous contest; he held Cooper in a vice-like grip during clinches, and when told to break leapt backward several feet. Accumulated scar tissue around Cooper's eyes made him more vulnerable than in the previous meeting and a serious cut was opened by Ali, which led to the fight being stopped, Cooper again losing to Ali via technical knockout.
After the loss to Ali, Cooper fought former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, but was knocked out in the fourth round. After that, he went undefeated until the final fight of his career, and made more defences of his British and Commonwealth titles against Jack Bodell (TKO 2 and PTS 15) and Billy Walker (TKO 6). In 1968 Cooper added the European crown to his domestic titles with a win over Karl Mildenberger, and later made two successful defences of his title.
In his last fight, in May 1971, a 36-year-old Cooper faced 21-year-old Joe Bugner, one of the biggest heavyweights in the world at the time, for the British, European, and Commonwealth belts. Referee Harry Gibbs awarded the fight to Bugner by the now abolished quarter of a point margin. An audience mainly composed of Cooper fans did not appreciate the innately cautious Bugner, and the decision was booed with commentator Harry Carpenter asking, "How can they take away the man's titles like this?" Cooper announced his retirement shortly afterwards. Cooper refused to speak to Gibbs for several years, but eventually agreed to shake his hand for charity six months before Gibbs died.
In Cooper's later years, he retired from commentary on the sport as he became "disillusioned with boxing", wanting "straight, hard and fast boxing that he was used to from his times." While acknowledging that he was from a different era and would not be fighting as a heavyweight today, Cooper was nonetheless critical of the trend for heavyweights to bulk up as he thought it made for one-paced and less entertaining contests. In his final year, he said that he did not "think boxing is as good as it was", naming Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, and Amir Khan as "the best of their era", but asserting that "if you match them up with the champions of thirty or forty years ago I don't think they're as good".
After his retirement from boxing, Henry Cooper maintained a public profile with appearances in the BBC quiz show A Question of Sport and various advertisements, most famously in those for Brut aftershave. Although generally a traditionalist, Cooper was officially the co-founder of the Anti-Nazi League, a largely left-wing campaign focused on far-right groups which opposed immigration. He was also a frequent guest at charity fund-raising events. He appeared as boxer John Gully in the 1975 film Royal Flash and in his latter years featured in a series of UK public service announcements urging vulnerable groups to go to their doctors for vaccination against influenza called Get your Jab in First!
Cooper had become a "Name" at Lloyd's of London, and in the 1990s he was reportedly one of those who suffered enormous personal losses because of the unlimited liability which a "Name" was then responsible for, and he was forced to sell his Lonsdale belts. Subsequently, Cooper's popularity as an after dinner speaker provided a source of income, and he was in most respects a picture of contentment although becoming more subdued in the years following the death of his wife.
Considering his long career, Cooper had suffered relatively little boxing-related damage to his health apart from "a bit of arthritis", remaining, in the words of one journalist, "the living manifestation of an age of tuxedos in ringside seats, Harry Carpenter commentaries, sponge buckets and 'seconds out'". He lived in Hildenborough, Kent, and he was the president of Nizels Golf Club in the town until his death.
Cooper was married to Albina Genepri, an Italian Catholic, from 1960 until her death from a heart attack aged 71 in 2008. He converted to her faith. He was survived by their sons, Henry Marco and John Pietro, and two grandchildren. He left £747,098. In an interview published a few days after her death, Cooper described Albina, who "hated" his sport, as "an ideal wife for a boxer", never grumbling about his long absences before big fights and inviting journalists in for tea while they waited for Cooper to get out of bed the morning after bouts.
Cooper was the first to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award twice (in 1967 and 1970) and one of only four two-time winners in the award's history (the others being Nigel Mansell in 1986 and 1992, Damon Hill in 1994 and 1996, and Andy Murray in 2013, 2015, and 2016). Cooper was given the award in 1967 for going unbeaten throughout the year. His second award came in 1970, when Cooper had become the British, Commonwealth, and European heavyweight champion. He is the only British boxer to win three Lonsdale Belts outright.
Cooper was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1969, awarded a Papal Knighthood in 1978, and was knighted in 2000. He is also celebrated as one of the great Londoners in the "London Song" by Ray Davies on his 1998 album The Storyteller. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1970 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Thames Television's Euston Road Studios.