Alan Hubbard

The late Sir Henry Cooper, Britain's most loved boxing figure, is finally to be honoured with a statue, a rarity among sporting personalities.

One or two legendary characters, such as Sir Jack Hobbs, Bobby Moore and Randolph Turpin have been cast in bronze, but that habit has died away of late.

Now, at last, Sir 'Enery has been captured in a fighting pose. But his will not stand outside one of the great boxing arenas, such as Wembley or The Royal Albert Hall where he plied his trade – but in his home town of Bellingham, south-east London.

The corner of Randlesdown Road and Bromley Road is hardly a fashionable Londion address. But The Sun has reported that this particular nondescript location in Lewisham is about to become home to one of British boxing's most symbolic landmarks.

The long-awaited statue of Sir Henry will be unveiled there on October 12.

And John Conteh, former world light-heavyweight champion (who surely deserves one of his own in his native Liverpool) and one of Cooper's best pals in boxing, will have the honour of unveiling it.

Sir Henry Cooper put Cassius Clay on his backside in 1963 and showed great courage in defeat ©Getty Images
Sir Henry Cooper put Cassius Clay on his backside in 1963 and showed great courage in defeat ©Getty Images

Cooper, who grew up in that area of 'Sarf London’, reigned as British heavyweight champion from 1959 to 1971 and won three Lonsdale Belts outright.

They are records that will never be broken. Yet he didn't win a world title and was more famous for his 'ammer – the left hook which once dumped the then upstart Cassius Clay on his backside.

Known as Our 'Enery, there hasn't been anyone who laced on a pair of gloves held in more affection by the British public. And it is arguable that his humility and heroics might put him high on the list of our most popular sports personalities of all time.

Cooper – who had his last fight 48 years ago – remains a national institution and he's been dead since 2011.

He never allowed fame to go to his head and was just as popular with men, women and children who never even saw him fight.

Warm-hearted outside the ropes, he possessed down-to-earth Cockney charm and integrity, while his priorities were family and raising money for charity.

Cooper, who died of a heart attack aged 76, was for a long time Europe's best heavyweight – but could never be really be described as world class.

That punch which almost changed the course of boxing landed 56 years ago at Wembley Stadium, but Henry's army of fans, indeed the world, have never forgotten the moment.

Clay survived, became Muhammad Ali and won the world title eight months later. That was the beginning of a remarkable friendship between Cooper and Ali, born out of mutual respect.

Whenever we encountered Ali afterwards, he always asked: "How's my friend Henry Cooper doing?"

Our 'Enery, pictured above with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, was a hugely popular figure ©Getty Images
Our 'Enery, pictured above with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, was a hugely popular figure ©Getty Images

Carl Payne, the award-winning sculptor, has done Henry proud.

The statue, cast in bronze, is nearly 8ft tall, weighs more than 30 stone and the likeness to Cooper is remarkable.

It has cost more than £100,000 and – if it was not for Carl's philanthropy, plus the generosity and dedication of members of London's Ex-Boxers Association (LEBA) – this project would never have got off the ground.

Carl agreed to do the work for half price and LEBA spent the last seven years raising money.

Cooper's statue deserves to be a special attraction in one of central London's parks or squares. But the bureaucrats at City Hall and Westminster didn't want to know, so beautiful downtown Bellingham it is.

If Our 'Enery had been asked, he probably would have wanted to stand among his own – as he was never one to make a fuss.

As it happens, considering the number of great moments in sport and world championships it has brought to Britain, boxing is under represented among the knights. Surely Lennox Lewis must be up there among those receiving the royal tap on the shoulder?

Not only was he the first man to unify the world heavyweight title since Ali, but he's kept his nose clean and works a lot for charity. Even though he may reside outside the United Kingdom, so do a host of others who have received gongs.

Surely Prince Harry's grandmother will consider Nicola Adams for honours ©Getty Images
Surely Prince Harry's grandmother will consider Nicola Adams for honours ©Getty Images

True, he did win his Olympic title for Canada, but he was a British citizen when he became world professional champion and was born in West Ham. Frank Bruno, who could surely vie with Cooper as the most loved character in British sport, is a fine example of someone who fought his way out of the depths of depression and mental illness to become the man he is now.

Boxing is back up there among Britain's most popular and successful sports. Yet cricket, for example, has an astonishing total of 47 knights, and a couple of dames, drawn from home and overseas (the likes of Gary Sobers and Viv Richards); athletics has eight and half-a-dozen dames; cycling three and two dames; football, of course, has a proliferation of knights since the World Cup won under Alf Ramsey (15 in all); rugby has 14; horse racing eight; motor racing eight; and mountaineering four, while rowing's famous pair Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent are supplemented by Dame Katherine Grainger, who now heads UK Sport.

Indeed, there seem to be more dames in sport than there are in panto season at Christmas time.

And hard-done-by boxing must be hoping they will have one of their own in the New Year Honours if Nicola Adams can confirm her status as a pro world champion later this month, after becoming the first female to win Olympic gold in London – a feat she repeated in Rio four years later.

As they say, there’s nothing like a dame. But as far as boxing is concerned, one knight is surely not enough.