Authored by Ewan Breeze
It would be easy to walk past “Elias and Co” estate agents on the corner of Ealing Road and Wembley High Road without giving it a second look. It’s an ordinary estate agent on an ordinary suburban high street. Bookmakers and banks, takeaways and tapas restaurants.
If however, you looked up, you’d see a little blue plaque nailed at the top left of a first story window. That plaque is there because where you are standing, 55 years ago, you could have bought fruit from the man who was six seconds away from defeating the most famous athlete of all time.
Sir Henry Cooper, or as he was more affectionately known, ‘ar ‘Enry, set up ‘Henry Cooper, Fruiterer & Greengrocer’ in 1965, and in 2018 the plaque was unveiled there by his sons; John and Henry Junior. It was first in the borough of Wembley for more than 40 years.
It reads “Sir Henry Cooper, OBE, KSG, 1934-2011, Professional Boxer, British, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight Champion”, an enviable collection of accolades, but that’s not what anyone was talking about. The day was a festival of anecdotes about someone who had time for everyone. Stories of unfettered kindness and his jubilant smile.
Tony Royden who ran the campaign to have the plaque installed said “When I was about six-years-old my mother took me inside the shop where Henry Cooper was working and said: ‘My son would really love to shake your hand, this enormous figure of a man bent over, shook my hand and gave me a big smile. I didn’t know who it was. Only later thinking back it was probably my mother wanted to meet him and she was just too embarrassed to ask. After that meeting I followed everything he did, all his career.”
Henry Cooper Jr said, “He’d be very happy, very proud to see the tribute here, I was only about four when I’d come to the shop with him. He came to see what was going on. People were always coming up to him. If you were in the car people would shout out to him – people would knock on the window.”
His brother John added “At his height, people stopped him all the time. People would come up to him in restaurants. He didn’t mind. He used to say: ‘When they don’t come up, that’s the time to worry.’ He used to take it as a compliment.”
These testimonies are worth a thousand titles. This is why Cooper remains so well loved by his fellow countrymen, not as a boxer but as a man. He won over his fans one by one. By being a father, a greengrocer, a Londoner, as well as a boxer.
The friendly giant who was just like his customers in that shop. The everyman fighter who made it seem like he did it for you. Every win, every loss. Every cut and stitch, every triumph and heartbreak, it was all for you.
When he passed away in 2011, the most moving statements, outpourings and obituaries were not about his fights or titles, they were about Cooper the man.
This greatest foe though delivered the finest tribute, Muhammad Ali said, 'Henry always had a smile for me; a warm and embracing smile. It was always a pleasure being in Henry's company.”
“I will miss my old friend.”