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The buccaneer and the bruiser: Seve Ballesteros and Henry Cooper (1957-2011/ 1934-2011)

May 8, 2011

Clenched fists: Seve Ballesteros delivering his classic celebration following another bravura performance (left); Henry Cooper in a typically impressive pose for the cameras (right)

Sadly, it’s time for another obituary here at George’s Journal – in fact, it’s time for two of them. Yes, a pair of unquestioned icons have passed on, both from the world of sport – and surely the much wider world will be a lesser place for their absence. Both Seve Ballesteros and Henry Cooper, in very different yet very individual ways, irreparably changed their sports – and changed them for the better.

Severiano ‘Seve’ Ballesteros Sota, who died just yesterday aged 54, was born on 9 June 1957, in Pedreña, Cantabria, Spain. Always destined to be a professional golfer (his uncle was Spanish champion four times and finished sixth in the 1965 US Masters tournament, while all three of his older brothers also turned pro), the young Seve practically taught himself how to play the sport on the beautiful beach behind his house. He also sneaked on to the Pedreña golf course at night to practice and, aged 12, he shot a score of 79 to win the course’s caddies’ tournament.

In 1974, at just 16-years-old, he turned professional and came to prominence two years later when he led the British Open for the first three days – ultimately finishing tied second with the legendary American player Jack Nicklaus. However, by the end of that year he had managed to claim the European Order Of Merit title (meaning he was the continent’s best player), the first of three successive times out of a total of six times. His first great triumph came in 1979, though, when at 22 he became the century’s youngest golfer to win the British Open – now his fame was unquestionably global. Not least, because on the 16th hole his tee shot had landed in a car park, yet he’d still managed to birdie the hole (finish one-under-par).

In total, Ballesteros won five golf ‘Majors’ (of which there are four; the British Open, the US Open, the US Masters and the PGA Championship); he added another two British Opens to his first (1984 and ’88) and two Masters (1980 and ’83). Indeed, he was amazingly the first European player to win a Major since 1907 and, in winning his first Masters title, he led by 10 holes with nine to play. Unsurprisingly, during the ’8os he often was rated the world’s #1 golfer; in the late ’80s he constantly vied with Australian Greg Norman for the top spot. His indelibly competitive spirit helped him also win five World Match Play tournaments between 1981 and ’91.

Standing ovation: Seve, at just 22, takes the plaudits as he wins the British Open on 21 July 1979

However, perhaps more important than this, during his career Seve was arguably the world’s most popular golfer too. His approach to playing the game was full-on, all-out, exciting-to-the-hilt and utterly captivating. He may have been an aggresive player who loved to take risks, but his on-course personality was just as magnetic – he was a charismatic tour de force. Perhaps American golfer Tom Kite put it best by saying: “When he gets going, it’s almost as if Seve is driving a Ferrari and the rest of us are in Chevrolets”. It didn’t hurt either that off the course he was an amiable, fairly humble chap and a committed family man.

He also seemed to lead a wave of European success in golf, a sport in which America had held the upper hand for decades. This was to be seen individually (with the UK’s Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle and fellow Spaniard Jose-Maria Olazabal all winning Majors) and collaboratively. In 1979, if good enough, any European golfer was invited to join the British and Irish side in the Ryder Cup team event against the Americans – Ballesteros was, of course, included. Although dropped in ’81, Seve returned and in ’85 was the driving force behind the Europeans’ first victory in the competition for 28 years. Two years later, the Europeans won again, this time on US soil. In total he won 20 points out of a total 37 in his eight Ryder Cups – and his partnership with Olazabal is still the event’s most successful. In 1997 he was the Europeans’ non-playing captain (essentially the team’s coach) when the thing was held in Spain – they won again.

With 87 professional victories behind him, Ballesteros’s form and appearances waned during the ’90s owing to arthritic back and knee problems. His final effort came at the Masters in 2007, where he sadly finished last. On 12 October 2008, he announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He underwent an operation and extensive treatment, which he battled with his trademark bravura, but ultimately, of course, his neurological condition worsened and finally took his life.

Before his death, he established the Seve Ballesteros Foundation, which aims to help fight cancer, especially brain tumors, and financially aid young golfers. He leaves behind his wife, two sons and a daughter. On hearing of his passing, current world #1 golfer, Britain’s Lee Westwood said: “Seve made European golf what it is today”.

~~~

One of the UK’s most popular ever sportsman (his nickname, after all, was ‘Our ‘Enery’), Henry Cooper died aged 75 on May 1. He began his boxing career in 1949 and, as an amateur, won 73 out of 84 fights – two of which earned him a pair of ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) Light-Heavyweight titles. He was born, along with his twin brother George – who also grew up to be a boxer – on 3 May 1934 in South East London. During World War Two, his father was called up to serve his country, while Henry and George went to school in Lewisham, the playground of which was, in fact, the site of Henry’s first knock-out. The twins actually excelled in many sports while at school, including football and cricket.

After competing in the 1952 Olympics and two years’ national service in the  Royal Army Ordnance Corp, Henry turned professional at the same time as George (who competed under the name Jim Cooper). He experienced early setbacks when challenging for titles, but eventually took the British and Commonwealth Heavyweight titles from Brian London in a 15-round decision in January 1959, aged 24. Having won this fight, he was free to face the World Heavyweight Champion, Floyd Patterson of the US, but deciding he wasn’t ready, he turned down the chance and opted instead to defend his twin titles against all comers. Towards the end of his career, he held the British, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight titles all at the same time.

In 1963, Cooper took on his most famous opponent in his most famous bout, namely Cassius Clay (later, on his conversion to Islam, to be Muhammad Ali). A gold medal winner at the 1960 Olympics, Clay was a young, but heavier, faster and most formidable foe, even if the the meeting was a non-title fight. And, most memorable of all, it was during this match that Cooper knocked-down arguably the greatest boxer to have lived. At the end of the fourth round, he caught Clay with an upward-angled version of his trademark left-hook punch (this was nicknamed, unsurprisingly, ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer). Luckily, Clay caught his armpit on the ropes and so didn’t hit the canvas floor and controversially was given smelling salts in his corner during the break that followed, which ensured he recovered. Catching Cooper below the eye and causing it to bleed, Clay won the fight as the referee had to stop the contest – Cooper had been ahead on the scoring.

Three years later, Henry got a shot at the big one when he met the now monikered Muhammad Ali, now World Heavyweight Champion, again. This time, though, Ali was wily to the danger posed by his opponent’s powerful left-hook and used his trademark smart footwork and other tactics to avoid it. A cut below Cooper’s eye opened up during this fight also and Ali won again – again Cooper had been ahead on points at the end. On the punch that had felled him in the first fight, Ali would later say on British TV that Cooper had hit him so hard that his ‘ancestors in Africa had felt it’.

It’s (nearly) a knock-out: Our ‘Enery almost puts Cassius Clay on his backside in their 1963 fight

Cooper went on to fight Floyd Patterson eventually, but was knocked-out in the fourth round. More happily, he defended all his titles until his last fight in 1971 against Hungarian-born-British-Australian up-and-comer Joe Bugner. The latter won the fight, and with it Cooper’s three titles, by a mere quarter of a point. Neither the heavily pro-Cooper crowd at the fight, nor the UK public, nor even the legendary TV commentator Harry Carpenter were much impressed; in his commentary, Carpenter exclaimed: “How can they take away the man’s titles like this?”. Cooper was now 36. He had fought 55 professional fights, won 40 and knocked-out 27 opponents.

Following the end of his boxing career, Cooper kept himself very much in the public eye and, unquestionably, in the British people’s hearts. Constant appearances on television – on the likes of the sport-themed quiz show A Question Of Sport and, notoriously, in the 1970s commercials for Brut cologne aftershave (one of them opposite the perma-permed Kevin Keegan: “splash it all over, ‘Enry”) – ensured he took on the mantle of a jolly, avuncular if still physically imposing figure. Indeed, Cooper’s out-of-the-ring upbeat, Sarf London personality had always endeared him to the public and continued to do so for the rest of his life – he once remarked that his wife, who apparently hated boxing, was the perfect boxer’s wife because she invited journalists in for a cup of tea while they waited for him to get out of bed on the morning after fights.

Henry Cooper was a hero from a different age – both in terms of boxing and in terms of the UK itself; an age that, even if it weren’t so, seemed nicer, simpler and fairer. Indeed, he was the first celebrity backer of the Anti-Nazi League, a high profile pro-immigration movement (as the grandson of an Irish immigrant he was vehemently against racism, despite being generally traditionalist in his other political views). He was also very much a working-class hero in an era when fellow working-class celebrities such as The Beatles and Michael Caine came through and captured the public imagination. Like these, Cooper was a permanent – and, looking back, a comfortable – fixture of Britain in the 1960s. It’s no surprise he was the first person to win the BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year Award twice (1967 and ’70), in addition to receiving an OBE in 1969 and being knighted in 2000.

Over the years, he also did a great deal of charity work and even dabbled with acting, appearing in a cameo as a Victorian boxer in the film adaptation of the novel Royal Flash (1975). But – and thanks to all his familiar later years in the public eye, it’s easy to forget – it’s as a truly heady heavyweight boxer that he should and probably will be best remembered. In a sport whose summit was dominated by Americans for so long, he (like Seve after him, you might say) opened the door for the British once more. He was the first Briton to come close to winning the World Heavyweight title for decades, making it more than conceivable a Brit might actually do it. Unquestionably then, he paved the way for Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis eventually getting the job done after him. And more, his knock-out personality won him lifelong fans from Lewisham to Carlisle. So long, ‘Enry – the epitome of the gentleman sportsman.

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