Ron Cooper, Lightweight Champion Boxer
It has been my pleasure to contribute a series of interviews to BOXERS, Photographs of Boxing in London by Alex Sturrock , a large format colour book published next week by Ally Capellino. Here is my interview from the book with Lightweight Champion Ron Cooper, an East Ender who competed in the London Olympics of 1948.
I met Ron Cooper at one of the London Ex-Boxers Association reunions, held each first Sunday morning of the month at the William Blake in Old Street. At these events, you encounter hundreds of ex-boxers enjoying the camaraderie that distinguishes their sport.
Every gathering begins with the reading of a list of those who have passed away since last time, followed by a moment of respectful silence, and then it is on to club notices. Speeches and a raffle punctuate the morning and everyone takes comfort in the knowledge that due procedure has been followed in this familiar ritual. Yet, in effect, it is a Sunday service of devotion for all those who love boxing and have devoted their lives to it. And, even though the bar does not open, the sentiment of the occasion is enough to create widespread intoxication. Some of the most senior are the most playful, while handshakes, unselfconscious embraces and posing for yet another group photo, bear witness to the emotion of the moment, recognising that the ties of friendship formed a lifetime ago remain as strong as ever.
Amongst the old timers, all suited and booted, shaven and shorn and well-turned out in dark suits, the youngsters are eager to seek inspiration from their idols. And it was in this environment that I had the privilege to sit down in a quiet corner with East End boxing legend, Ron Cooper, while he told me his story in his own words.
“I was just a little cockney boy from Limehouse. I felt so proud to fight in the Olympics in London in 1948, all the buttons on my shirt busted! I still have the vest, it’s sixty-two years old and I’d probably get in it now if I done a little training.
I was working down in Millwall in the docks, doing welding after I come out the Navy. And when my father died in 1948, soon after I won the ABA lightweight championship, I didn’t want to box anymore, I’d lost all heart. In my first fight after his death, I kept looking around for the old man at the ringside, like he always was. And he wasn’t there.
Then my guvnor said, “You’ve been picked, Ron, for the Olympics.” I said, “Yes guvnor, I’ve been picked for the Olympics.” He said, “Where are you going to train?” I said, “I can’t afford to go away. I’m the breadwinner indoors, I’ve got to go to work.” I was the youngest of ten. But my guvnor was a boxing fan, so the first thing he did – I can see it as if it was yesterday – he said, “Mary, get Ronnie three weeks wages. Here’s your wages Ronnie!” And I went away with the British boxing team to Wargrave.
I can remember going to Switzerland to box for Britain in 1947 and they put a steak in front of me and I said, “What’s that? Is that a steak? I haven’t seen one of them in six years.” We was on rations. We was getting two ounces of bacon, two ounces of sugar, half a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk per person. That’s how we lived. We were starving. We had nothing. Actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t know how we done it. We were skint, weren’t we, in 1948? Food rationing ‘til when? 1954! This was three years after the war. Bomb damage everywhere.
Down at Wargrave, from fly to lightweight was going out on the road to train and from welter to middleweight was stopping in the gym. The next day, we would reverse it, they would go in the gym and we would go out on the road. And for food – I had to laugh – they used to say, “Give Ronnie Cooper the custard and jelly,” because I love custard and jelly. That – to me – was a steak. I used to say, “If there’s any meat, give it to the others” We never had no meat, did we? Everyone had to bring their own meat! But custard and jelly, I loved it, I love it now. When I used to have a fight, I said to my mum, “What you got?” And she used to say, “Your custard and jelly’s right out there, it’s red hot.”
To wear that Olympic blazer with Great Britain on it, that’s the pinnacle of amateur boxing. And you feel proud with the old beret on, little twenty-year-old walking down, still wiping your nose. I boxed at Wembley, I boxed the Dutch champion, Jan Remie, and I beat him. He was like a bull. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He went jab, jab, jab and I went bang, bang, bang.
The second one – I boxed the European champion, Matthew McCullagh – the only thing I remember was when I came round, I’m sitting there and someone was hitting me round the face. I said, “All right, when am I on then?” They said, “Son, you have been on and you’re out.” I said, “How did I get on in the fight?” They said, “You lost!” They said, “Do you remember when you got put down on the floor?” I said, “No.” It was the first time I ever got decked as an amateur. They said, “Do you know you had him on the floor?” I said, “No.”
I got put down in the first round but they told me I had him down in the second round and the third round. They told me, “What a fight! What a fight!” I told them, “I didn’t feel a thing. I don’t remember going in, I don’t remember coming out. I don’t remember it.” They told me, “You’ve lost on points but what a fight you’ve had.” I had a lovely letter from the RSBA telling me what a fantastic fight it was. I’d never got knocked out, only when I got married.
I had twenty-six fights as a pro and won twenty-three, and I’ve fought four area champions and knocked them out. I never done bad. Years ago, I used to have eight rounds in a week, today they wouldn’t do it. We never had the vitamins these kids have today. To be a champion and reach the top noddle, you have to be dedicated. It was through hard work that I got there. I say to kids, “You can be fit as a fiddle but if you want to reach the top, you’ve got have a bit of dedication, a bit of hard work.”
Whether it’s running or swimming, boxing, wrestling, hockey, football – you name it – you have to sacrifice things. You’ve got to do it. And to go in the ring you’ve got to have a bit of heart, haven’t you? Any sport, you’ve to have a bit of heart. When I started boxing, no way in my lifetime did I think that I’d have been boxing in the Olympic Games.”
Ron Cooper when he competed in the London Olympics 1948.
Charlie Edwards is nineteen years old and has been training to compete in the 2012 Olympics - “It’s an adrenalin rush when you’re winning, I’ve never felt a buzz like it. I love it, I’ve loved it ever since I first went into the gym. It’s a huge feeling, you want it so bad.”
Photographs copyright © Alex Sturrock