Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of
Even if you consider yourself a real student of boxing and its history in America, chances are the name Harley Cooper isn’t familiar to you. Yet, pound-for-pound, he was as tough as they come in the ring and he just may have been the best boxer you’ve never heard of. The highlight of his amateur career — he never went pro — was winning two National Golden Gloves light heavyweight titles. He was in middle of a long U.S. Air Force Career at the time. My New Horizons story about Cooper sort of makes the case for him as this unsung warrior whose achievements have been largely forgotten today, but who came oh-so-close to joining the sport’s ranks of immortals before a bad break prevented him from fighting on the world stage in the Olympic Games. Then, when he opted not to turn pro, but rather continue his military career, his amateur feats soon faded into obscurity. No one can ever take those Golden Gloves titles away from him though. Cooper didn’t fight anymore but he remained in boxing as a coach and amateur boxing organizer, and continues to be active in the sport today. He’s also a devoted family man with 13 grown children and many grandchildren.
Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Then Air Force tech sergeant Harley Cooper never saw the punch Joe Frazier knocked him down with during a Washington, D.C. sparring session in preparation for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A tough Savannah, Georgia native, Cooper grew up fighting in The Hood, but got schooled in the Sweet Science in the military. Upon winning the second of two national Golden Gloves titles while boxing out of Offutt Air Force Base, he then won the right to be the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry by capturing the Olympic Trials. In peak fighting trim and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust some heads in Tokyo.
For his Olympic training, Cooper often worked out with team heavyweights Frazier and alternate Buster Mathis, the actual Trials champ who lost his Tokyo shot after suffering a broken hand. Fate then took a sad turn in Cooper’s own bid for Olympic glory when, on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified. During an earlier assignment in Germany, Cooper, born with a deformed kidney, developed problems with his other kidney after drinking water from a mountain stream, causing doctors to remove the damaged organ. Left with a single kidney, he boxed with no ill effects right up until officials nixed his Olympic trip. “They had an Air Force officer there who told me I could go, but I couldn’t fight. They felt it was a danger to me, even though I’d been fighting for about three-four years with one kidney. I told them if they wouldn’t let me fight to let me go home. Now, I wish I would have went,” says Cooper, his soft eyes filled with regret even now at the thought of missing all the Olympic pomp and pageantry.
This seemingly arbitrary decision denying him a chance for Olympic gold, especially when so close to pursuing it, hurt him to his core.
“That was really, really tough,” says the soft-spoken Cooper, an inscrutable man with the pensive demeanor of a scholar. “Honestly, I believe if I would have gone, I would have won. Well, I gotta believe this, because in boxing, if you don’t think you can win, you’re lost.”
Only a couple years before, he’d transfered to Omaha. His new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping thw Golden Gloves. It was his first Gloves action, but he was no rookie, having already compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of bouts in the military, winning service titles wherever duty called, including Japan and Europe. Once here, he out-classed the field. “In all honesty, I had the advantage because of my experience,” he says. “I had the strength. I had the discipline. I had the knowledge. I had the ability.”
He’d dabbled in the sport earlier, when he trained for one bout and lost, but only got serious following a scene straight out of the movies. He was based in Japan when, one night, he and a buddy went to a service boxing exhibition. There was a call, just like in carnivals of old, for a volunteer to have a go at one of the fighters. He took the bait. “Being young and dumb,” he says,. “I put my hand up and I went in, and me and this guy started boxing. At this time, I didn’t know how to box, but I could fight, OK? I knocked this guy down and the coach came and asked me to join the team. I joined…and that’s how I got into boxing.”
Boxing gave him something other sports he tried, didn’t. “I was always involved in some kind of sport, but once I started boxing than I stopped doing all the rest. For some reason, it just fit me. In boxing, you’re the only one…you either rise to the occasion, alone, or you don’t. With my background, it was more the challenge…of the give-and-take. And when you survive and win…there’s no other feeling like it.”
The youngest of eight children in a poor, working class family, he quickly learned how to use his fists. “As the baby of the family, I know I got tough from the older kids picking on me. When you’re the small one, you get all the lashings. And I was born and raised in a family where you didn’t back down, especially if you got in a fight,” he says. “If I got beat up and I went home crying, than my brothers would smack me a couple times and take me back. You dried your tears before you got home. So, I was pretty tough. But I wasn’t a bully.”
Playing the usual team sports as a youth, he says “I could hold my own” but was no superstar. He left home at 17 to join the Army and after a year’s hitch he signed up with the Air Force, where he found a home.
By the time he got to Omaha, Cooper was a mature 27-year-old veteran of both the ring and the military and the father of eight. The arrival of such a man and fighter on the local pugilistic scene soon turned heads and started tongues wagging.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” says Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Boxing is replete with back room dealings and personal jealousies. So, once local coaches got a gander at Cooper, they vied like mad to get him to train with them and fight for their teams. That’s when, Lovgren says, the late Omaha World-Herald sports columnist, Wally Provost, stepped in and told Cooper, “You’re fighting for me,” to squelch any in-fighting and bad feelings. A few local figures worked with Cooper during his amateur career here, including the late Jack Fickler, but Cooper says, “I was seasoned enough that I trained myself. I knew what I had to do.”
He was able to do this, he says, thanks to his strict military training, which complemented boxing. “It’s not only the mental toughness I learned, but the confidence and the discipline. I would get up around 6 to go run. I’d run until I was exhausted. Then I’d come home and shower and go to work by 8. I’d get off work around 4:30 or 5, and by 6:30 I’d be in the gym, working out for a couple hours. I had a large family, so to supplement my income I refereed sports on weekends, but I still worked out every day. That’s commitment, man.” In the ring, this single-minded dedication paid off, too. “In boxing, you have to be very, very disciplined. You go into the fight with a plan, but once it’s on, things change and, so, you have to adapt to it, and if you don’t have the discipline to control what you’re doing, well, you’re not going to survive. I guarantee you, what separates the guys who are successful from the other guys is focus. I was so focused I didn’t feel the pain of the punches that hit me. Not until the next day.”
A hard-hitting, smooth-moving boxing machine, Cooper twice won the Golden Gloves Trinity by taking the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ‘63 and ‘64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, at heavyweight, culminating in the ‘64 finals in Chicago. Cooper was a natural light heavyweight but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t have time to cut weight in advance of the local Gloves. Over the light-heavy limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete in the heavyweight division, where he felt woefully undersized at 183 pounds. Even after winning the local-regional heavyweight titles, he still campaigned to go back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable, but “they wouldn’t let me move down,” he says, referring to his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.’” He went all the way.
The underdog used his superior quickness to offset his opponents’ greater size and power in winning only the second national gloves title by a Nebraska boxer since the 1930s. For Cooper, boxing is all about being smart enough to discern a winning strategy, often on the fly, and then having the requisite skill and heart to carry out the plan. Brains over brawn. “It’s like, when I fought at heavyweight. I didn’t win because I was the strongest guy and the biggest guy,” he says. “I knew if we got to pushing arms on arms, man, I wouldn’t stand a chance. It was the traps I set for those guys, and I took advantage of them.” Ah, traps — among the key tenets of Cooper’s cerebral boxing philosophy.
“See, I don’t see boxing as two guys swinging at each other,” he says. “I see boxing as people setting traps for other people, OK? Like, I would come out and do some things and, honest to goodness, I could predict what that person was going to do by his reaction to what I did. Like, I could make a guy jab at me by feinting at him, and he would expose himself and then the next time I could slip under his jab and get into him. You don’t think about it. That’s just something you see, and it goes somewhere back in your head, and the next time you do it, you know it’s going to be there. You’ve already set the trap, and then you take advantage of it.”
Traps are a two-way street, however. “Now, remember, the other guy is setting traps for you also,” he says. “So, you have to maintain, like a poker face, that coolness and not get excited, and just continue what you’re doing. It’s knowing traps are being set for you and out-thinking the other guy.”
In ‘64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot, plowing through to the nationals in Nashville, where he won. In the proceeding 40 years, only one other Nebraska fighter has won a national Gloves title. That same weekend in Nashville, then-Cassius Clay met Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Cooper and his fellow Gloves boxers were guests at the fight. While the introspective Cooper would never use the braggadocio style of the man later known as Muhammad Ali, he says he did learn from him that “you have to think you are good, before you are good.”
Cooper’s win in Nashville put him in line for the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won. Whatever bitterness he felt over his Olympic bid later being snatched away has long faded into the realm of rich anecdotes. And he has plenty of stories from his two-months long Olympic training experience that put him in the same ring with some then and future legends whose respect he earned.
Like the time he sparred then-light heavyweight champ Bob Foster, a fellow Air Force vet. The way Cooper tells it, after sparring a couple rounds, Foster said, “Man, where’ve you been? I’m sure glad we never fought,” which he took to mean he would have given Foster fits. “This guy’s a big-time pro and world’s champion and he’s saying it would have been a helluva fight. That made me feel good.”
Or the times he and Smokin’ Joe Frazier traded leather, Frazier boring in, looking to corner Cooper on the ropes or sucker him into slugging it out, and the dancing, probing Cooper staying clear of trouble, looking for openings to counterpunch. Cooper says he held his own, except for that one time he got caught by an uppercut that dropped him, although he’s quick to point out, “I got right back up.” Today, he can talk about getting tagged by Olympic and world heavyweight champ Joe Frazier like the badge of honor it is. Years later, during an Omaha appearance with Ron Stander, Frazier told then-Husker linebacker Ira Cooper, one of Harley’s 13 children by two marriages, that his old man “was the best amateur fighter I ever saw who never turned professional.” High praise, indeed.
Why Cooper never turned pro despite attractive offers, including an overture from boxing legend Henry Armstrong, reveals much about the man. “Well, you gotta remember, I had a big investment in the service at that point,” he says, adding that with a large family to support he chose the sure thing rather than chancing it. “I’m satisfied with my life. If I had to do it over again, I don’t know I would change anything. One part of my life I would not change is having kids.”
After his first marriage ended in divorce, Cooper retired from the Air Force in ‘73 and came back to Omaha, where he raised a new family with his present wife, Edie. Their kids are grown now and he’s a grandpa many times over. He post-military work life has centered, not surprisingly, around kids — at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program.
But the pull of boxing never left and, so, for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association, the organizing-sanctioning body for local-regional boxing cards such as the Golden Gloves. He’s even helped train some kids.
“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”
Occasional what-might-have-beens creep in. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of…” Turned pro, he means. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.” Lace ‘em up, Harley‘s in the House of Pain and he’s lookin’ to whup somebody.
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