By Montee Lopez, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
As people in myriad parts of the world noted the passing (June 3) of Muhammad Ali with conversations online, on telephones, in person and with varying points of interest, some who meet in a club of friends near Booker T. Washington High School also thought of Henry Hooper II.
“When I walked into the club, they said, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard anything about you on the TV,’” said Hooper.
A retired Marine veteran and current State Farm Insurance agent, Hooper stepped into the ring with Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) during the Olympic Trials of 1960. The trials, which included men in the Armed Forces, were a series of so-called sparring matches held over the course of three days at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
In the book “Rome 1960,” David Maraniss writes about the tournament, detailing personal testimonies and first-hand experiences of those who participated in the trials. Hooper was a skilled fighter and he knew several forms of martial arts.
A Memphis native and BTW graduate, Hooper said he always aspired to go into the service.
“I had no ambition to be a professional fighter,” said Hooper, who shared his story with reporters at his South Main office the day before Ali’s Funeral. “I was a soldier.”
Hooper made several tours of duty overseas. Ali, who pointed to his religion beliefs and his opposition to the Viet Nam War, refused to go into the U.S. military. Labeled a “draft-dodger” by many, he was stripped of the heavyweight boxing titles he won in 1964 with the upset of Sonny Liston.
Hooper said he respected Ali’s views.
“He was man enough to stand up for his convictions. …He stood up for what believed in, and I used that same aspect in my life.”
On May 19, 1960 Hooper and Ali stood toe to toe. According to “Rome 1960,” Hooper was felled by a devastating knockout punch by Ali in the third round. That doesn’t exactly square with Hooper’s recollection.
“In boxing, you’re told to never take your eye off your opponent,” Hooper said, remembering that final round. “The referee was saying something, and I glanced at the referee. There’s a mandatory one-step back, we’ll (Ali) didn’t step back, he just rocked back and he rocked right in my jaw.”
Hooper said he went down, but immediately popped back up. However, the referee gave the win to Ali, saying it was a technical knockout.
And, said, Hooper, there was no sparring – only fighting.
“That’s the real story.”
After the fight, the two went separate ways. Cassius Clay won the Olympic gold medal, became Muhammad Ali and won the heavyweight crown three times en route to becoming a legend in and out of the boxing ring. Later as a combat medic, Hooper was part of the U.S. Army’s renowned Green Berets. Assigned to the Secret Service, he provided security for four U.S. presidents.
In 1960, Hooper never envisioned the man he fought as someone who would become arguably the greatest heavyweight champion.
“Cassius and I had similar styles, and I didn’t think he was any better than I was,” said Hooper.
Fifteen years after their bout, Hooper met his one-time opponent as Muhammad Ali at a state dinner at the White House.
“(Ali) approached me, saying, ‘Man, don’t I know you from somewhere?’ And I said, ‘1960. Olympic Trials. Cow Palace.’”
Today, Hooper sells insurance in Downtown Memphis. He remembers a time when Memphis was a boxing mecca.
“They used to have it as an after-school program, but someone got hurt and they had to stop.”
Noting Ali’s worldwide impact, Hooper said people should always strive to be the best they can be and help make the world a greater place.
“When you’re here, you should do the best you can with whatever God-given talent you have and hopefully you have an impact on the lives of people, not just for personal satisfaction,” he said.
“I think that’s what I took out of (Ali’s legacy) mostly.”