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Former heavyweight contender Cooper dies at age 76

Former heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, one of Britain's most popular sportsmen who was best known for knocking down Muhammad Ali while he was still known as Cassius Clay, died Sunday. He was 76.

The first boxer to be knighted and receive the title "Sir" from a British monarch, Cooper died just two days before his 77th birthday, the British Boxing Board of Control said. He died at his son's house in Oxted, Surrey, in southern England, after an extended illness.

"I am at a loss for words over the death of my friend, Henry Cooper," Ali said in a statement. Cooper floored Ali, then an up-and-coming contender named Clay, in a 1963 non-title fight at Wembley Stadium.

Cooper threw a trademark left hook — known by fans and British boxing writers as "'Enry's 'Ammer" in acknowledgment of his south London accent — toward the end of the fourth round, catching the much larger Ali flush on the jaw and sending him through the ropes and onto the canvas.

Ali, who later said the knockdown punch "not only shook me, it shook my relations in Africa," won the bout by technical knockout in the next round while trailing on the scorecard.

The two fought again in 1966 at London's Highbury Stadium. This time, Ali came in as the world champion and he retained his belt by stopping a bloodied Cooper in the sixth round.

Ali said he visited with Cooper two summers ago during a visit to Windsor.

"Henry always had a smile for me; a warm and embracing smile," Ali said. "It was always a pleasure being in Henry's company. I will miss my ole friend. He was a great fighter and a gentleman. My family and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family and loved ones."

Cooper, who won the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight titles but never the world crown, remained revered in Britain as much for his warm personality and gentlemanly manner as a 40-14-1 record in a professional career spanning more than 16 years.

"He's not the only one who wasn't good enough to beat Ali," said Robert Smith, the general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control. "For such a small man, he put up some great performances in a world-class context.

"It's not just the boxing and your ability, it's the personality as well. He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on two occasions, which is a tremendous feat for a boxer. Everyone called him 'Our Enry,' and he was much loved. He served boxing wonderfully."

Many fans in the partisan Wembley crowd believed Cooper was only denied victory over Ali in the 1963 fight by debatable tactics from his corner.

Trainer Angelo Dundee brought a rip in Ali's gloves to the attention of the referee and Ali had time to recover while new gloves were located and brought to the ring. He then stopped Cooper in the next round.

Cooper retired in 1971 shortly after losing his British, European and Commonwealth belts to Joe Bugner by a quarter of a point. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000.

"He transcended boxing," promoter Frank Warren said. "He was a true gentleman of sport and had a huge place in the public's affection. He never won the world title but he had true British grit, he tried.

"His weakness was that he cut very easily."

Recent British champions paid their respects to Cooper, who also fought Floyd Patterson.

"One of Britain's greatest sportsmen Sir Henry Cooper passed away today," WBA heavyweight champion David Haye tweeted. "A true warrior and great human being. Rest in Peace."

Former undisputed heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis tweeted: "R.I.P. Sir Henry Cooper. Former British, Commonwealth and European Champion. My deepest condolences to the Cooper family."

WBA light welterweight champion Amir Khan said that his compatriot had encouraged him in the early stages of his professional career.

"I met Henry in London a few times. He was very humble, we had a good conversation about my own career and what steps I should be taking," Khan told BBC radio. "He told me not to rush it as a pro, pick the right fights at the right time. I'm young and there are bigger fights ahead.

"It was great advice."

Cooper's twin brother George, who turned professional with him in 1965, died last year.

Cooper's wife of 47 years, Albina, died in 2008 of a heart attack. The couple had two sons, Henry Marco and John Pietro.

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AP Sports Writer Rob Murray in London contributed to this report.