Harry Gibbs

Boxing referee who saw off Henry Cooper

When Harry Gibbs, Britain's best-known boxing referee, who has died aged 79, raised Joe Bugner's arm to signal his victory over Henry Cooper in their triple heavyweight title clash at Wembley on March 16 1971, he unwittingly became the central figure in a British sporting controversy to rank alongside Geoff Hurst's disputed second goal in the 1966 World Cup final.

Bugner's victory - by a quarter of a point - wrecked the hugely popular Cooper's ambition of retiring as undefeated British, European and Commonwealth champion - and remains the subject of fierce debate. An angry crowd of 10,000 unleashed a storm of booing as Harry Carpenter, the BBC commentator, cried: "How can you take the man's three titles away like that? Bugner is the winner, but the poor young man does not have a friend in the house."

Gibbs's verdict saw him receive a police escort from the ring and sparked a feud with Cooper which lasted until 1997. Yet the Bermondsey-born official never expressed any doubts about his decision, which sent Cooper into retirement on a wave of public sympathy. In his 1972 autobiography, Cooper said he believed he was comfortably ahead on points going into that fateful last round, recalling the words of his manager, Jim Wicks: "You've only got to stay on your feet and you've got it."

At the final bell, Cooper offered Gibbs his hand, only for the referee to turn his back on him and walk over to Bugner. "I thought I just nicked it, Harry," said Cooper plaintively. "Son," Gibbs is said to have replied, "champions don't nick anything."

Gibbs later successfully sued Cooper for libel over a passage in his book which he felt questioned his competence and honesty. "When that bell goes, all I see is two pairs of shorts, and I call it as I see it, regardless of who is there," he once said. Unimpressed by Muhammad Ali's attempts to intimidate Britain's Brian London before their 1966 world title fight in London, Gibbs said curtly: "Sonny, you just do your job, and I'll do mine."

Harry Gibbs followed his father into the London docks, rising to become a foreman. He took up boxing following numerous fights on the cobbles, becoming a respectable amateur light-heavyweight. The war delayed his plans to turn professional and, as a lance-corporal in the Queen's Royal Regiment, he was captured during the retreat from Dunkirk. He spent the next five years as a prisoner-of-war in Poland, with spells in solitary confinement following numerous escape attempts.

After the war, Gibbs had a six-fight professional career before electing to coach youngsters at the St Pancras and Belsize clubs. When he took up refereeing, his rise was swift, and by the mid-1960s he had become one of the most familiar characters on the British boxing scene, always willing to offer advice to younger officials. Down-to-earth workmates ensured there was never any chance of celebrity going to his head. The morning after he received his OBE, he arrived at his office to find a sign bearing the words "Old Big 'Ead" above his desk. He retired as a referee in 1985, but served as a judge on the world title fight scene until 1993.

Gibbs is survived by his wife, Phyllis, and a daughter.

Mike Lewis

Harry Gibbs, boxing referee, born October 3 1920; died November 15 1999

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Obituary: Harry Oppenheimer, diamond baron
Industrial baron whose diamond and coal mines stoked the economic engine driving apartheid

David Pallister

20, Aug, 2000 @11:54 PM

Harry Webster
The theatrical pedigree of the genial Dubliner Harry Webster, who has died aged 84, went back to the Abbey Theatre of Sean O'Casey and WB Yeats, and to gruelling and fun days of the pre-television touring theatre that enlivened Irish rural life. One of life's natural character actors, he came to London in the mid-1950s and was regularly in work until a few years before his death.

Kevin O'Connor

21, Mar, 2000 @1:47 AM

Obituary: Harry Hayes
From 1952-58, the alto saxophonist Harry Hayes, who has died aged 92, was a regular with Kenny Baker's Dozen, the all-star jazz ensemble which featured on immensely popular weekly BBC broadcasts.

Tony Middleton

03, Apr, 2002 @1:41 AM

Obituary: Harry Urban
Obituary: Jewish doctor undaunted by the vicissitudes of war.

Kenneth Griffith

04, Nov, 2004 @11:58 PM

Obituary: Harry Errington
Obituary: George Cross fireman hero of the London blitz.

Diana Condell

29, Dec, 2004 @12:03 AM

Harry Mullan
To describe Harry Mullan, who has died aged 53 of cancer, as one of the finest and most perceptive sports writers to have graced journalism in the last 30 years would be accurate, but would undersell his life.

John Rawlings

24, May, 1999 @3:38 AM

Harry Blech
Harry Blech, who has died aged 89, was one of Britain's best-loved musicians. His two careers - first as a violinist and quartet-leader, later as a conductor - brought him immense success; and he has a permanent memorial in the orchestra which he founded, the London Mozart Players.

By Tully Potter

12, May, 1999 @1:16 AM

Obituary: Harry Secombe
Though he might easily have become a leading operatic tenor, he could never resist the delight of making people laugh.

Dennis Barker

12, Apr, 2001 @1:52 AM

Obituary: Harry Burton
Cameraman on a series of dangerous assignments.

John Aglionby

22, Nov, 2001 @3:20 AM

Obituary: Harry Danks
Gifted musician with many strings to his bow.

Tully Potter

09, May, 2001 @1:37 AM