John Cooper congratulated by his father after winning a rugged and bloody fight at Grafton in 1983.
John Cooper congratulated by his father after winning a rugged and bloody fight at Grafton in 1983.

One of the tough guys

By Max Godbee

The Clarence region has produced its share of good fighters, fast and tough men in the hempen square of a boxing ring, and John Cooper is one of them.

John has held NSW and National boxing titles and twice represented Australia at the sport overseas.

Only game men fight, it is not a sport for the weak-hearted, and John has shown his toughness and courage both in and out of the ring.

Boxing and rugby league are his most favoured sports, but he has also proved a more than capable swimmer and track and field athlete, particularly in distance running and high jumping.

His gameness has never been questioned and has been prepared to take on officialdom if he perceives injustice.

Nowhere has this been clearer then his battle with authority in the person of former State and Australian Amateur Boxing Association secretary/treasurer Arthur Tunstall.

Tunstall had worked hard for boxing, but many Australians have serious questions about his public and private outbursts, and he has on occasions been portrayed as a dictator with self interests uppermost.

John's arguments with Tunstall have been well documented and his willingness to stand up for what he felt was right cost John any chance of a place in Australia's 1986 Commonwealth Games team.

In rugby league John Cooper has been involved with each of the three local Group One rugby league teams, Lower Clarence and Grafton Ghosts as a player and in current years as a committeeman, strapper and first aid officer with the South Grafton Rebels.

John William Cooper was born in Maclean in January in 1963 the son of Malcolm and Aileen (nee Smith) Cooper of Woodford Dale.

There are six in the family, John, his brothers David and Phillip and sisters, Gail, Cheryl and Jill.

Boxing is in the Cooper blood with Malcolm who had 21 fights, John's early coach and advisor.

John's first school was Woodford Dale Public, which he attended for two years.

"I suppose you could say that I had to walk to school," John said.

"That is correct but it wasn't far to go as the school was next door to our house.

"My parents bought a house at Brushgrove so we moved and we went to the Cowper Public School.

"We played with and against the Cowper Convent pupils particularly the boys in rugby league, contesting the various school football competitions."

John originally wanted to play five-eighth but was installed early as a hooker and it became a position he prized.

"In those days halfbacks could not feed ball into the second row as they do today and it was up to the hooker to win his side as big a proportion of possession as possible." John said.

"I felt I was good at doing that so I began to cherish the role more and more."

John also represented Cowper Public in swimming, cricket and athletics doing best in high jumping and proving hard to beat in the longer running events.

After primary school John continued his studies and sport at Maclean High for two years and then two more, years nine and 10, at Grafton High.

John's love of rugby league was always strong and he was just nine years of age when he began playing for Maclean in the Saturday minor league competition coached by his uncle Allan Smith.

"We had some pretty good teams over the years and won a couple of premierships, " he said.

"When I finished at Grafton High school I played Under-18s with Grafton Ghosts and I remember captaining the side in my final season there."

Despite breaking a wrist at work and missing some games, John, an apprentice blacksmith, was runner-up in the club's best and fairest award for the Under-18s to win a $50 open order.

"I used the money to buy a beaut wet suit and decided to give up football and take up surfing as I didn't want to go from Under-18s to play reserve grade the next season," he said.

John, like most of us, had his first fight, a bare fist affair, as a six-year-old at Woodford Dale primary school against a bigger opponent whom he finally wore down and defeated.

Malcolm Cooper decided it was time he taught his son more about the noble art of self defence.

Malcolm himself had been involved in 21 fights in the ring and won 18 of them plus two draws.

In years from 1969 to 1972, John, as a six to nine year old and under his father's guidance had 13 fights in boxing rings around the Northern Rivers and won nine.

His one moment of doubt was as a nine year old when his father took him to the Grafton show and to the boxing tent, offering the youngster as an opponent to any challenger, doing it more for his son to soak up the atmosphere than anything else.

"I was a bit scared that I would have to fight one or two of the he big blokes, but nobody accepted the challenge and I began to feel good standing up there on the boards with the regular boxers," John said.

In the 1980s the South Grafton Amateur Boxing Club was formed using the South Grafton Indoor Sports Centre as base and with former Australian professional light heavyweight champion Steve Cansdell chief tutor.

John Cooper, then 19, was one of the first to join up alongside Rebels' footballer and later to be world boxing champion Jeff Harding and a host of young hopefuls.

John had a number of fights including capturing the North Coast amateur light middleweight crown.

Cansdell took three of his best, John Cooper, Jeff Harding and Michael Darby to contest the NSW titles and while it was great experience all three were beaten.

Cansdell next took a group of fighters to contest the South East Queensland championships and Cooper had five nominated opponents in his division.

Amazingly all five were late withdrawals so John, without having a fight, was declared champion in a walkover and was naturally disappointed about the whole affair.

That was a precursor to a fair part of his future career with many of his listed opponents being last minute withdrawals and one can only assume that word was passed around of John Cooper's strength, determination and punching power.

In 1983 both Cooper and Harding qualified for the 1984 Olympic boxing trials in Melbourne and after progressing to the finals each lost in what the media described as 'controversial decisions'.

After losing another highly controversial decision in 1984 John in frustration decided to retire.

That retirement really turned into a spell and in 1985 John made a comeback.

Steve Cansdell had retired from training so John became his own mentor.

He won the NSW amateur title but then lost out in the Australian championships in Perth.

He had little sleep leading up to that final due to harassment and continuous disputes with Tunstall about having to buy NSW team gear for which which Tunstall had the sales rights, or withdraw from the competition.

Anyway the upshot of the matter was that John Cooper never was given the right to represent his country at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

John relates that one of the district's best fighters, Bob Harper, some time before also had a run-in with Tunstall, resulting in the boxer being forced out of the NSW championships.

John Cooper was one of many NSW country boxers who helped form a breakaway body, The NSW Amateur Boxing League.

The League flourished, but its drawback was that the old Amateur Boxing Association was the only body allowed to have its boxers represent Australia at the Olympic Games and other major events.

The one-time South Grafton Amateur Boxing club had become defunct so in 1987 John helped form a new club, The Grafton Amateur Boxing Club, which, wanting nothing to do with Tunstall, affiliated with the breakaway Boxing League.

John trained many good fighters and his team collected several State and National titles with fighters such as Norman Harvey, Wayne and Peter Blackadder, Jamie McClymont and Craig Reeves.

John won two National titles himself taking out the Australian amateur light-middleweight title at Albury in 1988 and repeating the effort at Launceston in 1989.

Before those two victories John Cooper and talented hockey player Cindy Smith were married at St Mary's Church, Grafton in 1987.

They have a 13 year old daughter, Aston May, who in 2003 was in the South Grafton team which won the NSW High Schools' years seven and eight indoor cricket championship and did likewise last year.

There are two brothers, Jed William, 7, and Shea Karl, 5, both of whom play soccer, are keen to learn more about boxing and are avid supporters of the South Grafton Rebels in rugby league.

John is a committee man with the Rebels as well as a team strapper, first aid man and dedicated worker for the club.

The family lives at South Grafton and have a farming property running Brahman/Devon cross cattle at Nymboida.

"Boxing has been good to me, gaining me many friends and trips to virtually every State," John said.

He has also represented his country at the Oceania Games in Melbourne and made representative trips overseas to New Zealand and Samoa.

"These days besides my work around our home and at the farm I do a lot of fishing and I love yarning with old timers," John said.

"And here's the surprise ? I do a lot of turtle diving with Aboriginal friends and I believe I hold some sort of record, at one time bringing up 12 turtles from one dive."

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