From the artistry of Ali to fun with Fury: My 65 years as a boxing junkie

From the artistry of Ali to fun with Fury: My 65 years as a boxing junkie

By Alan Hubbard

It was something of a shock when it dawned on me that I should now be “celebrating” – if that is a word we are allowed to use in these dark days by our ramshackle leaders – my 65th year in journalism.

Blimey, am I that ancient? The old bones may be creaking a bit and the flesh less than willing but thankfully the head is strong and filled with memories of a career that has brought me joy in abundance.

I was 17 when I joined my local newspaper as a cub reporter before moving to what used to be Fleet Street three years later.

Sports journalism has got me to more countries than I can remember, around 50 I think, and to observe many of the greatest moments in sporting history, covering a dozen Olympics and a multitude of mega occasions, including World Cups and of course big fights, for boxing became my main beat. And I’ve never regretted it.

It was the aftermath of last weekend’s world heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and the Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev which was a sobering reminder of just how long I’ve been in the game. The talk was of a future meeting between Joshua, the London 2012 Olympic champion, and his co-world-title-holder, the unbeaten Tyson Fury, next spring. They said it would be the biggest fight in boxing history since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought in the “Fight of the Century”.

I was there, I suddenly remembered, recalling a momentous occasion that at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.It captivated the world, and brought back some old memories, like visiting the gents before the fight began and thinking there was something familiar about the fellow in the trilby standing next to me at the urinal. It was Frank Sinatra. He glanced at me and said, “How ya doin’, fella?” “Fine, Mr Sinatra,” I replied.

He asked: “Who d’ya fancy?” Ali, was my reply. “Nah,” he scoffed. “No chance. Frazier will knock him out.”

Of course Sinatra never liked Ali, probably because at the time he was even more famous globally than him. But he was almost right about the fight, Frazier floored the hitherto unbeaten “Greatest” with that brute of a left hook in the final of 15 rounds and won a points decision.

I had covered a big fight in the United States before, but this was my first visit to the Garden, boxing’s Mecca, and I was in awe. An amusing incident came when we were seated at ringside and the Garden’s wonderfully laconic PR John Condon came round issuing baseball caps and saying ,”I recommend you where the wear these, guys.” “Good God John,” declared one of the venerable members of the British media corps. “You don’t really expect us to sit here wearing these?”

“Well,” replied Condon, “it’s up to you. There is an 18,000 capacity crowd here and there are 5,000 more outside trying to get in. If they break the door down and get to the ringside the cops will want to know which heads to hit and which heads not to hit.” We quickly planted the caps on our bonces.

So much of my sports writing life was focused on Ali, no doubt in my mind the supreme sports figure of all time, and a media man’s dream. He was never known to refuse an interview and when we once asked his trainer Angelo Dundee whether we could speak to him for 10 minutes he replied: “No – he never speaks to anyone for less than an hour.”

That came through to me one day when I called him from my home to his in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and asked him one question. He did not stop talking for almost an hour and a half and I could not get a word in edgeways. The phone bill was enormous but the story was terrific.

He was, and always will be my sporting hero. I loved listening at his feet and watching his flashing fists. His sublime artistry in the ring was unique and there are so many stories I could tell about him. He was an incorrigible ladies man. He loved the ‘foxes’ as he called them, how they loved him!

After the weigh-in for the tumultuous “Thrilla in Manila” – completing the trilogy with Frazier and undoubtedly the best, yet most brutal, fight I have ever seen – we were chatting to Dundee when an Ali acolyte rushed up and whispered in his ear. Dundee immediately turned on his heel and ran up the stairs to a gantry where, we learned later, he interrupted Ali giving an exclusive “interview”, to use the word as a euphemism, to a very attractive female reporter.

Just a little more than 24 hours later Ali was fighting the fight of his life in a contest he was to say was “the closest thing to dying” he knew.

Another Ali fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle”, remains etched in my mind as the outstanding sporting event I have attended, so bizarre it was almost surreal, a stadium pitched in the middle of the jungle in Zaire. “Ali Bomaye”, came the shouts from the crowd, as he pounced to send the ogre George Foreman to the canvas. Almost immediately an electric storm hit us, drenching us at ringside, sweeping away notebooks and silencing the telephones.

Driving back to Kinshasa through roads that had become rivers, there were hundreds of young kids doing the Ali shuffle in the rising floods chanting “Ali Bomaye! Ali Bomaye!”

The last time I spoke with him before his death was on the last of my 20- odd visits to Las Vegas. I was at ringside at the Mandalay Bay when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around .It was Ali. He never remembered names but he did faces, particularly of those the Brits with whom he felt an affinity. He bent down and whispered in my ear “it ain’t the same anymore is it,”. “No champ, it ain’t I replied.” Give my regards to Henry,” he added as he shuffled away.

The first the only time I shed a tear at a sporting event came when Ali, a punch-out shell of his former self, was humiliated by an obviously reluctant Larry Holmes in the car park of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. We were all screaming at the referee to stop the fight before Dundee took it upon himself to act compassionately in the 10th round.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to become pals with some famous British fight figures. My oldest friend in boxing – literally, – is 87-year-old Bobby Neill, who also happens to be the oldest surviving British champion following the death of Sammy McCarthy. I have known former featherweight Bobby for most of those 65 years, since covering an early contest of his at Streatham Ice Rink back in 1955 when I was reporting for the local rag.

Since then we have become firm friends, as did our respective late wives. When Bobby became a manager after suffered a brain haemorrhage in his final contest with Terry Spinks, I shared a flat with a couple of his protégés, Frankie ‘Tiger’ Taylor and Alan Rudkin. Taylor, Britain’s first European amateur champ also happened to work with me as a journalist before he retired from boxing prematurely with eye trouble to become the boxing correspondent of The People. Like Bobby, he is still very much alive and punching.

The first fight I covered in America was the return in Boston between Terry Downes and the fighting fireman Paul Pender.

After Downes had lost his middleweight title because of serious damage to what he called his ‘perishin’ ‘ooter’ I recall standing in his dressing room as he sobbed bitterly, blood streaming down his body while he showered. A great character.

Henry Cooper, John Conteh, Johnny Pritchett, James DeGale and George Groves were among those who became friends.

Like several others I was caught in the crossfire of the promotional war between Jack Solomons and Harry Levene. Then along came the ubiquitous Mickey Duff, an entertaining if volatile personality who with wealthy entrepreneur Jarvis Astaire and gentlemanly Mike Barrett put on some tremendous shows at Wembley and the Royal Albert Hall.

Duff, real name Monek Prager, a refugee rabbi’s son from Kraków in Poland once said of a rival matchmaker “he couldn’t match the cheeks of his own arse.”

But it was Frank Warren who made the greatest impact on 20th century boxing and beyond as Britain’s premier ringmaster. I have been privileged to know Hall of Famer Frank for some 30 of his recently celebrated 40 years as a licensed promoter. I came to appreciate his courtesy, his absolute professionalism, diligence and dedication to a sport he clearly loves.

My memories of outstanding fights and fighters I have seen include many from his promotions, such as Joe Calazaghe’s masterclass against Jeff Lacy and the and that tumultuous night, also in Manchester 15 years ago when Ricky Hatton fought his guts out to tear the IBF wold light-welter title from Aussie Kostya Tzsyu.

Warren also had memorable starry nights with Calzaghe against Mikkel Kessler before a record indoor crowd said to be 51,000 in Cardiff, and bringing world titles to Amir Khan, Naseem Hamed, Frank Bruno and of course my old verbal sparring partner Tyson Fury whom, he brought back from the cold to put some fun back into the fight gme.

So how do I think Joshua-Fury will pan out when it happens, which at the moment with the pandemic still resolutely punching its weight the prospect of a 90,000 Wembley crowd seems unlikely. My guess is that it will happen in late May somewhere in the mega-rich Middle East.

Apparently they could pocket £100 million each. When Ali and Frazier first fought we gave a sharp intake of breath when purses of $2.5 million apiece were revealed.

I thought Joshua boxed intelligently against 39-year-old Pulev, as he usually does when facing the ancient warriors who have formed much of his opposition, his titanic tussle with Wladimir Klitschko being a another example.

In Fury he meets an opponent within a couple of years of his own age of 30 and there is little doubt that Tyson’s enormous height and reach will prove a substantial advantage. Joshua has power but he is upright and open to a good jab, which Fury possesses.

If the Gypsy King is in the fearsome form he was when dismantling Deontay Wilder to regain the WBC title he had been forced to forfeit, it will be a fantastic fight, but possibly – brief – encounter. Who could’ve imagined years ago that two Brits would be contesting a unified world heavyweight championship already being cited as the biggest fight in boxing history?

My modest tenner is on Fury to prevail by stoppage. But I could be wrong – as I have been many times over these wondrous 65 years.

That’s boxing for you…and thanks for the memories.

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