Thursday 27 October 2016

Ali's sparring partner departing the arena in which he was king

Published 28/02/2016 | 17:00

March 1971 and Ali has just lost to Joe Frazier: 'Stories which gave the impression that he was ranting about having been robbed were ridiculous' Photo: AFP/Getty Images
March 1971 and Ali has just lost to Joe Frazier: 'Stories which gave the impression that he was ranting about having been robbed were ridiculous' Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The last time I saw (Muhammad Ali) before he went home he was at the wheel of a caravan-bus that was taking his entourage to New Jersey. As it pulled away through the crowds he gave a slow little smile and waved, like royalty. How else would he wave?

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- Hugh McIlvanney,

The Observer, March 1971

I once cooked dinner for Hugh McIlvanney. The meal - a starter of rocket salad with cherry tomatoes followed by Tesco's finest Penne Arrabiata - was probably the worst he had ever eaten, but beggars can't be choosers on Saturday nights at St Andrews during the Open, and there were no complaints.

We were sharing a house with four other writers from The Sunday Times and as I set the table and uncorked the wine - a Gigondas - he sat in the conservatory with a fine Cuban cigar, mulling over the column he had filed on Tiger Woods.

Nobody mulled like McIlvanney.

This is a man who had once got off the last train to London to phone a correction, after learning that a shot onto the crossbar had been slightly deflected by the goalkeeper. His report the following morning was perfect, but he spent the night in Crewe.

"I don't go into the writing of any piece with dreams of triumph," he once explained to Ian Burrell of The Independent. "I go in with a neurotic fear of a screw-up." And that night, in St Andrews, nothing had changed.

His devotion to his craft was extraordinary. He pored over the column with a furrowed brow and measured every phrase.


He called the office and made a change.


And called them again and made another change.

He held court during the meal, regaling us with stories of his life on the road and then retired to the conservatory to relight his cigar, smiling like a king as we did the washing up.

How else would he smile?

The son of a Scottish miner, he was born in Kilmarnock in 1934 and started his working life as a news reporter with The Kilmarnock Standard, the Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman before joining The Observer in 1962, where he began reporting on Muhammad Ali and cemented his reputation as Britain's finest sportswriter.

The trick, he explained, was simple: "Journalists from daily or evening papers, and broadcasters from radio and television, are prevented by the shortage of time between deadlines from applying the one technique that offered some likelihood of covering Ali's activities adequately. With him the short, sharp interview rarely elicited anything but a stage turn, a revamping of material that might or might not be entertaining but had almost certainly been heard before. By far the best bet was to try and merge in with his life for a day or two or at least for several hours at a stretch, simply to hang around as unobtrusively as possible, eavesdropping on the strange meanderings of his spirit and just occasionally tossing in a few questions when he seemed susceptible to being nudged in directions that suited the eavesdropper."

The month is March 1964 and Ali is whistling A Hard Day's Night as they cruise the streets of Miami: "Finally we took another taxi and drove farther out to the north-west of Miami, to a residential area occupied by lower-middle-class blacks where he has a small, rather boxlike house.

"Built of cement blocks, it cost around $11,000, appreciably less than the price of most semis in Finchley. In the cramped living-room the only pictures are of Elijah Muhammad and, less conspicuously, the champion. A copy of the Muslim newspaper Muhammad Speaks is pinned prominently above the sideboard. At the end of the room is a screen for home movies.

"He likes 'scary horror movies, westerns and science fiction'. Apart from films and TV, he contents himself with going for drives or making strange pilgrimages to Miami Airport. Once he was deeply afraid of flying but now he is fascinated by planes. 'It's nice out there, nobody bothers you'."

The month is March 1971 and Ali has just lost to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden - his first defeat as a professional: "Newspaper stories which gave the impression that he was ranting about having been robbed were ridiculous distortions. During an hour and a half in his hotel suite on the 25th floor of the New Yorker Hotel on Tuesday, I heard him quietly correct several interviewers who called him 'champ'.

"'I ain't the champ,' he said quietly. 'Joe's the champ. I call him champ now. Not before but I do now. I ain't protestin'. He's a good, tough fighter. Not a great boxer but great at his own thing. He puts pressure on you all right, cuts off the ring, and he's the best hitter I ever met. I always thought of him as a nice fella.

"'What I said before, that was to do with the fight. Just the fight. I got to know him pretty good travelling up from Philadelphia before he fought Jimmy Ellis. I was low on money that day and he loaned me $100. He's a nice man with a family, just another brother workin' to make a living'."

The month is October 1974 and Ali has just shocked the world with his defeat of George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire: "With myself, one other journalist and his household staff as the only listeners, he rambled for more than two hours through a generally subdued monologue that left out little of what he felt about the fight and its implications.

"He had been satisfied with the briefest of rests after his pre-dawn exertions and, in the words of his chronicler, Budd Schulberg, had 'talked up a storm' most of the morning. He would do so again later in the afternoon as he ranted happily from one press conference to the next ('Now I can really boast') around his training camp at N'Sale, 40 miles from Kinshasa.

"But, given his mood in his living quarters at lunchtime, two interlopers were not enough to evoke the usual theatrical reaction, to justify the self-perpetuating stage act. So the scene, despite its occasional hilarity, was an oasis of seriousness, the still eye of his verbal storm."

In a golden age for sport, for newspapers and for writing, few shone brighter than McIlvanney. He was named Sports Writer of the Year six times at the British Press awards and is the only sports writer to be voted Journalist of the Year, in 1981. Later, during his spell at The Sunday Times, he wrote mostly as a columnist but insisted deep-down that nothing had changed.

"I've always considered myself a reporter," he told Burrell.

"I hope I don't write pieces that rely on phrase-making. I hope there's a reasonable amount of substance in them. Even if it's a comment piece I hope it's based on a reporter's attitudes and instincts."

His best work is celebrated in three anthologies - McIlvanney on Boxing, McIlvanney on Football and McIlvanney on Horseracing - and he was Alex Ferguson's chosen pen on his first autobiography, Managing My Life. But the book he should have written has never been published.

I asked him about it that night in St Andrews and any time we'd meet: "When are your going to write your memoir? When are your going to tell us about your times with Ali? Now that's a book I'd read."

But his brow would furrow and the response was always the same.


He retires this month at the age of 82. One of a kind.

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