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 despite my Dad's warning that "journalism won't get you anywhere". He was a master carpenter and had hoped I would follow him into that craft until he realised that I couldn’t knock a nail into a bit of wood.

Well Dad, as I was to tell him later, 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, big fights and all sorts of other events at home and abroad, large and small.

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". at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.

Muhammad Ali was a media man's dream ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali was a media man's dream ©Getty Images

I was there, I suddenly remembered, recalling a momentous occasion at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. It captivated the world, and brought back some old memories, like visiting the gents before the fight started 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 are you doing, fella?" "Fine, Mr Sinatra," I replied.

He asked: "Who do you fancy?" Ali was my reply. "Nah," he said, "no chance. Frasier 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, Frasier floored the hitherto unbeaten "Greatest" with that brutal 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, chaps." "Good God John," declared one of the venerable members of the British media core. "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 planted the caps on our bonces.

So much of my sportswriting 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.

Speaking to Jesse Owens was fascinating ©Getty Images
Speaking to Jesse Owens was fascinating ©Getty Images

I spent so many hours listening at his feet and watching his flashing fist. His artistry in the ring was unique and there are so many stories I could tell about him and quite a few that I cannot.  Just to give you a hint, he was an incorrigible ladies man. 

After the weigh-in for the tumultuous "Thriller in Manila" - completing the trilogy with Frasier 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 found 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 flight, the "Rumble in the Jungle", remains etched in my mind as the outstanding sporting event I have attended for so bizarre it was almost unreal, 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 first the only time I shed a tear at a sporting event came when Ali, a shuffling shadow 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.

Among other sporting giants I got to know well was the legendary Jesse Owens, whom I interviewed at his beautiful home in Arizona shortly before he died. It was fascinating to hear him talk of how he angered Adolf Hitler with his athletic genius in the 1936 Berlin Games.

Sydney 2000, perhaps the finest Olympics ©Getty Images
Sydney 2000, perhaps the finest Olympics ©Getty Images

My own first Olympic Games were the delightful Tokyo 1964, where the cherry blossom was fragrant, the hosts wonderfully hospitable and the Games themselves maybe the last festival not tainted by drugs, terrorism, boycotts or scandal.

So which were the best of the 12 I attended? A split decision between Sydney and London. The Aussie ambiance, athletic excellence and riverside setting was matched by London pride and some remarkable home triumphs.

I also much enjoyed Athens, Barcelona and, yes, Moscow - despite having my room bugged, which we suspected it was. I was then working for a magazine called NOW! owned by St James Goldsmith, who was notoriously anti-Russian. At a farewell party, jokingly we raised our glasses and said: "To all our listeners - cheers!"

A few second later the phone rang and a Russian voice chuckled: "And cheers to you too, tovarich!"

Among other Olympians who became great mates were Sebastian Coe, who as an impecunious 17-year-old student stayed at my home overnight as he could not afford accommodation when attending an awards function in London. One of the many things I remember about his lordship is how, on the morning of the London Games he had masterminded, he strolled nonchalantly through the Media Village, apparently without a care in the world.

Britain's modern pentathlon hero of Montréal 1976, Jim Fox, now sadly afflicted by Parkinson’s, also became a good friend as did gold medallists James DeGale, Tessa Sanderson and that the czarina of the Paralympics, Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson.

I know I have given some of these reminiscences before, but here’s one I haven’t. A few days ago I had a call from my friend Raj in Singapore - where I worked as a deputy editor of the English-language Straits Times - in the mid 1980s. He wished me a Merry Christmas but asked, "When are you going to write about Maradona?"

Diego Maradona was an icon in Singapore as well as Argentina ©Getty Images
Diego Maradona was an icon in Singapore as well as Argentina ©Getty Images

They are football crazy in Singapore and far more knowledgeable about the international game then we are in Britain. Maradona was almost as much a hero to them because of his great skills than he was in his homeland. I did see him play of course and he was magical. But I also saw the marvelous Brazilian Pelé and in my true mind you he was slightly the better of the two, more direct and adept with his head than his hand. I recall how he was almost hacked to pieces by the Hungarians in the quarter-final of the 1966 World Cup won by England, scandalously left unprotected by a British referee.

My most interesting memory of Maradona came when my late wife and I had a wonderful holiday in Argentina some years ago. When in Buenos Aires, we heard that the travelling Maradona Museum was in town, so we went along. It was a large attended affair covering every facet of his life and career, with much memorabilia. We noticed that there was a corner that had been cut off, and inside there was a video constantly replaying.. It showed shots from the Falklands War, mainly of Argentine soldiers carrying their dead and wounded. This was immediately followed by that famous clip of the "Hand of God" goal against England in the World Cup.

About the curious juxtaposition, I turned to an Argentinian chap who was also watching, asked if he spoke English, which he did, and whether he could explain the film.

He smiled. "It is symbolic. It means that while you may have won the Malvinas, we fuck you in the World Cup."

There were lot of laugh with my constant travelling companion Colin Hart, The Sun's is brilliant boxing columnist, a true friend.

It was a privilege to have shaken hands with Nelson Mandela and briefly chatted about his days as a middleweight amateur boxer. Also meeting an emperor, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and watching a film with him in Addis Ababa was an experience.

I once flew in a helicopter through the ancient rose-red city Petra piloted by Prince Feisal of Jordan, a true sporting aficionado who is now an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee.

So thanks for those memories, so many of them are fond and those that are bad are few.