Alan Hubbard

It seems pleasingly appropriate that as an absorbing exhibition of the life and times of Muhammad Ali opens in London, the wordsmith who immortalised so many of the exploits in and out of the ring for British fans should himself be in the limelight and subject to tributes from within the game.

Hugh McIlvanney, the outstanding British sports journalist of his - or arguably any - generation has retired at 82. He wrote beautifully, elegantly and incisively on a variety of sports from football to racing but none more so than boxing.

He left his last journalistic residence, The Sunday Times, last weekend to do more travelling with his wife Caroline and smoke copious Cuban cigars.

He bequeaths behind a vast array of testimonials to his wonderful essays including this from his fellow Scot Andy Murray, who says: "I was interviewed by Hugh in November 2009, and as a boxing fan, it was a pleasure to meet a man who has written with such passion and eloquence about a sport we both love.”

He has been described as “The Muhammad Ali of sportswriting” and symbolically there was a mutual respect and admiration between the fighter and the writer that is so rare in the game.

Highly regarded journalist Hugh McIlvanney has announced his retirement
Highly regarded journalist Hugh McIlvanney has announced his retirement ©YouTube

But his opinions have always been honestly expressed. Ali, he maintains, was the greatest figure in the history of the sport but Sugar Ray Leonard was the greatest fighter he’s ever seen.

Hugh’s heyday was largely before our profession was invaded by what he describes as the revolutionary explosion of technology, the advent of mobile phones, laptops and Twitter.

Like the rest of us more venerable scribes Hugh was far happier picking up a phone and yelling down the line above the roar of the crowd to a usually disinterested copytaker who demanded: ”Is there much more of this?”

”I envy the present generation of sportswriters their youth but none their operating conditions,” he reflected sagely.

With distinguished colleagues such as Colin Hart and Ken Jones I was privileged to travel the world with Hughie, who was seven times Sports Journalist of the Year, covering Ali’s fights from Atlanta to Zaire, and numerous Olympic Games and World Cups. It was a joy, and always an education, to be in his company.

He was also the only sportswriter to be honoured with the trade’s ultimate accolade as Journalist of the Year.

I also worked closely with him for some years as his sports editor on The Observer, where he was chief sportswriter, so can testify not only to his professional excellence but to his often terrifying obsession with detail and accuracy. The ultimate perfectionist.

His great pal Sir Alex Ferguson tells of his relentless pursuit of detail, how he would ring him late at night to check the spelling of players’ names, particularly whether one Scot should have a small c or a capital C. 

And I was once on the receiving end of a tirade in the early hours of a Sunday morning after he had picked up a copy of The Observer bearing one of his big fight reports, which as usual we had just squeezed in before the deadline as he relentlessly beavered away polishing the piece.

He was livid, berating me and the sub editors for not spotting a literal in a piece he had dictated to a copytaker who had mis-spelled the surname of the referee, Mickey Vann.  It had appeared with only one N.  “Jesus Christ,” roared Hugh. “Everyone will think I’m an idiot.”

Not that anyone ever did. Especially when he produced literary gems like this on the Rumble in the Jungle: “We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any old resurrection. He had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.”

And of Sonny Liston he once observed: “There seems only one way to beat him. Shell him for three days – then send in the infantry.”

He was wrong about that, of course, as Ali, then Cassius Clay, knew exactly the way to beat him. 

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was a friend of Hugh McIlvanney
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was a friend of Hugh McIlvanney ©Getty Images

Hugh could also be as wickedly entertaining with his verbal ripostes as he was with the printed word. Having opined that the British heavyweight Joe Bugner “had the physique of a Greek statue but with fewer moves” he was in conversation with him as Bugner climbed out of a swimming pool, after waltzing around for 15 rounds with Ali in Kuala Lumpur, barely breaking sweat. ”Get me Jesus Christ and I’ll fight him tomorrow,” Bugner declared to us.

Hugh quickly countered: “Joe, you’re only saying that because you know he’s got bad hands.”

On the 45th anniversary of his "Fight of a Lifetime" with Frazier at Madison Square Garden this week, Ali himself took time to send this affectionate tribute as his own exhibition opened at the O2.

”Hugh McIlvanney has dedicated his life to boxing…his words were a window to the lives, the courage, the struggles and the triumphs of great champions of his time. He has contributed richly and uniquely to the fabric of our sport around the world.”

Signing off from The Sunday Times, Hugh made it clear that he had decided to retire because “I had an abhorrence of the idea that I might become some old codger in the chimney corner muttering away about how it used to be.”

But he insisted his exit was not an obituary. ”It is just about living, not quietly waiting for when the towel will eventually flutter into the ring.”

Sentiments, which, no doubt, Ali would echo as one Greatest to another.