Alan Hubbard

This week marks my 65th year in journalism, something which one might say is to be commiserated rather than celebrated. However, it has been a fascinating journey, to say the least, a helter-skelter of a ride through this sporting life alongside characters distinguished from the fatuous to the famous.

Along the way there has been drama, tragedy, delight and despair. But there have also been a lot of laughs. It is the people I've encountered, so diverse in personality, who are lodged most in the consciousness. 

I've had tea with Trump and jogged along with Boris, sparred verbally with Muhammad Ali, shaken hands with Nelson Mandela and been sworn at by a man of God.

Fresh out of grammar school, my first job was as a cub reporter on a weekly newspaper in South London, the Balham and Tooting News & Mercury and my first major interview was with the then popular comedian Tommy Trinder, who was also chairman of Fulham Football Club, as well as host of the hit TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

Trinder was starring in a pantomime playing Buttons in Cinderella at the Granada in Tooting and my editor asked me to interview him about his life and times. So I toddled along and had an absorbing hour-and-a-half with him in his dressing room during rehearsals. As I prepared to leave, notebook bulging, I thought of one final question. "Tell me Mr Trinder, have you any great ambition left in life?" 

"Funny you should say that son, yes I have," he replied and proceeded to recount a salacious tale about the glamorous Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida which made me splutter into my coffee. Quite unrepeatable here. Some baptism for this 17-year-old.

Tea with Donald Trump came some 30 years later when a handful of British scribes met with him in the 1980s in Atlantic City where he was then a boxing promoter and entrepreneur, co-promoting a Mike Tyson fight at one of his casinos. Little did we know then that we were chatting amicably with the future President of the United States.

And who would've thought when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London and I interviewed him about his role in the London 2012 Olympics where he would end up today – literally today – as our Prime Minister?

Dear old Boris was as affable as usual when I met him in Dulwich, South London, where he was presenting the trophies at a school swimming gala. As usual, though, he was in a bit of a rush and suggested we continue the interview as he went for his train to take him back to central London. So I had to jog with him down the hill towards the station where he jumped into the first-class carriage and invited me to join him.

As we approached Victoria, I suddenly realised I had not got a ticket. "Don't worry old boy," he guffawed. "Neither have I." And together we sailed through the barrier as he waved cheerily to an inspector.

Alan Hubbard once jogged with Boris Johnson – voted Britain's new Prime Minister today – down a hill before riding home on a train with him without a ticket ©Getty Images
Alan Hubbard once jogged with Boris Johnson – voted Britain's new Prime Minister today – down a hill before riding home on a train with him without a ticket ©Getty Images

In my time I've interviewed quite a lot of royalty about their sporting interests. Back in 1976 I went to see HRH Princess Anne, who had been selected for the GB eventing team. We sat in the lounge at her then home in Sandhurst where her then husband Captain Mark Phillips was in the military. Sadly, one of her small pet dogs peed not only over the carpet but over our photographer's foot.

I could hardly contain myself as HRH ordered hubby to get down on his hands and knees and "clean this up".

The look on my snapper's face as Captain Phillips polished his shoes with a damp cloth was worth any of the pictures he had taken.

I've talked with a King too – albeit Don King, godfather of the boxing ring – and a Prince. No, not Prince Naseem Hamed, but Prince Faisal of Jordan as he was flying us in his helicopter through the ancient rose red city of Petra.

Prince Faisal is a true sports fan and has just been elected to the International Olympic Committee's Executive Board. I'd wager that he could well end up as President. 

Oh, and there was an Emperor, too. Having been invited to Addis Ababa for the premiere of the film about Ethiopia's marathon idol Abebe Bikila we waited in the cinema for the arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was carried in on his own throne and placed right in front of the screen. Alas, the projector broke down and we were then taken the next day for it to be screened in an aircraft hanger which had a corrugated iron roof. Unfortunately, a rainstorm ensued and we could not hear the soundtrack.

My earlier mention of Trump reminds me that I once had a session with another US politician who had eyes on the Presidency. I met one-time Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the Mormon citadel of Salt Lake City where he was deeply involved in their successful bid for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. He was also one of the leading Mormons in America. 

While we talked sport and politics he was not slow to extol the virtues of that religion. I wondered why he was so keen to exchange business cards until a couple of weeks later back home when two large young men, soberly booted and suited, turned up on my doorstep carrying several copies of the Book of Mormon. No, they did not recruit this incorrigible old agnostic.

I was also lucky enough to shake the hand of the great Nelson Mandela. Sadly only once. Though, I have to say that after the many times I shook hands with certain sports leaders, not least Sepp Blatter, I counted my fingers afterwards.

Muhammad Ali and Alan Hubbard regularly crossed paths during their careers ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali and Alan Hubbard regularly crossed paths during their careers ©Getty Images

I did lose count of the number of times I shook the hand of Muhammad Ali, although sadly in the last few years of his life it was his shaking hands. It takes a book – and there have been scores of them – to recount the tales about the greatest. 

He was never known to decline an interview even though his trainer Angelo Dundee once told us when our plane to Dublin to meet him was delayed that we had missed him as he had gone to bed. "That's a shame," we remarked. "We only wanted to talk to him for 10 minutes."

"You've got no chance," he replied. "He never talks to anyone for less than an hour. Go on up." And, of course, we did, to be regaled for more like two hours as he lay on his bed being treated for flu by a doctor.

Sylvester Stallone was also a joy to converse with and he showed us precisely how every punch in the Rocky movies was choreographed. Rocky films, perhaps more than anything, showed us how closely sport and showbiz are now allied. 

Among the other showbiz stars who have crossed my path was one Francis Albert Sinatra. Odd circumstances, too. I stood next to him at the gents in Madison Square Garden before the first of the Ali-Frazier trilogy.

"How ya doin' fella," he enquired. "Who d'ya fancy?"

I told him Ali. "Nah, Frazier will destroy him," sniffed Sinatra, who was working as a ringside photographer for Life magazine at the fight.

Another entertainment legend involved as a ringside pundit for television was Burt Lancaster, macho star of films such as Trapeze and From Here to Eternity.

The Garden's wonderfully laconic PR John Condon had introduced a group of British writers to him at the weigh-in. As Lancaster turned round we saw he was wearing lipstick, mascara and rouge ."Hiya fellas," he smiled, fluttering his eyelashes and then looking at the boxers on the scales. "Don't ya just love their muscles?"

"Blimey," one of my Cockney colleagues, the late Reg Gutteridge, gasped. "He's a bleedin' iron!" (Iron hoof, rhyming slang for poof). A few weeks later Lancaster was arrested in Hollywood while wearing women's clothes. Turns out, the father of five was a transvestite.

Luckily, Burt Bacharach was on hand in California to tell Alan Hubbard the way to San Jose ©Getty Images
Luckily, Burt Bacharach was on hand in California to tell Alan Hubbard the way to San Jose ©Getty Images

Then there was the time when we encountered another famous Burt – the songwriter Burt Bacharach. We had been visiting Ali at a luxury resort near Los Angeles where he was training and we were then to head for his opponent Ken Norton's own camp at a place called San Jose in California.

As we drove out we noticed Burt strolling with a lady companion, rackets under their arms as they headed towards the tennis courts. The temptation was irresistible. Winding down the window we asked: "Excuse me, Mr Bacharach. You'll never believe what we are going to ask, but do you know the way to San Jose?" 

The man who wrote those enduring lyrics paused and glowered. "You gotta be kiddin’ mister!"

As it turned out, he then recognised a fellow passenger. It was Gutteridge, who he had met before. We all had a good laugh and he invited us to tea.

And of course, he did know the way to San Jose.

Finally, there is one unforgettable encounter with the late Reverend Ian Paisley. After covering a fight in Belfast, I was asked by my newspaper if I fancied trying to get an interview with the firebrand Ulsterman who was due to preach at a rally just outside the city. I thought it might be interesting.

As my taxi drove towards the gathering in the village hall, you could hear his stentorian tones from about a mile away. So it was with some trepidation that I approached him after the meeting closed. "Excuse me Mr Paisley, might I have a few words?" 

He glared at me menacingly and inquired if I was journalist and I told him I was. His nostrils flared and his eyes blazed as he roared: "Can't you see I'm on God's work? Now f*** off!"