Hugh McIlvanney retires: 'To call him a great writer is like describing Muhammad Ali as a useful heavyweight'

Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali is among those to pay tribute to Sunday Times sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney who has retired after 66 years in journalism.
 
Quoted in The Sunday Times, Ali said: "Hugh McIlvanney has dedicated his life to boxing. He covered my fights in London and was there in Zaire at ringside with the other great writers of the day, including Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. 
 
"His words were a window to the lives, the courage, the struggles and triumphs of the great champions of his time. He has contributed richly and uniquely to the fabric of our sport around the world."
 
McIlvanney began his journalism career on the Kilmarnock Standard. He was on the Scotsman when he moved from news to sport in 1960.
 
He worked for The Observer from 1972 to 1993 (with a stint on the Daily Express from 1972-73) and has been on The Sunday Times since 1993.
 
Sports Journalists' Association president Patrick Collins said: "I can think of only three people over the past 50 years who have succeeded in redefining the craft of sports writing. One was Ian Wooldridge, another was Frank Keating and the last member of that astonishing trinity is Hugh McIlvanney. To call him a great writer is like describing Muhammad Ali as a useful heavyweight.
 
“He is a colossus among sports writers, a man who has been named Sportswriter of the Year no fewer than six times, and is the only sports writer to have been honoured as Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards."
 
Sunday Times colleague David Walsh interviewed McIlvanney for this week's paper and recalled covering the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with him.
Back then we hunted in a little pack, five reporters and a photographer. Gathered in a common room adjoining our apartments in the media village, we discussed strategy and after us rank-and-filers had made timid contributions, McIlvanney spoke. He talked about sticking together, each one of us needing to understand we were on the same side and it wouldn’t be any good for one guy to do something that embarrassed a colleague. Back in London they would be looking at what we did and there wouldn’t be a problem if we just watched out for each other.
 
As we filed out of that room Chris Smith, the photographer, whispered with some embarrassment. “For about 10 minutes there I didn’t realise Hugh was talking about our expenses.” But every one of us knew that when it came to filing our expenses we had to be on the same page.
 
The thing was McIlvanney would spend more on Cuban cigars than the rest of us would spend on our children for Christmas. Problem. He knew and we knew it was the one way we could embarrass him. So in deference to him we took lots of taxis for those few weeks in Georgia, ate at expensive restaurants and tipped like never before. He’s 82 now and leaving on his own terms, which is rare in our business.
Explaining why he has decided to retire now, he said: "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. I think it is reasonable to say the mental demands of the job haven’t as yet overwhelmed me. It is the physical fatigue I find is a bit of a problem now."
 
Walsh said: "Inside this little world of ours everybody who has worked with McIlvanney says the same thing. They never saw anyone who cared so much about what he wrote and gave so much of himself to how he wrote it. He would agonise over the positioning of a comma."
 
McIlvanney in his words (credit: The Sunday Times):
We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.
— The Observer, October 1974k
Trying to explain how or why the sight of men playing about with a ball can hold countless millions in thrall from childhood to dotage is a task beyond rational argument. But we never needed anything as prosaic as logic when George [Best] was around. He appeared to regard gravity as an impertinent con trick unworthy of being taken seriously, gracefully riding tackles that looked capable of derailing a locomotive.
 
— The Sunday Times, November 27, 2005

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