On being a sports writer
There are mornings when you wake up and cannot believe they pay you for it. By nightfall, you will have seen another Test match day in Sydney or Port of Spain, a Grand Prix in Brazil or Monaco, a world heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas or darkest Africa, a tennis match in Wimbledon or Melbourne, a wrestling contest in Tokyo, a chess think-in in Iceland, the 100m or 1,500m Olympic final in Rome or Moscow or maybe just the Cup final at Wembley.
It adds up, in a good year, to about 150,000 miles, 70 hotels, 3,500 telephone calls and between 200,000 and 210,000 words. There are times, struggling with the words, when you would cheerfully chuck it all for some quiet index-linked pension life at the Ministry of Anything but it is surprising how swiftly a good dinner at the Algonquin in New York or the Peninsula, Hong Kong, will bring you to your senses.
The Peninsula management send an olive-green Rolls-Royce to meet you at the airport. Two minutes after you reach your room a servant enters bearing a tray and invites you to choose from any of the world’s dozen most luxurious toilet soaps. You meet all kinds of people and learn many recondite things along the sportswriting road.
‘Rumble in the Jungle’ Kinshasa, 1974
The sun had the audacity to rise over Central Africa yesterday while Mr Muhammad Ali was still speaking. His message was really quite trivial. He will require $10m, he informed the universe, to perform his next miracle in the boxing ring. This works out at something slightly over £4m an hour, or, alternatively, precisely twice as much as he received for exposing George Foreman as not quite the immovable object we thought.
Naturally, we shall pay it. We shall rob banks, surrender life policies, short-change widows and sell the new dishwasher to raise it. His recapture of the world heavyweight title here, on a morning the memory of which I shall take to the grave, entitles him to name his own price.
By the eighth, and providently last, round Ali had, according to a communal round-up of statistics, hit Foreman 65 times flush on the face.
It was then, from an entrenched and contemplative position, that he saw an opening which lasted as long as it takes to fire a hair-trigger pistol. Foreman is a man of ingenuous honesty. ‘A boxer,’he said when his mind was functioning again, ‘never sees the big one that hits him.”
What hit him, in fact, was a Bren-gun burst of quick blows, a left hook spun him round into the real line of fire and a right that put him on the floor for the first time in his professional career. He sprawled there, blinking and subconsciously mouthing the count to himself. He had not one chance in 50 of getting up again. It was like watching a tank going over the edge of a bridge in slow motion.
He became so confused by Ali’s tactics that he finished the fourth round hurling wild swings into the air, and later missed so badly with the punch that was meant to finish it all that he almost went through the ropes.
Ali slapped him on the bottom. Throughout the fight he talked to Foreman in all the clinches and carried on a running conversation with a black American reporter in between rounds.
In the fifth round, he indulged in a piece of exhibitionism so dangerous that it would not be tried by the resident professional fighting farmhands in a fairground boxing booth.
He sagged back so far on the ropes he was almost in the laps of the TV commentators. And there he stayed for well over a minute, defending himself from Foreman’s frantic hitting only with his forearms and cupped gloves.
Ali took the wildest liberties and still rode back to the world title he regards as personal property with a performance of total genius allied to immense physical courage. The fight that was reckoned to be his $5m retirement pay-off went precisely as he raved and bragged it would.
‘I shall be the matador and Foreman the bull,’he told his Zairois brothers last week. The metaphor was exact. Ali went down, too. Ten seconds after Foreman was counted out, he was knocked down. From then, long into the dawn, he was besieged. ‘I’m going to haunt boxing for the next six months,’he shouted. ‘I’ll talk to the man who first offers me $10m.”
You may say a man requires supernatural powers to command such a sum. But maybe Ali has.
At breakfast the sun went in and the rainy season started.
Meeting Idi Amin, Semlike Uganda, 1976
As befits any humanitarian who only that morning had stepped straight from the breakfast table to save seven men from the firing squad, His Excellency Field-Marshal Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, was in benevolent mood. The blades of his armour-plated helicopter had barely stopped spraying dust in our faces before he lumbered forward, hand extended, and said: ‘My aides tell me you have come from London to discuss my boxing career.”
This was not necessarily the whole truth but one does not readily contradict a 19-stone states man with a gun at his hip, even though he has recently been cleared of an allegation of murdering not fewer than 25,000 of his brother Ugandans. ‘That is correct, sir,’I said.
Respectfully, his large entourage of Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and some unspecified gentlemen whose perspiration flow appeared to be impeded by shoulder-holsters fell silent as President Amin began to recall his days as a pugilist. In some respects they were more remarkable than Muhammad Ali’s.
‘I first won the heavyweight championship of Uganda in 1951,’he said. ‘Then in 1952, I became champion of all East Africa.’The President then added that he held both titles until 1962, which seemed a fairly safe cue to ask the name of the man who had the presumption to beat him.
‘Nobody beat me,’the Field-Marshal replied. ‘You retired, then?”No, I did not retire. I am still heavyweight champion of Uganda. Nobody is willing to fight me.”
At this the 48-year-old reigning champ bellowed with laughter. His entourage were silent for perhaps half a second before breaking up. They slapped their thighs, as well as each other, and shrieked their appreciation of the President’s wit so purposefully that two vile-looking birds rose almost vertically from a distant tree and fled towards the Sudan.