On the fifth floor at the old BBC headquarters a man I had never met took me to a room I had never seen and handed me a heavy box. “You know what to do, good luck,” he told me, and that was how I took possession of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year trophy.
A few minutes later I was on the Tube at White City in London carrying my box; several hours later I was on my way to Las Vegas, the box on the plane seat next to me. It was December 2007 and both Ricky Hatton, who was fighting Floyd Mayweather that weekend in Las Vegas, and Joe Calzaghe, who would be ringside, were serious contenders for the trophy in my box.
If Hatton had beaten Mayweather he would have won, it’s that simple, but that never happened. It was Calzaghe’s turn, a contender the year before, and inside the vast MGM Grand Garden Arena, with the ring from the previous night’s savagery still in the background, he accepted the trophy from Lennox Lewis, who had won it in 1999.
This Sunday, Carl Froch is on the shortlist, which is only fair after his single-punch finish against George Groves in front of 80,000 people at Wembley back in May. Last year, Froch had been ringside in Leeds for the event and had asked me what he had to do to be a contender for the elegant trophy. There is no answer to that question and if there was, Naseem Hamed, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn deserve the first explanation for their exclusion; the trio often fought in front of 17 million people during their dominance in the Nineties.
Henry Cooper twice walked away with the trophy, the same hefty lump of nostalgia that I took through US Customs one afternoon in early December 2007. A woman with a large gun and a total lack of humour demanded a look at my hand baggage on that day, she carefully opened the box and hauled out the majestic trophy. People near me did “oohs” and “aahs”.
She was not the sentimental type – Mary Peters and Torvill and Dean were nothing to her. “See that fella,” I said, pointing. “Henry Cooper. Well, he dropped Muhammad Ali with a left hook. He is to this day close friends with The Greatest.” That seemed to do the trick – that and dozens of Hatton-bound fans crowding over to see the trophy. I was very popular at the MGM because of my cargo and I had Gene Kilroy, Ali’s former business manager and an executive host at the casino, store the trophy in a proper safe.
Next Saturday night, Amir Khan, another veteran of the trophy hunt, fights in Las Vegas in an unofficial semi-final for a return to the glittering city and a fight against either Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao in 2015. Khan has been on the BBC shortlist a couple of times but is not one of the 10 boxers to have left the event with either a first-, second- or third-place finish.
If Khan can beat Devon Alexander on Saturday at the MGM, in the same ring where Hatton’s trophy ambitions were ruined, then he will have a chance of making the list of 12 next year; beat Pacquiao or Mayweather and next December he could be the odds-on favourite. He could be competing against Tyson Fury, assuming the big lad gets a crack at Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight world title.
Froch is surely in the mix this year and perhaps he will join John Conteh, who was second in 1974, and Frank Bruno, who took second place in both 1989 and 1995, and leave with a top-three finish. Those were very different days and it’s a long time since over 20 million people watched Barry McGuigan win the world title and then tuned in for him to win the trophy in 1985.
On 9 December 2007 my day started long before dawn when I had to get Hatton, fresh from being knocked out in 10 rounds by Mayweather a few hours earlier, and Calzaghe, who was still somewhere in the Las Vegas night, to the temporary studio for the start of the live show. It was not easy, take it from me. Hatton was bruised, cut and shattered from his first defeat. He was shuffling, rather than walking, and looked totally broken when his cab arrived. Calzaghe’s cab turned up at the same time and he looked like he had not closed his eyes in about a week.
As they started to walk, two weary Las Vegas bruisers, through one of the back doors and away from the bright morning to the gloom inside, they both wanted to use the toilet. The show was minutes from going live, but what could I do? I took the pair to a toilet and they emerged laughing a few minutes later. “Well, it’s not all bad,” Hatton exclaimed. “I just found out I’ve got a bigger dick than Calzaghe!”
Ninety minutes later Hatton, in tears as he tried to explain his failure to beat Mayweather, was given third place and then Lewis presented Calzaghe with the main trophy, which I had carried with pride through the MGM’s empty corridors. The trophy was back with me a few minutes later when Calzaghe left for the airport. I never bothered with Kilroy’s safe that day; I figured the trophy deserved to see a bit of the city. It did, by the way.