Brian Viner's Sporting Review of 2006

In the last 12 months of interviews with a spectrum of sport's highest achievers one man stands out from a cast of all-stars - the boxer who won world titles at five different weights, Sugar Ray Leonard

In the sporting arena, a year is a long time. In 2006 I interviewed Mark Ramprakash back when he was better known as a cricketer than as a salsa dancer, Andrew Strauss when he was better known as England's heroic opening batsman than as Shane Warne's hapless 700th Test wicket, and Steve Coppell before he had even dared to dream about managing Reading in the Premiership, let alone of taking points off Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

There was also a fair sprinkling of genuine superstars, among them Martina Navratilova, Sugar Ray Leonard, Nick Faldo, and the man whose exclusion from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist of 10 made even more of a mockery of the event than Joe Calzaghe's failure to make the top three, namely the champion jump jockey Tony McCoy.

I wanted to talk to McCoy about the Grand National, the one jewel missing from his glittering crown. He, however, wanted to talk about Tiger Woods, one of the few sportsmen whose dedication outstrips his. "He's amazing, an amazing person," he said, and talked knowledgeably about the way in which Woods, despite being comfortably the best golfer in the world, had remodelled his swing to become even better.

I got the impression that meeting Woods at J P McManus's charity golf tournament the summer before had been the biggest sporting thrill of 14-handicapper McCoy's life. That, and watching his beloved Arsenal win trophies. His fantasy fourball on the golf course, he said, would be Woods, Thierry Henry, "and Charlize Theron, because you'd want something good to look at..." He didn't seem to mind making cracks likely to earn him a dig in the ribs from his fiancée, Chanelle, whom he subsequently married. I asked him what difference marriage was going to make to his life? "Absolutely none," he said, with feeling. None? "Absolutely zero." Was the lovely Chanelle aware of that? "She's very aware." No concessions whatsoever? "None whatever."

While the new man in me disapproved of McCoy's defiant political incorrectness, I couldn't help applauding his candour. Yet Leonard, for one, could offer him a salutary tale of what happens when a man pays no heed to his wife. I had asked the former world welterweight champion, slightly tentatively, about the dark period in his twenties when he fell into bad company.

"Yeah, I had a drug problem," he admitted. "I'd go to parties, take a leak, and there was cocaine right there. I was 25 when it started, rich, famous, and retired. My wife said, 'The drugs are killing you, you shouldn't hang with those guys'. But then I'd be with my guys, so who do you listen to, the guys or your wife? I listened to the guys. Then I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot, my skin was breaking out. I said 'enough'. I started crying actually, and that's when I decided to come back and fight [Marvin] Hagler. Most sportswriters said I was crazy. Why? Because I'd been out with them. They'd seen me partying. But I knew if I got rejuvenated I could still beat anybody. It took me over a year to get the toxins out."

Of all the sporting titans I met in 2006, Leonard made easily the biggest impression on me. I interviewed him in the huge characterless lobby of a huge characterless hotel in Los Angeles, where I found him sitting quietly on his own, 10 minutes early for our rendezvous, sipping a Coca-Cola. There were no acolytes around him; no heavy jewellery dripping from him; the face was unmarked, almost girlishly pretty; the hands manicured, almost delicate. Yet these were the hands that had won world titles in five weight divisions, inflicting serious damage on three seriously hard men in Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. And he was as impressive to listen to as he was to look at.

I felt a similar elation in very different circumstances, in the front room of a small terraced house in Bolton, where I talked to a boxer yet to stake a claim to Leonard-like immortality, Amir Khan, and his older cousin, the England cricketer Sajid Mahmood. Their fathers, Shajaad and Shahid, who are brothers, were also present, at my request, because I wanted to understand how an ordinary Pakistani immigrant family, with no particular sporting heritage, had produced two such high-achieving sportsmen.

I asked what made them so single-minded in pursuit of success. Were they propelled by the Pakistani work ethic? Their grandfather, Lall, had spent years working endless shifts at Wolstenholme's Bronze Powder factory to improve the family circumstances, and even though his grandsons hadn't known him, did they perhaps feel his patriarchal legacy?

"It's partly that," said Shahid, Sajid's father. "But it's also that my father insisted on me doing something I didn't want to do. He said that engineering was the thing of the future, so I must get into engineering. I didn't want to, but I got the qualifications and I was in it for 10 years.

"Eventually I joined the police force, which is what I'd always wanted to do. I'm still a policeman now. So when me and my brother had sons of our own, we wanted to give them every chance to do what they wanted to do. It's all right saying that young Pakistani boys should get an education and be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer, but not all of them can do that. Amir wanted to box, Saj wanted to play cricket, and we supported them all the way."

"That's right," added Shajaad, Amir's dad. "With these lads, whatever they wanted we were more than happy to help them achieve it. I took Amir to Halliwell Boxing Club when he was eight years old, but my parents didn't treat me that way. They thought playing cricket was a waste of time. They just wanted me to study."

So it was a reaction to Lall's well-meaning but misplaced paternalism that helped Khan and Mahmood scale the heights, and if there is one sporting prediction for 2007 that I don't mind making, it is surely that the former, carefully guided by Frank Warren, will win a world title.

Great things are expected, too, of his near contemporary Andrew Murray, whom Navratilova memorably described as "a prat" when I sat with her on the players' terrace at the All-England Club during Wimbledon fortnight. I had asked her about her own extraordinary transformation in the estimation of the Wimbledon public over the decades: from the reviled Eastern European lesbian with the unpronounceable surname, to the adored sage and gay rights activist known simply as Martina.

She reckoned that the crowds had started to warm to her, in that uniquely British way, when she started losing. "It happened some time in the late 1980s maybe, when Steffi [Graf] started dominating and I wasn't the favourite any more... Now, of course, I can say pretty much anything I want and get away with it. I could even say that Andy Murray is a prat."

She paused and smiled. "And that's probably not wrong. He is where I was, and it takes one to know one. I may get criticised for that, but he's 19 so we need to cut him some slack and we'll see how he shapes up."

Another man from whom bursts of prattishness have not been unknown during his decades in the public eye is Faldo, whom I interviewed at Sunningdale Golf Club shortly before the Ryder Cup. It was the third time I had talked to Faldo, and each time I have found him in a different mood. The first time he was warm and expansive, the second time surly and non-committal, and this time friendly but wary.

Sometimes, the most memorable moments come when the interview is over, and so it was with Faldo. I rather cheekily asked the six-times major championship winner whether he could help me with a sporadic golfing affliction, and for the first time in an hour he seemed to relax. "Sure," he said, and gave me a 10-minute lesson.

Similarly invaluable tuition came from a man even more of a world-beater than Faldo, Phil "The Power" Taylor, who took me into his garage, where he keeps his dart board, and demonstrated the importance of follow-through in the art of throwing an arrow. Like Woods, Taylor is relentlessly hard on himself in practice. And like McCoy on the subject of Woods, he is engagingly open about his inspirations, one of whom was another Potteries hero, Sir Stanley Matthews.

"I knew him when he was an old man, when we were invited to things together," "The Power" recalled. "We were talking once about practising. He told me that when he was a player at Blackpool he used to go running on the beach at five in the morning, long before training, and I said, 'What did you do that for?' I'll never forget his answer. He said, 'Because they didn't'. That was it, see. He didn't just do things that nobody else did, he did them because nobody else did.

"I'm the same. I used to have a practice board by the side of the bed, and I'd set myself targets: five 180s before I went to bed, that sort of thing. Yvonne [his wife] would be in bed, wanting to go to sleep, and I'd be 60, 60 miss, 60 miss, 60 60 miss... Then on New Year's Eve as the clock struck 12, I would go and hit five 180s, so I knew I'd be the first one that year."

Becoming and remaining the best player in the world is all the motivation that Taylor has ever needed, but what motivates the motivators? I got an unexpected answer from the Watford manager, Aidy Boothroyd. He explained that as a 13-year-old Bradford City fan he had been with his dad at Valley Parade on the day of the fire that claimed 56 lives. They only narrowly avoided being caught up in it themselves.

"We went to the inquest," he told me. "But none of it traumatised me. I've never really sat down and thought about it, but I suppose it may have contributed to how I am now. In a deep way, it maybe made me seize the day. I do live every day as if it might be my last, and I like everyone around me to do the same. We have a sign at our training ground, 'Carpe diem. Seize the day'. Be the best you can be every day."

Boothroyd was talking in a Starbucks just off the M25, one of the least likely backdrops to my sporting encounters in 2006. But sometimes the backdrop is only unlikely when you see what's in the foreground. In July I was shown into a baronial hall in a grand house in Scotland, where my interviewee sat in a leather armchair wearing shorts and flip-flops: Ernie Els. About a minute into our conversation we were interrupted by one of his management team, who was talking to someone on a mobile phone. "Silver with black inside, or silver with grey?" he said to Els. "I don't know, I'll leave it up to him," Els replied.

"He says he'll leave it up to you," the man said into his mobile, and laughed. Els was laughing, too. I ask him whether he was buying a new car. "Yeah, I'm getting a Bentley," he said, and as I left I couldn't help wondering whether Els, and many others like him in many different sports, might be a little hungrier for cups and titles if they were not so fabulously wealthy that they leave it to others to decide the colour of their new Bentleys.

Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice