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
Friday 29 December 2006
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.
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