Commonwealth Games: Ally's final plunge as he falls for the fight game
Veteran diver heads for new life in boxing ring
Sunday 19 March 2006
If you believe the movies, there have been plenty of boxers who wanted to take a dive. But how about the diver who wants to be a boxer? When he quits the sport after the Commonwealth Games Tony Ally plans to don a different pair of trunks, and take the plunge into a ring career.
A finely muscled six-footer, England's Games flag-bearer is certainly built like a boxer, though more of a Marciano than his near namesake - appropriately enough since his parents are Italian.
In his build up to his fifth Commonwealth Games, Ally has been working out with his Sheffield neighbour Johnny Nelson, a world cruiserweight champion, at Brendan Ingle's gym. "I love to get in the ring and fight," he says. "It's second nature to me. That's why I'd love to take it up when I finish diving. Not as a pro, of course, but I reckon I can still make it to the top as an amateur."
But isn't 32 a bit old to be taking up the glove game? Ally argues not, citing recent combatants Danny Williams and Matt Skelton ,and the evergreen Evander Holyfield, while spar-mate Nelson is nudging 40. "OK, they have been doing it a long time, but I have been kick boxing all my life, the only reason I didn't take it up more seriously is that my diving came first." If he does get in the ring, he would be a cruiserweight, like Nelson.
"Johnny taught me a lot of essentials. I've never known anyone prepare so thoroughly. Me and him have got a similar nature. We're perfectionists. I've taught him one or two things about other aspects of training too. We really click and I'd like to think that has helped him through the last few years of his career to be more supple, and quicker both in his mind and on his feet.
"I haven't finally made up my mind about retiring. I'll see what happens here. I'd like to finish on a high. I got a bronze in Kuala Lumpur, two silvers in Manchester and I would like to top it up with a gold in Melbourne. I think we have got the best team that we have ever had. The way things are going, I'm looking at a medal, and I believe that it could be a gold."
Ally believes boxing is now his sporting destiny, not least because his name originally was Ali, the result of a mis-spelling of Aleo on his Sicilian great-grandfather's birth certificate. He changed it after the Sydney Olympics "because people thought I was a Muslim and it had become very confusing".
He begins his quest for gold this week and when he was asked to carry the English flag in Wednesday's opening ceremony he said it "was like winning the Lottery". It was an appropriate observation as it is Lottery funding that has changed his life. "For the first 10 years of my career I was working on building sites, doing this and doing that, trying to work it in with my diving, just to pay the bills. Now I am training full-time and it's absolute bliss. I am a professional athlete so I can put 100 per cent into my sport."
A former European champion, he dives both individually and in synchro off the three-metre springboard. "Obviously it gets harder as you get older but whatever I do I try to do it with perfection."
Ally's tale is one of triumph over both adversity and penury. He suffers from congenital partial deafness - lip-reading most conversations - and was once so broke that he infamously sold off his Olympic kit to tourists in Atlanta. He was upbraided by a furious Blazer from the British Olympic Association who told him: "You are a disgrace to Britain. You are behaving like a poor Russian athlete." "No, I'm not," retorted Ali. "I'm behaving like a poor British athlete."
Ironically, it was this incident, plus the paucity of Britain's medal haul in 1996, which sparked off the inquest into the state of our Olympic games and led to the infusion of Lottery cash that enabled British sport to enter a welcome comfort zone with competitors like Ally able to concentrate their minds on perfecting their performing art without worrying where the next portion of egg and chips is coming from.
"I was at breaking point, so close to saying, 'Sod it, I've had enough'. Now diving is my life, my passion. When I go to the pool, whether it is to train or compete, I haven't got a care in the world. I'm in dreamland. I love that diving board, I could sleep on it if I had to. With diving there's something new every day, whether it is a technique, an emotion or even a fear. It's such an artistic, graceful sport, but a difficult one. The knack is making it look easy."
London-born, he says he is "gutted" that he will be too old to compete in 2012. "If we invest properly in sport the opportunities for medals there will be limitless." By then Ally hopes that he will be coaching. "For 22 years diving has been my life, and I want to pass on all that I've learned, my knowledge and experience, to produce other champions."
But his immediate dream after competing here in Melbourne is to become a champion himself in the ring, although he knows that to realise it he will have a real fight on his hands.
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