Danger: Genius at Work. Lomachenko

When was the last time you discovered a sportsman you’ve never heard of who made you sit up and take notice simply because of their sheer brilliance?

In this social media saturated age there’s something especially satisfying to find Vasyl Lomachenko – who up until a few months ago, I knew precious little about.

“A Glitch in The Matrix.” “The Picasso of Boxing.” “The New Mayweather.” Legendary promoter Bob Arum has called him the greatest boxer he’s seen since Muhammad Ali.

Lavish praise. Hyperbole from those blinded by the dollar signs of big fights and marketing deals to come?

Lomachenko’s dazzling skills will play out to a primetime audience to decide when he locks horns with brilliant lightweight king Jorge Linares in their eagerly awaited clash at New York’s Madison Square Garden this weekend.

A BBC Five Live interview with Steve Bunce and John Rawling before his last world title success alerted me to a new boxing superstar. When two broadcasters of their renown sing the praises of someone out of leftfield, I had to find out more.

Lomachenko is still in the first flush of his professional career and has a lot of leather to dish out and take before his record stands comparison with the all-time greats. What is without doubt is his astonishing talent perfected during a stellar amateur career.

In just a few short years he has taken the old boxing maxim of “hit and avoid being hit” to a whole new level.

Lomachenko is rapidly becoming to boxing what Roger Federer is to tennis and Lionel Messi to football.

His movement and balance is breathtaking. His hand speed and punch accuracy dazzling.

Opponents cover up not knowing from which angle the next punch will land to scramble their senses. Natural gifts honed through thousands of hours of gym work with his father as his trainer.

An artist but without the canvas of huge media exposure as boxing struggles to reconnect with fans lost to the more brutal and hyped UFC and attract a new younger audience whose time has a million and one different distractions.

His sustained volume of punches carry the sting to sicken fighters – Lomachenko’s last four opponents quitting on their stools allowing the Ukranian to revel in his new moniker Vasyl ‘NoMas’ Lomachenko.

Despite arresting pro displays and an incredible amateur record, Lomachenko is still an enigma to all but the most ardent boxing fan.

The 30-year-old hailing from the shores of the Black Sea emerged into the global spotlight to grab two Olympic golds at Beijing and London, the summit of an astonishing amateur career which saw him lose just once in 396 fights. He went on to defeat his victor, twice for good measure.

Lomachenko has tasted defeat in his pro career, losing a highly controversial second fight when he battled for the world featherweight title. A world title shot in just his second pro fight!

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Destructive: Lomachenko in full flow

But he’s blasted his way to featherweight and super featherweight crowns since. Different opponents, same outcome.

Lomachenko gliding around the ring like he’s on castors, circling before probing for weaknesses, switching shots, avoiding artillery and refusing to give his antagonist a moment’s respite.

Pros quitting in their corners is not how fighters call time. If they have to lose, then they go out on their shields or at least until the ref steps in.

Sickened to the point of not wanting to re-emerge from the sanctuary of their corner is testimony to the impact of boxing’s shining new light.

Whether he has the star power to take his talent beyond his sport and into the mainstream remains to be seen.

Moving up in weight to fight Linares is a risk. But a calculated one. The Venezuelan is an artist, a big name, and, like Lomachenko, as skilled in avoiding blows as dishing them out.

Linares in Madison Square Garden – the US spiritual home of boxing – is the card-topping fight on ESPN to propel Lomachenko’s renown to a whole new audience.

Victory would bring the widespread acclaim his talent deserves.

Finding those in future prepared to step through the ropes to take on a man hailed as a genius by many hardened observers of the sport, may be more difficult.

Who wants to try and hit what seemingly can’t be hit, or be pummelled senseless in a flash of Ukranian blue and yellow?

Phil Mickelson: US Open Dream Reborn?

He’s the most resilient man in golf. Beaten down but risen again more times than is feasible.

And at 47-years-old, Phil Mickelson is riding the sport’s hottest streak towards a flaming June date with golfing greatness now more than just the pipe dream of a player in the twilight of his career.

Mickelson lies second going into the final round of this weekend’s World Golf Championship event in Mexico, trading blows with a new generation of players, some of whom weren’t even born when he was lifting his first titles on the US PGA Tour.

Allied to three top ten finishes in his last three starts this year, his rich vein of form points to Mickelson possibly achieving the one thing in golf that has eluded him – winning the US Open.

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Hot streak: Phil Mickelson heads to the US Open full of confidence

His national championship has been the stage for some of his most thrilling golf, but ultimately a source of crushing disappointment.

Six runners-up finishes at some of the game’s greatest layouts would have done for most players. But time and again golf’s ‘Mr Bounce Back Ability’ has dusted himself off, saddled up and got back on board his ride,  heading off once more into the fray.

The historic Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York, is the venue for this year’s US Open.

Mickelson has previous there. Pipped by a sensational putting display from South Africa’s Retief Goosen in 2004, Lefty knows he has the game to tame the British-style links.

A US Open crown would open membership of golf’s most exclusive club to Mickelson. Only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won all four of golf’s majors.

Entry into this most of exclusive of clubs is by appointment with the golfing gods only.

Tom Watson couldn’t get in, a PGA championship escaping him as it did ‘The King’ Arnold Palmer, their places set at the top table of the game ultimately left empty.

The US Open urn is the glaring omission in Mickelson’s trophy cabinet. Three Masters, a PGA Championship and an Open won in dramatic fashion at Muirfield in 2013 are the stand out wins on Mickelson’s glittering CV.

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Three Green Jackets for Master Phil

Sipping from the Claret Jug nearly five years ago is his last tour win. All-American Mickelson, still something of a mystery to British fans, proved the depth of his game and sheer brilliance in taming the ferocious Edinburgh links to win the major that many pundits said was beyond him.

His high ball flight and wildness off the tee were supposed to cancel out any chance in squally British weather on parched fairways fringed with heavy rough.

Very much like what he will face under foot at Shinnecock in June. Turn the volume down on your tele and the course looks like it could be on Scotland’s east coast.

Only the New York accents give away its Long Island location, not far from the Big Apple itself.

US golf fans love Phil Mickelson. New Yorkers in particular love Phil Mickelson. He won his PGA Championship at Baltusrol in neighbouring New Jersey.

His all-out attack style of play seems to fit their psyche. He’s never reined in his game. Simply refuses to do what doesn’t come naturally to him.

Protestations that his ‘go for broke’ style would mean he’d never fulfil his fabulous talent fell on deaf ears.

He’s shortened his swing a bit, thinks more clearly on the course but his attacking instincts still underpin everything he does.

His flop shot should be trademarked. Who hasn’t gawped in amazement at the sheer gaul of a full swing just yards from the green, the ball elevated into the jet stream to land and sit like a dog in front of a roaring fire just inches from the cup?

Mickelson plays the game every hacker dreams of. Free, uncluttered and spectacular. Take it on and triumph.

In reality, his meet it head-on approach has cost him many titles and multiple majors. A case in point his last hole US Open disaster at New York’s Winged Foot in 2006, slashing a tee shot into corporate hospitality and running up a double bogey when a par would have secured him the crown he covets most.

Mickelson knocked on the door of the US Masters for years before finally being admitted into the Butler Cabin and eased into a Green Jacket in 2004.

The 2013 Open was the scene of what up until now is surely his greatest triumph. Even the ultra confident Mickelson doubted if he had the game to conquer 72 holes of championship links golf.

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His greatest triumph? The moment Mickelson sinks the final putt to win the 2013 Open

But his Muirfield win, and two Open second places at Sandwich and Troon, the latter his epic gun fight with Henrik Stenson, proved beyond doubt he has the skills and mental toughness to tame the oldest form of the game.

This evidence is added to a growing case file this season to convince that the US Open dream for Mickelson at Shinnecock is a real possibility.

Fifth, second and sixth in his last three Tour starts. He’s averaging under 70 every time he sets foot on the course and his birdie stats place him fifth on Tour.

Mickelson appears to be managing the debilitating arthritis which blighted him several years back, especially evident in a fragile putting stroke which now looks back on track.

He still hits the ball a mile, a smidgeon under 300 yards on average to stand comparison with the young guns who ease the ball into the stratosphere as if they’re shelling peas.

Nearly 30 years on from his first Tour victory – beating the pros as a prodigious amateur in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1991 – it’s testament to his extraordinary gifts that he is still able to mix it with the best in an era when power hitting has taken golf into a new dimension.

Shinnecock Hills has been remodelled a bit and lengthened by 500 yards since Mickelson last strode its fairways.

But Mickelson remains essentially the same player. Crunch it off the tee, pick up the pieces if needs be with a short game that should get its own season on the Las Vegas Strip.

Mickelson will celebrate his 48th birthday on the Saturday of the Shinnecock US Open, his big day and the title he seeks most seemingly entwined by fate.

If he were to win it, he’d become the second oldest man to lift a major. He’d certainly be the most popular.

If he doesn’t, then doubtless he’ll continue to go for broke, just because he can.

 

 

 

 

 

If you can’t play, at least look the part

Bjorn Borg’s Fila tracksuit, the Brazil 1970 team colours and Adidas World Cup 1982 boots.

All classic kit which has stood the test of time. Even the most rotund male can carry this clobber off, in mind if not in reality.

Reaction to a tweet of Borg’s rivalry with McEnroe and their tracksuits for the ages at the 1980 Wimbledon final, set me thinking about the classic sportswear which still cuts it – and the threads that don’t.

As a kid, trotting into the school gym for PE lessons in a France 1984 European Championship winning shirt or slide tackling the games teacher in Puma Kings, more than made up for the fact that you were crap.

At least you could look the part if you couldn’t play the part.

If Trevor Francis could carry off the European Cup in that Adidas Nottingham Forest shirt, then maybe so could you…

Here’s my shufty through the clothes rack of classic sports gear. The nearest I got to most of this lot was a pair of Winfield Madrid football boots (blatant Adidas World Cup rip-offs for one thousandeth of the cost) and a Carlisle United 1975 home shirt from the bargain bin at Jim Alder Sports in Morpeth.

Adidas World Cup football boots

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Just look at them man. Nothing more to say really.

Inter Milan shirt

Inter officials approach you: “100k a week in Serie A, an apartment in Milan and the life of a lord in Europe’s suavest country. And you get to wear this strip every week.” I’ll have a bit of that…

Newcastle United – Adidas meets Brown Ale

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Broon Ale. Adidas. Newcastle United. Memories, light the corners of my mind…

England World Cup 1990 shirt

Gazza, Beardsley, Waddle, Platt’s late winner, New Order, Turin – and that kit. What’s not to like?

Greek giants’ green

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Love this. (Worn it on me hols, sadly) Panathinaikos football shirt. More than a nod to the Irish, but as Greek as Feta, Mythos and Ouzo.

Sergio Tacchini v Fila

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Borg and McEnroe sporting tracksuit classics before their epic Wimbledon final clash in 1980

Off the court, every bit as big as Mac v Borg on it. Fila or Tacchini? The ultimate dilemma for a 1980s football casual. Never a decision I had to make. Geordie Jeans and a Galini rip-off my ‘threads of choice.’

Italian football team tracksuit top

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Bellissimo.

Belgium team cycling top 

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Forget the bike. Beer in hand and watch them go by.

And maybe not…

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Coventry City away strip 1978. Presumably sponsored by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

Carlisle United top 1975

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I liked it. Wore it for a school trip to Flamingo Land. Carlisle in their First Division pomp, if not me.

Jimmy White thrown career lifeline

Jimmy White’s professional career will continue for two more years at least after he accepted a tour wildcard from snooker supermo Barry Hearn.

Hearn’s tour invitation – to coincide with 40 years of the world championship at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – ensures White will continue to enthral his legion of fans in the twilight of his career as the game’s elder statesman.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 19.38.17.pngIt’s an unlikely mantle for a player with a wild past but one who the sport’s governing body realised still has an important part to play in its future.

The Whirlwind, 54, and 1997 world champion Ken Doherty were the beneficiaries of Hearn’s benevolence.

White accepted his wildcard during a special televised Crucible 40th anniversary ceremony, with Hearn in the audience looking on.

“I’m definitely going to be playing for the next couple of years,” confirmed White.

“I haven’t won the world championship, but I’m not finished yet. This is such a great place for snooker.

“I’ve seen snooker go from the top in the 80s to a small decline in the 90s, but now it’s in the best shape ever and to be a young professional now, it’s the greatest game to be in.”

White’s 37-year professional career appeared to be over when he failed to qualify for this year’s world championship.

The six-times runner-up wrote his name into Crucible history in his pursuit of the world crown – seeing his dream dashed by greats Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and John Parrott.

The world title is the only prize missing from his glittering CV, which includes the world amateur title and Benson and Hedges Masters.

White amassed ten major titles during a colourful career – the UK crown in 1992 the pinnacle of his achievements, establishing him as one of the most recognisable faces in British sport.

His tour invitation means he can side-step snooker’s Q school in the summer and look forward to pitting his wits against a new crop of tour snooker talent – most not born when his quick fire game first burst onto TV screens in 1981.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liverpool v Newcastle 21 years on: A Coming of Age

The defining league game of the new age of satellite football celebrated its 21st birthday a few days back.

“Collymore closing in!” and all that. Poetry to Liverpool fans, purgatory for Newcastle supporters.

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For me, the glamour surrounds of a Northumberland workingmen’s club was the vantage point for a never-to-be-forgotten night of goals, elation and heartache.

The squall of spilled Carling Black Label and McEwan’s Best Scotch which greeted strikes from Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Tino Asprilla was all part of a wild night when the wheels came off Newcastle United’s title challenge.

Watching highlights of the April 1996 top of the table clash, reveals a game from a different era, one which has aged well in many respects, but is increasingly a museum piece.

The juggernauts of Liverpool and Newcastle United collided spectacularly in a 4-3 thriller widely acclaimed as the most exhilarating match ever seen in the Premier League.

In any era, either side would have been worthy league champions.

Fowler, Redknapp, Barnes and McManaman could grace any team, as could Ferdinand, Ginola, Beardsley and Asprilla.

But both ultimately flattered to deceive, their challenges snuffed out by Alex Ferguson’s perennial party-poopers.

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As a Newcastle fan, watching Kevin Keegan’s side back then was like getting an access all parks pass to Disney World.

He had no pretence of doing anything other than meeting Sir John Hall’s brief of winning Newcastle its first league title since Hadrian visited the North East for a long weekend.

No dynasty building. Just assembling the heavy artillery needed to deliver the maximum firepower possible to land the title as quickly as he could.

In doing so, Keegan and his team connected in a way no other Newcastle side has done before or since with fans who crave the acknowledgment of knowing their devotion is appreciated by those lucky enough to represent them.

‘Toon’ live games in the mid-1990s were the very definition of ‘appointment to view television’ for fans.

Days were built around them and watching the match in the boozer – if you weren’t lucky enough to be able to get into St James’ Park – took off in a huge way.

Sky Sports’ business model appeared to be constructed on the foundations of mega live clashes involving Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Standing room only

Getting a seat in the old Morpeth Social Club the night Newcastle rolled into Anfield proved more difficult than usual.

A refurbishment of the main bar downstairs meant the little-used upstairs bar was to be the amphitheatre for the masses to watch the gladiators do battle.

Its 1950s-style wall seats and furnishings were relics from a different era – a lot like the likely lads who descended on it that night craning to see the drama unfold on a fatback tele mounted on a wall bracket.

Shoehorned into the tiny room,  the place was absolutely rocking.

Christ only knows what passers-by outside thought. Grown men leaping around framed against condensation soaked windows – best not go there.

Game on

The game itself was simply superb. It still raises the heart rate all these years later.

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It encapsulated all that was so good and yet so bad about Newcastle at the time. Rapier-like attack, powder puff defence.

When Fowler – then the most dangerous young striker in the country – stole in to plant a header past Pavel Srnicek in the second minute, it was hardly a surprise.

What followed was thrust and counter thrust. Caution thrown to the wind by two sides front-loaded with talent.

Asprilla’s goal in particular had blokes around me on the tables, hanging off each other as he cartwheeled over to the Toon fans in celebration.

Dinking the ball around David James with the outside of his right boot for it to spin sideways off the turf into the net was typical of a player who no-one could quite get a handle on.

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Only Newcastle United could accommodate Asprilla.

Their Las Vegas team was built on gamblers – even full-backs Steve Watson and John Beresford were given licence to spin the roulette wheel, marauding forward in a way only out and out wingers dared attempt. Fantastic to watch, but it came at a cost.

I swear the television camera is nearly rocked off its gantry when Collymore scores his last gasp winner.

The crowd roar is at a higher octave, more like that heard in South American games, such is their total absorption in the drama.

Commentator Andy Gray was moved to say it was a privilege – he stressed it twice – to witness it. It didn’t feel like it at the time to me, but I eventually came to realise he was right.

For those distraught, face down on tables in Morpeth Social Club, we knew our chance had probably gone.

Games against Blackburn and later Nottingham Forest would deliver the final blows and extinguish all hope of winning the ultimate prize in English football.

Modern times

So what is the game’s relevance today? In some ways it’s like unearthing a time capsule, the game recorded on a video tape, lying next to a Sega Mega Drive and pair of Adidas Predator boots.

Free-flowing football with players trusted to adapt to changing situations as they unfold on the pitch. Not your standard Premier League fodder nowadays.

Just look at England mark 2016. Footballers lost when their opponents suss Plan A. Without the wit to know why or how to cope.

Player athleticism and tactical analysis are king in the era of big bucks. They trump all. At its expense are skill and flair – and often excitement.

Seeing two teams cancel each other out through superbly plotted managerial plans has a certain appeal.

But it seems there are few gamblers at the top level anymore, willing to concede in the pursuit of scoring more.

Of course, as a Toon fan the Liverpool-Newcastle game was going to move me more than many other football supporters.

But apart from England’s 1990 World Cup semi-final exit, I can’t ever remember being so completely gripped by a game or being carried along on the wave of emotion that went with it.

Its impact stayed with me long after the game ended. Working as a press officer at Northumbria Police, I was used to speaking with reporters about matters other than criminal investigations.

The number of journalists – months later – from outside the North East who told me exactly where they were the night of the Anfield game, the impact it had on them and how Newcastle was the result they looked for after their own side’s, stuck in my mind.

All telling me this because I supported Newcastle United. Maybe more in sympathy than anything else, they wanted to talk about my club.

The power of football to bring strangers together never ceases to amaze me.

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Times change of course, even Morpeth Social Club – the old boozer – is long gone, replaced by a cracking bar, conference and gig venue called the Riverside Lodge.

Newcastle meanwhile stand on the cusp of yet another return to the big time and all that entails. Time to look forward.

No harm though once in a while, of turning back the clock 20 years to a time when we had joy, we had fun and a couple of seasons in the sun.

 

 

Jimmy White: End of an era?

The career of one of the biggest names in British sport may have come to an end last week.

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It probably passed you by – barely troubling mainstream media – but the days of Jimmy White as a professional snooker player could well be over.

Defeat in the qualifying tournament for the World Championship means White has dropped out of the tour’s top 64.

For his 37-year career as a pro to continue, he’ll need to go to snooker’s version of Q school – or rely on a wildcard for events from a benevolent Barry Hearn, the sport’s supremo.

As it stands, it’s up to ‘The Whirlwind’ to decide if lugging his cue to a backwater to face off with hungry young whippersnappers desperate for a slice of the action he has enjoyed for so long is an ordeal he’s prepared to put himself through.

What’s not in dispute is White’s contribution to the popularity of a sport whose 80s heyday rode on the back of his unparalleled connection with the public.

Streetwise and self taught, White was the antithesis of his nemesis Steve Davis. Practice, abstinence and mineral water weren’t part of White’s pre-match routine.

Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol and – as he admitted in latter years – worse, fuelled a wildly talented player who followed in the footsteps of his idol Alex Higgins.

Safety play was simply ignored. White backed himself to pot his way out of any trouble he found himself in – and invariably did.

The careful, considered play of stalwarts Eddie Charlton, Cliff Thorburn and Ray Reardon won many a-title. But it was deadly dull. Ice Ages came and went while they pored over safety exchanges with the baulk cushion their location of choice.

White in full flow in the early 80s was as talented and attacking a player as the game has ever seen.

Left-handed, intuitive – he had the ability to assess a table and make decisions before his latest Embassy Regal had barely settled in its ashtray.

I remember seeing White play for the first time against Steve Davis in the first round of the 1981 World Championship. His all-out potting, anti-establishment style captured me and my mates absorbed in a sport enjoying wall-to-wall BBC TV coverage.

White should have put Higgins to the sword in their epic World Championship semi-final the following year. Leading 15-14, he broke down on 59 with a final spot all but secured.

An inspired Higgins though produced what is widely regarded in the game – and by White – as the greatest pressure clearance in the sport’s history.

The 69 break crushed a 20-year-old White who lost the deciding frame, but established himself as the hottest property in the UK’s hottest sport.

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White took the game to new heights in his 1984 Benson and Hedges Masters semi-final against Kirk Stevens.

An evening session at the old Wembley Conference Centre was a home fixture for the Tooting boy.

A century from White was answered by a 147 from Stevens who somehow wrestled the cue ball around awkwardly positioned final colours to complete a stunning maximum.

Up breezed White for frame ten, unfazed. He promptly knocked in a quick-fire 119 featuring two baize searing ‘flair’ shots in dispatching the final pink and black.

White landed his first major crown the following day, seeing off Griffiths and officially announcing himself as Davis’ main rival for the world title.

A Davis in his pomp though pipped him three months later at the Crucible 18-16. ‘The Nugget’, as White called him, always seemed to have his number in the crunch encounters between snooker’s two heavyweights.

White didn’t do easy. Winning was always fraught. Ripping the Mercantile Credit Classic from a devastated Thorburn in 1986 when needing a snooker on the pink and black, was a case in point.

Losing was equally dramatic. Being a sport’s ‘best never to have’ player is a huge burden to carry.

Sergio Garcia managed to rid himself of that monkey after 70-odd Major attempts and 18 years of trying at last weekend’s US Masters.

Millions willed White to do likewise at The Crucible for two decades.

To have watched a dominant Davis at the table would have been challenge enough. But then to see him replaced in the 90s by Stephen Hendry was just plain cruel.

Out of his six world finals, White realistically should have won two. His 18-14 defeat to Hendry in 1992 saw him sat ashen-faced for a couple of hours, helpless as the Scot reeled off ten frames on the bounce.

Two years later, when in prime position, he cracked and missed a black off its spot in a final frame decider, handing victory to Hendry and with it, his last chance of lifting the game’s biggest prize.

There’ve been flashes of his old brilliance since. A ranking title in 2004. Victory over Ronnie O’Sullivan. He’s won all the sport’s glittering prizes – bar the big one.

Longevity is a barometer of sporting greatness. White has been at the top of his for the thick end of four decades.

He was a pioneer of an attacking game now taken on by a fresh generation to its ultimate conclusion of one knockout blow per frame. Potting taking precedence over strategy.

The new breed owe much to a man who always did things his way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I picked the wrong week to quit Sky Sports.

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After months of quibbling, I’ve finally done it. Sky Sports is history. Gone. No mas.

In the grand scheme of the money-making monster that is Sky, I know I’m just another customer to be courted and then easily replaced by some other punter willing to part with more than £70 a month for a bundle or whatever their various packages are called.

I love my sport. I’ll watch pretty much anything.

Football, cycling, rugby, tennis, cricket, snooker – I can appreciate the talent and dedication needed to reach the top in any competitive physical activity.

Sport moves me in a way little else does and it was always my dream to be a sports reporter when I grew up. Both remain unfulfilled goals.

So it’s a big deal for me to turn my back on the world’s biggest sporting events and the stars that grace them.

But in recent months I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with Sky Sports and its output. Flicking aimlessly through dozens of inane channels is par for the course with satellite tele.

Sky Sports though offered salvation – my first port of call when grappling with my daughters for the remote control. 401 to 411 are well thumbed numbers on the handset.

Hype

The cycle of repetitive Premier League hype, Deadline Day dross, vacuous ex-pro analysis and dearth of excitement on the pitch has gradually taken its toll.

Truth is, I’ve been bored rigid by English football’s top flight for years.

The endless loop of ‘stories’ of players insisting they are up for the fight, managers declaring they feel no pressure, the obsession with club finances, loan deals, meaningless player post-match interviews and minute focus on the ‘big clubs’ to the detriment of the rest.

I barely know any of the Premier League line-ups these days. A £50m signing alert on my mobile usually draws little more than a cursory glance.

Is the Premier League the pinnacle of world football?  I’d suggest last weekend’s West Brom v Middlesbrough epic revealed otherwise.

“Stoke v Burnley – something’s gotta give!” Yep, that’ll be me.

Seems I’m not alone in my disenchantment. My ‘Sky Sports no more’ announcement to followers on Twitter revealed others who have taken the plunge and lived quite happily to tell the tale.

At the moment, there’s no regrets. No tears goodbye. September 30th is D-Day.

Before then I might sneak in the Kell Brook-Gennady Golovkin fight and see the final stages of the Vuelta Espana.

I haven’t quite severed the umbilical cord with Sky. I just couldn’t make a clean break and caved in to their olive branch of a £50 a month reduction for a smattering of satellite output – Sky Sports News is in there if I go cold turkey.

Idiotically, in my self-satisfied state after negotiating my own Deadline Day deal, I may just have chopped off my hooter to spite my face.

The Ryder Cup tees-off in the States on the day my signal dies.

In the spirit of Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! – looks like I picked the wrong week to quit my sports addiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desert heat melts brave McGuigan

 

Las Vegas is the home of a million hard luck stories, high rollers and holidaying visitors alike parted from their cash in the desert temple to filthy lucre.

The searing heat of Nevada was the scene of a high stakes gamble by Ireland’s favourite son in June 1986, the next step for him on his march to global dominance.

But the odds were to prove stacked against him. A fight staged outdoors in the brutal conditions of a Las Vegas summer evening, one roll of the dice too many.

Sporting favourite

Barry McGuigan was without doubt the face of British boxing and much more. A unifying force across the divided communities of Northern Ireland, the public declared him their BBC Sports Personality of the Year just six months earlier.

His thrilling defeat of long-time champion Eusebio Pedroza on a never to be forgotten night at Queen’s Park Rangers’ Loftus Road still resonates as one of the great performances by a British fighter.

Two successful defences of his WBA Featherweight crown later and McGuigan had cemented his status as a fearsome fighter – his engaging humility in victory taking his popularity way beyond the usual boundaries of the sport.

 

The lure of a mega-fight with the intimidating WBC champion Azumah Nelson was looming large on the horizon for McGuigan as he landed in the US to take his bow on the world’s biggest fighting stage.

Destination Vegas. Dispose of journeyman opponent Texan Steve Cruz as expected and announce himself to the US public.

Bigger purses and universal acclaim would surely follow, as many thought was his destiny.

An outdoor ring in the car park of Caesar’s Palace Hotel was the agreed venue for his latest title defence.

The King’s Hall in Belfast – the scene of many a McGuigan glory night – seemed a long, long way away.

Punishing heat

The fight may as well have been staged in the mouth of a blast furnace.

The thermometer ringside touched 43C – or 110F in old money.

A bank of 72 TV lights blazed down on the canvas.

McGuigan had spent weeks acclimatising for the bout in Palm Springs. But no warm weather sparring could prepare him for 45 minutes of world championship fighting in such brutal conditions at a furious pace which was the hallmark of all his bouts.

BBC broadcasting great Harry Carpenter, in a portent of what was to come, declared: “He’s been out here for weeks but I think when he gets into the ring he’s really going to feel it.”

A flurry of late betting revealed punters thought the Nevadan sunshine and dry desert air could significantly shift the odds in the challenger’s favour.

Weathered and durable, Cruz was to prove the nightmare opponent for McGuigan, whose all action, non-stop style simply wasn’t sustainable in sauna-like heat.

His bow in front of American fight fans – far from the anticipated curtain raiser announcing the new kid onto the block – was effectively career-ending.

But it shone a light on the man McGuigan is.

Refused to wilt

Three decades after last watching the fight, it was clear to me on viewing it again that McGuigan won it.

That threw me. I remembered it as a battle that slipped away from him in the middle rounds, one that saw him clinging on for dear life until the final bell.

But that wasn’t how it played out. Two calamitous rounds – ten and 15 – saw him felled three times. The majority of the other rounds were very much McGuigan’s.

The knock downs in the final three minutes undoubtedly swung the fight in Cruz’s favour on two of the judges cards, while the other inexplicably gave it by a four-point margin to Cruz.

Say a prayer

The fight is compelling. In some ways McGuigan’s greatest, certainly his most heroic.

The outdoor arena makes for a strange atmosphere as much of the noise of the 15,000 strong crowd is dissipated into the evening sky.

But McGuigan’s supporters still manage to make themselves heard and his dad Pat’s pre-fight rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ brings a little bit of the King’s Hall to Caesar’s Palace.

Early doors, McGuigan is all over Cruz. An unremarkable fighter, he is three years the Irishman’s junior at 22 and with none of his pedigree.

The WBA’s number nine ranked fighter has a creditable 25 wins with a solitary loss to his name. McGuigan can barely remember what it’s like to taste defeat, on a 27 fight winning streak taking him to the summit of the sport with 24 of those opponents stopped.

From the outset Cruz is resolute, catches McGuigan with counters and refuses to buckle under regular assault.

Carpenter forecasts that the pace both men are setting can’t be maintained, emphasising just what is at stake for the ‘Clones Cyclone’. As the first round unfolds he declares: “This is a vital fight for McGuigan, this isn’t just to win but to look good in front of America.”

The first signs of the sapping effects of heat on McGuigan are in the sixth. A stinker of a round, Cruz wobbles him with a stinging shot leaving him dazed and out of tempo.

Both men are breathing hard and McGuigan’s timing of his shots seems awry.

A cut eye doesn’t stop his ferocious work rate though – working hard to hit and avoid being hit in the seventh and eighth and looking more assured in the ninth.

But the underlying effects of dehydration are causing him serious distress and famously it comes to the fore as his cornermen work on him before the tenth round.

One of his team declares: “A great round, a marvellous round, you’re boxing, you’re boxing, you’re boxing – you’ll take him out this round or the next round. Box, box, box.”

But McGuigan implores his cornermen: “Say a prayer. Please, say a prayer that we’ll be alright.”

“No problem Barry.” McGuigan again pleads: “Say a prayer that we’ll be alright.”

Still 18 minutes left to overcome a man who would not be moved in conditions as alien as any could be to a Northern European.

His body wilting and mind clouding, he rises for the tenth.

Into the fire

After a decent start to the round, McGuigan is floored by a left hand, stunning him badly and he hauls himself to his feet on the count of eight.

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The punishing heat is also sapping Cruz, too tired to follow up on his success but registering  a 10-8 round.

For the first time in the fight, McGuigan is back pedalling and looking desperately tired in the 11th.

But McGuigan’s heart and extraordinary conditioning remarkably sees him gain the upper hand in the next three rounds – a low blow though costing him a point.

Carpenter is in awe of McGuigan’s “superhuman” strength which drags him back from the brink, propelling him forward and taking the 13th and 14th rounds to give him “a big, big lead” in the estimation of the BBC man.

The final round is a disaster. Nearly three-quarters of an hour of high octane output has taken its toll.

The blows that fell him are not full-blooded, but enough to put down a man on the point of total exhaustion. The tank is empty.

God knows, the temptation to stay down and end his suffering must have been huge. But he gets up quickly both times and on he goes.

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On buckling legs and with senses scrambled, he somehow survives to the end.

McGuigan’s body language speaks of defeat at the final bell, a 10-7 last round a crushing blow to a king who had expended everything in defence of his crown.

He is helped away from the arena by his team and stretchered to a waiting ambulance, tearfully acknowledging the applause of his fans. Apologetic, with nothing to apologise for.

Epilogue

The reason McGuigan’s fights still resonate for people of my generation is that we liked him so much. Still do.

A working-class lad, humble and brilliant. He fought in a style most could identify with and yet hit with a power way beyond what a nine-stone man should.

His career was extinguished as it burnt at its brightest. No recriminations from him though. Typical really.

Barry McGuigan was an elite-level boxer. And he is an even better man.

#boxing #mcguigan

 

 

 

 

 

Hagler v Hearns 30 years on

As the sport’s two most destructive fighters made their way back to their respective corners, an incredulous US TV commentator caught the moment perfectly: “An entire fight encompassed in three minutes.”

Whether or not Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler actually set out to unleash hell on each other for the first 180 seconds of their unifying world middleweight championship clash, is open to debate.

What isn’t is that boxing had never seen anything quite like it before and hasn’t since. Two supremely gifted athletes at the peak of their powers setting aside all thoughts of self preservation in trying to blast each other into submission.

It’s almost 30 years to the day since ‘The Hitman’ and ‘Marvellous’ (you just have to be good with a moniker that brazen) went Mano a Mano in Las Vegas.

I still remember watching their war the following weekend on Grandstand – no YouTube or catch up in those analogue days. The slightly fuzzy, yellowed images, as was the want of videotape from the States, only added to the spectacle for me and cemented my lifelong fascination with the sport.

Of course, for both men the fight was to prove the defining moment of their glittering careers. How could it not?

Hagler entered the fight seemingly driven by a bitterness that his achievements could still not lift him from the shadow of media favourite Sugar Ray Leonard.

For Hearns, the clash represented his chance to finally take his place in the hall of modern day middleweight greats alongside Hagler, Leonard and Roberto Duran.

‘The Hitman’ had blown away Duran and pretty much anyone else unlucky enough to step into the ring with him en route to meeting Hagler. Meanwhile Hagler was a champion who could lay claim to being the sport’s pound for pound king.

A snarling, intimidating figure, dominant in the division.

The opening bell saw both men tear into each other, landing ferocious blows that would have deprived most of their peers of their senses.

From the middle of the second round Hearns was gassed out. The sheer physical effort of landing enormous shots on Hagler that registered on the Richter Scale – while having to soak up Hagler’s spiteful worst – had taken a heavy toll.

Hearns – in full flow a gangly, unfeasibly tall fighter – was now on Bambi-like legs. Hagler though, a walking shaven-headed scowl, had problems of his own.

In getting close to Hearns to fight on the inside, he had shipped heavy blows from one of the sport’s most hurtful punchers.

Blood seeping from a cut above an eye brought the doctor to the ringside to inspect the damage. Despite being allowed to continue to fight on, the message was clear for Hagler – knock Hearns out now or see your WBA, WBC and IBF belts head back north to Detroit.

The end when it came was brutal. I remember at the time being surprised that it ended as quickly as it did. A lunging Hagler felling Hearns with a chopping right hand.

But looking back now 30 years on at Hearns lying flat on his back, staring through glazed, half open eyes at the ceiling lights, it was all too clear he was spent.

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The image of Hearns being carried back to his corner in the arms of one of his team is one that has stayed in my mind ever since – much as Barry McGuigan’s ‘thousand yard stare’ has as he toiled in the desert heat against Steve Cruz.

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While Hearns’ dream lies broken in total exhaustion, there behind him is the contrast of a champion, raised aloft in triumph – a victory all the sweeter in having been taken to the brink.

#boxing #hagler #hearns #sport

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