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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Belgium team cycling top
Forget the bike. Beer in hand and watch them go by.
And maybe not…
Coventry City away strip 1978. Presumably sponsored by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
Carlisle United top 1975
I liked it. Wore it for a school trip to Flamingo Land. Carlisle in their First Division pomp, if not me.
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.
It’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.
I was just going to post this appreciation of Barry McGuigan again – one of my favourite sportsmen – as a ‘lockdown read’ at a time when there’s so little sport around.
But it needed a new foreword.
He’s a man who has had to endure more tragedy in his life than most could ever understand, although reading his posts on his Twitter feed @ClonesCyclone you’d never know.
I’d urge you to follow him and take a look if you don’t already.
It’s all there.
High stakes gamble in Nevada sun
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ahead on two of the three judges scorecards heading into the final round, the knockdowns swung the fight decisively to Cruz, the unanimous winner and new champion of the world.
McGuigan 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.
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.