Hugh Mcillvanney the legendary boxing writer has died. Named British sports writer of the year seven times, he had a way of focusing the already fantastical into familiar fables, elevating the magical into the realm of mythology. Like all greats he leaves an indelible mark on the notepad of history, where even a casual scribble over his legacy, will be more than enough to reveal his brilliance.
He was the kind of writer that could convince those who knew, and others who quickly learnt, to flick straight to the back page,or just before this, where his articles were often signposted next to the 'proper non-sports writers 'from the front page.
He was able to invite you not just into those front row seats were the modern gladiators pitted their hearts, wits and bodies against often regular foes in wars of bloody attrition, but also into their living rooms, their heads , their dreams and motivation. He knew that the skills honed through years of pre-emptive pain, banking blows and hours of practice into the room whose door they hoped to never have to open, deserved no little amount of skill and measured accuracy from himself in delivering his gripping accounts of those battles.
He could talk to a loquacious loudmouth like Ali and distil from those long languid soliloquies, contradictions and existential thinking aloud, devastating combinations. He could see the backbone of Ali that was often forgotten when his road show blinded the crowds with witticisms and style, never losing sight of that iron will upon which Ali could always rely to withstand the unbeatable and around which he bent the improbable.
Hugh's words could cascade off the page like a fighter at the speed bag, unloading a flurry of prose with such speed and veracity that you could easily on first glance miss the precision. If you were somebody who even entertained the idea of sometime attempting to be any kind of writer yourself, you could not help but take off your proverbial hat and doff it to him in respect for the audacious deployment of his sharply honed writing chops.
To him the protagonists were not mere pugilists but players in an unfurling story whose plots and subplots cast light upon not only our own lives, but the human condition itself. In this way he was an artist, famously almost fanatical in this devotion to detail working on his reports like a surgeon removing aberrations whilst leaving the functional elements untarnished , where the clumsier of us will often excise necessary descriptors and butcher the working sentence without removing the useless detritus around it. There will never be another Hugh Mcillvanney, not just because he came from a generation privileged to witness the most magnificent contests unfold without so much lesser fare to distract them, but because he had a hungry (and one with a very well educated palate) press to feed. The Press now is flabby and indiscriminate, happy to gorge itself on junk food, stuffing its cheeks full of rubbish with no nutritional value and no fibre to digest and chew over.
He was one of the first writers I could imagine standing next to me in a queue for the bus. He never pretended, however expertly he executed them, that any of his metaphors could hope to substitute, explain or excuse the very real and debilitating repetitive violence reigning over the showers of blood that stained, but could not hide, the ugliness of corporate logos that adorned the canvas beating floors of the professional boxing ring.
He could talk about and discuss the conspirational conventionality of other boxing writers, the ability of the camera in televised bouts to trick an audience into a forced perspective that did not reveal the dynamic range of differing blows, and the apparent advanced visual impairment of certain ringside judges without ever letting his lancing of the swelling that can stop one seeing the noble art for what it is, becoming anything more than a necessary operation. He was never flippant, nasty or snide, he was far too much of a craftsman to resort to such thuggery.
He also wrote about football and horse racing and rugby, and many other sports, but it was his dissection of the fight game that really kept people transfixed and held them within the cradle of his calculated copy. His compositions crackled with life, almost made for the age old joke of being black, white and read all over, you could feel the breath of the nervous second on your collar, and hear the gulps of air being drawn in by the seated boxer feeling the ring closing in on him as you read his round summaries.
His perception started long before fight night. He would read things in fighters preparations that would reveal weaknesses their opponents would punish in the fight. He would be generous even to those he did not care much for, and so blisteringly honest in his appraisal of those he held in high regard that it was like reading a final extra fine sand down before the polish was applied.
There will never be another Hugh Mcillvanney and with him passes an era not just for British sports writing but with it the last words of the scribe that detailed he odysseys of those colossus who strode across that era internationally.
Thank You Hugh, and may the bells ring loud around the world for your final ten count.