Almanac Tributes: Hugh McIlvanney – one of sports writing’s finest

Hugh McIlvanney [Photo courtesy of YouTube]



Saturday night in `90s London. Thank heavens for 11pm watering hole closing, an indifference to clubbing and the restorative powers of a doner kebab. It allowed for a special Sunday morning ritual, the cover-to-cover forensic examination of The Sunday Times sports supplement. Writing and journalism in another plane compared to the banal dross generally offered in Australia. The back page was filled by the legendary Scottish journalist Hugh Mcllvanney who died last Thursday after six decades in the caper.


After a long stint with The Observer, he spent 23 years at The Sunday Times. Every sentence of every column that I savoured and sometimes read multiple times over were beautifully and dutifully crafted. His special subjects were football and boxing. He was a giant. A master of his craft. Think any famous sporting event and he covered it. Mcllvanney’s observations, insight and prose were mandatory reading. He wrote famous pieces on the night Celtic emerged as the Lions of Lisbon and creatively gained an audience with Ali just hours after the Rumble In The Jungle:


“Truth is, I could have killed myself dancin’ against him,” Ali admitted, while eating two steaks, eight scrambled eggs and several pints of orange juice.  


Arguably, Mcllvanney’s most beautiful and haunting piece concerned Welsh pugilist Johnny Owen’s final fight:


I gave this piece to John Harms and Dips O’Donnell to read. Their reactions:



A mighty fine piece – about a tragic moment. The voice is so strong. It is the voice of empathy and sadness, but respect. And wisdom.  The description of the final rounds is brilliant. The ‘bony shoulder’ line (and subsequent lines) strike a chord.



That’s the best boxing piece I have ever read. Maybe the best sporting piece. Extraordinarily emotional and articulate. I can recall reading about this bout but was I was unaware of the back story.


My own reaction:

The final paragraph is close to the most moving ever penned in sports journalism.



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  1. While I have no interest in boxing that is brilliant writing and I well understand why you would have been hooked and read the paper inside out thanks for sharing,Flynny

  2. Great piece. Thanks P. Flynn for pointing it out.

  3. Wonderful writing. The science of boxing – leaning in to reduce the leverage of punches – among the blood and brutality. Knowing the end that was coming but honouring the contest with round by round description. Like Dulcify travelling well in the 79 Cup before fracturing it’s pelvis.
    I followed the fights into the 90’s courtesy of TV Ringside and then the greats of Ali, Frasier, Leonard, Hearns and Hagler – but have no memory of the Owen tragedy. Unbelievable now that neither the referee or his trainer stopped the fight – but that was the macho bloodlust of the times.
    The Guardian photo is striking with the eyes and ears – Noddy and Johnny Famechon. Survived Jose Legra and Harada – but knocked down by a car outside Warwick Farm races. Dangerous place.
    Thanks PJF.

  4. Colin Ritchie says

    That’s what sportswriting is all about! This article takes you there, you can feel the blood, the sweat and the tears as you become a part of the writing, and totally immersed in the scenario. Did HM take notes during the fight with pen or some type of recording device, or did he wholly rely on his memory? His recollections are crystal clear. And within the following few words, “….and the indifference of many among the crowd was emphasised when one of the stretcher-bearers had his pocket picked.”, articulates and resonates so clearly how HM captures the mood of the event. I must follow up further of his writing. Thanks Peter F for sharing this wonderful piece of writing.

  5. Its is superb because its a story about people and the human struggle. Wonderful writing.

  6. Superb PJF. Amazing prose. The last paragraph is remarkable but the final line from the third to last one is worth noting too.

    The nightmare that had been threatening her for years had become reality.

    Thanks for this.

  7. PJF,

    Thank you for your sharing of the writing.
    What a catastrophically sad story of Johnny Owen.
    Beautifully, richly, generously told.

  8. I watched a bit of the bout, earlier today. Johnny Owen seemed competitive up until the 8th round, but watching the next few rounds his flailing arms didn’t seem to land many point scoring punches, whilst his guard was steadily sagging.

    The 12th round is hard viewing. A quick L hook, followed by a R hook is a pretty powerful combination, this coming not long after a big R hook rendered him senseless earlier in the round.

    A sad end to the Merthyr Matchstick.


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