Who’s the hardest sportsman you can think of? Uncompromising Roy Keane… nah a pussy cat. Lance Armstong winning 7 Tours de France having overcome testicular cancer? Yep that’s staggeringly brave and tough. But I was reading one of my trivia books and came across some interesting stuff (more in a sec) but I reckon the guy Manuel Dominguez takes the biscuit for incomparable sporting toughness. What did he do? He was a matador in the 19th century (maybe that’s why you don’t remember him) who was gored in the eye during a bullfight at Puerto de Santa Maria in 1857. Painful, and possibly crazy, but what’s so hard about it? Well he only went and tore the wounded eye out, threw it to the ground and continued the corrida. He lived on to 70. Now that’s hard!
Oh how I wish he could play in Man U’s midfield or in the centre for the England rugby team as we try and take on the All Blacks on their turf, all fired up by the fearsome haka war dance. But if I was England coach (is Martin J in charge for this tour, I’ve lost track?) I’d be tempted to post up on the dressing room wall the words to the haka translated into English:
I die! I die! I live! I live! (make up your mind fellas)
I die! I die! I Live! I Live! (getting slightly boring now)
This is the hairy man who fetched the sun (eh?)
And caused it to shine again (very nice)
One upward step! Another upward step! (yawn)
One upward step! another ……the Sun shines!! Hi!!! (is that it?)
See what I mean? It wouldn’t have troubled old Manuel would it? Big maori blouses. It got me thinking that a lot of sporting combat is as much about mental attitude as it is physical prowess. Look at all those guys who at times seemed unbeatable; Schumacher in F1, Federer at tennis, Phil Taylor at darts, Tiger at golf. For a time they probably all felt unassailable but something happens – somebody takes them on whose mental toughness matches and possibly dominates theirs for once. All of a sudden the unbeatable Champion starts to look human again rather than super-human. I don’t think its just age creeping up – something gives in their heart I think.
Take Federer. Two years ago he couldn’t be beaten except in the odd match on his least favourite clay surface. Then he gets a bout of glandular fever which is debilitating for sure but he’s a fit guy. Since his comeback he’s lost to all sorts of guys who are suddenly thinking I can take this guy. And once they do, despite Roger not being at his best, they’ve broken the spell. So we saw Nadal absolutely mullah him at Roland Garros in the recent final of the French Open. You’ve got to believe that Federer’s going to struggle to beat Nadal even on his favourite (and Rafa’s least favourite) surface at Wimbledon. Incidentally do you know who Roland Garros was? A Frenchman of course but rather surprisingly he was a pioneer of air travel – the first man to fly over the Mediterranean in 1913. He probably heard the Germans were coming (joke). But having mentioned the war, Garros was also renowned for inventing the system for firing machine guns through a plane’s propellors whilst in flight, thereby making air warfare possible. So it seems only natural for the French to dedicate their national tennis home in his memory. Perverse buggers.
I think no sport shows the fallibility of Champions more than football. Didn’t Man Utd win the European Cup in 1967 only to finish the next season trophy-less and in 11th place, prefacing the slide towards relegation. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Look at the Italian national side. They were deserved and outstanding winners of the World Cup 2006 but struggled to qualify for Euro 2008 and have already lost heavily to a suddenly rampant Neths team. With virtually an unchanged side, why did that happen? And why do all Italian national sides play in azzurri blue when the national colours, reflected in the flag, are red, white and green? Well the tricolore was adopted only after WW2 surprisingly, whilst the blue dates back to the 19th century, when it was the colour of the house of Savoy, the Italian royal family. So now you know.
But for me the saddest incidence of a Champion whose former greatness and invincibilty had become compromised but nobody wished to tell him was Muhammed Ali. I never saw fighters like Marciano and Joe Louis but I will always maintain that Ali was the Greatest. He transformed the sport in every respect and fought everybody, avoiding nobody even after the authorities robbed him of 3 years at his fighting peak because of his anti-Vietnam stance. After his monumental comeback fight and narrow defeat to Frazier in 1971, he didn’t fight again until 1974 when taking on the formidable George Foreman where he regained his title in that incredible rumble in the jungle. That was already 13 years after first winning the heavyweight title against Sonny Liston. He maybe should have retired then but he went on to defend his title 10 more times (including beating Frazier in a gruelling re-match) before losing on points to a young Leon Spinks. Undeterred, he won the re-match against Spinks to reclaim his title for a 3rd time, 4 years after the Foreman fight. After a break of a further two years he took on Larry Holmes in an ill-judged title challenge and got heavily beaten up. That was to be his last fight in the ring and the boxing public never forgave Holmes for his systemmatic, almost sadistic, mauling of a man approaching his 40th year.
That was clearly a fight too far for Ali but I have a view that a mental tipping point came for him in a little-remembered earlier bout against a real bum of the month in England’s then finest, Richard Dunn. A former paratrooper (I think) and real bluff, call-a-spade-a-f*cking-spade Yorkshire man, Dunn came to the fight as a complete no hoper. And indeed the bookies were proven right as Dunn was duly despatched to the canvas for the umpteenth and final time in round 5. But something happened in that fight to cause Ali to look into his heart and realise it was the end. Dunn had no real skill or threat but he was as brave as anything and with true Yorks grit kept coming back at Ali. It was like the fight scene in Cool Hand Luke where the Newman character just keeps getting off the deck against the far bigger man. The Ali of old would have put Dunne away in round 1 but despite all his showboating and faux malice, he struggled to see ‘eh up’ Richard off. As the old gun-slingers from the Wild West came to realise, that was the moment when all the young guns knew they could take him on and now have a real chance of coming away the victor. Ali went on to have 6 more fights after the Dunn match and they all painfully went the distance apart from that final beating against Holmes when he was finished in Round 10.
Richard Dunn eh. I laughed at the time when I saw him trying to hit Ali when he was on his knees in Round 4 after his third knock-down. Ali was just looking down on him with disdain I thought then. But I now sense a deeper realisation; that his glory days were finished. ‘The Greatest’ was now just pretty good. Have a look at this old video of the fight. It says everything about sport and cycles of greatness I believe. Enjoy the poignancy.