Alan Hubbard celebrates 65 years in journalism – Trump, Boris, Ali, royalty, Sinatra and a couple of Burts

Independent on Sunday sports columnist, former sports editor of The Observer, and twice SJA diarist of the year, Alan Hubbard celebrates his 65th year in journalism. Here is an edited version of his anniversary blog written for Inside The Games.

This week marks my 65th year in journalism, something which one might say is to be commiserated rather than celebrated. It has been a fascinating journey, a helter-skelter of a ride through this sporting life.

I’ve had tea with Trump and jogged along with Boris, sparred verbally with Muhammad Ali, shaken hands with Nelson Mandela and been sworn at by a man of God.

Fresh out of grammar school, my first job was as a cub reporter on a weekly newspaper in South London, the Balham and Tooting News & Mercury and my first major interview was with the then popular comedian Tommy Trinder, who was also chairman of Fulham Football Club, as well as host of the hit TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

Trinder was starring in a pantomime playing Buttons in Cinderella at the Granada in Tooting. I toddled along and had an absorbing hour-and-a-half with him in his dressing room during rehearsals.

Olympic veterans Neil Wilson, left, Alan Hubbard and John Goodbody at the special presentation from Lord Coe to mark their long and distinguished careers

Tea with Donald Trump came some 30 years later in the 1980s in Atlantic City where he was then a boxing promoter and entrepreneur, co-promoting a Mike Tyson fight at one of his casinos.

And who would’ve thought when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, and I interviewed him about his role in the London 2012 Olympics , he would end up today as our Prime Minister?

Dear old Boris was as affable as usual when I met him in Dulwich, South London, where he was presenting the trophies at a school swimming gala. He was in a rush and suggested we continue the interview as he went for his train.

I had to jog with him down the hill towards the station where he jumped into the first-class carriage and invited me to join him. As we approached Victoria, I suddenly realised I had not got a ticket. “Don’t worry old boy,” he guffawed. “Neither have I.” And together we sailed through the barrier as he waved cheerily to an inspector.

I’ve talked with a King, albeit Don King, and a prince and there was an emperor too

I’ve interviewed quite a lot of royalty about their sporting interests. In 1976 I went to see HRH Princess Anne, who had been selected for the GB eventing team. We sat in the lounge at her home in Sandhurst (husband Captain Mark Phillips was in the military).

Unfortunately, one of her small pet dogs peed, not only over the carpet, but over our photographer’s foot. I could hardly contain myself as HRH ordered hubby to get down on his hands and knees and “clean this up”.

The look on my snapper’s face as Captain Phillips polished his shoes with a damp cloth was worth any of the pictures he had taken.

Guest of honour at the 60th annual SJA British Sports Awards, HRH the Princess Royal, presents double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington with our Sportswoman of the Year trophy

I’ve talked with a King – albeit Don King, godfather of the boxing ring – and a prince. Prince Faisal of Jordan flew us in his helicopter through the ancient rose red city of Petra.

There was an emperor, too. Having been invited to Addis Ababa for the film premiere about Ethiopia’s marathon idol Abebe Bikila we waited in the cinema for the arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was carried in on his own throne and placed right in front of the screen.

 Alas, the projector broke down. The next day it was screened in an aircraft hanger which had a corrugated iron roof. Unfortunately, a rainstorm ensued and we could not hear the soundtrack.

I was also lucky enough to shake the hand of the great Nelson Mandela. Sadly only once. I did lose count of the number of times I shook the hand of Muhammad Ali, although tragically in the last few years of his life it was his shaking hands.

He was never known to decline an interview even though his trainer Angelo Dundee once told us when our plane to Dublin to meet him was delayed that we had missed him as he had gone to bed.

“That’s a shame,” we remarked. “We only wanted to talk to him for 10 minutes.”

“You’ve got no chance,” he replied. “He never talks to anyone for less than an hour. Go on up.” And, of course, we did, to be regaled for more like two hours as he lay on his bed being treated for flu by a doctor.

Billy Walker, left, presents Alan Hubbard with the Reg Gutteridge Award for services to boxing journalism

Sylvester Stallone was also a joy to converse with and he showed us precisely how every punch in the Rocky movies was choreographed. 

Among the other showbiz stars who have crossed my path was one Francis Albert Sinatra. Odd circumstances, too. I stood next to him at the gents in Madison Square Garden before the first of the Ali-Frazier trilogy.

“How ya doin’ fella,” he enquired. “Who d’ya fancy?”

I told him Ali. “Nah, Frazier will destroy him,” sniffed Sinatra, who was working as a ringside photographer for Life magazine at the fight.

Another entertainment legend involved as a ringside pundit for television was Burt Lancaster, macho star of films such as Trapeze and From Here to Eternity.

Excuse me, Mr Bacharach. You’ll never believe what we are going to ask, but do you know the way to San Jose?

The Garden’s wonderfully laconic PR John Condon had introduced a group of British writers to him at the weigh-in. As Lancaster turned round we saw he was wearing lipstick, mascara and rouge.

Hiya fellas,” he smiled, fluttering his eyelashes and then looking at the boxers on the scales. “Don’t ya just love their muscles?”

We also encountered another famous Burt – the songwriter Burt Bacharach. We had been visiting Ali’s training camp near Los Angeles and we were to head for his opponent Ken Norton’s base in San Jose, also in California.

As we drove away we noticed Burt strolling with a lady companion, rackets under arms, heading towards the tennis courts. The temptation was irresistible.

Winding down the window we asked: “Excuse me, Mr Bacharach. You’ll never believe what we are going to ask, but do you know the way to San Jose?” 

The man who wrote those enduring lyrics paused and glowered. “You gotta be kiddin’ mister!”

Then he recognised a fellow passenger – Reg Gutteridge – who he had met before. We all had a good laugh and he invited us to tea.

And of course, he did know the way to San Jose.

Finally, one unforgettable encounter with the late Reverend Ian Paisley. After covering a fight in Belfast, my newspaper suggested I interview the firebrand Ulsterman, who was due to preach at a rally just outside the city. I thought it might be interesting.

As my taxi drove towards the gathering, you could hear his stentorian tones a mile away. It was with some trepidation that I approached him after the meeting.

“Excuse me Mr Paisley, might I have a few words?” 

He glared at me menacingly and inquired if I was journalist and I told him I was. His nostrils flared and his eyes blazed as he roared: “Can’t you see I’m on God’s work? Now f*** off!”

Read the full version on Inside The Games