Hugh McIlvanney, who writes about British heavyweight boxers in this issue (page 26), is undeniably a heavyweight himself among British journalists. This year the 52-year-old Scot was voted Britain's Sports Writer of the Year by his peers, the sixth time he has received that honor. And in 1982, McIlvanney was named—with no qualification—Britain's Journalist of the Year, the first time that a sportswriter had been so recognized. "The boys in the back of the bus," said Hugh at the time with an edge in his voice, "had been noticed at last."
All the same, any reader of the London Observer over the last 24 years would have to be singularly insensitive not to have responded long since to the quality of McIlvanney's weekly column. And he would certainly have noticed that there seemed to be two distinct McIlvanneys in his work. One is grittily Scottish, casting a cold eye on anything in sport that seems to degrade it. The other McIlvanney conveys a different but equally Celtic kind of passion, one of a warmth engendered, as he says himself, "by witnessing great spirits exposed to great pressures in sport." Soccer, horse racing and golf figure large in his writings, and he said recently that sometimes a sport you have felt nothing for in the past can come out and grab you—as ocean racing did after the latest America's Cup drama.
But it is boxing that has meant the most to him, even though he admits an ambivalent attitude to the sport. "It's not so much the statistics that worry me," he says, "as the motivation. It's a game in which the objective is to convey injury."
The fighter McIlvanney remembers with most affection is Howard Winstone, a Welsh featherweight of the '60s who fought for the world title three times. ("You can't count Ali," he says. "Ali belonged to the world.")
McIlvanney says: "He was never really well enough physically endowed for the championship. Vicente Saldivar beat him three times, but you could say that those fights were won in the womb. But Howard had a heart as big as a church...."
In the next year or so, American sports fans may be reading much more of McIlvanney, who, while continuing his Observer column, will work as a free-lancer in the U.S. We wish him well; maybe he will find another Howard Winstone or two over here.