The Greatest

Why does Deserter keep banging on about sports? It’s not as if we’re active types. 

Well, for a start, as spectators it’s not us who are doing the work. And if we’re being enthralled by athletic endeavour it’ll either be at the venue, with all the excitement – or at least pies – that suggests, or at a fine pub with all the joys that suggests. If not, at the very least, we’d be lolling on the soft, soft furnishings of home. 

Wherever we are enjoying the spectacle, we are winning at sport.

Some of the greatest sports stars on the globe have visited South London’s superb arenas: Wimbledon, The Oval, Twickenham, the O2, the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, the Herne Hill Velodrome, Champion Hill and that pub in Thamesmead where Andy ‘The Viking’ Fordham would make his darts literally fly through the air.

I was tempted to write about the greatest sports star I have ever seen live, but, while I have been to all of those fine venues, I haven’t seen, say, Roger Federer or Serena Williams at Wimbledon. I was in the outer courts, defending a girlfriend from an elderly perv’s frottage, watching the lower half of the draw and evolutionary pool.

I haven’t seen Jonah Lomu at Twickers, Martin Offiah anywhere, Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the NSC, or Sir Bradley Wiggins at the Velodrome. And despite repeated jibes from the Raider, I am not old enough to remember Sir Donald Bradman at The Oval, nor Edgar Kail at Champion Hill. 

Hail Kail

In thinking about the great stars I have witnessed, my view inevitably becomes clouded by local loyalties and enmities, and the inexplicable fondness for certain performers, some of them tubby, some of them clumsy, all of them admirable but none of them ‘great’ in the accepted sense. 

So while recalling those halcyon days of watching live sport, I have focused on who is the best star to have trodden the boards of sport in South London, reminding myself all the while that I’m looking for ‘the greatest’, not ‘the favourite’, as you’ll see.

Big Ron

When I think of the football greats of my lifetime: Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane, Messi, Ronaldo – only one of them has appeared in South London to my knowledge, and that’s CR7. But despite his being quite possibly the greatest footballer of all time (I know, I know, but you only have to look at the facts to grasp he has a case), Ronaldo is a difficult man for the neutral to like. He’s too good. Too handsome. Too vain. Too perfect. And we despise in others that which we dislike in ourselves.

Ballons d’Or

I first saw Cristiano Ronaldo when he was a teenager, visiting The Valley with Manchester United, where Charlton’s Bulgarian full back, Radostan Kishishev, spent the entire game trying to get close enough to foul him (not that he needed much encouragement to have a lie down). 

I got into an online argument with a United fan afterwards who told me I would one day remember Ronaldo as one of the greatest footballers to have ever played in this country. I scoffed and said that if I remembered him at all it would be as a ‘plummeting haircut’. 

In these days of seething polarisation, it’s wonderful that we can both be right. 

Talking balls

I did see the great Steve Waugh play cricket for Australia at The Oval, but I only had eyes for England’s spinner, Phil Tufnell, the man of the match who would later that year be defending himself against unproven allegations of dope-smoking in the lavs of a Christchurch wine bar. The best/favourite conundrum comes sharply into focus.

Waugh – what is he good for?

While I’m happy enough to watch the Six Nations or British Lions in a pub, it’s fair to suggest I’m not a huge fan of rugby, given that my greatest memory of Twickenham was of a bobby’s helmet.

The champs

Friends are puzzled that someone as peaceable as I am can enjoy boxing. I am not noticeably brave in the face of danger, far from it, but am drawn to fighters who are and have seen three British world heavyweight champions live, in Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno and David Haye. 

I love the drama of the one-off contest, as most bouts are, that one moment can end a fight, shatter a mystique, destroy or elevate a career, or shower someone in glory or shame. I was in the latter category when, on a hot date of small hall boxing in Bethnal Green with Lady South, I returned from the bar to find I’d missed the first 40 seconds and indeed the entirety of a Tyson Fury fight, robbing me of a fourth world champ. But at least I had a pint.

Mad Dog and I had tickets to see Lennox Lewis once, not in South London, but in Millwall, which for some reason is on the Isle of Dogs. But days before the fight, Mad Dog suffered a bleed on the brain and was hospitalised. How could I bring myself to go out, to watch the concussive powers of the champ, while my buddy lay comatose in Romford Hospital? Well, by selling his ticket, having a couple in The George and sitting ringside to watch Lewis knock a 17-stone man through the ropes in the second round, on my birthday. That’s how.

Dispute this

The three-time world champion won his first title, the European belt, at Crystal Palace and even lived in Crayford, in the South London Borough of Bexley. Yet despite his being both a legend and a personal favourite, he is not who I’ve chosen as the Greatest Sports Star to have performed in South London. That honour goes, of course, to Jimmy Wilde.

Who?

‘He was the greatest fighter I ever saw,’ said world heavyweight champ (1926-28), Gene Tunney.

Jimmy Wilde was tiny but fast, skilful and preternaturally strong. He was the flyweight world champion from 1916 to 1923, knocking out 99 of his opponents. He was five foot two and six stone ten when he started as a pro and would weigh-in fully clothed. Physicians would puzzle over his strength. Opponents would laugh at him, he was so slight. Then he would knock them out. (The opponents, not the physicians.)

He left the coal mines for the travelling boxing booths, where men twice his size would swiftly regret taking on The Mighty Atom. 

‘The ghost with a hammer in his hand’

Turning pro at 19, he compiled what is still the longest unbeaten streak in boxing history, at 94 fights. His first fight in South London was at The Ring, Southwark. In 1916, he fought at Laurie Grove Baths, in New Cross, now part of Goldsmith’s, winning the British title a month later and fighting twice on the same night at Woolwich Labour Club before challenging for the world title, at Holborn Stadium that same year, stopping Young Zulu Kid, from, erm, Brooklyn.

He toured America, astonishing audiences and building a reputation as one of the greatest fighters of all time. 

‘I’ve decided on Jimmy Wilde as champ,’ I told the Raider. ‘I mean, he’s without doubt in that rarefied league of exceptional sportsmen, like Roger Federer.’ 

‘Well, it would hardly be a fair fight,’ he said. ‘Though Roger is pretty handy with a racket, I’m told.’ 

Now, in anticipation of a future when we can stand on a terrace with a pint, we’d like to know who is the greatest sportsperson ever seen in South London?

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Image credits: Ronaldo by Ludovic Péron used under this license. Steve Waugh by Ravish Perara under this license. Lennox Lewis by Gordon Correll used under this license.