April 30, 2007

Bragging goes hand in hand with failure. I’ve met a lot of stars in my life—sport and literary ones, and not a small amount of film stars, too—and I’ve yet to come across a successful one who boasted. Sure, there was Mohammed Ali, but his was a jig, a publicity stunt to make up for the years of white man forced -down-your-throat humility. Writers, athletes and actors, in fact all artists, have one thing in common: Insecurity with a capital I. Athletes have short careers, writers and actors longer ones. One loses the facility for words as one gets older, but makes up for it through experience. I know nothing about acting, but I do know sport. An old boxer sees a punch coming before the one throwing it has thought of it. But when it comes, it lands on the old boy despite the fact he was expecting it. That’s the time to hang it up, as they say.

Once upon a time, a tennis player reached his peak at 32. Match winning tennis required experience. One could beat a stronger opponent through guile, touch and superior strategy.  No longer. Technology has done away with the thinking man’s game. Now all one needs is power to hit the cover off the ball. The harder the hitter,  the better the player. That’s why I only watch women’s tennis, and will soon stop doing even that as the women’s game has gone the way of the men’s. Tennis is now a very young person’s game, as is boxing.

Remember Archie Moore? He boxed well into his late forties and put Rocky Marciano down early in the fight during a world’s heavyweight championship. Archie was 47, Rocky 22. Archie was a light heavyweight, Rocky was fifteen pounds heavier. Moore slipped punches, bobbed and weaved, cut the ring in half, faked men out of their jockstraps with his shoulder movement. 

Norman Mailer insists that Moore was in his fifties when he fought that gallant losing fight against the great Marciano, but I will play it safe and say not even Archie knew his true age. My mentor Yaroslav Drobny won Wimbledon in 1954 aged 34, something no player could do today. Drobny had great touch, could drop shot from the baseline—a real no-no—and although known for his weak sliced backhand, could disguise a lob or a passing shot like no other.
Footballers of course are through before they reach the age of Beckham, but I’m getting away from my subject of the week.

Namely me. Oldies have a powerful lobby in America, even in sport. Take judo, for example. Last week I went down to Miami for the U.S. national judo championships, a competition which decides who will represent Uncle Sam in next year’s Olympics. Along with the seniors, as the main competitors are known, there is also a master’s tournament. Age groups begin from 30 to 35, and so on. I was entered in the 70 to 75 group. I am a seven dan in Karate and have no ranking in judo, but I was a Greco- Roman wrestler since the age of 12. My coach, Teimac Ono Johnston, half Japanese, half Brit, saw something during training and persuaded me to enter. He cooked the books—one has to be an experienced black belt to be accepted— and there I was in Miami. Judo, wrestling, boxing, karate, all have one thing in common. One is alone on a mat or ring with only the ref as a safety belt. The last time I had competed was 1983, in Cairo, for the world’s karate championship. I was 47 but gave a good account of myself,although I did lose the deciding match against Britain in the fifth and deciding rubber. 

Some 24 years later I was back on a mat fighting for an American title, as well as an international one. I had spent my early life starving myself to make weight, and sweating out boxes worth of salt, thinking of toeholds, takedowns, arm bars and such instead of hitting the books.  Here comes the bragging part. After three matches, two extremely hard ones, I stood on the podium and had a gold medal hung around my rather sore neck. Alas, although I have German blood in me, the Greek one got the better of me. I blubbed a bit, mainly because a lot of people cheered loudly for an old man trying to relive his youth.

Mind you, it was only an age group victory. In theory, my gold medal means I am the toughest 70 to 75 year old judoka , certainly in America and perhaps even the world. It’s rubbish, of course, because the great ones my age no longer bother. But no one can take it away from me, and on my flight back I wore the gold under my jumper which I removed when the mother of my children opened the door to my house. My great friend Nick Scott went a bit overboard in a public place announcing my victory that night, but what the hell.  What I did do was get very, very wrecked. And this is my bragging column for the year.

The Spectator


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