It is a cool but sunny Sunday afternoon. I can see the top of his hat from the car when I pass by the huge conservatory from where he is facing over the Blackheath Esplanade. Sydney Hulls, sports reporter for the Daily Express for 35 years, is waiting for me in his victorian flat.
The building is old and occupies a privileged corner plot at the Heath. The flat is spacious and full of memories. There is a picture of Sydney at the top of the Big Ben Tower with the large numbers of the clock right behind him. He recounts how he lived for a while in Marble Arch when he got married, but then his wife heard of this flat and they moved here in 1958.
Sidney was born in East Dulwich in 1923 and still remembers the time when he was disqualified from a local bike race for having 18-inch wheels. He also recalls the German pilots falling in parachutes during the war, and how his best mate's house, only 80 metres from his own, was destroyed by a bomb. At the time he was an Air Raid Warden and had to help look for his friend's family among the rubble. “They all were all right but very shocked”, he says.
He was about 13 when he was with his father in Sidcup and met someone who was a sports reporter. The reporter told them that his son had just joined the Daily Express Sports Department. “And, at that moment, I thought that I would like to become a Sports Reporter on the Daily Express too,” Sydney confesses.
He's always lived surrounded by sportsmen and boxing promoters. “My father was a well known boxing promoter in the ’40s and I used to see the house full of people. My mother often said that he was in the bath when he didn't want to answer the phone, so he was the cleanest man in Dulwich”, he laughs.
After the war, Sydney got a job writing the obituaries in the Wembley News. But he liked to change the way things were said. “I hate repetition,” he repeats over the interview.
In 1950 he started working freelance for the Daily Express, the newspaper his father used to buy at home, and when he joined the staff in 1953, he felt his ambitions could be fulfilled and stayed there. “But that's not the way to improve,” he adds. “If you want success you have to move. But I considered myself very lucky; I was doing a job I liked. 90% of people get up in the morning and just think of Friday evening. My life was a challenge.”
He points out that the job is now much more demanding. He tells me how newspapers used to be made up of only four pages, how much more space there is to fill in now. He agrees when I suggest that the press is more competitive: “Newspapers have to sell, they can't afford not to. Unfortunately the stories now trade on human grief but we, the readers, are the ultimate villains because we buy them,” he exclaims pointing with his index finger at the newspaper on the table. “But newspapers have to be careful how to present a piece of news.” He then remembers the article on Hillsborough Stadium in The Sun: “Still today they cannot sell well in Liverpool,” he says.
Sydney has now been retired from the profession for 20 years, but he's had a very intensive career and he's met some of the best known sportsmen of the 20th century. His speciality is boxing and he's always known about it, his great grandfather, grandfather and father being promoters and referees since the 1930s. “My father used to promote fights in Wembley and Harrogate. In summer there were fights outdoors in Crystal Palace, I was 10 or 12 at the time and was in charge of passing the number around.” Things have changed a lot. Now there are sexy girls in bikinis, and we laugh at the difference.
His face turns serious and he remembers when his father lost his licence. “The phone stopped ringing”, he says. “Then I learned what happens when you are not needed anymore.”
Sydney never fought in a ring himself. “My father would not allow me.” He tells me about how so many people got into boxing as a way of leaving poverty behind. The workers of the docks used to get 30 shillings for a 10 round fight. Nowadays it's so tightly controlled, boxers use helmets and other health and safety measures are applicable. Youngsters like Amir Khan, the Olympics medallist, not only have the means for a great preparation but also a good education and the support of the family. “I was impressed by the speech he gave after the Olympics,” Sydney says, drinking from his Alco-pop. “Even Mohammed Ali didn't have his maturity.”
During our conversation he mentions people he met, such as Sugar Ray Robinson. “He was mechanical, the best one to me” – or George Foreman and the great match 'The Rumble in the Jungle' against Mohammed Ali. But it's Mohammed who Sydney really admires. “He came at a time when blacks were not allowed into restaurants in the States, he changed his name and became one of the outstanding figures in boxing.”
Sydney explains how when Ali changed his name, because of his beliefs, from Cassius Clay, Peter Wilson, number one boxing reporter and one of Sydney's friends, refused to use the new name. For Wilson and maybe for many more he would be forever the great Clay. “Ali knew me only as a face, but I was once interviewed for Zaire's TV before one of his fights and when asked about who I thought was going to win I could not answer, then Ali later looked at me in the eyes and told me: 'so you didn't think I was gonna win?'”
On another occasion, at the World Heavyweight Championship fight, which took place in Kuala Lumpur on July 1st 1975, Ali won on points over 15 rounds. It was the fight before the 'Thrilla in Manila' on October 1st of the same year, in which Ali beat Joe Frazier in 14 rounds. “In Kuala Lumpur,” Sydney recounts, “my old friend, Neil Allen, tells me that we visited Ali for an interview and that we were the only two pressmen present and Ali cooked spaghetti for us. I have to confess that my memory is very dim on this matter. But I like to think it's true.”
“Ali or Tyson?” I ask, and he immediately roles his eyes and emphasises how Tyson has no comparison at all with Ali. But he is a gentleman, and a very clever one at that, and refuses to make any more comments on the matter.
For those who want to see a boxing match live, Sydney recommends York Hall in Bethnal Green, London. “I have spent many evenings there. In those days there were no mobile phones! Can you believe it? The boxing main event would end about ten o'clock and I had to rush to telephone the report in immediately. Well, for these small boxing contests, the newspapers wouldn't go to the expense of getting BT to install a ringside telephone, so we had to run out of the arena and try and find the nearest payphone that hadn't been vandalised!”. Sydney reflects on the advantages of mobile phones: “The office would have been able to contact you 24 hours a day, seven days a week! So perhaps it wasn't all bad those days.”
Sydney Hulls also reported the Olympics from 1960 till 1980 and can tell some stories but confessed to not having followed the Greek ones.He now distributes his time among seeing friends, his Spanish lessons, and his regular cruises around the world. At his 82 years he is still a charming and attractive gentleman. He kisses me on both cheeks, the Spanish way, and smiles, his hat still on, waving me goodbye from the door.