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The myth, the men, the magic: we go inside sport's most iconic team
The All Blacks

“The one thing you want more than anything in sport is to earn the respect of the guys you play with. When you go out on the field, you want to know that they trust you, that they believe you will give everything for that team. No matter who you are, no one is bigger than the team. That’s the greatest thing about the All Blacks. Those are the values you put into it, and that is what people remember you for. As an All Black, that is the legacy you want to leave.” Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw is 34 years old. He has earned 142 caps for New Zealand – more than anyone else for any country. He has appeared on the winning side on no fewer than 125 occasions – again, an international record. He has captained the All Blacks 105 times – the only man in history to have led an international team in more than a century of Test matches. He is the man who, four years ago in Auckland, fulfilled the hopes and dreams of a long-suffering nation when lifting the Webb Ellis Cup pretty much on one leg. He is widely regarded as the greatest rugby player ever to set foot on a pitch. He may also be the most humble.

“I want to be remembered as a guy who played well every week, but also as a good bugger and a good team man,” he tells Sport in an exclusive interview on the eve of the Rugby World Cup. “That every game, right to the end, I played my best and never, ever let my standards drop. That’s the bit I want others to take – that no one is there to just make up the numbers.”

No one is there to make up the numbers.

For McCaw, and for every All Black, this is a guiding principle. The individual’s contribution to the whole is not just expected, but also celebrated.

“In other countries, weaknesses in individuals are regularly admitted, even highlighted,” says Jonny Wilkinson, another of the all-time greats. “But take an All Black prop who is on the weak side in the gym. If he does a good job on the field, all the All Blacks ever mention is the job he does for the team. There is never any talk of this guy being inadequate.

“Journalists critique the players’ performance as honestly in New Zealand as ours do here. But the All Black set-up are aware of what their players represent, and they actively work to perpetuate that.”

Every player who pulls on the exalted All Blacks jersey, historically adorned with nothing but the silver fern, is immediately lifted to a status afforded few other athletes.

“Kids grow up dreaming of becoming an All Black,” says McCaw. “We used to watch them on TV, and then run outside and pretend to be them. The way people talked about them, they were revered. You wanted to be like them. I went to a little school in a small town, but all we did at lunchtimes was play rugby. That’s where the dream came alive, I guess, and it is always there. It never leaves you.”

The dream never leaves you.

Sean Fitzpatrick, a World Cup winner in 1987, is the only other man to have led the All Blacks on more than 50 occasions. He remembers, vividly, the awe with which he beheld them as a child.

“When you become an All Black, there is a saying that every man and boy would change places with you tomorrow,” he says. “I was one of those boys. Growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s, you couldn’t even buy the jersey. To see an All Black in the flesh, even to touch one, was something very special.

“One of my most vivid memories as a child was when my local rugby club had its centenary. A number of All Blacks came, and I remember standing at the door of the bus when these great men emerged. One of them, a guy called Grant Batty, walked off the bus – to touch him, literally, was like a dream come true. The great thing for me is to see that these dreams still exist in kids growing up in New Zealand.”

So few of the children who grow up desperate to become an All Black ever realise the dream. For those who do, however, the message is consistent.

“I wasn’t even playing for Auckland when I first got called to play in the All Black trials,” recalls Fitzpatrick of his own accession. “The day after the trials, I was told that I had made the All Blacks as a reserve for the next game, against France. But the Thursday before the game, the hooker at the time, Bruce Hemara, got injured. On the Friday morning, [head coach] Brian Lochore walked into my bedroom and said: ‘Fitzy, you’re starting tomorrow. You’re good enough to do this.’

“Then, the next morning, a memory that will live with me forever. Lochore was presenting the jerseys. I walked into his room, shut the door behind me and saw all the jerseys laid out beautifully behind him. He said: ‘Sean, the first time you put on this jersey, make a mental note of the feeling. And then, every other time you put it on after that, remember that feeling.’

“I went to walk out of the door, tears of joy running down my face almost, clutching the jersey. As I opened it, Brian called me back: ‘Oh, and one more thing Sean – you are expected to win.”

You are expected to win.

“There are four million shareholders in New Zealand, and they still expect the All Blacks to win every time they set foot on the field,” continues Fitzpatrick. “It is a great pressure to have. A privilege, in fact.”

The collective privilege of being expected to win is something shared by every All Black. It is built into their psyche, born of a heritage dating back to the first New Zealand rugby team ever to leave the southern hemisphere. The 1905/06 tour of Europe and North America by an All Blacks team that has come to be known simply as ‘The Originals’ yielded 34 wins from 35 games. The resulting aura of invincibility has never truly left them – not least because of the fearsome war dance with which they greet every opposition that dares to confront them.

“I think the haka has become more important not just for the All Blacks, but for New Zealand,” says Fitzpatrick. “Look back to where it came from. It is our indigenous people, where the country started. It’s about laying down a challenge to the opposition. Life is life, death is death, and if you want to take up the challenge then we are going to take your breath away so you can’t fight us. That is your challenge, but it is also a celebration of New Zealand, and for that I love it desperately. I love watching the All Blacks do it.”

You can’t fight us.

“The haka is something that identifies the All Blacks, it is a point of difference,” says Owain Jones, editor of Rugby World. “Look back to the 1970s and it did at times resemble some kind of Morris dance, but they have now turned it into something truly iconic.

“That has helped their aura, but so has their longstanding breeding of teak-tough men. Take Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, in 1986, the Battle of Nantes. He had his scrotum stamped on and torn open; he walked off the pitch calmly, had it stitched up on the side of the pitch, came back on and proceeded to have three teeth knocked out in a further fracas – and all in a game where the French have been accused of doping their players.

“Go back even further and you find Dick Conway, so desperate to play for the All Blacks that he had the middle finger on his right hand amputated. It kept breaking and they couldn’t realign it properly, but such was his desire to wear the silver fern that he had it amputated in an effort to make a tour of South Africa.

“These anecdotes are legendary, but they are not myths. They are real. This is the physical strength, the mental strength that has undoubtedly helped build the All Blacks into what they are today.”

The greatest All Blacks also possess a will to overcome adversity. Tales exist of a legendary meeting that took place in the aftermath of a thumping by South Africa in 2004 – so dismayed were a number of all the All Blacks’ most revered names, goes the myth, that they came together for a brutal, relentless threeday council held in remote isolation.

“Rumour goes that the main subject at this meeting was: what do we want the All Blacks to be?” says Jones. “What came out of it was an agreement that, to be a better All Black, you need to be a better person.”

McCaw confirms that the famous meeting did take place, but smiles at our version of it.

“The legend seems to be growing,” he says. “That year, 2004, was Graham Henry’s first as coach, with Steve Hansen as assistant. We ended up losing the last two Tri-Nations games in Australia and South Africa – but performances hadn’t been great, and they realised that if we carried on like that we weren’t going to achieve what we wanted to.

“It wasn’t what people make it out to be, though. The coach was there, the team manager, Sir Brian Lochore, [team captain] Tana Umaga and myself. We decided that we needed to make some changes. There was a big hole in the culture of the team: you had the coach and captain, but then it seemed everyone else was there to just play and not enhance what we were doing. We wanted more people taking ownership of the team, and in that regard it was a pretty important meeting. But it didn’t last three days…”

Within two years, McCaw himself was captain. Nine years on, he is able to reflect on his learning curve in the role.

“I was reasonably young when I became captain, and I guess you feel like you need to know all the answers, do and say all the right things,” he says. “I probably did okay considering, but when I look back now I was flying blind there for a bit.

“In time, you don’t pretend to know it all yourself. I look around the senior members of my team and there are some hugely experienced guys. They all have great knowledge and different ideas, and my job is to make sure we all work together to get the right answers. It doesn’t need to be my idea to be the right one – as a captain, you become more comfortable when you realise that. The reality is that you can’t do it on your own. If you’ve got just one guy making all the decisions, thinking he knows it all, then no team, no business, is going to go far.”

You can’t do it on your own.

McCaw’s reference to business is no throwaway line, but a nod to the era of professionalism in which he has performed. When the sport made the historic decision to turn pro in late 1995, South Africa were world champions – but the star of that year’s World Cup, and the sport’s first worldwide superstar, was an All Black. Jonah Lomu became the unstoppable force of a powerful brand built on much more than hardmen and the haka.

“Professionalism is only 20 years old, but I think we have done better than anyone could have hoped,” says Fitzpatrick. “New Zealand Rugby have mapped out where they’re going superbly in terms of the sponsors that fit our culture. Adidas have done a phenomenal job in promoting the All Blacks, and AIG have been a perfect fit – they have a wonderful culture built on trust and strong values.

“But the biggest thing is that we are still winning on the field. It’s what the sponsors want, it’s what the fans want, but to maintain that culture of success is not easy. This All Blacks team, and the leadership that has been shown in the past 10 or 15 years, has been quite phenomenal. We don’t have all the money in the world in New Zealand, but the way to sustain this culture is with great men. It is said that good men make great All Blacks. That’s what we have at the moment, and Richie is an absolutely outstanding leader.”

Good men make great All Blacks.

Should he lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, McCaw will cement his status as the greatest All Black of all. He appreciates, though, the importance of World Cup devastations to the shaping of both him and his team.

“In 2003, I’d been an All Black for only a couple of years and didn’t understand what it took to win a World Cup,” he explains. “We didn’t win, but I thought we played alright and I knew we’d get another chance.

“But 2007 was different. I was captain and I knew how talented a team we had – but we didn’t even come close to our goal [they lost to France in the quarter finals], and that’s when I realised that to win a World Cup you can’t just rock up and think that what you’re doing is good enough.

“A lot of the same people, including the management, were given the chance to learn those lessons and rectify what we got wrong over the next four years. We’d been through that hugely disappointing experience, but it made us appreciate winning in 2011 a lot more. We knew how hard it was, but we did it.”

It is a simple tenet, but the desire to learn lessons is at the heart of the All Blacks’ philosophy. They do it better than anyone.

“They have a commitment to learning,” says Jones. “They are always thinking about how to take the team on, and will do whatever they can to be more successful. They learned from the mistakes of 1999 and 2007, and managed to win the last World Cup without Dan Carter and with McCaw stood on one leg.

“And, as we have seen in recent years, they seem able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat almost at will. Look at the Ireland game in 2013 – 19-0 down, and no one in their right mind could see them winning. But they did, and they have done so time and time again.

“We will see a different All Blacks in years to come: after this World Cup, they may lose McCaw, Carter, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock. That’s a hell of a lot of experience to be going, but they are already regenerating. Julian Savea is only 25, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa. Aaron Smith is only 26, Beauden Barrett’s a kid. We shouldn’t be shedding too many tears for them.”

McCaw has refused to confirm his widely suspected plans to retire after this World Cup, with a run to the final potentially leaving him on a tantalising 149 caps. If he does choose to carry on, we will be in no doubt as to why.

“The simple fact is that I love it,” he says. “It was my dream to be able to put on the All Black jersey, and I got to live that. The first time you hold that jersey in your hands, you can’t believe it. You think: ‘Crikey, am I actually doing this?’ But you are, and that’s pretty special.”

Richie McCaw was speaking at the premiere of The Making of Black – an adidas documentary about the iconic status of the All Blacks jersey and the four-year process behind the new All Blacks shirt. Go to www.adidasrugby.com and join the conversation with #ForceOfBlack @adidasuk on Twitter and Instagram

Melissa Reid’s career was in danger of going off the rails, but now she heads into the Solheim Cup as one of Europe’s top golfers
Melissa Reid

Two years ago, Melissa Reid could not bear even to watch the Solheim Cup on television. She went away with friends and spent three days trying desperately not to think about golf.

It was a far cry from her debut in the event in 2011, but her reaction at missing out on the team was understandable. In 2012, her mother died in a car crash in Germany, having been to watch Reid at a tournament; it led to the golfer “going off the rails” and playing fewer tournaments, which meant she could not qualify.

“I struggled with the fact I wasn’t in the team,” she says. “I didn’t want to watch it; I just went away with some friends. I was annoyed with myself for letting me get into that place where I could not make the team. I did turn on the TV and saw a couple of holes on the last day and saw us win it. Obviously I was pleased for the girls, because I know them and I’m friends with them – but yes, it was very tough.”

Having led the Ladies’ European Tour Order of Merit earlier this month, she is back in the team for the 2015 renewal – in Germany. “I’m going there to make new memories,” she says. “Germany is obviously a country that holds a significance, not just for me but for all the people around me. This is a chance to make new memories and give it another significance.”

Early promise

Reid, who turns 28 tomorrow, has been on tour since 2008, when she was rookie of the year. She was part of the British Olympic Association programme begun by Sir Clive Woodward to identify young talent, and looked set for a career of superstardom: she won her first event in 2010 and played her way comfortably into the 2011 Solheim Cup. That week has stayed with her.

“It was such a memorable week, although it passed in a bit of a blur,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect – I was only 23 and absolutely buzzing. It just has an aura, a very different atmosphere to anything else we play. I played twice in the fourballs with Laura Davies, who’s a legend. It was amazing.

“That said, I was so nervous on the first morning. I’d been hitting it really, really well on the range beforehand, but when we got to the first tee my club felt twice as heavy as usual in my hands. I just wanted to make contact with the ball. It wasn’t the best shot, but at least I hit it!”

She expects a backlash from the US this time around. Europe have won the past two Solheim Cups – the first time they have ever won two in a row – and in 2013 it was an 18-10 thrashing.

“On paper the US are really strong – stronger than us,” says Reid. “So that puts pressure on them. But we’ve won the past two, so there is now a level of expectation around us. And last time the girls didn’t just beat them, they pretty much humiliated them – so you have to expect the US to be even more determined.”

Pouring it all out

Reid, however, will take it all in her stride. Not only does she enjoy the matchplay format – “it’s a lot of fun, going head to head: what golf is all about” – but she also has a newfound confidence and calm. For that she gives all credit to her coach Kevin Craggs – about whom she says, with no sense of exaggeration: “He saved me.”

After her mother’s death, Reid struggled to come to terms with her grief:

“I rebelled a bit and found it difficult to be a professional golfer. At the end of last year, Kev sat me down and said he could see that, while I was putting in the work, I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I’d only had him as a coach for nine months, but he can see what makes me tick. He’s a proper coach rather than just a swing teacher. He knows how to get the best out of me.

“I just started talking and just poured it all out to him. We talked for hours and I just unloaded everything – and with it, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I had been trying to be really strong for so long that it had made me weak. But from there we made a plan. We looked at the things I could change and how to do it, and that was the start of a process that put me back on track. That was the week that changed it all. Now I’m going back to the Solheim Cup, and I can’t wait.”

Dissecting Serena Williams’ journey from self-titled ugly duckling to the threshold of being undisputedly the greatest women’s tennis player ever
Serena Williams

Serena Williams is a small child, destroying oranges by frenziedly smashing each one with her tennis racket.

The youngest of five sisters, she’s stood pulping citrus on a public court in Compton, LA County. These are courts that would need to be swept free of broken glass, empty cans, fast-food wrappers and even less savoury items before play began. Serena can recall hearing neighbourhood gunshots as her sisters are put through their paces under the eye of their father, Richard.

Whacking the oranges is not part of a madcap training plan from dad. Serena is misbehaving. “My goodness, I had a rotten streak,” she confessed in her candid 2009 autobiography, Queen of the Court. “I was horrible, a real witch!” Yet while young Serena may have been the naughtiest of the Williams girls, she also relates this wanton destruction of fruit as part of what has made her such a relentless champion:

“I’ve tried to understand it, and what I’ve come up with is you need a wild streak if you hope to be a serious competitor. You need a kind of irrational killer instinct. You need to put it out there that you’re reckless and unpredictable, not just so your opponents take note, but that you notice too… You’ve got to find that wild, rash abandon that finds you and lifts you and transforms you in the heat of a cut-throat moment.”

Serena’s wild side is something that Greg Rusedski recognises. Ahead of the US Open and her attempt to win her first ever calendar Grand Slam, Rusedski, himself a US Open finalist in 1997, points to the 33-year-old’s emotional on-court outbursts as part of her success.

“It’s her coping mechanism for stress,” he tells Sport. “When that happens on the court, it’s actually a release for her. Usually, that sort of outburst manifests itself when it’s a close match. So if you get into a deciding set, you always have to look for a double-break, because one break against Serena is usually not enough. She gets quite emotional when things are that tight or close. After that, she plays even better.”

Serena Williams is clearly second best. The hype in their early years is all around her 15-month-older sister, Venus. It’s Venus who goes undefeated as a junior player, Venus who wins her first professional match in 1994, aged 14, and in her next goes a set up against world number two Arantxa Sanchez Vicario before bowing out. She’s the youngster slapped with the ‘Michael Jordan of tennis’ label.

As Serena puts it: “Venus was the next big thing, I was the next big thing’s kid sister.” Her own first professional match, also at 14, was a low-key 1-6, 1-6 loss to world number 149 Anne Miller, in 1995. Venus also became a great player, winning seven Grand Slams, yet Serena has proved superior over time. Part of that may be her steely mentality, but it’s also physical. Growing up, Serena was small for her age in comparison to her sisters. She refers to them as “beautiful swans”; she was the “ugly duckling”.

Like Venus, Serena has always had crushing power, but being the shortest in the family she had to develop a wider range of shots in order to succeed in her father’s relentless tennis drills. By the time a growth spurt, aged 16, took her up to her present height of 5ft 9ins, she had the athleticism to rival anyone and a strong all-court game. In 1999, at just 17, she became the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era with her first US Open (above).

Rusedski laughs when we ask him just how remarkable it is that, in tennis, where the gruelling tour means many players suffer from early burnout, Serena is favourite to win her seventh US Open 16 years after she won her first.

“It’s funny,” he says. “You know everybody was talking about that hiatus that she took for two years, when she wanted to be an actress rather than a tennis player? Well, she took time away from the game, and that’s actually helped to keep her fresh. For her to possibly do this, win the calendar Grand Slam for the first time at age 33, it’s just remarkable. A tremendous feat. And I think she will, because the Slam she’s usually most comfortable with is the US Open.

“However, there’s always one match that you have to get through – as we saw at Wimbledon, when Heather Watson served for the match against her. Once she got through that, she went from strength to strength, but there’s always a match, even for a player like Serena, when you have a wobble and have to come through. But that’s what makes great champions.”

Serena Williams has won 33 Grand Slam matches from a set down. It’s a record in women’s tennis. Yet while her closer matches often seem to have a topsy-turvy drama, with Serena suddenly turning it on when she needs it most, Heather Watson believes it is actually Williams’ relentlessness consistency that make her such a challenge to play against.

“You just know that you’re not going to get any free points,” Watson told Sport when asked what it’s like to stand on the opposite side of the net to her. “So, if you want to win the match, you have to fight for every single point, because she’s not going to give you any points by making mistakes. Every opportunity you get, you have to take. If you don’t, she’ll punish you for it.”

Williams may be the ultimate competitor on the court, but off court things have been more stop-start. She has spent periods of her career believing that acting or fashion are her true callings. Her own autobiography ends with her airily declaring: “I’m not even sure I want to be remembered as a tennis player… Maybe tennis is just a way for me to get from where I was to where I’m going.”

She’s also suffered with injuries and trauma. An unwise turn on the dancefloor in 2003 led to a knee injury and surgery. That, combined with the death of her older half-sister Yetunde in a shooting, understandably meant tennis took a backseat. In 2010, there was a lacerated tendon after stepping on broken glass. In 2011, she was rushed to hospital with a pulmonary embolism (in the form of blood clots on her lungs) that threatened not just her career but her life.

The surgeries and setbacks have had a rollercoaster effect on her ranking. She’s dipped down to 139 (in 2006) and 169 (in 2011), yet she has an astounding ability to turn adversity – injury, defeat, being written off – into what she calls ‘silent fuel’, which powers her tennis. In recent years, she’s found a way to balance her life and play the most dominant tennis of her career.

“Serena Williams hasn’t lost to Maria Sharapova in 11 years,” points out Rusedski. “That’s an incredible statistic, because Maria is world number two.

“It shows how good Serena is in one context. She’s got the best serve ever in women’s tennis, she’s a fantastic athlete, she’s an aggressive player. I also think her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has done a great job with her: inspiring her to play well and making tennis a big part of her life. He deserves a lot of credit.”

Williams has finally found a strong life-tennis balance with her rumoured life-tennis partner, French coach Mouratoglou. Yet Rusedski points out that a lack of competition within women’s tennis is aiding Serena’s late-career dominance.

“There’s not sometimes enough variety in the women’s game in terms of styles of play,” he says. “Serena struggled against Justine Henin on clay, for example, because Henin had that extreme variety and could do everything on the court: the drop-shot, use the lob, come forward. Also, when you had the Williams sisters around in the 2000s, you also had Henin and Kim Clijsters, as well as Sharapova. So you had a group of about four or five women who, on their day, could make anything happen. We need competitors who believe they can beat Serena.

“Henin and Clijsters had that. And I actually think that Sharapova is very strong mentally, but unfortunately she plays a very similar game to Serena and, in all aspects, Serena does everything that little bit better. You’d like to see the talented women, like [Petra] Kvitova, have belief against Serena. A lot of the times when Serena steps on court, before the match has even started, there’s an intimidation factor, an aura around her.”

Serena Williams is already the greatest female tennis player to pick up a racket, in the eyes of many. However Rusedski – who will be at the US Open as a Sky Sports analyst, with every angle covered by a choice of up to seven live courts each day – believes she has a tiny bit more to cement that position: “I’d like to see her win the calendar slam. Also people are going to have question marks about her unless she goes past Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Majors. Then there’s Margaret Court’s record of 24, but a lot of people don’t count that one. So I’d like to see her get above Graf’s 22 Majors, because that should eliminate any questions over who is the best.”

Williams will go level with Graf if she wins at Flushing Meadows. Even Court’s 24 is not out of reach, although that’s a record often questioned because 11 of her Majors came at the Australian Open. Today, the Aussie Open is an equal member of tennis’ elite four Slams – but, back in the 1960s and ’70s, many top players didn’t make the lengthy trip down under.

That’s possibly harsh on Court, as you can attach as asterisk to many individual sporting achievement if you look hard enough. But Williams already appears the most powerful, athletic, iron-willed and dominant player ever in women’s tennis. Her 17-match winning streak against the world’s second best player, Sharapova, is an astonishing statistic.

All-time greats also tend to have a lasting, altering impact, which Williams has had both on and off the court. Watson still recalls the awe she felt aged 12, when she saw the Williams sisters train at an academy in Florida.

“Our teachers let us out of school to go and watch her practise and play,” she recalls. “She was absolutely a role model to me. People talk about her athletic ability but, I mean, her tennis is absolutely beautiful. I really admire her game, how she plays. She’s a perfect example of how you can be strong and powerful and dominant, and she’s a star as well. She’s done it all in the tennis world and beyond.”

Before his final fight against Andre Berto, we ask whether the great Floyd Mayweather’s career falls down in one crucial area
Floyd Mayweather Jr

A jubilant Floyd Mayweather stands over a prone Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas. His mouth is wide open. A thousand cameras flash as Floyd’s great rival struggles to get to his feet.

If you’re struggling to remember this moment, it isn’t because you (forgivably) fell asleep during the late rounds of Mayweather’s points win over Pacquiao in May and missed a knockdown. It’s because it didn’t happen. The second half of the fight was a damp squib, controlled easily by Mayweather, and is an example why – for all his ring mastery, his undisputed greatness, his promotional savvy – there’s a glaring flaw in his legacy. Too many of his 48 fights (48 wins) simply haven’t been much fun to watch.

This hasn’t always been the case. In his breakthrough year of 1998, the 21-year-old ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd took on two fighters many thought came too soon for him: 130lb world champion Genaro Hernandez (who had lost one pro fight in 40) and dangerous Angel Manfredy. Mayweather dominated the eight rounds the Hernandez fight lasted, then blitzed Manfredy in two.

He confirmed his position as one of the world’s best fighters in 2001, when he took on his fellow unbeaten super-featherweight, the freakishly tall and hard-hitting Diego Corrales. Mayweather knocked Corrales down five times before the fight was stopped in the 10th. A breathtaking display of speed and combination punching, it remains his best performance.

The rise of Money

Signs emerged around that fight that Mayweather’s brash personality was going to rub some people up the wrong way, but other facts were also clear: that he was a sublimely skilled boxer; that he was thrilling to watch; and that he didn’t shirk a challenge.

Since 2007, as Mayweather claimed his position as not only boxing’s best fighter but also its biggest draw via a points win over Oscar De La Hoya, the second and third of those points have been highly disputable.

It’s not that he was expected to carry on knocking people out as he moved up the weight divisions. That is an unfair criterion by which to judge a boxer whose primary skills are defensive, as well as one with hand injuries that have often stopped him hitting with his full, underrated power.

It’s just that boxing is about hit and not being hit; the balance of offence and defence. In his peak years, Mayweather seemed to decide that being in uneventful fights was fine as long as he kept that precious ‘0’ at the end of his record. That’s not to say that they’ve all been deadly dull. Boxing purists can purr over Mayweather’s footwork, his shoulder roll defence, the artistry he displays on the canvas.

If you have ever watched a Mayweather fight with a casual sports fan, however, you will be familiar with the sight of their eyes glazing over before it ends. Compare this to modern greats in other sports: Usain Bolt on the track; Roger Federer in his pomp; Lionel Messi, ball at his feet.

Not only are they the best at what they do, they’re also the best to watch. Viewing these virtuosos makes athletics, tennis or football converts out of casual fans. Mayweather is a rarer creature: the best at what he does, but some distance from the best to watch.

The difference for Federer, Bolt and Messi is that nobody is trying to pummel them as they show their gifts. Mayweather does not owe fans his brain cells. Who can blame him if he wins fights with the minimum of damage; claiming rounds with single scoring shots and nullifying his opponent? But the brutal truth is that boxing is a risk business. Fighters who choose never to go after an opponent, even when there's blood in the water, rarely set the pulse racing.

Mayweather’s greatest legacy is how he has manoeuvred his career outside of the ring. In 2006, he bought himself out of his promotional contract for $750,000 in order to take charge of his own career. He figured that there was a market of urban American fans – one he wasn’t properly tapping into – who would love his flashy style. He also knew there were plenty of people who would shell out just to see the cocky, good-looking egomaniac lose.

It was a masterstroke. In the nine years since he took that gamble on himself, Mayweather has become the highest-paid athlete in sport. All this while failing to consistently entertain in the ring. His marketing of himself has been remarkable.

Aesthetic impact

You could argue that aesthetics is unimportant when judging greatness. If an athlete keeps winning, does it matter how they look while doing it? A thornier issue is that as Mayweather became increasingly conservative in the ring, his choice of opponent followed suit. That he waited so long to fight Pacquiao is not an isolated incident. When he first entered the welterweight division it was packed with dangermen: the big Mexican- American Antonio Margarito, Paul ‘The Punisher’ Williams, a stillthreatening Shane Mosley.

Mayweather would almost certainly have been too good for all of them. But the fights never materialised (aside from waiting a while to beat an aged, ring-rusty Mosley). Perhaps it’s harsh to criticise Mayweather’s opponent choices too much. After all, there are enough names on his CV to fill a hall of fame, even if those opponents weren’t always at their absolute peak.

Yet the Pacquiao fight stands out. His performance in it – against a smaller fighter, carrying a shoulder injury – feels a missed opportunity for Mayweather’s legacy. He said recently that the public only cares about winners. But his obsession with retaining his unbeaten record has damaged how he will be remembered. Think of Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, and images spring to mind: Ali standing with his fist cocked over Sonny Liston or giving George Foreman a personal escort as he watched him crash to the canvas; or Leonard waving in the referee as he battered his great rival Tommy Hearns.

The comparisons are valid because, like Mayweather, defence was the primary art of both of these fighters. Yet both could turn aggressive when they sensed an opponent was vulnerable. That resulted in thrilling, defining matches in their career. Fights you want to rewatch again and again.

Mayweather, for all his clinical brilliance, lacks that iconic image. Perhaps that’s why he’s fighting Andre Berto now, in his 49th and supposedly last bout: it’s a vulnerable opponent against whome he can really showcase his underused offensive skills. But, for once, the man with impeccable in-ring timing has missed his moment.

If he’d taken the fight to Pacquiao late in their bout, when the Filipino looked a weary man, perhaps the agonising five-year delay in the fight happening would have been forgotten. Mayweather knocking down Pacquiao or pushing him backwards would have been the moment to define his career. Yet it’s not in his nature.

Instead, what we have is without doubt one of the greatest boxers of all time, but a pugilist who – in the harshest terms – has a record that looks more entertaining on paper than it often was watching it in the ring.

Getting in Gwen Stefani’s way, Game of Thrones and pudding pangs with Britain’s top women’s tennis player
Heather Watson

Britain’s top women’s tennis player takes our Q&A...

Did you have any sporting idols you watched while growing up?
“Well, I never really watched TV. I was quite active – always out playing tennis or football. I did have two posters on my wall though: one of Roger Federer, one of the Williams sisters.”

At what point did you realise that you were good enough to make a living from tennis?
“To be honest, I wanted it from a very young age. I always thought I was good enough! That’s why I moved to America so young [to Florida’s Nick Bolletieri tennis academy, aged 12], but I wasn’t quite getting the results I wanted all the time. So at one point, I thought maybe I should go to college and do something else.”

So what changed?
“When I was 17, I won the Junior US Open. I thought: ‘Right, I’ve won a Junior Grand Slam now, that’s the best accomplishment you can do at this level. I’ve got to take that confidence and try with the pros.’ That’s what I did, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Have you ever been starstruck?
“About four or five years ago, I was collecting my accreditation at the US Open. I’d just arrived, so I was moving my suitcases and this lady said to me: ‘Oh sorry, am I in your way? Do you need any help?’ I look up and it’s Gwen Stefani! I was like: ‘Holy guacamole! No, Gwen, let me move out of the way for you!’” [Laughs]

You travel the world as a tennis player. What’s been your favourite place to visit?
“I really do enjoy the United States, because I find the fans get really involved in the tournaments there. They’re really loud and very supportive of all the players. I absolutely love the US Open and New York as a city. I also really like Asia, too, but a part of that might just be the food.”

What’s the best feeling you’ve had on a tennis court?
“Any time you win a tournament. It’s great to go through a whole week undefeated – that’s your aim, right? But the best atmosphere was when I played Serena Williams at Wimbledon [in July]. It was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of a crowd that was that loud and that ‘for me’ before.”

Are there any TV shows that you like?
“I love Game of Thrones at the moment.”

Who’s your favourite character in it?
“It has to be Tyrion Lannister. He’s so funny.”

Do you have any hidden off-court talents?
“I’m not sure if it’s a talent, but I really enjoy interior design. I have a big interest in it, it’s a hobby of mine.”

What’s the toughest thing about life as a tennis player?
“The hours and hours you spend in airports, and flying time. You’re just in and around airports all the time, but that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? I love being a tennis player. I can’t really complain about anything.”

Tennis is a gruelling sport, though. What’s your treat when you have a day off?
“Ooh, I’d say Chinese takeout. Or sometimes I’m in the mood for a big old cheeseburger. And I love a dessert, whether it’s a tiramisu or a chocolate souffle. Actually, maybe I should say that keeping a healthy diet is the toughest thing about life in tennis!”

British number one female Heather Watson relaxes off court in her custom designed New Balance 574 lifestyle shoes

AFC Bournemouth’s powerful striker on taking the step up to Premier League football in his stride
Callum Wilson

They’re putting in new floodlights at Dean Court – the old ones don’t play nicely with slow-motion replays, which seems fitting for a club that has risen rapidly through the divisions since teetering on the brink of non-league football six years ago.

It’s a trajectory that matches the career of 23-year-old striker Callum Wilson, whose 20 Championship goals last season were crucial in firing the Cherries to an unexpected title, and the unthinkable world of Premier League football. Their expansive style impressed in their opening two top-flight games against Aston Villa and Liverpool, but two 1-0 defeats did not bode well. A Wilson hat-trick against West Ham helped Eddie Howe’s side to their first Premier League win. He added another – a stunning overhead kick – in a 1-1 draw against Leicester, to leave Bournemouth with four points from their first four games.

We sat down with the frontman on the south coast, before Saturday’s away fixture against fellow Prem new boys Norwich.

Four years ago you were playing for Tamworth, on loan from Coventry, in the Conference. Does this all feel a bit surreal, or has it sunk in now? “I think it’s sunk in now – I think it has to fairly quickly, because when you’re playing against Premier League players you can sometimes become starstruck if you’re too busy thinking that you don’t deserve to be there. You have to focus up quick and try and hit the ground running.”

But you didn’t quite manage that in the defeats to Aston Villa and Liverpool?
“The first two games it was disappointing not to get a result, but after that to pick up one against West Ham was fantastic for the team. And, on a personal note, getting a hat-trick is something you dream of.”

Where have you put the match ball from that game?
“I’ve got it boxed and framed at home – it’s signed by all the lads and that.”

What’s been the biggest step up in coming to the Premier League?
“You have to be more clinical in both boxes. Not many chances come around, so you have to make sure you take them when they do.”

Bournemouth have four points from four games. Would you have taken that at the start of the season, or are you frustrated at how those points were dropped?
“Yeah, I think we’re probably a little bit disappointed really. We were in the lead and we conceded late against Leicester, and Villa we conceded late as well. Decisions went against us in the Liverpool game. You feel a bit hard done by – but you have to just get on with it really, because you’ve got loads of games coming up fast.”

You’re quite a physical player. Do you think Premier League referees sometimes give defenders too much protection?
“I haven’t really noticed it. Ask me that at the end of the season and I’ll let you know!”

Tommy Elphick’s disallowed goal against Liverpool, for a push on Dejan Lovren, would be one example?
“I think the bigger clubs tend to get more decisions than the smaller clubs, but it’s not really my place to go into that.”

Last season you won 11 penalties for Bournemouth – do you think Premier League referees are less likely to give as many?
“You could maybe say that the standard of the referee gets better as you come up [the league ladder], so some referees might not have given some of those penalties last season. This year I think there’s a lot more banking on games, so referees are a bit more hesitant to give a 50/50 decision in your favour. They just brush it away.”

How much of a blow is losing two new signings [Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel] to long-term injuries so soon into the new season?
“Losing any player is a blow. I think the manager will be a bit disappointed, but they’re injuries you can’t really prevent. You just have to get on with it, really. We’ve got a good squad here and we’ll just try and fill their boots. He brought in a left-back [Joe Bennett, on loan from Aston Villa] straight away, so it just shows the intent we have.”

What’s Eddie Howe like to work with as a manager?
“I haven’t really worked with that many managers so far, but he is the best manager I’ve worked under. He knows what he wants from his players and the style of play – we do that in practice every day and it makes things easier.”

There have been a few additions up front, with Lee Tomlin [from Middlesbrough] and Glenn Murray [Crystal Palace] coming in, as well as Josh King from Blackburn and Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea. How do you find it having to adjust to different strike partners?
“I think it’s just about creating that understanding, really. The manager has got his full plan for what he wants to go with, and there’s been a few rotations in behind me, but you get on with it. You build up partnerships in training with everybody. So if somebody is injured or somebody is not available, including myself, then people are able to slip in and do a job.”

Do you prefer playing up front with someone like King, who’s similar to you, or a player like Yann Kermorgant, who will flick the ball on and play through balls?
“You always want someone a bit different to you. Josh has been working on different parts of his game, which is helping him not make the same runs as me. If he wants to make those runs, that’s fine, then I’ll make different runs. You’ve just got to get that balance right.”

You’ve had a steep rise in just four years. Do you think the experience of playing non-league football instead of being at an academy, for example, has helped you?
“I think it’s good to get experience under your belt. When you’re playing men’s football there’s a lot banking on games, rather than an under-21s game or reserves game – when there’s nothing really at stake. In the league you’ve got points to pick up, because it’s people’s lives if they get relegated.”

Where do you want to be in another four years?
“I haven’t really thought that far ahead, to be honest. The way I’ve worked the past four years is just taking everything in little steps at a time. You set yourself goals and, when you reach them, you set yourself new goals. I think if you look too far ahead, you can get carried away and forget the present moment. You forget to enjoy things, and forget where you’ve come from.”

Callum Wilson is one of Kick It Out’s ‘Next 20’ ambassadors. For more on the ‘Next 20’, please visit www.kickitout.org/professional-game/next-20