Sugrue persuaded Ali to come to Dublin, and when the boxer landed, he arrived in a very different country to the Ireland we live in today.
Forty years ago it happened, hard though it is to believe.
Muhammad Ali came to Ireland. To fight.
Three years ago, the great man came to this country to pay a visit to his ancestral home — Clare, if you don’t remember — but in 1972, it was different. Business.
It’s extraordinary the way that trip doesn’t figure larger in the general consciousness. True, it wasn’t a Thrilla in Manila, or a Rumble in the Jungle, though given it was staged at GAA headquarters, maybe the Poker in Croker could have been affixed as a nickname.
With due deference to Ali’s opponent, Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, he was never going to be mistaken for Joe Frazier or George Foreman, either, but still: Ali in Dublin.
Many thanks, then, to Ross Whitaker, whose perseverance these last five years to get his documentary made is rewarded on New Year’s Day.
When Ali Came To Ireland gives the boxer’s trip to these shores the full documentary treatment. The reason there’s a reference to Reeling In The Years above is that you could almost think of this documentary as one of those intriguing one- or two-minute slices that you often glimpse on that programme, something that piques your interest before the show in question sweeps on to that year’s All-Ireland hurling final or Five Nations highlight.
It may surprise those unfamiliar with the story to learn that Ali isn’t even the most colourful participant.
That honour belongs to one Michael ‘Butty’ Sugrue, the Kerryman who made it happen. A slew of ESPN-type 30 for 30 documentaries would hardly do justice to Sugrue’s adventures.
In the mid-50s, for instance, he was involved in a wrestling tournament in his home town of Killorglin: not only was the legendary Jack Doyle a participant, but that year’s Puck Fair goat had a walk-on role. When he emigrated to London, he got involved in the bar business, and the Elephant’s Head pub specifically, which was how it came to pass that when the statue of Lord Nelson in Dublin’s O’Connell Street was blown up in 1966, the word got around the Irish community in London that if you wanted to see Nelson’s head, Butty’s pub was the place you needed to be. Turned out the head had been nicked, so those who turned up were disappointed, but as they were there, they might as well have a drink, so...
But Sugrue persuaded Ali to come to Dublin, and when the boxer landed, he arrived in a very different country to the Ireland we live in today. For instance, there was practically no black community in Ireland then. Dave Hannigan’s outstanding book The Big Fight, which was published 10 years ago, not only does justice to the circus surrounding Ali and the fight, but gives an accurate depiction of the country then. Within a day of landing, for instance, Ali rang publicist Hal Conrad and asked where the black people were.
“Ali, there aren’t any,” said Conrad.
Crowds followed Ali everywhere and his training camp was overrun with spectators. He escaped long enough to give the late Cathal O’Shannon of RTÉ a riveting interview which tacked between hilarious and confrontational — to give O’Shannon his due, he tackled Ali head on about the outlandish racial theories espoused by his religious leader, Elijah Muhammad. O’Shannon features in the documentary and puts it candidly: “Before that I was just another interviewer. After that I was the man who interviewed Ali.”
The fight itself was not destined to live long in the memory. Ali soon evaluated Al Lewis’s abilities and beat him easily with a TKO in the 11th.
There was, to put it mildly, a discrepancy between gate receipts — yes, it was pay on the door — and accepted figures, but it was pointed out at the time that expecting to keep accounting order at a fight featuring Ali in Dublin was very close to the definition of optimism.
Even now, you come across trace elements of that night. This year I spoke to Liam Griffin, the former Wexford hurling manager, and he recalled being at the event and trying to secure a £5 bet by touching Ali on the shoulder. (He did and got stretched, immediately, by one of the gardaí rushing Ali from the ring; as good a punch as any Ali had thrown, Griffin recalled).
The personal touch? The story often related to prove my late grandfather was the quietest man in Ireland dates from that time. He was staying with my aunt in Stepaside for a few days and went for a walk before breakfast every morning. After one stroll he sat down for his tea and said he’d seen someone. The black chap. Ali, out doing his roadwork.
“What did you say to him?” asked my aunt.
When Ali Came To Ireland is on RTÉ1 on New Year’s Day at 6.30pm.
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