Muhammad Ali in Ireland: Croker bout, hurling, and the wee Corkman

The fight itself certainly didn’t set the world on fire, but Muhammad Ali’s bout in Croke Park in 1972 was a sideshow for many who were simply in awe at having the man himself on their doorstep.

In fact, while Ali’s was arguably the most famous face in the world at the time, the fight itself against Al “Blue” Lewis failed to draw the crowds and less than 19,000 people turned up to see history made flesh.

Thousands simply jumped over the wall at Croke Park or were let in by security staff who were not particularly overtaxing themselves.

The man who had organised the fight, Killorglin-born circus strongman and publican, Michael “Butty” Sugrue, lost a reported £20,000 on the venture.

Furthermore while Ali described Al “Blue” Lewis as a decent fighter who some of his fellow top-ranking heavyweights had ducked — he was certainly not in the same league as Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston or George Foreman. In fact, Lewis was an ex-convict who had managed to get parole despite being convicted of killing another man in his native Detroit.

As Dave Hannigan, author of The Big Fight which chronicled Ali’s 1972 visit to Ireland, recalled, the ring had to be borrowed from Edenderry boxing club and the gloves had to be flown in from London at the last minute.

Hannigan also recorded how Ali encountered Irish bureaucracy, quoting a Belfast bantamweight Paddy Maguire who was also fighting that night.

“The set up was that you got your bandages wrapped in the dressing-rooms then you went to get them signed and approved and finally, you put your gloves on when you got in the ring,” Maguire said. “This wee Corkman says to Ali: ‘You’ve to go and get the bandages on your hands stamped by the officials.’

“Muhammad didn’t understand him because this wee Corkman had an accent that made him sound like he was singing when he was talking. Muhammad just stops and starts to dance around him and says: ‘What do you say Dad? What was that Dad?’ And he just keeps on at him like that, you know the way Ali carried on. The poor Corkman didn’t know what to say and then Ali just danced away.”

In the end Ali stopped Lewis after 11 fairly lack-lustre rounds. But the bout was simply the parting shot of what had been a temporary love affair between the boxer and the nation.

He had got hurling lessons from one of Ireland’s leading sportsmen, Eddie Keher, played handball as part of his pre-fight training, had a troop of kids following him down O’Connell Street in Dublin chanting “Ali, Ali, Ali” and recorded an advertisement for the Irish tourist board.

One of the most memorable highlights of the visit was his interview with RTÉ broadcaster Cathal O’Shannon, aired the night before the Croke Park bout.

It is reckoned to be one of the finest ever done with the boxer. Ali appeared a little reticent when he came on stage initially — it didn’t help that he was dosed with the cold which many also said affected his performance in the fight.

However, within minutes of the interview starting, he had warmed to O’Shannon and his legendary personality came through, not only through his famous wit — joking about O’Shannon’s intelligence — but also entering into a fascinating conversation on the hot topic of the time, US black-white relations.

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