As the world mourns the passing of the “Greatest”, in the pubs around Dublin the locals will be retelling old yarns of the week more than 40 years ago, when Ireland was in thrall to the magic of Muhammad Ali.
Ali was arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived.
He was blessed with an irresistible mix of speed, skill, charisma, intelligence and courage.
But he was always far more than simply a fighter – he transcended sport.
The “Rumble in the Jungle”, the “Thrilla in Manila” – Muhammad Ali was involved in some of the most iconic fights in boxing history, overcoming boxing greats including George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
While it is fair to say that Ali v Al ‘Blue’ Lewis at Croke Park, Dublin, may not roll off the tongue like those historic bouts, the legend of Ali’s visit to Ireland in 1972 grows with each passing year.
After losing to Joe Frazier in March 1971, Ali went on something of a world tour, fighting 13 times in six countries before defeating Frazier in a rematch in January 1974.
The promotion was the brainchild of a character from Kerry named Butty Sugrue, as Cork-born author Dave Hannigan explained.
“Butty Sugrue was known throughout Ireland as a circus strongman, whose alleged claim to fame was pulling double-decker buses by a rope in his teeth, he was also a publican in London,” he said.
“It was his idea to bring Ali to Croke Park and it was so outlandish a notion that the Dublin journalists laughed at him when he first announced his intention,” said Hannigan, who wrote the book The Big Fight, which chronicles Ali’s visit to Ireland.
But despite the scepticism, the fight was arranged for 19 July 1972. As soon as he got off the plane at Dublin Airport, Ali, ever the showman, immediately captured the heart of a nation by announcing that he had Irish roots.
Between 1850 and 1880, 100,000 people left Ireland for north America. One such emigrant was Abe Grady who left his native Ennis in County Clare sometime in the 1860s. In Kentucky, he met and married an emancipated slave. A century later Abe Grady’s great grandson Muhammad Ali touched down in Dublin.
In the week leading up to the fight, as was typical of the man, Ali met people from all walks of life in Dublin.
He spent time with celebrities, including actor Peter O’Toole and playfully sparred with director John Huston, whose boxing movie, Fat City, was screened with both Ali and Lewis in attendance.
He also met politicians, including Taoiseach Jack Lynch in Leinster House, and political activist Bernadette Devlin.
The Cork Examiner newspaper commented on how popular Ali had proven with politicians in Ireland.
“Not since the late President John F Kennedy was in Dublin in 1963 has a visitor from abroad been given as big a welcome at Leinster House as that accorded to Muhammad Ali,” the newspaper said.
As the tales continued to grow of Ali’s week in Ireland, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
There are a number of stories about him spending time with everyday people, stopping in for tea with an elderly lady and having a lengthy chat with a road sweeper outside Croke Park.
A meeting was also arranged between Ali and one of Ireland’s leading sportsmen, hurler Eddie Keher, who gave him a tutorial in hurling.
Keher later reflected on the difference in Ali’s private and public persona.
“He was a hero of mine,” Keher said, “but I was surprised how quiet he was until we met with the press.”
Ali recorded an advertisement for the Irish tourist board extolling the virtues of the Emerald Isle, but remarking on “how rough” hurling and Gaelic football were, and so he thought he would stick to boxing!
Ali had an innate ability to empathise with people wherever he found himself.
This empathy was in evidence during a memorable interview he gave that week to RTE’s Cathal O’Shannon, comparing the Troubles in Northern Ireland with the US civil-rights struggle.
The interview caused a stir in America as Dave Hannigan explained: “What was interesting to me is that some of the American hacks at the time tried to paint a picture that Ali’s presence in Dublin brought peace to the north for a week!
“The truth is it was one of the bloodiest weeks ever in Northern Ireland. But, in newspaper interviews and in the recollections of those around him, Ali was very aware of the situation in Northern Ireland and what was going on there.”
For Hannigan, the social impact of the visit was encapsulated in one encounter in Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
“He was walking down O’Connell Street in Dublin with groups of kids following him chanting ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’
“At a time when Dublin was one of the whitest cities in Europe, this icon comes along and is welcomed so warmly that some in Ali’s entourage say that the reception he received compared only to two other places – Atlanta and Harlem!”
Muhammad Ali was always about so much more than boxing, and that week in Dublin was another case in point, as the fight itself was not a classic.
Ali had a cold and was wary of Lewis, who was a dangerous fighter (and a man who had previously served time in prison for manslaughter). Ali who, prior to the bout had predicted that his opponent’s chances of victory lay somewhere between “slim and none”, eventually won with a TKO in round 11.
In 2009, Ali returned to Ireland to visit Ennis in County Clare, the home town of his ancestor Abe Grady, where he was granted the freedom of the town.
The huge crowds who came out to meet him were testament to his enduring appeal.
But the magic of Muhammad Ali left an indelible impact on Ireland after his 1972 visit as the late Budd Schulberg, a legendary boxing writer, said.
“Ali was like the Pied Piper. It was really kind of magical. He had enormous influence over there. He was a fellow Irishman.”