ONE OF the least remarkable fights of the great Muhammad Ali’s decorated career came at the end of a fight week that left on him one of the greatest impressions of all.
Ali was 30 – little over a year removed from The Fight of The Century and two before The Rumble in the Jungle – when in September 1972 he travelled to Dublin to fight the lightly regarded Alvin “Blue” Lewis at the historic Croke Park.
Not unlike other heavyweights of their era, Ali and Lewis had history. Five days before a judge in Houston found Ali guilty of unlawfully refusing induction into the US army, Lewis had been the first of two opponents he had fought in three-round exhibitions in June 1967 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. He had also jeopardised Ali’s comeback fight against Jerry Quarry in October 1970 when, as a sparring partner instructed by the former champion to hit him to the body, he dropped him so heavily that Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco feared a broken rib. “[The pain was] shooting up through my bones, the spine, the back of my head,” according to Ali.
That Lewis had been selected as his opponent for another occasion essentially intended as a celebration of Ali was a reflection of the threat he was perceived to pose, and similarly significant in the extraordinary fight week that unfolded. Unlike the two occasions when Ali had fought Henry Cooper in London there was little need for the locals’ loyalties to be divided; unlike when Ali’s comeback had begun in his home country, the appetite to hold against him his determination to avoid joining the US army’s war effort in Vietnam largely didn’t exist.
Lewis, of Detroit, had been a troubled teen. When a mugging escalated to the extent the victim died in hospital, he was sentenced to 20-35 years in prison for his part in the attack. Aged 17 he arrived at Jackson State Prison standing 5ft 10ins and weighing 153lbs. By the time he was released seven years later – rewarded partly for saving a warden’s life during a riot – he was 6ft 4ins and 220lbs. He had also attracted the attention of Steve Eisner, a local promoter, having won the prison’s boxing championship for a fifth successive year.
He, too, enjoyed the hospitality he discovered in Dublin, but not anywhere near to the same extent as the thriving Ali. “It was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attitudes on the white man after that,” said Jose Torres – the former light heavyweight champion and journalist who accompanied Ali – of the profound effect it ultimately had on him.
When a press conference was staged at Dublin airport and he was asked if it was true that his maternal great-grandfather was Irish, Ali, referencing the stories of slave owners taking advantage of slaves in 19th-century Kentucky, answered: “You never can tell. There was a lot of sneakin’ around in them days.” Later that week, and still heavily influenced by the radical Nation of Islam and a black separatist ideology, he reluctantly confirmed that his grandmother’s name was Grady.
Abe Grady, the great-grandfather he had been asked about, was from Ennis, County Clare, and married an emancipated slave whose name is not known in Kentucky in the 1870s or early 1880s. One of their grandchildren, Odessa, in 1942 gave birth to a son she and her husband Cassius Clay called Cassius Marcellus; 30 years later, at the end of his first day back in the country his great-grandfather had left behind, Ali was phoning the New York-based fight promoter Hal Conrad to ask “Where all the niggers?” For the sake of his entourage black prostitutes from Manchester had even been flown in.
At 5am one morning Paddy Monaghan, the Northern Irish bareknuckle boxer who by then had struck up the unlikeliest of friendships with Ali, took the American on a tour of the city so that he could learn about its history without the distraction presented by crowds. After they passed a road sweeper in the terraced streets around Croke Park, Ali got out of their car, walked back to the elderly man pushing a trolley containing a brush and a shovel, introduced himself, and sat down with him to chat.
On another occasion he abandoned his hotel in the foothills of the Dublin mountains to go for a walk along the rural roads that surrounded it and drank a cup of tea poured for him by an ageing woman who happened to be at her front door as he was walking past. He even ensured parliamentary business – pig husbandry and a tax on fluoride toothpaste was scheduled to be discussed – was suspended when he, his brother Rahman and Dundee were among those invited to Leinster House for a reception with the taoiseach Jack Lynch.
“Every day, some story or other would come through about Ali,” Patrick Myler, then of the Dublin Evening Herald and among those ringside, told Boxing News. “[Sometimes] it ended up on page one.
“He loved to be seen; he enjoyed the adulation; he wasn’t one to hide away in his hotel, and he put on displays of himself. Joe Bugner, John Conteh and Pat McCormack were all on the bill.
“Jack Lynch was a former Gaelic footballer, and both were charmed by the other. He was admired by the world at large and the Irish were no different.
“People here couldn’t wait to see him. The vast majority of Irish people doubted the story that he was coming to Ireland – they never thought it could happen – so it was like a fairytale come true when he stepped off the plane.”
Ali’s presence owed to the ambitions of Kerry’s eccentric Butty Sugrue, a circus strongman who had more recently become a publican in Shepherd’s Bush. Yet if he had surpassed expectations by attracting Ali to Dublin, what proved considerably more difficult after working with Conrad was selling the tickets he needed, even as the fighter brought the city under his spell.
“The Greatest” charmed a nation when giving yet another lengthy and charismatic interview to Cathal O’Shannon on RTE; the film director John Huston visited to give him a screening of his new film about boxing, Fat City; the hurler Eddie Keher was photographed giving him a lesson in his sport. Sales, however, regardless proved slow, and to the extent that Conrad considered faking a kidnap of Joe Bugner by the IRA.
“Most people had never even heard of [Lewis],” said Myler, whose brother Thomas edited the official fight programme. “He was a decent opponent, but he presented no threat to Ali. It was basically an exhibition match they put on.
“[Ali] appeared on RTE, the main television network here, for quite a long interview. Apparently when he was coming on there was something went wrong with the camera equipment and the delay went on so long that Angelo Dundee said, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here, this is not going to work’, and Ali said, ‘Let’s bear with it’. Eventually they got it sorted, and it was the usual Ali stuff – you’ve probably heard it a hundred or thousand times – but it was very successful, and very widely reported. It went down well with the people. He was bombastic, but he wasn’t obnoxious. He was so charismatic that people laughed and took him as he was.
“This was the days when boxing was on terrestrial television. He was well known outside of boxing fans. People really anticipated and enjoyed his appearance here.
“Wherever he went in the street people would approach him, good-humoured. They wouldn’t be pestering him for autographs but they followed him around, and he loved all that. It was all impromptu stuff – very little arranged.
“The big comedown was the actual turnout for the fight. There was 20,000 [19,000 is another reported figure] at the fight, and that was reckoned to be about 15,000 short of the break-even figure, so it wasn’t a financial success by any means. Although it was a glorious summer day, and there was a great supporting cast.”
The fight itself took place on July 19, by when Ali was battling a cold that had posed less of a threat to the promotion than the promoters themselves. The fight’s contract had stipulated that a 20ft ring was required, but with days remaining they had realised that nowhere in the republic was there a ring of that size.
One at Belfast’s King’s Hall couldn’t be moved, and another at the British military base in Holywood, County Down, brought with it the fear of violence in a country where politics and divisions could be as complex as those in the world of Ali. It took another, borrowed from the Edenderry Boxing Club in Offaly, for the promotion to proceed as planned, and even then it only did so after gloves were acquired on the day of the fight.
A lunchtime meeting of the promoters had led to the discovery that not only had none been ordered, but that none were available in the city. It took Barney Eastwood phoning Gary Hart, a friend and jockey, to tell him to visit the British Boxing Board of Control to get the necessary gloves and head straight to the airport while they booked him on a flight.
“It was so unprofessional, the whole preparation,” Myler said. “It was symptomatic of the chaos in the arrangement. Butty Sugrue wasn’t a boxing promoter. He didn’t know his way around promoting. But it came off.”
“He got sick,” Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager and an Irish-American, told BN. “He got a bad cold. We thought it was pneumonia, but it was okay. He just went on – great athletes always rise to the occasion. It was a tough fight for Ali, with ‘Blue’ Lewis. ‘Blue’ Lewis didn’t fight Ali at 100 per cent.”
Over the course of 11 largely routine rounds, Ali dropped Lewis with a right hand in the fifth, absorbed three powerful rights in the ninth, and was awarded victory 75 seconds into the 11th when the referee Lew Eskin rescued his opponent from further unnecessary punishment, precipitating a mass invasion of the ring.
“There was a whole lot of them,” Kilroy recalled. “I couldn’t give you a head count. He thought they were great people – they were kind. He loved [the country]. When he retired he went back. He told me he liked being back not ‘cause I’m Irish, but ‘cause he was Irish.”
“It was Ali, dancing around,” Myler said. “Lewis was very slow moving; he was a big strong guy, almost as tall as Ali. [But] if Lewis did get close Ali would just grab him, the way he did. It wasn’t a great spectacle.
“One ringside reporter, Nell McCafferty, said, ‘I’ve seen better fights in my local every Saturday night’. That summed it up in most people’s minds.
“Local kids found a way to get in, and made their way right up to the ringside seats. During one of the preliminary fights a boxer’s gumshield was sent flying out of the ring, and one of these kids ran for it, grabbed it, put it in his pocket and off he went. The poor boxer had to fight without the gumshield.
“[Ali] had a cold coming up to the fight, but he wouldn’t pull out. He wasn’t going to disappoint the fans or let down the promoters. He was guaranteed $200,000 anyway. As a result, he drank a load of water coming up to the fight, and after a few rounds he said to his cornermen, ‘I gotta get this over; I gotta get back to the toilet’.
“In the fifth round he put Lewis on his back, and it looked like it was all over, but he suddenly jumped to his feet. He never looked like he’d put him down again, and it went on to the 11th round. He said, ‘I was bursting’, so he stepped up his assault and the referee stepped in. Lewis wasn’t in very bad shape but he was so far behind so he called a halt. Ali, in his haste to get back to the dressing room, was surrounded by adoring fans, and that delayed him for another 20 minutes. The security was more or less non-existent.”
Lewis – who died aged 75 in January 2018 amid little fanfare after struggling with Alzheimer’s – had been joined in Dublin by Eisner, left with a cash purse of $35,000, and used it to buy his mother a house and furniture, making her the first ever member of their family to own a home. “Everybody looked at me very strange,” he later said. “[But] I was real important that week. Some of them were treating me like I was the champ. They treated me like I was somebody.”
“Part of the ‘profits’ were to go to an Irish children’s charity,” recalled Myler. “Of course, the fight lost money, and the charity got nothing out of it in the end.
“There’s been better fights [in Ireland], but nothing in terms of major fights. Eventually the likes of Barry McGuigan, but it was unique in its way. It was the biggest fight in Ireland for many, many years.”
Ali was still rebuilding from suffering his first ever defeat, by his similarly great rival Joe Frazier, and was doing so in the same country where Frazier and his band The Knockouts had endured a disastrous six-day tour. Thirty-seven years later he returned again, this time to Ennis, where he was made an honorary freeman of the town, for the first time met some distant relatives, and unveiled a plaque at Abe Grady’s home.
“[He enjoyed himself] immensely,” Kilroy said. “The people were so nice to him over there. Everybody was nice.”