A look back on Muhammad Ali’s first visit to Ireland
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A look back on Muhammad Ali’s first visit to Ireland

IT was during a chat many moons ago with former Kilkenny hurler Eddie Keher that I first learned of Muhammad Ali’s fight in Ireland.

I was a journalism student at the time and I took the bus to the All-Star awards to meet with Eddie, who had agreed to be my interviewee for a college project. He gave me a wonderful hour during which he regaled me with stories of hurling in the 60’s and 70’s and of playing against the Tipperary full back line, who were nicknamed ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ and he told how they were of their time.

When I began to inquire more of the surrounds of such times, the conversation led to boxing and when Eddie told me he had spent time which Mohammad Ali, I was astonished but wholly intrigued.

This is how that story came to pass.

After Muhammad Ali suffered his first loss as a professional boxer to Joe Frazier in the ‘Fight of the Century,’ his coach Angelo Dundee decided that it would be beneficial for Ali to build up to regaining his title and his coffers by taking fights outside of the USA.

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As it happened, one of the first people to take a shot at getting Ali was an Irishman by the name of Butty Sugrue.

Butty, who hailed from Killorglin in the county of Kerry, had made his living as Ireland’s Strongest Man in the circus before becoming a well-known publican in London. He was a character with an eye for making a buck and once he even buried a man alive underground outside his pub for 61 days to set a World Record and ensure his premises remained a hub of activity.

Prior to the Ali fight, Butty had never been involved in boxing promotion and when he announced that Muhammad Ali was coming to fight in Ireland, most people thought it was either a prank or a publicity stunt and it has been reported that it was not until the Louisville Lip got off the plane that people actually believed that the fight was taking place.

For the 10 days or so he spent on the small island at the far side of the Atlantic, Ali had the people of Ireland eating from the palm of his hand.

At his first press conference, when he was pressed about his ties to Ireland and about his great grandfather, Abe Grady, who had emigrated to America from County Clare almost 100 years previously, his response was: “Yes I am an Irishman and that is what makes me The Greatest, because I am an Irishman.”

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The fight was to take place at Croke Park and his opponent was Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, who was flown in from Detroit.

Blue Lewis was a big man, well equipped to take and give a punch and had at one time been sentenced to 30 years in prison after a man he had an altercation with ended up dying.

However, a race riot at Jackson Prison in 1965 saw Blue chosen by the guards as a go-between when hostages were taken. He managed to save the warden’s life and was subsequently granted early parole after serving five-and-half-years behind bars.

One problem Butty Sugrue had in the lead up to the fight was selling tickets, so a number of events were organised to help publicise the fight and on one such occasion, it was Eddie Keher who was chosen as the most prominent hurler of the time to meet with Ali.

Eddie told me how when he met Ali, that the man was humble and gracious with his time and even played with the hurl and sliotar.

However, when the press men started to appear Ali went up close to Eddie and said: “Let’s put on a show for these guys.” With that, he started to engage with Eddie as if the pair were fencing, saying how Blue would need more than a hurl to take him down. Afterwards, Ali autographed a hurl, which rests proudly on a wall in Eddie’s home.

The fight itself wasn’t particularly memorable and Butty lost a fortune as half the people who attended jumped the wall behind Hill 16 into the stadium. The few stewards on duty turned a blind eye.

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Ali had great time for the people he met while in Ireland and of his visit, there is one memory that is remembered fondly. That is a most wonderful interview given by Ali to Cathal O’Shannon on the eve of the fight. I have seen many interviews with Ali, but I have never seen better than this.

During it, he said of the Irish people: “In America, I stand up for black people regardless of what it costs me. I speak out for what I believe. You have got people in Ireland fighting and speaking out for what they believe.

“I’ve got something else to say. This is one thing I love and admire about the Irish people. I have studied a little bit of history since I’ve been here. I found out that you have been underdogs for hundreds of years, people dominating you and ruling you and you can identify with this freedom struggle.

“I just have mine at the other side of the water. We are all fighting for the same cause and ideas but we have different reasons and different approaches.”

Ali returned to Ireland for the launch of the special Olympics in Ireland in 2003 and again to visit the birthplace of his great-grandfather in 2009, when he became a Freeman of Ennis, where he his great grandfather hailed from.