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There will never be another like my friend Muhammad Ali, says boxing promoter Barney Eastwood

By Declan Bogue

In the billiard room of legendary boxing promoter and bookmaker Barney Eastwood's Cultra home, hangs a signed painting of Muhammad Ali.

The painting itself is by Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's ludicrously over-qualified 'cut-man' who was actually a surgeon from Miami.

Eastwood, now 84, who managed Barry McGuigan to a World title in the '80s and a stable of other fighters to famous victories, has been recalling his days with The Greatest of them all since Muhammad Ali's sad passing last week, aged 74.

More: Muhammad Ali inspired Armagh GAA team to their greatest day at Croke Park

Once he asked Ali for an autograph, to which the three-time World champion replied: "You can ask me for whatever you want."

"And I said," recalls Eastwood, "I'm sure you are tortured without me asking for anything." But still, Ali made sure that the oil painting was despatched, personally signed.

Ali's one and only fight in Ireland featured another cameo for Eastwood. Tempted by Michael 'Butty' Sugrue (a circus strongman from Killorglin, Co Kerry) with a purse of £300,000, he travelled to Dublin to fight Al 'Blue' Lewis in Croke Park.

Eastwood was the man entrusted to deliver both fighters their eight-ounce gloves, which he brought in a sealed red box to the centre of the ring.

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Looking back, Eastwood reflects: "He shouldn't actually have fought that night. He had a very, very bad 'flu. He had his own doctor with him and they advised him that he shouldn't fight. He went into a hospital in Dublin and he just couldn't get shot of this virus."

Ali, whose great grandfather on his maternal side came from Ennis in Clare, decided to fight anyway.

"I can remember quite clearly the day before the fight, he was coughing and coughing and spluttering, it was a terrible bad virus he had.

"I suppose it wasn't the most difficult opponent he had, but nonetheless he needed to have his wits about him."

Eastwood inevitably became aware of Ali during the 1960 Rome Olympics, where the then young Cassius Clay took Gold at light-heavyweight.


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"A tall, thin guy who hadn't filled out," is his recollection. "But he was a good mover, he brought something new into the game."

The first time they met, Eastwood was with his friend, the fight promoter Mickey Duff ahead of Ali's win over Henry Cooper.

"There was something about him, he had a great focus, a great pair of eyes," says Eastwood.

"He could be standing talking to 50 people and he could be looking into them all at the one time."

He added: "If he saw you coming, and he would with those eyes of his, he knew it was you. 'My old friend', 'My Irish friend' he used to call me. He liked that sort of thing."

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Later in Las Vegas, he got to study those eyes close up for two whole weeks as they stayed in close quarters.

"We would go up to his hotel room and have a chat with him. He always had a lot of people about but he was a nice man. Very intelligent. I can remember him speaking to a young man. This young fella hadn't been going to school apparently. His father knew Muhammad pretty well and he was getting Muhammad to talk to him about mitching school.

10. Harry Greb
Ring career: 1913-26 Record: 105-8-3 (48 KOs) and 183 no-decisions
By comparison to some in his era, Greb had a relatively brief career but packed so much into it, winning the world middleweight title in 1923 and defending it six times over the next three years. In 1922, he became the only boxer to defeat future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney – the man who dethroned the great Jack Dempsey
10. Harry Greb Ring career: 1913-26 Record: 105-8-3 (48 KOs) and 183 no-decisions By comparison to some in his era, Greb had a relatively brief career but packed so much into it, winning the world middleweight title in 1923 and defending it six times over the next three years. In 1922, he became the only boxer to defeat future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney – the man who dethroned the great Jack Dempsey
9. Benny Leonard (Right holding back Harry Houdini centre) Ring career: 1911-32 Record: 85-5-1 (69 KOs) and 121 no-decisions Leonard won the world lightweight title in 1917 and retired as champion in 1925, making him the longest-reigning lightweight champion in history. After more than seven years he returned to the ring, winning 18 of his 19 bouts. Indeed, at one stage he had gone 154 fights without defeat. Of five losses, three were in his formative ring years, one was on a foul when challenging for the welterweight championship and one was the final contest of his caree to fellow legend Jimmy McLarnin. He later became a referee and collapsed and died in the ring while refereeing a bout. (Everett/REX Shutterstock 908752a)
8. Manny Pacquaio Ring career: 1995-present. Record: 57-6-2 (38KOs) Named Fighter of the Decade for the 2000s by the Boxing Writers of America, Pacquaio is the first boxer to win world titles in eight divisions – starting with the WBC flyweight title. A huge hero in the Philippines, his homeland comes to a standstill to watch their hero in action. A phenomenal athlete, he holds wins over legends such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar De La Hoya, Erik Morales and Shane Mosley on the way from flyweight to welterweight glory. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
7. Floyd Mayweather Jr Ring career: 1996-present. Record: 49-0 (24 KOs) Mayweather's place in an all-time top 10 may well be disputed by many who find it hard to appreciate his style which is founded on a slick defence. But the Noble Art is about hitting and not being hit and Mayweather fits that mould perfectly. From super-featherweight through to light-middleweight he has thwarted numerous great fighters, including Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
6. Roberto Duran Ring career: 1968-2001 Record: 103-16 (70 KOs) Won the lightweight World title from Ken Buchanan in 1972 and then proceeded to dominate the division for seven years with his ferocious intensity and smart boxing skills. Duran would then lift the welterweight title when he outpointed Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. Five months later he lost to Leonard but would go on to win the light-middleweight title three years later and in 1989 produced an amazing performance to outpoint Iran Barkley and land the WBC World super-middleweight crown
5. Sugar Ray Leonard Ring career: 1977-97 Record: 36-3-1 (25 KOs) Leonard managed to stand out in an era of legends, winning great fights against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marverlous Marvin Hagler. The 'Four Kings' as they would come to be known, captured the sporting world in the early 1980s. Leonard won the WBC World welterweight title before unifying the division with a stoppage of Hitman Hearns. He would go on to win world titles at light-middle, middle, super-middle and light-heavyweight. Famously, having lost to Duran in an epic brawl, he forced the Panamanian to quit in their re-match, forever known as the 'No Mas' fight. (Mike Powell/Allsport)
4. Muhammad Ali Ring career: 1960-81 Record: 56-5 (37 KOs) Ali transcended the sport unlike any other boxer and was for many the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century. His speed and grace in the ring for a heavyweight were a sight to behold and even when the footwork was slowing down he had the fortitude to stand up to awesome punchers like George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in the 1970s. The first man to win the World heavyweight title three times, his first reign came when as a 7-1 outsider Ali stopped Sonny Liston in 1964. He regained the title 10 years later with his epic victory over Foreman in 'The Rumble in the Jungle'. Lost and then defeated Leon Spinks in 1978 to win the title for a third time. (Trevor Humphries/Getty Images)
3. Willie Pep (R) Ring career: 1940-66 Record: 230-11-1 (65 KOs) The two-time world featherweight champion was renowned for his defensive skills, enjoying amazing success despite suffering near-fatal injuries in a plane crash in 1947. Known as Will o' the Wisp, Pep won his first 63 fights before losing to Sammy Angott, and then went 72-0-1 before losing again to Sandy Saddler with whom he had four epic encounters.
2. Henry Armstrong (L) Ring career: 1932-45 Record: 151-21-9 (101 KOs) Armstrong is the only boxer to hold world titles at three different weights simultaneously. In an age when there was only one world champion and just eight weight divisions, he won the featherweight title crown in October 1937 before winning the welterweight title in May 1938 and became lightweight champion three months later. Dubbed Homicide Hank, he also fought for the world middleweight title in 1940, holding Ceferino Garcia to a draw. In all, he faced 17 world champions and defeated 15 of them. (ANL/REX Shutterstock 1381703a)
1. Sugar Ray Robinson Ring career: 1940-65 Record: 175-19-6-2 (109 KOs) Born Walker Smith, he would go on to become the supreme ring combatant, Sugar Ray Robinson, winning World titles at welterweight and middleweight. The welterweight title came in December 1946 and he defended it four times before stepping up to middleweight on the back of a solitary loss in 124 bouts. He would become a five-time world middleweight champion, defeating such legends as Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta and Gene Fullmer. His only stoppage defeat came when losing to Joey Maxim for the world light-heavyweight title – a bout fought in such extreme heat that the referee had to be replaced in the 10th round. (Allsport Hulton/Archive)

"He gave him a talking to, said, 'Young man, you stick at this school, go to college. Get your exams. Because there is no future without education and without education, there is no future.'"

As a boxer, Ali brought - with the aid of an expanding media - the concept of trash-talking into the public arena. While some of his jibes would often stray into poor taste, Eastwood reminds us: "He said things that made him very unpopular. So much so that people shunned the man and hated him to a degree, would boo him and that kind of thing.

"But you know, the one thing he was, whether you liked him or didn't, he attracted people, millions of people that wouldn't normally be attracted to boxing through saying the things he said.

"Gradually, as he went along, he said he would knock an opponent out in five (rounds), and he would do it. The more things that he predicted and that happened, people began to believe him then.

"That was his ring career.

"A big fight would be coming off and they were getting publicity from him saying all sorts of things.

"Often he went further than he should have.

More: His courage in and out of the ring captured us all

"By the same token, when you met him backstage, or off-duty as it were, he was a very nice guy to speak to, a very generous guy, a charitable guy who had time for everyone."

Ali had an incredible desire to speak with and entertain a public that came to adore him, even after the misplaced condemnation when his boxing license was revoked for three and a half years after he became a conscientious objector to fighting in Vietnam.

"I had been with him on many occasions where his bouncers were holding back people who wanted to shake hands or get an autograph.

"And he would push the bouncers back and tell them to let the kids in. He would have time for them all and chat to them all."

As for the notoriously-sprawling entourage that fed off Ali's wealth and earning ability, Eastwood explains it as a measure of his generosity.

"He had a lot of boys around him and he had a very big staff, all paid members. I suppose he could have done with a little less of that," he comments.

"But that was him, he wanted his friends around him. It was a big show and he wanted the best of everything. He was a one-off and there will be ever another like him."

Belfast Telegraph

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