Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Ali image laid bare at Croke

He was a fighter of size, speed, intelligence and humour; not forgetting that psychological war dance called the 'Ali Shuffle.'

The gloves he wore in his first contest with Henry Cooper were sold at auction for £37,000, and, surprise, surprise, his great grandfather was a Grady from County Clare.

It's 33 years almost to the week since Muhammad Ali boxed in Ireland.

His host for the occasion was the London-exiled Kerry publican, Butty Sugrue, who got his fingers burned on an open-air Croke Park show that flopped dismally.

They said the crowd topped 10,000, but how many actually paid at the turnstiles, that was the question?

Longtime colleague, Billy Simpson, likened it to a scene from a spaghetti western when the Indians suddenly swarm over the horizon.

Thousands of fans scaled the walls and fencing around the ground, and nobody even tried to stop them. Ali, then a spring- heeled 30-year-old, had complained about being isolated in a Kilternan hotel with only a gaggle of women for company.

He was bored, he said, and wanted to stay where the action was - at the Gresham.

Hype and a doting media accorded his every turn, however, and it wasn't long before he knew he was among friends and acolytes.

Troubled times and violence in the North had reduced Ireland to a sporting backwater as Scotland and Wales both refused to play at Lansdowne Road in the Five Nations Rugby Championship but Billy Conn, who once gave Joe Louis a hard fight, was at the ringside, and so was the film star-cum-senator from California, Ronald Reagan.

Dublin was a graveyard for professional boxing, and Sugrue knew the risks.

He would pay Ali a token purse of 250,000 US dollars, plus expenses, for boxing a tired old ex-con from Detroit, Blue Lewis, and everything would be right on the night.

Not so. Called in at the last minute, Barney Eastwood found the bill in chaos.

The ring, borrowed from an Army base at the Border, was too small to accommodate such big men and had to be replaced, and why didn't somebody tell us it was a bare-knuckle fight?

"It's true," recalls BJ. "They had forgotten about the gloves, and I had to ask a pal in London on the very day of the show to fly over with six or seven pairs, all expenses paid."

Barney tells the story best: "It was only minutes before the first contest that he arrived at Croke Park, only to find the gates locked. The gateman wouldn't let him in.

"But I have the gloves for the big fight,'" he pleaded.. "'I've heard that one before,'" sniffed the steward. "Do you think I came up the Liffey in a bubble?"

"Half of those in the ground were gate-crashers, but the fellow about to save the bill from disaster was turned away!"

As for the fight itself, it will be remembered, if at all, as a damp squib.

All week, Ali had complained of a bad cold, and would have happily pulled out of the match but for a persuasive Angelo Dundee.

Only when assured by manager Dundee that Lewis's fitness looked suspect did a reluctant champion agree to go through with the contest, labouring to an 11th round win against an opponent he should have beaten in half the time.

This wasn't the Ali who let some of us believe he was 'The Greatest'.

But then, neither was the money he got for the job!

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