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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.

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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.

"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.

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"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."

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