Conor McGregor and Katie Taylor may be ruling the world of combat sports right now – both in their own inimitable style – but in 1972, Ireland was obsessed with a boxer from a foreign shore when Muhammad Ali cameto fight in Croke Park.
The fight was a scheme dreamed up by Kerryman native and London pubman Butty Sugrue, who first came to public notice as a strongman capable of holding up a man seated on a chair by his teeth, etc. Other publicity stunts he pulled involved burying a man alive for 61 days in his garden, and claiming that the head of Nelson’s statue would appear in his London pub after the monument was blown up in 1959.
|Muhammad Ali talking with Jack Lynch, with Butty Sugrue in the background|
12 July 1972
Sugrue also brought Joe Lewis and Henry Cooper on tours to Ireland, but the Muhammad Ali gig was his most high profile endeavour. Lining up Al ‘Blue’ Lewis as an opponent also meant that the fight could not be considered a walkover for Ali. Lewis was known as a heavy hitter, and was avoided by most of the top boxers out of fear he could do damage to them. Ali accepted him as an opponent because he wanted to give him a fight, and afterwards, he continued to rank Lewis as one of the toughest boxers he’d faced.
|Muhammad Ali at Dublin Airport|
11 July 1972
Muhammad Ali touched down in Dublin Airport to a crowd of adoring fans a week before his fight was scheduled, and not many people believed he would appear until they saw him waving a shillelagh at RTÉ cameras. His week was full of publicity events and occasions that allowed him to mix with everyday people. He would walk up O’Connell Street to the Gresham, where his manager Harold Conrad was staying, bringing the whole street to a standstill as pedestrians and motorists stopped to flock around him.
Ali was also brought on official visits to places such as Stewarts Hospital in Palmerstown, the Oireachtas buildings where he had a sit-down with Taoiseach Jack Lynch, a veteran of Croke Park battles. Leinster House also ground to a halt that day, as TDs, Senators and service staff all fell under the spell of ‘The People’s Champion’. His interview with Cathal O’Shannon is still famous today, with clips featuring on the documentary I am Ali.
|Ali surrounded by fans and members of his entourage at Stewarts Hospital|
15 July 1972
In the meantime, the organisers behind the fight were growing concerned at the slow pace of tickets sales. Sugrue tried to assure them that the venue would be swamped on the day, and that their purses were safe. He was proved right about Croke Park getting swamped on the day of the fight, but unfortunately most punters forgot to pay their entry fee as they slipped in over the walls or through unprotected gaps. The two fighters got their fees in full, but Sugrue took a huge hit to his finances as he absorbed the brunt of the losses.
19 July 1972
Nobody in Croke Park for the fight would have looked for their money back anyway, even if they had bothered to pay. Ali never looked in danger, but he still had to manage to avoid the famous Lewis southpaw. The fight lasted until the eleventh round, when it was obvious Lewis could not take any more pounding from Ali. After Ali was declared the winner, the crowd burst into the ring to congratulate their hero in person. Souvenirs were swiped from the ring, and it took half an hour to get the boxers back to their changing rooms.
Ali left Ireland the next day, another fight done and dusted for him. However, the visit seemed to hold much greater significance for Lewis. Not only did he get a chance to box with one of the greatest, but he seemed to really enjoy his time in Ireland too. Years later, he told the sportswriter Dave Hannigan, “I do love Ireland though, they treated me like I was somebody over there. Like I was somebody.” For a former convict and a black man growing up in the racial tensions of the sixties in the US, the Irish welcome probably was a memorable occasion in his life. After all, though Ali was the star in the ring, it always takes two to rumble.
All photos available @ Irish Photo Archive