Tuesday 25 October 2016

The Greatest ever seen in Croker

The GAA headquarters played host to Ali twice - but in very different circumstances, writes Liam Collins

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

PACKING A PUNCH: Nelson Mandela lands a left on Muhammad Ali’s chin in Dublin. Photo: Ray McManus
PACKING A PUNCH: Nelson Mandela lands a left on Muhammad Ali’s chin in Dublin. Photo: Ray McManus

One was magical, the other chaotic, but Muhammad Ali's two appearances in Croke Park - for the Special Olympics in 2003 and the fight with Al 'Blue' Lewis over 30 years before, in July 1972 - have left an impression that lasted a lifetime for those who were there.

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Escorted to the event by the singer Sinead O'Connor and her son Jake, Ali was the celebrity of celebrities at the Special Olympics in Dublin. He accompanied the American team, sparred amusingly with O'Connor, and took a playful 'straight left' to the chin from Nelson Mandela.

The opening ceremony in Croke Park for that night was a glittering affair, with some 75,000 spectators and athletes packed into the stadium. The opening ceremony included U2, The Corrs and Riverdance. Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Bon Jovi walked with the athletes.

But the highlight of all the magical moments came when Muhammad Ali and Roy Keane, then with Manchester United, took the athletes oath with the special Olympians before Nelson Mandela officially launched the games.

Sinead O'Connor's souvenir of the night, a tablecloth with Ali's signature and drawings he had done for her son, was later auctioned for charity.

It was the first Special Olympics held outside the United States and came to Ireland largely due to the influence of the Kennedy family and the huge national effort put into the organisation by thousands of families all over Ireland - who hosted the special Olympians, their families, carers and staff.

But in coming back to Ireland, Muhammad Ali was fulfilling a promise that he made after his first visit to the country in July, 1972.

"It's hard to be humble when you are as good as I am," said Ali, although he showed a certain amount of humility when he went to Dail Eireann that week to meet with Taoiseach Jack Lynch, sign the visitors' book and also sign autographs for the waitresses who served him.

When Lynch told him that he hoped to attend the Wednesday night contest organised by the Kerry-born, London-based circus performer and strongman 'Butty' Sugrue, Ali replied: "Since you are a busy man, I guess I'll get it over quickly."

But Lynch told him: "Don't do that, it would spoil it."

The Irish Independent journalist Raymond Smith - who insisted on calling him by his previous name, Cassius Clay, and got away with it - told the heavyweight champion that his editor wanted to know what round the fight would end in, so he could plan the paper's editions.

Ali said the fifth.

Smith also introduced him to the legendary Kilkenny hurler Eddie Keher, who gave him a few lessons. "It's a pretty rough game, I think I'll stick to boxing," he said.

On the night there were chaotic scenes in Croke Park, as hundreds of people "bunked in" for free, stewards abandoned their posts to sit in the expensive seats and the fight promoters basically lost their shirts.

After the first round, Betty McDermott, who worked in a local hotel, paraded around the ring in a short skirt with a card announcing the second round, and the timekeeper was so enamoured with her that the break lasted for 90 seconds. Ali was almost true to his word when he hit Lewis a haymaker that knocked him to the canvas in the fifth, but the bell sounded - after a count lasting 20 seconds - and he came back and survived until the 11th round, when he could take no more punishment.

The fans then invaded the ring and there was such chaos and confusion that Lewis' trainer floored a number of spectators to keep them away from his man. Several children were injured and Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, and a phalanx of gardai eventually got the champion safely from the ring.

The boxing writer Pete Hamill later wrote that the promoters had floored the ring with a wrestling mat instead of a boxing mat, with the result that Ali couldn't do his usual dancing-around-the-ring-on-his-toes routine.

Leaving Ireland, Ali said he had accepted an invitation from the bookie Terry Rogers to come back for a holiday. In something of a coup, he also recorded a promotional video for Bord Failte.

"Ireland is famous for its horses and the Irish are crazy about all kinds of sports" he said. "As soon as I destroy ugly Joe Frazier I am coming back to Ireland with my family and I am going to have a real rest."

It didn't happen that way, but when he did come back for the Special Olympics, retired and suffering from Parkinson's disease, he was, in Irish eyes, still a legend.

Sunday Independent

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