Flashback: It’s been 45 years since Muhammad Ali fought in Dublin
In the summer of 1972, an ex-circus strongman brought ‘The Greatest’ to Dublin to fight in Croke Park.
Michael 'Butty' Sugrue, a Kerry-born pub landlord who dubbed himself ‘The World’s Strongest Publican’, persuaded the Ali camp to come to Ireland for a highly publicised match against Al 'Blue 'Lewis that, in the end, wouldn’t be quite the windfall Sugrue might have hoped for.
Ali arrived in Dublin on July 11, and spent the lead-up to the match on a publicity trail.
He had the press enraptured during his 40-minute press conference upon arrival at Dublin Airport, with his trademark one-liners coming thick and fast. His Irish visit was seen to be part of a comeback tour for the boxing champ whose name was tarnished after refusing to enlist in the Vietnam War.
He would train in front of the public in Croke Park, where hundreds of spectators would gather and watch in awe as the heavyweight champion worked the heavy bag and speed ball, and sparred with middleweight champion Bunny Sterling, then heavyweights Joe Bugner and Johnny Conteh.
He also made a trip to the Dail where the Irish Independent reported he received a welcome not seen since JFK’s visit in 1963. He met with Taoiseach Jack Lynch and spoke at length about the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. He drew parallels between the fight for civil rights in his home country with what he called Ireland’s “proud history of struggle”.
Ali’s ties with Ireland went deeper than this; his paternal great-grandfather, Abe Grady, had emigrated to the States from Ennis in County Clare in the 1860s.
Although the fight was heavily publicised, and Ali was trailed by a crowd of adoring fans wherever he went, it proved difficult to get people to actually buy tickets for the big fight. In the end only around 20, 000 were sold, some for as little as £6. Sugrue’s promoting partner Harold Conrad described the match as “an artistic success” and it was widely thought the pair would have been lucky to break even. Ali defeated Lewis in the 11th round of the 12-round contest.
Ali didn’t make it to Clare during this visit, but he returned three decades later in 2009 where he was given a heroes’ welcome in the small town and was made the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis.
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