Wednesday 21 March 2018

Irish bareknuckle boxer tells of close friendship with 'loving brother' Ali

Paddy Monaghan and Muhammad Ali stage a mock fight in the Irishman’s home in Oxfordshire, England. Photo: PA
Paddy Monaghan and Muhammad Ali stage a mock fight in the Irishman’s home in Oxfordshire, England. Photo: PA

Declan Warrington

One-time bareknuckle boxer Paddy Monaghan has recalled the remarkable and unlikely friendship he developed with the late Muhammad Ali.

The 72-year-old from Fermanagh started a campaign to get Ali's boxing licence reinstated when he was stripped of that and his world heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to join the US war effort in Vietnam.

Monaghan oversaw a petition that accumulated 22,224 signatures, later wrote to US president Richard Nixon to plead Ali's case, and eventually grew so close to him that 'The Greatest' frequently visited him and his family in their home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England.

It was a visit he regularly repeated, but may not have done so had Monaghan accepted his offer of moving to live near him in the US. The bareknuckle fighter worked his corner for the 1974 fight with Joe Frazier, having also done so in Dublin when in 1972 he defeated Alvin Blue Lewis.

"It was tremendous, my eardrums were popping, the cheers, with thousands of people in a stadium, and Madison Square Garden," said Monaghan. "He was a loving brother, I loved the man. The friendship: I'll miss him out of this world. But I feel like he's in the next ring waiting for us.

"When they took his title, they had no right to do so because the matter was outside the boxing ring, it was nothing to do with boxing.

Paddy Monaghan and Muhammad Ali. Photo: PA
Paddy Monaghan and Muhammad Ali. Photo: PA

"I felt strongly about it, and I felt the man in the street would as well, which he did, all over the world. I got 22,224 signatures. I also (later) wrote a letter to President Nixon, and took it up to the American Embassy (in London).

"(Jabir) Herbert Muhammad, his manager, came over to London. I gave him a sackful of mail from the fans; I'd started a fan club. He took them back to Muhammad, who saw the mail and wanted to get in touch.

"We arranged to meet in the Royal Lancaster Hotel. He was here to do an Ovaltine advert. I thought it'd be a 'Thank you' and a tap on the shoulder, and that'd be it. Most people would have done: not him.

"(But) everything had to be kept quiet: I don't think Muhammad could be associated with bareknuckle fighters, it wouldn't look good."

Therein began the unlikeliest of friendships. Monaghan was accused of fabricating their relationship - which has been documented at London's Ali Exhibition - until the first of numerous visits to his terraced house brought Abingdon to a standstill.

The two were last together in Dublin in 2009; Ali died last Friday in Arizona.

"He said 'Paddy, you don't realise how much you've helped me, but can you help me one more time?

"I'm over here for Ovaltine: what the hell is Ovaltine?' Whether he was joking, I don't know," said Monaghan, whose life story will be told in book 'The Rough Diamond', written with son Tyrone.

"We were always joking around, but we had our serious moments too. He was a wonderful man. Every time he came to our house, he'd always leave a piece of his spirit behind.

"He must have visited me 13, 14 times in all, from the early '70s onwards, to the early '90s.

"He never, ever forgot what I did."

Irish Independent

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