Friday 19 January 2018

'Muhammad Ali called me a leprechaun and I told him to F off'

Two-time Irish Olympian Phil Sutcliffe Photo: Sportsfile
Two-time Irish Olympian Phil Sutcliffe Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard O'Neill

It isn't often you hear of a light-flyweight leaving the late and great Muhammad Ali almost lost for words.

But two-time Irish Olympian Phil Sutcliffe momentarily reduced the 1960 Olympic champion to silence in 1978 when visiting Ali in his training camp in the USA where Ali was preparing for a WBA/WBC showdown with Earnie Shavers at Madison Square Garden in September of that year.

Sutcliffe said he was deeply saddened to hear of Ali's death. One minute's silence, tolled in and out by a ringside bell, was observed in memory of Ali at the National Cadet Championships at Dublin's National Stadium on Saturday.

Sutcliffe recalls the fireworks when they met in Pennsylvania.

"We were with an Irish squad for a few bouts in the USA and we visited Ali in his training camp in Deer Park, I think. Paddy Fitzsimons was our team manager at the time," said Sutcliffe of the Crumlin Boxing Club.

"Ali was being his usual self, telling us he was the fastest and prettiest heavyweight that ever lived, or ever would live. He was a real show man.

"I was 18 at the time and it was a brilliant occasion. Here was my hero talking to us, fantastic.

"We decided we'd pose for a group photograph and there's Ali sitting there. He turns to me and Jimmy Carson (Irish Elite 1977 finalist) and says, "come here little Irish leprechauns and sit on my knee." Well, I lost the rag completely.

"I told him to F off, that he was my hero and that I loved him but no man talks to me like that.

"I think he was a bit taken aback. It was tongue in cheek to a certain extent, I was only a young fella and I was bit fiery at the time. He didn't understand the Irish humour.

"We shook hands later and had a bit of a laugh. What an icon he was and it is such a sad occasion for our sport that he has passed."

Sutcliffe, the only Irish boxer to win Elite European medals on both sides of the Berlin Wall before the re-unification of Germany, doesn't feel that Ali was the greatest pound-for-pound of all time, however

"He was the greatest heavyweight, definitely. He talked the talk the talk outside the ring but he could walk the walk inside it.

"He was the most flamboyant heavyweight of all time and the greatest in that division.

"No one will ever match him as a heavyweight."

The former Irish light-fly was also in his corner during his epic trilogy with Smokin' Joe Frazier.

"I wanted Ali to win, but it took some man to beat him and Joe did it. He was another of the greats. He really put it up to Ali. Joe tested him to the limit.

"I always wanted Ali to win those fights, but, looking back at it now, you can't have anything but tremendous respect for Joe Frazier."

Irish Independent

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