Review: When Ali Came to Ireland (2013)

Nothing to do with the UFC and Irish fighters, but I’ve been asked quite a bit in recent years for a copy of the following review I wrote concerning the documentary When [Muhammad] Ali Came to Ireland. The piece was originally published in the online history magazine Scoláire Staire back in early 2013.

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When Ali Came To Ireland

RTE One, 1st January 2013

True Films

When Ali Came To Ireland tells the story of how Michael “Butty” Sugrue, a Kerry-born London publican and former circus strongman, succeeded in bringing Muhammad Ali to Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium in July 1972 for a fight with Alvin “Blue” Lewis.

The self-proclaimed “World’s Strongest Publican”, Sugrue was the quintessential Irish conman and a rather extraordinary character. The archive British Pathé clips of him balancing his wife on a chair between his teeth, lifting two men above his head with one arm, and arranging a publicity stunt in which an Irish barfly from one of his two London pubs named Mick Meaney was buried alive for sixty-one days (in a failed attempt to break a preposterous world record) are as surreal as they are hilarious.

The documentary is writer and director Ross Whitaker’s third production to focus on the subject of boxing, coming on the back of Saviours (2007) and Big Time (2008). This fact isn’t altogether surprising since Whitaker has long been a fan of Ali and was largely inspired to get into the business of film-making by the Academy Award winning When We Were Kings (1996), which told the story of his unforgettable “Rumble in the Jungle” victory over George Foreman in Zaire, 1974.

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So then, what did “The Greatest” think of Ireland? The documentary only tells half the story by focusing on how moved Ali was by the warm welcome he received during his nine day visit to the land of his maternal great-grandfather, Abe Grady, who originally hailed from Ennis, Co. Clare. 

Although he was indeed very taken by the friendliness and sincerity of the people whom he met in Ireland, Ali nevertheless hated the isolation of his hotel on the outskirts of Dublin and the almost total whiteness of the Irish populace. Within twenty-four hours of arriving in Dublin he rang his publicist Harold Conrad, who was co-promoting the fight with Sugrue. ‘Hey Hal’, he asked, ‘where are all the niggers in this town?’ ‘Ali, there aren’t any’ came the reply.

A week later Ali told a New York Times reporter that although he was touched by how nice the Irish people treated him, he ‘would go crazy’ were he forced to stay another week in the country. Yet, despite his boredom and unease at the lack of ‘coloured folk’ to mix with, the “Louisville Lip” essentially enjoyed himself in Ireland and stayed true to his reputation by talking up a storm to promote the Lewis fight, beginning with a trademark showing at a press conference in Dublin Airport on 11th July, the morning of his arrival. 

‘It was a remarkable performance’, wrote a journalist for the Irish Press the next day, ‘His timing is as cold-bloodedly impeccable as vintage Bob Hope or Sammy Davis. The only discernible difference is that Ali is much the prettier.’

Included in the documentary is a glimpse of Mitchel V. Cogley, a leading Irish sports writer from the time, sitting unimpressed in the front row with his arms folded and head down while the rest of the assembled reporters at Dublin Airport stare at Ali, ‘the greatest attraction this planet has ever known’ to quote Sugrue. Following his famously controversial victory over Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium some nine years earlier, when he was then fighting under his birth name of Cassius Clay, Ali had been dismissed by Cogley in the Irish Independent as a ‘second rater’ and ‘the most over-rated fighter in the world’. Even when he went on to win three world titles and defeat the likes of Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, the old-school Cogley remained underwhelmed and could never find it in himself to describe Ali as a ‘great’ fighter.

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It is a pity that the documentary makers did not interview Cogley’s broadcaster son Fred, who accompanied Ali in a taxi ride to the RTE Studios in Donnybrook later that week for one of his two Irish television interviews. Clips of the second of these, a landmark interview with Cathal O’Shannon, and the touching reminiscences of the now-deceased O’Shannon, are a real highlight of the documentary. ‘Before I did it I was just another interviewer. After I did it, I was the man who had interviewed Muhammad Ali. It meant a lot to me. It means a lot to me still’, remarks O’Shannon with a smile, in what would prove to the final television interview which the much-respected Irish broadcaster gave before his passing.

When Ali Came To Ireland would also have benefitted had interviews been carried out with the likes of Peter Hamill, Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin), Ulick O’Connor and the late Con Houlahan – all of whom could have provided entertaining personal anecdotes about Ali.

It would have been nice too had Betty McDermott, the Dublin hotel worker and part-time model who acted as the ring girl for the fight, been interviewed. The still-glamorous McDermott attended the premiere screening of When Ali Came To Ireland at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin on 16th December 2012. Speaking from the audience during the ‘Q & A’ session which followed the screening, she recalled her refusal to wear the ‘awful outfit’ she was handed by organisers and insistence on wearing her ‘own clothes’ which she felt would better show off her figure and recently acquired holiday-tan. A ‘short skirt and white knickers’ was how journalist Nell McCafferty of the Irish Times succinctly described Betty’s personal ensemble the day after the fight.

Nevertheless, the interviews with O’Shannon, the late George Kimball, Rock Brynner, Patrick Myler, Jimmy Magee and Dave Hannigan (who wrote a book about the Ali – Lewis fight in 2002 entitled The Big Fight) among others, allied with the fascinating wealth of rare archival footage all make for a well-told and terrifically entertaining documentary.

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The fight itself, which occurred on 19th July 1972, was a fairly lack-lustre and one-sided affair in which Ali dominated his game opponent without ever really getting out of second gear, most likely due to a head-cold he had caught a couple of days earlier. 

A tough and powerful yet ultimately limited fighter from Detroit, Michigan, ex-convict Lewis was a former sparring partner of Ali’s who was carefully chosen for the fight due to the likelihood of him putting up a good show without ever seriously troubling his illustrious opponent. Ali dropped Lewis with an expertly thrown chopping right hand near the end of the fourth round, but a slow count of fifteen seconds allowed the Detroit fighter to get off the canvas and continue.

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The documentary suggests that the fight was later comically and prematurely stopped in the eleventh round once Harold Conrad had been told at ringside by RTE that the fight needed to end quickly in order to suit satellite television schedules back in the United States. This claim fails to take into account the fact that Lewis suffered considerable punishment in the ninth and tenth rounds, during which time he repeatedly stumbled and relied on the ropes to keep himself upright, and had been warned by the referee prior to the eleventh round that the fight would be stopped unless he showed proof of turning the one-sided contest around. After seventy-five further seconds of action, which saw Lewis throw only two half-hearted jabs and get peppered with shots by the dancing Ali, the fight was thus called to a halt.

If the documentary had shown the few seconds leading up to the stoppage, viewers would have seen Lewis’s legs momentarily buckle after taking a methodical succession of jabs to the head and consequently understood why he did not protest the referee’s decision, instead opting to subsequently embrace Ali and briefly lift him in the air to pay tribute to “The Greatest” and publicly display his gratitude for what was a rare big payday.

Lewis and Ali may have done well out of the fight, earning $35,000 and $200,000 each, but the event proved to be a financial disaster for Sugrue, who lost some £20,000 of his own money due to a poor crowd of around 18,000 spectators turning up on the night. Despite the fact that the world’s most recognisable and colourful boxer fought a fairly credible opponent while still near the prime of his career, on a beautiful summer’s evening in which most tickets were reasonably priced, the historic Irish refusal to pay into sporting events resulted in a box office flop in spite of Ali’s best efforts to hype the fight. 

As Whitaker remarked in a recent newspaper interview promoting the documentary, ‘Irish people are funny – there was definitely an attitude of “Well, sure we’ve seen him on the TV talking to Cathal O’Shannon, we’ve seen him out at his hotel where anybody more or less could walk up to the door and say hello – why would we need to go and pay money to see him fight?”’

On the night of the fight, shortly before the main event began, hundreds if not thousands of fans streamed over the “Hill 16” wall in true local tradition, overturning a barrier and bypassing the rather apathetic security in place. Included in the documentary is great footage of some young fans also rushing down from their cheap terrace seats to jump onto the Croke Park pitch and take their place nearer to ringside alongside the likes of Taoiseach Jack Lynch, author James Plunkett, actor Peter O’Toole, Oscar-winning director John Huston and future American President Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom was visiting Dublin as part of a European goodwill tour in his capacity as Governor of California.

It took over five years to receive the green light to make, but the struggle for the Dublin-based “True Films” was certainly worth it in the end. This is a documentary that regularly brings a smile to the face of the viewer and one hopes that When Ali Came To Ireland will eventually be released on DVD, especially if the “Muhammad Ali V. Cathal O’Shannon” RTE interview and Croke Park fight itself can be included in full as extras. Unlike the tickets back in the summer of 1972, one suspects that such an offering would sell very well today indeed.

– J. Curry

 

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