Commentary

Legend of Ali-Lewis fight in Dublin grows with each year

Die-hard Muhammad Ali fans may not remember his July 19, 1972 bout against Al "Blue" Lewis, but the Irish sure do. From the moment he stepped off the plane, Ali cemented his place in Emerald Isle sports lore -- and Eddie Keher has the hurling stick to prove it.

Originally Published: July 17, 2008
By Patrick J. Sauer | Special to ESPN.com

DUBLIN -- The very mention of certain places call to mind the famous bouts of Muhammad Ali's career: Miami Beach, Zaire, Manila, New York City and of course … Dublin.

What fight fan will ever forget Ali's 11th-round TKO victory over Al "Blue" Lewis in Croke Park, the same stadium in which British soldiers fired on an Irish crowd in 1920, killing several spectators and a Gaelic football player?

It doesn't ring a bell? Then you haven't been haunting the Dublin sports pubs lately, where photos of Ali's visit to Ireland are as commonplace as pints of Guinness.

"Ali was like the Pied Piper," eminent boxing writer Budd Schulberg said. "It was really kind of magical. He had enormous influence over there … he was a fellow Irishman."

Pluck of the Irish

After losing to Joe Frazier in March 1971, Ali went on a worldwide barnstorming tour. After serving a suspension for more than three years because he refused to serve in the military, he needed money. So he did what he knew best, fighting 13 times in six countries before the Frazier rematch in January 1974.

The Dublin fight was the brainchild of a former circus-strongman-turned-publican-turned-promoter Michael "Butty" Sugrue, whose alleged claim to fame was pulling double-decker buses by a rope in his teeth. He brought the idea to Ali's promoter, Harold Conrad, a Runyonesque figure in his own right who had been a sportswriter for the Brooklyn Eagle, counted noted mobster Lucky Luciano among his friends and later would bring the world Evel Knievel's failed Skycycle leap over the Snake River Canyon.

Once the money theoretically was ironed out, Sugrue figured the fight would be a smashing success. It didn't start out that way.

"The press laughed in his face," said Dave Hannigan, a columnist for the Irish Echo and author of "The Big Fight." "Sugrue was this local cartoon character best remembered in a loincloth."

Sentiment started to shift when Ali arrived in full-on showman mode. At the Dublin Airport, Ali grasped the entire country in the palms of his hands by announcing that he had Irish roots.

Unbeknownst to most locals, he was right. Ali's maternal great-grandfather, Abe Grady, was born in County Clare, Ireland, and immigrated to America in the 1860s.

Ali's camp tried to sequester him and his entourage in the foothills outside of town (keeping plenty of women in tow), but he was on a quest to draw out Joe Frazier for a rematch. For the whopping sum of 100 pounds (about $200), he did a one-hour interview with television network Radio Telefis Eireann, in which he baited Frazier as a "tramp" and "slave" who lived on a "chicken plantation."

Muhammad Ali & John Huston
AP Photo/Bob DearWhile in Ireland, Ali hung out with celebrities like John Huston, whose boxing movie "Fat City" was screened with both Ali and Lewis in attendance.
On Cathal O'Shannon's talk show, Ali continued to win over Ireland by comparing the Irish conflict "The Troubles" with the civil-rights struggle in America. The week of his visit was a bloody one in Northern Ireland. True to revolutionary form, Ali put himself right in the mix. He met up with radical nationalist politician Bernadette Devlin (later banned from entering the United States in 2003), sat down with taoiseach Jack Lynch to discuss the political situation in Northern Ireland, and at a Dublin hotel, nearly crossed paths with Gov. Ronald Reagan, the future president who had refused him a license in California.

Celebrities flocked as well. Ali hung out with actor Peter O'Toole and playfully sparred with director John Huston, whose boxing movie "Fat City" was screened with both Ali and Lewis in attendance.

The Greatest goes Gaelic

Ali didn't just spend time with the rich and famous, however. Stories abound about his time with workaday Irish folks. He stopped in and had tea with an elderly lady, joined in the craic at a few pubs and had a lengthy chat with a road sweeper outside of Croke Park. A local newspaperman, Raymond Smith of the Irish Independent, also arranged a photo op with Eddie Keher, a prolific scorer in the Gaelic game of hurling who still holds the all-Ireland finals record with 36 goals and 207 points in 50 championship games for the Kilkenny team.

Ali Signing
Irish IndependentA fan of Ali's, professional hurler Eddie Keher met with the fighter before Ali's clash with Al Lewis.
"Keher was like a Reggie Jackson," Hannigan said. "He was a winner who always played best on the biggest stage."

Keher met with Ali in private, demonstrating techniques to Ali with his hurling stick. "He was a hero of mine," Keher said, "but I was surprised how quiet he was … until we met with the press.'"

Ali took the hurl, tried to hit the sliotar (an object the same size as a baseball but not as hard) and posed for pictures. Before the photo op ended, Keher got Ali to sign his hurl, a unique keepsake that probably should have been sent to a museum.

It was a whirlwind week with Ali at the center. All that was left was for him was to make quick work of his unheralded opponent at Croke Park.

Blue Lewis had other ideas.

The Smoker in the Croker

Lewis was an ex-con from Detroit who had done time for manslaughter. According to Hannigan, he'd gotten out early, at least in part, because he'd protected a guard and helped mediate a prison riot. After his release, he headed to Miami on his own dime to be one of Ali's sparring partners.

"I hated the way they took [Ali's] license," Lewis told ESPN.com. "I'm a Baptist, so his religion ain't like mine, but it killed me that none of the other brothers wanted to really help Ali get in shape."

Ali & Lewis
AP PhotoLewis, right, held his own in the early going, before being stopped by Ali in Round 11.
Lewis, 65, said Ali took to him because he wasn't deferential and gave him the best workouts possible. (He admitted, however, that he wouldn't go on training runs through the snake-filled Florida swamps.) Ali promised that he would give him a fight, which is how he ended up in a Dublin ring.

"Ali was the baddest heavyweight in the world, but he knew I wasn't going to be bulls------," Lewis, 66, said. "I didn't think he was in the best shape, so I was hoping to catch him sleeping a bit, crack his head and steal the fight."

To Sugrue's chagrin, tickets for the match moved slowly. To his greater chagrin, thousands of fight fans stormed the gates and brought Croke Park closer to capacity, even though it never could technically be labeled a sellout.

"There was a good deal of drinking, and it was a boisterous crowd," said Schulberg, "but it never got rowdy in an ugly way."

The first few rounds followed expectations. Ali landed more punches and appeared to be cruising in a generally lackluster fight. A long count in the fifth round (Ali's camp said it was 22 seconds; Hannigan clocked it at 15) kept Lewis' hopes alive. His best rounds were the eighth and ninth. For a few fleeting moments, it appeared the underdog had a shot at an enormous upset. "Lewis came to play," Hannigan said, "and at one point, he had a puncher's chance."

Ali took command in the later rounds and won by TKO when the referee stopped it in the 11th.

After the fight it was revealed that Ali was suffering from a head cold and that he and trainer Angelo Dundee considered calling off the contest. Ali labored throughout, but it was clear who was the better boxer.

"I have the feeling that Ali started carrying Lewis from the middle rounds on," Schulberg said.

Lewis, of course, remembers it differently.

"I hurt him, but he never let me get in close enough for another shot," he said. "I never got another opportunity. Ali ain't gonna let you do it twice."

The fight itself might have been the least-climactic part of Ali's week in Ireland, if not for the melee that broke out after the match ended. A crowd of fans swarmed the ring in adulation, trying to get a piece of him. It took Ali nearly a half hour to get to the dressing room, and that length of time became extremely problematic for one specific reason.

"Ali really needed to use the bathroom," said Hannigan.

The fight ended up a complete financial bust because many of the 25,000 spectators were freeloaders. Ali got his $100,000 and Lewis his $35,000, but a lot of the cash was collected from local pubs and still reeked of Guinness. The local banks probably hadn't recouped their investment when Sugrue passed away a few years later.

The fight hasn't gone down in history as one of Ali's great triumphs, but it lives on in the memories of those in attendance.

"I took my father, Stephen, a huge boxing fan going back to Jack Dempsey," Keher, 66, said. "I still remember getting up in the middle of the night to listen to the Ali-Sonny Liston bout with him on the radio. It was our first big fight, and we were thrilled. When Ali went in for the kill, there was no stopping him."

Ali left Ireland right away, vowing he'd come back for a vacation, but Dublin was just one of many stopovers along his amazing way. For Lewis, though, the week he spent in Ireland remains the highlight of his career. And maybe his life.

"Ireland was a beautiful place, man," he said. "They didn't know me, but they treated me like I was a king … like I was Ali."

The Croke Park bout became a footnote in the annals of Irish sporting history, left to pictorial history on the walls of Dublin pubs …

… That is, until a young entrepreneur and hurler named Sean Morgan got in touch with Eddie Keher.

On top of the hurl

In 2006, Belfast native Morgan turned his hobby of making hurling sticks into a full-fledged company. He founded Setanta Hurls in Belfast and now churns out some 50,000 sticks a year. One of his promotional ideas was to make commemorative hurls to be presented to the sport's greatest performers during the all-Ireland finals.

Late in '07, he called Keher, who, in turn, asked Morgan whether he might be able to restore a hurl with Ali's autograph on it.

Hurler
Sean MorganSean Morgan, who owns a hurling company, was able to restore Eddie Keher's autographed hurl.
For 30-odd years, it had been sitting in his attic.

"I was completely blown away," Morgan, 26, said.

Fortunately, the hurl itself was in good shape. Grimy, yes. But it was carved out of the solid roots of an ash tree and held up nicely throughout the years. Ali's autograph was clear, and the original tape was still intact.

Morgan spent five hours a night for three weeks using a chemical process and wire wool to restore the legendary stick. "I worked after hours because I didn't want any outside voices or distractions," he said. "It was very stressful."

Under Protestant rule, hurlers often were harassed by British soldiers for carrying the very sticks he now manufactures, so the restoration had deeper overtones. A presentation ceremony was held in Belfast at Casement Park last Feb. 16. Television crews, local clubs and even Sinn Fein president (and reputed IRA member) Gerry Adams joined the festivities.

Morgan has only one regret.

"Eddie isn't much of a drinker. That was a big killer because I was hoping to get him out for a few pints," he said with a laugh.

Time is a great storyteller

For Keher, it was a "privilege and an honor" to cross paths with both Ali and Adams, all thanks to a hurling stick that he once wielded like a Celtic warrior.

As for Ali, he eventually made good on his promise to return, appearing to a thunderous ovation at the opening ceremonies of the 2003 Special Olympics in Dublin.

Like all great Irish pub yarns, the legend of Ali's time in the country grows bigger with each retelling. Actual fight footage is hard to come by, but the spirit of the Ali-Lewis clash lives on in a recently unearthed 1972 travelogue and in the frame that holds Keher's priceless autographed hurl. Someday he may donate to the local Kilkenny hurling center, but for now it's staying where it belongs.

On his wall.

"I assure this is the only one of these that exists," he said, "having a hurl signed by the Greatest of All Time is unique. After all these years, I am still in awe of Muhammad Ali."

Patrick J. Sauer is a contributing editor at Inc., a senior editor at TheDailyTube.com and a freelancer for a number of publications.