ONCE inside his dressing-room at Croke Park on the evening of July 19, 1972, Muhammad Ali stretched out for a massage from Luis Sarria. As the Cuban worked his magic, Ali was coughing and sneezing repeatedly, the sound effects of a cold that had been bothering him for days. His personal physician, Dr Ferdie Pacheco then injected cortisone and Xylacene in between the webbing of the fingers on both of Ali’s hands. Since the comeback, he had been doing this to numb the fists and allow him to punch at full force without feeling the pain. While all this was going on, Pat McCormack, a Dublin welterweight, was sitting in an annex outside, preparing himself ahead of his bout with French champion David Pesenti.
Son of the legendary Spike, McCormack had his older brother John with him to work his corner that night.
“Angelo Dundee comes out and we told him we’d love to meet Ali,” remembers John McCormack. “Angelo goes back in and Ali came out then to shake hands with us. That was my first time seeing him up close and I said to Pat: ‘I don’t know whether to shake hands with him or kiss him, he’s bleeding gorgeous.’ Ali looks at me and says: ‘Are you a faggot?’ I thought he was calling me a maggot because I’d never really heard the word faggot before then. ‘What kind of talk is that, ‘ said I, ‘calling me a maggot?’ “‘I said faggot, ‘ says Ali. Anyway, Angelo Dundee butts in then and says: ‘Tell him your name.’ When I told him McCormack, Ali says: ‘Are you a Pole?’ Whatever way the name sounded to him, he thought I was Polish. ‘No I’m not, I’m Irish, I’m from Dublin here.’ ‘Oh!’ says Ali, ‘lovely to meet you.'”
Upon returning to the dressing-room, Ali had joined his brother Rahaman and manager Herbert Muhammad in a prefight prayer to Allah when a knock on the door was followed by a voice saying: ‘Whenever you’re ready, Muhammad.’ What he encountered upon walking through the door must have been quite a surprise.
“The set-up was that you got your bandages wrapped in the dressing-rooms then you went to get them signed and approved and finally, you put your gloves on when you got in the ring, ” says Paddy Maguire, a Belfast bantamweight who decisioned another Frenchman Guy Caudron at the end of an eight rounder that was the best contest of the evening in Croke Park. “This wee Corkman says to Ali outside the dressing-rooms: ‘You’ve to go and get the bandages on your hands stamped by the officials.’ Muhammad didn’t understand him because this wee Cork man had an accent that made him sound like he was singing. Muhammad just starts to dance around him and says: ‘What do you say Dad? What was that Dad?’ And he just keeps on at him like that. The poor Corkman didn’t know what to say and then Ali just danced away.”
The rest of his journey to the ring was uneventful. Apart from Ali’s personal coterie of Dundee, Pacheco, Sarria and his friend, Fermanagh-born Paddy Monaghan, co-promoter Butty Sugrue had augmented the security presence around his headline act with Joe and Sean Brereton. Having supplied and built the ring for the fight, this pair of brothers from Edenderry were given the honour of delivering Ali to it.
“All I could hear as we walked along was the crowd shouting: ‘Go on Muhammad, Up ya boy Muhammad, ‘” says Joe Brereton. “They were going on like that the whole way in. We brought him to the corner and then we had to find seats near as we could to the corner. I ended up next to Peter O’Toole. He had a bottle of gin, and believe it or believe it not, I drank half it with him. He was a decent man, he passed it over to me every time he took it out of his coat. I wouldn’t normally drink gin neat but sure when you’re getting it for nothing, why wouldn’t you?”
Wearing a white robe with just his name emblazoned across the shoulders, Ali climbed into the ring and the crowd erupted. Just three months before, the prospect of the former heavyweight champion fighting in Dublin was dismissed as the stuff of fantasy. Now, everybody felt they were on first name terms with him. ‘Up ya boy Muhammad!’ They had seen that face so often on their black and white televisions, pored over newspaper and magazine articles about his various antics but this was different. Yards from their seats, he strode towards his appointed corner with a determined look on his face, his eyes purposefully avoiding the best attempts of Al ‘Blue’ Lewis to stare him down.
A 29 year old ex-con from Detroit, Lewis’ passage to Croke Park had been quite a story in itself. At 17, he was sentenced to 25 years in Jackson State Prison for killing a man while mugging him for $97. For saving the lives of a prison inspector and a doctor during a subsequent siege, the five-time boxing champion of the facility received an early release after five and a half years.
He had parlayed his second chance into a decent pro career as a rough and ready heavyweight, and was never in trouble with the police again. Dublin was to be the biggest pay-day of his life.
“You go and tell your boss that I will knock the bum out in the fifth, ” said Ali, at a press conference the day before the fight, in response to journalist Raymond Smith informing him the editor of the Irish Independent wanted to know when the fight might end so they could plan the different editions of the paper. “Because he can only bring in enough money in advertising on television for that many rounds, I won’t carry him any longer than that.” For good measure, he then demonstrated the sort of punch that would end the contest.
Without quite replicating the exact punch, he did all he could to make good on the prediction.
After four inauspicious rounds, he spent much of the fifth seemingly content to work his opponent’s body until being winded by a right cross that was really the only major Lewis offensive in the round. With 30 seconds to go, Lewis extricated himself from a corner and appeared out of danger. He was right in the centre of the ring when Ali measured him up with a left and dropped him with a right.
“When Ali knocked Al down, my Dad could see I was upset, ” says Arlynne Eisner, daughter of one of Lewis’ co-managers, Steve Eisner. “So he leaned over and shouted to me: ‘Don’t worry, he’s just put his legs up and that’s a signal, he’s getting back up, that’s our code. Don’t worry, he’s going to be okay.’ And he did, he got back up from that one.”
His recovery was assisted by a long count that later drew criticism from Ali’s camp. The bell soon after gave Lewis an immediate chance to catch his breath and rehabilitate further. He looked in poor shape though as Ali scored with left after left in the opening minute of the sixth. As soon as Ali began to employ his right too, it appeared only a matter of time before Lewis went down for good. The seventh was similar in style and content to the previous round. In between long periods of inertia, Ali punished Lewis whenever he caught him on the ropes or in a corner without ever exerting himself unduly. Before the start of the eighth, co-promoter Harold Conrad made a circuit of the ring, stopped by the commentators’ seats and whispered to Bob Arum, then working the fight for US television: “He just won’t fall! He just won’t fall!”
The leisurely pace of the eighth must have worked wonders for the stamina of both fighters because the ninth was action-packed. A round that began to the soundtrack of slow handclapping from a belligerent pocket of the Hogan Stand exploded into life. Ali upped the tempo and launched an all-out attack, spending 30 seconds working Lewis to the head and body without having to take a single jab in reply. The crowd was enthused by this but there was never any indication that Lewis was going down under this barrage.
Even when battered against the ropes, his legs appeared steadier than before. Then, he shocked everybody by going on the counter explosively. Using the ropes almost as a springboard, he went right back at Ali. After succeeding with three stinging rights to the head, the crowd raucously voiced their approval of his efforts. If staying in there with Ali was a genuine achievement, offering such robust resistance with almost nine rounds in the books was worthy of their highest praise. In his corner, they watched his revitalisation and for a moment, just one fleeting moment, fostered real hope that he could yet do something extraordinary.
“‘Blue’ hit Ali with one really terrific punch, ” says Steve Eisner. “And I was screaming: ”Blue’ hit him with one more, for chrissakes one more’. And ‘Blue’ looked back at us and shouted: ‘I ain’t got one more. I ain’t got one more.’ Luther Burgess (Lewis’ trainer) says to me: ‘Shit, we got to put more brandy in the water.’ If you look at the tapes of the fight, Luther and I put brandy in his water to help ‘Blue’ and he doesn’t spit it out after the third round. We had him swallowing it from then on just to try to get him through.” Ali exacted quick revenge for the embarrassing cameo he’d endured at the end of the ninth.
He opened the 10th with a couple of swift lefts to the head and soon Lewis’ right eye was nearly swollen shut. Sensing his opponent had nothing left, Ali picked him off at will, wobbling his legs more than once as Lewis, his mouth agape desperate for oxygen, struggled to land a solitary punch in reply. It had become only a matter of time. In Ali’s corner, however, there was some concern. When he sat on the stool at the end of the round he emitted a loud groan that worried his trainer.
‘Did he catch you in the balls?’ asked Dundee. ‘No, no my nuts are okay but I sure am bursting.’ Now that Ali had finally subdued the menace of Lewis, nature was calling. ‘What’s the next round?’ asked Ali. ‘It’s the eleventh, ‘ said Dundee. ‘I’m gonna have to open up on him in this round because I’m just bursting.’ At the start of the 11th, Lewis lingered just a few moments longer on his stool, the body language of a beaten fighter. In contrast Ali was already up and waiting, anxious to make good on his promise.
He danced around his shattered opponent, scoring as he pleased and Lewis, his hands down by his sides, managed just two feeble jabs in the course of a minute and 15 seconds before referee Lew Eskin stepped in.
The concerned way the official embraced him suggested he knew better than anybody that this fighter had earned every penny of his $35,000 purse the hard way. Ali raised his hands in the familiar pose of triumph, the crowd roared its approval and in a fitting end to the proceedings, Lewis walked across to Ali’s corner and lifted him in the air to the delight of the fans.
“I watched the fight the other day and I can appreciate it more now, ” says Lewis. “For a long time, I was ashamed of that fight. People would say: ‘You did well Blue’, but to me I didn’t. Now I look at it and I can relate to it better. I can understand where I came from and how I got to be in the ring with Ali. I lost but I didn’t look like no punk in losing.”
Within 30 seconds, the ring had filled up with bodies. Some were televison people there for a reason, others were just people chancing their arms. With nobody to stop them, dozens of fans seized a unique opportunity to get close to their idol. As the crowd around Ali’s corner grew out of control, the only person battling to keep the ring clear was Harold Conrad. Waving what looked like a rolled-up poster, he personally shoved and manhandled several interlopers back out through the ropes from whence they came. His efforts took on a comic appearance in the face of the relentless tide. No sooner did he send one fan on his way than a 10 year old came sidling through the ropes, shadow-boxed his way across the apron for the benefit of the cameras and was then subsumed by the throng.
“As I’m towelling ‘Blue’ off, this Irish guy is climbing up the ladder and is trying to muscle me out of the way, ” says Eisner. “I turn to him and say: ‘Will you let me towel the fighter off please? Give me a moment I’m working with my fighter.’ He mumbles something back at me, it could have been in Gaelic because I didn’t understand it in all the noise.
I turned around and said: ‘Fuck it.’ I hit him with a hell of a right hand and he landed right at the feet of an Irish cop who looked up at me. I’m thinking that I might as well put the manacles on because I’m going to the big house. Suddenly the cop looks up at me and yells: ‘That was a fine punch!'”
An announcement came over the tannoy requesting more Gardai and stewards to the ring area but reaching the centre of the crowd became an impossible task. Nobody could get in or out as every passageway was blocked by people. In the ensuing crush, four children were injured.
“We couldn’t believe they rushed the ring,” says Angelo Dundee. “I suppose it was better that they wanted to see him rather than not wanting to see him. In the midst of it all, Muhammad turned to me and said: ‘Hey, there sure is a lot of nice people here, they all want to shake my hand.’ We didn’t mind that too much and he certainly didn’t, he enjoyed that kind of stuff. Ireland gave a different feeling to other places we’d been, there was a legitimate warmth that we encountered everywhere we went in Ireland and that was just one more manifestation of it.”
Even after a semblance of order was restored and enough uniformed Gardai were on hand to begin escorting Ali out of the ring, the crowd were reluctant to let him go. Twenty-five minutes after Eskin’s intervention, Ali finally made it to the dressingroom. After he relieved himself in the toilet, he lay down on a couch and asked to be given a few moment’s respite before meeting reporters. Suitably rested, he was effusive in his praise of Lewis.
“I am delighted that we now have shown how good Lewis is,” said Ali. “That guy has some real guts man, and I am not sure if the public here realise just how tough and how strong he was. I hit him with some of my best shots at different stages of the fight and still, he just stood there. Cold or no cold, a couple of times, he hit me very hard and I’m glad I proved that he is worthy of a crack at the best.”
There were close to 50 journalists crowded in there and when one of them mentioned the presence of the Taoiseach Jack Lynch in the stadium, Ali slipped smoothly from gracious victor to gentle braggart. “If I had known Mister Lynch was here,” he said with the usual sly grin, “I would have finished the contest in the third round.”
“I am very honoured indeed to have the head of the government come along to enjoy seeing me win. I have fallen in love with this country and the first real break I get from the boxing game, I intend to accept the invitation of Mister Terry Rogers of the Boxing Commission to bring my family over to holiday. After Floyd Patterson, I hope Joe Frazier will fight me and then I will relax in Galway.”
So much happened in the years immediately after Croke Park that he never did make it back to Ireland. Apart from the tape of the fight itself, he bequeathed the country another unique memento of his visit. For Bord Failte, he recorded a promotional video that was shown to American audiences before the fight. Over a montage of picture-postcard images like whiskey-making, flyfishing and thatched cottages, Ali delivered the following script.
“Here I am in Ireland where every visitor gets 1,000 welcomes.
They even gave me the Irish shillelagh to help me win my fight but I don’t need it. They told me this was the Emerald Isle. Believe me, they’re right. I’ve never seen such a green country in all my life, not even Kentucky. The Irish people I have found are very proud of their ancient history and culture just like I am, and they preserve a lot of their old customs. They have kept up ancient skills here that have disappeared in most nations and countries. One thing especially about the Irish people that they kept boasting to me about was how good they are at making whiskey of all things.
“They say that their whiskey takes a long, long time to make but the funny thing is it don’t take long to drink. Whiskey is such a big thing here in Ireland that they even go as far as to call it the water of life. And that’s crazy. Ireland is also famous for its horses and the Irish people are crazy about all kinds of sports. That’s why I’m the greatest also here in Ireland. They even have their own special games called Irish football and Irish hurling. They look pretty rough to me these football and hurling players, I think I’ll stick to boxing. I’ve been training for my fight so I didn’t get to see all of the beautiful country of Ireland this time but I promise you, as soon as I destroy ugly Joe Frazier, I’m coming back to Ireland with my family and I’m going to have a real rest and a true holiday.”
(excerpt from “The Big Fight”, a book about an extraordinary week in Ireland’s sporting and social history, published by Yellow Jersey Press, available on Amazon etc)