After losing to Joe Frazier in March 1971, Ali goes on something of a world tour, fighting 13 times in six countries before defeating Frazier in a rematch in January 1974.
The promotion is the brainchild of a character from County Kerry named Butty Sugrue, known throughout Ireland as a circus strongman, whose alleged claim to fame is pulling double-decker buses by a rope in his teeth. Dublin journalists laugh at him when he first announces his intentions.
But despite the scepticism, the fight is arranged for July 19, 1972. As soon as he steps off the plane at Dublin Airport, Ali, ever the showman, immediately captures the heart of a nation by announcing that he has Irish roots. In the 1860s, Abe Grady left his native Ennis in County Clare and emigrated to the United States. In Kentucky, he met and married an emancipated slave. A century later Abe Grady’s great grandson Muhammad Ali touches down in Dublin.
In the week leading up to the fight Ali meets people from all walks of life in Dublin. He spends time with celebrities, including actor Peter O’Toole, and playfully spars with director John Huston, whose boxing movie, Fat City, is screened with both Ali and Lewis in attendance.
Ali also meets politicians, including Taoiseach Jack Lynch in Leinster House and political activist Bernadette Devlin. The Cork Examiner comments on how popular Ali has proven with politicians in Ireland. “Not since the late President John F. Kennedy was in Dublin in 1963 has a visitor from abroad been given as big a welcome at Leinster House as that accorded to Muhammad Ali.”
Ali is always about so much more than boxing, and that week in Dublin is another case in point, as the fight itself is not a classic. He has a cold and is wary of Lewis, who is a dangerous fighter and a man who had previously served time in prison for manslaughter. Ali who, prior to the bout predicts that his opponent’s chances of victory lay somewhere between “slim and none,” eventually wins with a TKO in the eleventh round.
In 2009, Ali returns to Ireland to visit Ennis in County Clare, the home town of his ancestor Abe Grady, where he is granted the freedom of the town. The huge crowds who come out to meet him are testament to his enduring appeal. But the magic of Muhammad Ali leaves an indelible impact on Ireland after his 1972 visit as the late Budd Schulberg, a legendary boxing writer, said, “Ali was like the Pied Piper. It was really kind of magical. He had enormous influence over there. He was a fellow Irishman.”
(From: “When Ali thrilled Ireland: How ‘the Greatest’ shook up Dublin” by Peter Crutchley, BBC NI Digital & Learning, June 6, 2016)