by jdurney on January 8, 2011

The Greatest

James Durney

Anyone who ever frequented Mulvey’s pub in Naas will remember a poster that advertised the legendary fight in Croke Park which brought the greatest fighter in modern time to Ireland.

Muhammad Ali
Al “Blue” Lewis
The Big Fight
Croke Park, Dublin
July 19th 1972.
Gates Open 6 p.m.
Main Event 8.45 p.m.

Muhammad Ali arrived at Dublin Airport on 11 July to be met by a crowd of 600 fans and well-wishers and a multitude of the press and media. Ali and his entourage stayed at Opperman’s Country Club, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. It was the start of an extraordinary week for both him and the people he met. Ali was both charming and charmed by those who came to pay homage – among them Taoiseach Jack Lynch, civil rights campaigner Bernadette Devlin, Oscar-winning director John Huston, actor Peter O’Toole and an old lady who invited him into her house for a cup of tea. From the moment the world’s most charismatic athlete touched down at Dublin Airport and announced his maternal great-grandfather Abe Grady had emigrated from County Clare more than a century before, the country was in thrall and, of course – being Ali – he loved it.
Abe Grady emigrated from Ennis, Co. Clare to New Orleans in the 1860s. He settled in Kentucky where he married an emancipated slave whose name is not known. They had a son, John Lee Grady, born about 1887. He married an African-American, Birdie Moorehead, in 1914. They had a son, John, (b. 1915) and a daughter, Odessa Lee, born in 1917. Odessa Lee Grady grew up in Louisville where she subsequently met and fell in love with, and married a sign-painter, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. On 17 January 1942 Odessa Lee gave birth to a son. They named him Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr., but he was more popularly known as Muhammad Ali.
Deemed ‘the Greatest’ boxer of his time Muhammad Ali was very conscious of his role as a public figure. For participating in a photo shoot with Pat Quinn, proprietor of the Quinnsworth supermarket chain, Ali was paid £500. After consulting with his manager, Angelo Dundee, it was decided that his fee was to be donated to St. Raphael’s School for mentally handicapped children in Celbridge, County Kildare.
‘We were delighted with the contribution,’ said Bill Shorten, a manager in St. Raphael’s at that time. Speaking to Dave Hannigan, author of The Big Fight, he said: ‘We had just built the school and we were in the process of raising money to construct a swimming pool. Money was very scarce in those days and the state would only give you a grant if you raised a certain portion yourself through garden fêtes and whatever else you could muster. Myself and Mary Walsh, the secretary of the school’s “parents and friends” fund-raising committee, went out to Opperman’s to meet Ali and have our photograph taken with him and Pat Quinn. He was exceptionally nice to us, his eyes almost spoke to you they were so impish and warm and friendly. He put us at our ease instantly, but at the same time he was always bouncing on his toes as he spoke. You felt like you were in the ring with him the way he kept bouncing on his toes. You have to understand that was a very substantial donation for us at that time. To give you an idea of how much money that was, I remember hiring a teacher in the school two years later on at a wage of £18 per week.’ Quinnsworth got an excellent return from their part in the deal, too. Under the slogan ‘We are the Champions’, they ran a newspaper campaign advertising select product prices. Beneath the picture of Quinn and Ali were both men’s autographs and the following uninspired manifesto:

‘Like Muhammad Ali, Quinnsworth are the Champions! Our stores are the prettiest, our value undefeated. Our managers are real pros in the price-fight game. You meet lots of contenders for the title of Supermarket Champions but we whup ‘em every time! Conceited? No, we’re not conceited … we’re convinced!’

Quinnsworth distributed free photographs of Ali and Quinn at their checkouts until stocks ran out. Mace supermarkets ran a counter price-busting campaign and an entry in the Leinster Leader of 29 July stated: ‘Now who is the Greatest.’ On 19 July 1972 it took Muhammad Ali eleven rounds to defeat Al ‘Blue’ Lewis at the ‘Collision in Croke Park.’ The official attendance was 18,725. While the fight put Ireland on the boxing map it was a financial disaster. Ali also recorded a promotional video for Bord Failte. He said: ‘… Irish people are crazy about all kinds of sports. That’s why I’m the greatest also here in Ireland.’ Speaking of his first time in Ireland Al ‘Blue’ Lewis said: ‘I do love Ireland … they treated me like I was somebody over there.’ In 1996 Al ‘Blue’ Lewis returned to Dublin as a trainer with his welterweight Corey Johnson on the undercard of the Wayne-McCullough-Jose Luis Bueno fight at the Point Theatre.

When the greatest fighter in modern time came to Ireland in 1972 he donated £500 from a photo shoot to St. Raphael’s in Celbridge.

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