When “The Greatest” Came to Croker
Retired Garda Tony Ruane was on duty during some of Ireland’s most historic events, but as a middleweight boxing champion there was one that stood out. When Ali came to Dublin Ruane not only got to meet his hero but also got to watch the fight in Croke Park from the ringside. On that day Ali faced one of the biggest opponents of his career; not Al “Blue” Lewis but the common Irish head cold.
By Tony Ruane
On a warm balmy evening in July 1954 a young boy propped his bicycles against a lamp post whilst he visited a local bazaar ice-cream parlour to buy himself a favourite treat. He was celebrating the recent purchase of his first pedal bike, the cost of which he had earned by doing odd jobs.
The boy ordered his favourite vanilla flavour and the vendor piled and twirled the ice cream and built it to its highest peak. He liked this young, regular customer who was always entertaining and witty, so he dispensed an extra-large helping. As the 12-year-old boy left the shop, he bit off the end of the wafer cone and sucked the delicious whipped cream through the opening. This was the way he loved to partake of his treat.
On reaching the spot where he had parked his bicycle he was shocked and horrified to find that it was missing. The boy immediately panicked and threw his ice-cream cone over a wall as he began to cry out and shout to all and sundry that his precious bicycle had been stolen. A passer-by advised him to report the matter to the cops and told the boy that he had just seen a police patrolman enter the basement of a nearby building.
The boy ran down the steps to the basement door of the building and hammered on its door. A police officer in full uniform answered and after calming the boy down he took the particulars of the theft. This was Officer Joe Martin who had dropped in on his beat to the boxing club he ran to keep young fellows out of mischief. As the boy and the Police Officer conversed on the steps of the building, the scent of fresh sweat and liniment wafted through the open door. The tick-tack sounds of skipping ropes and speedball could be heard as the boxers went through their workout routine.
As the Policeman took particulars of the theft, he broadcast a message about the stolen bicycle and suspects on his WT radio to all mobiles in the neighbourhood. The waiting boy was in an angry mood. He clinched his fists and told the Policeman that he would “whup” those boys who had stolen his bicycle if he could lay hands on them. Joe Martin suggested to the boy that he should join the boxing club and learn to box, so that he would be able to “whup” the thieves who had attempted to steal his bicycle.
At the next training session Joe was pleasantly surprised when the young boy showed up for enrolment. His name was entered on the roll book as Cassius Marseilles Clay, Louisville Kentucky. Joe Martin attempted to teach Cassius the rudiments of boxing and the appropriate stance adopted by most boxers. He advised that the left foot should be put forward for orthodox stance and the right foot put forward for “southpaw”. The hands should be held high, he advised, to protect chin and head.
But Cassius was having none of it. “How can I see punches coming if I keep my hands before my eyes?” he challenged. The trainer decided to allow the boy to do his own thing and was astonished at the way he floated around the ring like an elusive butterfly with his hands dangling by his sides, stopping occasionally to unleash a flurry of punches which were usually bang on target.
Martin entered Clay for a local tournament. He weighed 87 pounds at the time and was a “natural from the word go” according to boxing correspondents of the time. He won all of his contests as he developed his unique style and his opponents usually wound up in the protective custody of the referee. He was undefeated as an amateur and as a “Golden Gloves” champion he was sent to Rome in 1960 to represent America in the light-heavyweight division at the Olympic Games. He is remembered from those games as the flamboyant American who wandered through the university campus in which the athletes were accommodated, reciting poetry about the manner in which he intended to dispatch his opponents. Garda Mick Reid, a light-middleweight representing Ireland at those games has many stories to tell about the colourful American with whom he shared accommodation in Rome. (Mick retired as a Det/Garda Chief Superintendent in SDU Harcourt Square, some years ago).
“The match was regarded as preposterous
by boxing correspondents of the time.”
“I am the greatest” was this individual’s catch-phrase but despite all his bragging, Cassius was taken to a split decision by a Pole named Petrokowski in the final for the gold. A three times European Champion and a KO specialist, Petrokowski was a hardened campaigner in his late twenties, whilst Cassius was a mere lad of 18 years of age. The Pole could not land any telling punches on the floating butterfly, which was Cassius Clay, but the judges were left split in the final verdict. So Cassius had suffered his first narrow shave.
On his return to the US Cassius parted company with Joe Martin who was by now promoted to Police Chief. He turned to the paid ranks where Angelo Dundee, a white American, became his trainer. His style, his predictions and his poetry brought a breath of fresh air to a stagnant heavyweight boxing scene. But it was not until Clay knocked out Archie Moore in round four of a contest in November 1962 that he was taken seriously as a contender for the heavyweight title. His style, his poetic predictions introduced a badly needed new image to a dull boxing scene, dominated by the very unpredictable Ingemar Johansson, the enigmatic Floyd Patterson and the very moody Sonny Liston, who was World Champion when Cassius Clay was given a shot at the title.
The match was regarded as preposterous by boxing correspondents of the time who rated Liston as “indestructible”. In one of boxing history’s greatest upsets, Cassius Clay stopped Sonny Liston in 1964, when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. In a return bout in 1965, Cassius floored and defeated the enormous Liston and it was alleged at the time that he (Liston) had “taken a dive” because he was totally confused by the speed of the young Cassius Clay. But Clay insisted that he had hit Liston with his “anchor punch” which was invisible to the human eye, due to its speed of travel.
In the following years Clay defended his title many times until eventually he fell foul of the US authorities and was indicted when he refused to be drafted into the US Army on religious grounds. America was actively involved in the Vietnam War at the time. Cassius Clay had by now changed his name legally to Muhammad Ali in acknowledgement of his own African and Muslim heritage.
Setting the Stage
In 1972, Thomas Myler, the boxing correspondent with the Evening Herald, reported that Muhammad Ali was coming to Dublin. “Muhammad Ali to box in Croke Park” the headline screamed. Some people disbelieved the report because Ali was a megastar at the time, even though he was not in fact the World Heavyweight Champion. He had lost his title to “Smokin’ Joe Frazier” about a year earlier. Thanks to a five-foot tall “strongman” from Co Kerry who spearheaded the promotion we had the honour of seeing this living boxing legend perform in Dublin on July 19th 1972.
This strong Kerryman named Sugrue left Killorglan as a youth to seek his fortune. He worked in many jobs and for a time he was employed as a Circus strongman. “Butty”, as he was affectionately known, once single-handedly pulled a double decker bus along Dublin’s O’Connell Street, as a fundraising venture for charity. In the bar trade at the time, he eventually graduated to owning his own Irish pub in London.
Ali, always in humorous form, never shied away from a photo opportunity.
Harold Conrad, a boxing promoter from New York, brought Muhammad Ali to London in 1971 to make a commercial film, ironically, promoting the sleeping draught, “Ovaltine”. Sugrue and Conrad met and a visit to “Butty’s Irish Bar” was arranged for Muhammad Ali. The place was thronged and Ali was at his witty best. It was here that the idea of the Dublin fixture was conceived. Ali liked the crowd in Sugrue’s bar and became quite enthusiastic about the prospect of boxing in Dublin.
Ali had been to London once before when he defended his title against Henry Cooper at Highbury Stadium in 1966. On that occasion, “our ‘enry” nailed him with a beautifully timed left hook which put him on his backside. Ali had been up to his usual clowning and talking to Henry in sarcastic tones. He thrust his chin forward and dangled his hands characteristically by his sides. Ali seemingly underestimated Henry Cooper’s sharp reflex action and punching power. The referee began the count and lucky for Ali, he was saved by the bell ending the round. Struggling onto his feet he stumbled aimlessly to his corner in a very groggy condition. His trainer and second, Angelo Dundee, was well aware that his fighter was in no condition to resume hostilities so with a small blade he slit Ali’s glove.
“Ali liked the crowd in Sugrue’s bar and became quite enthusiastic about the prospect of boxing in Dublin.”
When the “seconds out” call sounded, Dundee pushed his man back into the ring. The referee spotted the foam oozing from Ali’s glove and immediately shouted, “stop”! The champion was sent back to his corner to be fitted with a new glove. This delay allowed Ali some vital moments in which to recuperate. An end was put to the clowning as the now recovered Ali cut loose with some lethal flurries of punches to which Cooper had no answer. Very soon Henry’s eye tissue began to cut up, so the referee was left with no option but to stop the fight.
Ali in Croker
When Butty Sugrue secured the contract agreement for the fight in Croke Park, he approached a number of Irish sources for sponsorship but was unsuccessful. He eventually got the backing of an English company who choose to remain anonymous. Then an opponent of suitable calibre had to be found.
A heavyweight who was rated number seven on the list of contenders for the title was lined up as Muhammad Ali’s opponent. Alvin “Blue” Lewis was his name and he hailed from Detroit in the US. Alvin Blue had learned his boxing whilst serving a prison sentence for an assault conviction as a young man outside a nightclub when he was attacked by a gang of young men, several of whom ended up in intensive care. The conviction was regarded as unsafe at the time. But Alvin turned out to be a model prisoner while in detention. He took up boxing and on an occasion when a riot broke out, he sided with the prison staff, gaining several brownie points in the process. He was paroled, having served but a fraction of his sentence.
An original ticket stub from the fight (courtesy of ChampsPastandPresent.com)
This historic boxing event in Croke Park was arranged by Mickey Duff and there was a great buzz of excitement as the venue was prepared. A special gymnasium was set up to accommodate the boxers. The Gárda Síochána was involved in securing the venue and this writer was on duty there during that period.
I had the pleasure of meeting my idol on the occasion, and during the course of conversation I told him of my own amateur participation in the noble art of self-defence. I was active as a middleweight at the time and had been National Junior and Garda champion as well as European Police Middleweight Champion on a couple of occasions. He was very friendly and asked if I had a ticket for the fight. I said that I had not. Ali said that he would look after me and I thought no more of his promise until a day or two later when his brother Rahman Ali came to me with an envelope containing a ticket. Needless to say I was very pleased and grateful.
The fight in itself was a bit of an anti-climax. I noticed that when Ali was leaving the dressing room he was smothered with a head cold. I was astonished that such a supreme athlete could be victim to a common virus, just like an ordinary mortal, but it did not affect him in the ring. He seemed to toy with Al Blue for a number of rounds, and dumped him on the canvas with a beautiful right hand. The count seemed to last for a long time but Lewis got to his feet and the referee commanded them to box on.
The fight lasted until round 11 before the referee decided to call it a day and placing his arm about Al Blue’s shoulders, he led him to safety. His Limousine was waiting with engine running outside the dressing room and Al Blue was probably airborne before the crowd had filtered out of Croke Park.
Later in an edition of “The Ring” magazine, Bob Goodman interviewed Ali on the subject of his toughest fights. Surprisingly, Ali said that his fight with Al Blue Lewis in Dublin was very tough because he had been suffering from a viral infection and a high temperature on the occasion.
Despite making it look easy, Ali later admitted that his fight against Al “Blue” Lewis is Croke Park was one of the hardest of his career.
I share the same birth year with the great man. We are both “war babies” born in the first quarter of 1942. He was born in Louisville Kentucky and yours truly was born in Straide, Foxford, Co Mayo.
It saddened me to notice the way his health had deteriorated as a result of his affliction with Parkinson’s disease. Boxing injury is blamed for his condition but I would not personally agree with this view, because 99 per cent of the victims of Parkinson’s disease never had anything to do with pugilistic activity.
Tony Ruane makes headline along with Ali in 1967.
One of my most treasured pieces from my scrapbook reads, “Federal Jury Indicts Clay” and in the same column a smaller headline says: “European Police Middleweight Title for Tony Ruane”. I felt very lucky to be mentioned in the same newsprint as “The Greatest” in that year of 1967.
Ali had many more memorable contests in winning back his World Heavyweight Title and there was the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manilla” which are stories for another time and another space.
But I was there that July evening of 1972 in a ringside seat, and I for one will never forget the night that Muhammad Ali came to Croke Park for the first time.