Muhammad Ali arrived in Dublin on 11 July 1972, eight days before his fight with Al Lewis in Croke Park.
Ever the showman,he gave the people the performances they wanted and expected inside and outside of the ring, but there were also some unusual moments in his stay. A wonderful interview from Cathal O’Shannon allowed Ali to share his own political poetry, and a few eyebrows were raised when a visiting sports journalist made the point that “it will make a big impact on world news when people look at their papers and see Muhammad Ali walking about Dublin in perfect safety. A lot of people who don’t know much about Ireland think you get shot on the streets down here. This will show them that that’s not the way it is.”
The (paying) attendance at Croke Park, for the organisers of the fight, was more than a little disappointing. Expensive tickets kept the masses away, with The Irish Times writing that the organisers needed “a live audience of 32,000 to break even…the promoters had to settle for a figure in the region of 17,000, a biting indictment of the apathy of the Irish sporting public in the matter of international sport.” Whatever about apathy, there was ingenuity in how some managed to see the fight. In Dave Hannigan’s history of the fight, an account from one of Ali’s entourage suggests the crowd did improve in the minutes before the fight began:
Then they played the Irish anthem and everybody was standing to attention and halfway through that song, I swear to you, it was like the scene in a western movie when the Indians appear over the horizon. Thousands of Irishmen came in over the walls and fences and nobody made a move to stop them. It seemed to happen on cue; sing the Irish anthem and everyone gets in free. Wherever the holes were, they found them, so the place filled up a bit. It seemed as though far more people came in free than paid.
Ali Mania extended into the suburbs of West Dublin, with a visit to Steward’s Hospital in Palmerstown. A hospital for those with special needs, it was hosting its annual sporting fete on 15 July 1972. Steve Brennan of the Sunday Independent accompanied Ali, writing that:
When he arrived at the hospital he was immediately swamped by a back-slapping crowd of people. Ali mania had struck. He was surrounded everywhere he went. It seemed that what Angelo Dundee said about Ali loving people was true. Because even though the big man must have been almost crushed by the crowd, he still kept a cheerful smile. Speaking to the crowd, Ali said he had never had such a welcome anywhere else in the world. I could well believe it. He was shouting from a platform out over the crowd, “I am gonna lick that ugly Frazier.”
The crowd pushed in, climbing over the platform from all angles. At one stage, it looked as though the stage would collapse, but the stewards managed to get things in hand. Throughout the day, Ali was the showman, the champ and truly The Greatest.
Following the Croke Park fight, the media proclaimed a “financial flop”, unfortunate for Steward’s Hospital and other special needs facilities who were to benefit from profits made. While Ali, Lewis and the GAA were paid their cuts in advance, even the bookers lost out. Still, showman and events promoter Butty Sugrue would insist that “getting him over to Dublin for the fight is the crowning achievement of my life. Of course, there were lots of other stunts, but this is the biggest of all.” For some Dubliners, shaking the hand of Muhammad Ali at a West Dublin sports day would provide the prized memories of that week in July, and not an undersold Croke Park.