Muhammad Ali will be in Ireland to re-discover his Irish roots this week. The “Greatest” is due in Ennis on Tuesday to visit the ancestral home of his great grandfather Abe Grady, and to accept the award of Freeman — the first in the town’s history.
Abe Grady left his Turnpike Road home in Ennis in the early 1860s, setting sail for the USA from Cappa Harbour in Kilrush – one of the hundreds of thousands fleeing a country devastated by the aftershocks of the Great Famine and London’s totally inadequate response to the greatest natural disaster to befall Europe in the 19th century.
Grady eventually settled in Kentucky and married a “freed” coloured woman, whose name is still unknown. One of the daughters of that union, Odessa Grady Clay, is Ali’s mother.
Ali originally fought as Cassius Clay, winning a gold medal at light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome under that name. Contrary to erroneous claims, he didn’t throw that medal into the Ohio river in disgust at being refused service in a Louisville restaurant because he was black. He lost it in Miami years later.
Clay, who stopped Alvin Lewis in the 11th round at Croke Park in 1972, changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after becoming involved with the controversial Nation of Islam, under the then rabidly anti-Semitic Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, a man who maintained a controlling influence over the fighter’s affairs until he died in 1975.
The Nation of Islam, of which Ali was an enthusiastic member, and the Ku Kluk Klan, shared one common racist thread — they both believed that whites and blacks should be segregated.
Ali was just a pale shadow of himself at the University of Illinois in Chicago in November 2007. He arrived in the room trailing clouds of past glories, epic tales of battles lost and won both inside and outside the ring.
These days Parkinson’s disease and old age have ravaged the once lightning reflexes and he no longer floats like a butterfly nor stings like a bee but the champ can still charm them like Rudolf Valentino. Just five minutes into his visit to the University – he’s there as a guest of the AIBA ahead of the 2007 World Senior Championships and Olympic qualifiers – he has the assembled crowd in the palm of his hand.
“I’m so fast that when I hit the light switch on my bedroom wall I’m in bed and under the covers before the light is off,” he insists.
Everyone has heard this line before, secondhand. But they’ve never heard it from Ali, that’s the difference. The room is in uproar. Warming to his task he then wants to know who the heavyweight champion is and proceeds to call him out, predicting that he’ll go down in six, maybe five, he adds, “cause I’m in a mean mood.”
Below in the vast auditorium the word is beginning to spread that Ali is in the building. Hundreds of young boxers, there to represent their countries at the Championships, which are also acting as a qualifier for the Beijing Olympics, have gathered and are looking up at the balcony in anticipation.
Ali appears and the place erupts. The 1960 Olympic light heavyweight grabs the microphone and booms: “Ali !”
And hundreds of voices shout back in unison. “Bombaye”. This goes on for about three minutes and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Memories of the Rumble in the Jungle when the Zaireans come out in their tens of thousands to lend their support to Ali with chants of, “Ali Bombaye”. Bombaye, incidentally, means “kill him”, the him in question being George Foreman, Ali’s opponent in the famous Rumble in the Jungle in 1974.
Foreman had made a massive PR mistake on his first visit to the country after he allowed himself to be pictured walking around with a German Shepherd on a leash The Belgians, former colonists of the country which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, used German Shepherds as part of their security apparatus during their tenure.
Ali, the challenger, used the “rope and dope” tactics during that bout, lying on the ropes, popping up with the occasional jab, but mostly shipping heavy ordnance from Foreman, who was defending his WBA and WBC belts.
The fight also had a political significance as the USA, bitterly divided between conservatives and liberals over the Vietnam war, were still at loggerheads. Mississippi was still smouldering as America inched its way towards reconciling itself with its constitutional imperative that all men are created equal.
“Is that all you got George? My mum can punch harder than that, come on man put some effort into it,” was just some of the advice Ali gave Foreman as the leather was flying in Kinshasa. Eventually Forman punched himself out and Ali sprang from the ropes and knocked him out in the sixth round, reclaiming his World title in the process.
According to the liberal press, King Arthur had returned to reclaim Camelot, Foreman being unfortunately cast in the role of Mordred. One hour after the scheduled 15 rounder ended the clouds burst as the monsoon season began in earnest. Of course Ali insisted that he had spoken to the weather Gods before the fight and they’d agreed to hold off the rain until after he’d taken care of business.
The handful of journalists, used to Ali’s outrageous claims before, during and after bouts, were strangely muted. Given the miracle they had just witnessed in the ring they were probably thinking there was an element of truth to his claim.
Ali lost his last fight in the Bahamas in 1981 on a unanimous decision to woefully inept Trevor Berwick, a man who puched so light you wouldn’t be guaranteed to hear him if he was knocking at your front door, a man whom Ali would have destroyed in his prime.
The fool who promoted that match neglected to provide a proper ringside bell and had to borrow a cowbell from a local farmer. The greatest career in the history of sport ending on the incongruous sound of a cow bell. Hugh McIlvanney wrote that it was like watching a King ride into exile on the back of a garbage truck.
Ali will arrive at Shannon airport at 2.30pm on Tuesday. He will then travel to Ennis Town Council’s HQ for the civic reception where he will be made an honorary freeman of Ennis.
His dismissive attitude toward Joe Frazier, with whom he was involved in an epic trilogy, Ali winning two and Frazier one at Madison Square Garden, was a disgraceful chapter in the three times world heavyweight champion’s career. Smokin’ Joe was a fighter, a gladiator. Sure, he lacked Ali’s skills, but he made up for that deficit with sheer raw courage and a refusal to accept defeat. But Ali, who received hand outs from Frazier when he was banned from boxing, – the Nation Of Islam were conspicuous by their absence around that time but they were back on the scene like a shot when Ali got his licence back – called his great rival an “Uncle Tom” and mocked his slurred speech. Ali said later that he regretted his words and praised Frazier for being a great champion, but the damage to Ali’s reputation was done.
Was Ali, who won his first fight as an amateur on a split decision over an Irish/American kid called Ronnie O’Keefe the greatest? I reckon that Sugar Ray Robinson was the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time. However, it could be argued that Ali was denied the opportunity to box in his prime because he refused to go to Vietnam, a decision that saw his licence to fight revoked for three years in 1967. By the time he returned to the ring, he was past his best. His speed had diminished and the world never got to see the great Muhammad Ali fighting at the height of his powers.