End of the long road to get Ali's visit on film
Ross Whitaker’s film tells the story of one of the more unlikely chapters in Ali’s life
At a screening of When Ali Came To Ireland at the IFI shortly before Christmas, a lady of a certain age was picked out of the crowd and urged to tell her story. She took a bit of prompting but she gave in eventually and told how in 1972 she was working as a model.
A friend of hers in the industry called her up one evening that summer and told her she had a job lined up for the following day but was getting cold feet about it and would there be any chance she could go and fill in for her? No problem, came the reply. Except that the next day when she arrived at Croke Park, there very much was a problem.
“I turned up and they gave me this awful outfit to wear. It was horrible. And I said, ‘Thank you very much but I’m not wearing that. I’ll just wear my own clothes and it will be fine’.”
We get a couple of short glimpses of the clothes she wore in an excellent documentary that goes out at teatime on RTÉ One on New Year’s Day, for she was the girl who paraded the numbers of the upcoming rounds around the ring the day that Ali fought Al “Blue” Lewis.
Ross Whitaker’s film tells the story of one of the more unlikely chapters in Ali’s swirling kaleidoscope of a life, a yarn conceived in a London pub run by an Irish publicity merchant called Butty Sugrue who at the time was most famous as a loincloth-clad strongman. It’s chaotic, fantastical and wholly implausible from curtain-up to credits. Yet it happened.
“There’s something about the story,” says Whitaker. “A lot of people almost forget it even happened, that Ali came here at all. But the one thing I found over the years was that for anyone who had even a small connection to it, it has lived on with them all this time. That’s why we kept at it over the years. The actual making of it was quite short but getting the go-ahead for it took quite a number of years. There was always something in my mind that was saying: ‘This story is really quite a bit special. We really need to get this onto the screen.’”
The cast of characters is rich and deep even without Ali. Sugrue is a quintessentially Irish chancer, full of schemes and dreams of ways to turn a pound. One strand of the film detailing his pub’s attempt to set the world record for the number of days they could keep a man buried underground – and an arms race with a crowd of Yanks who were going for the record at the same time – is surely worth a movie in itself.
Lewis is an ex-con whose life sentence for murder was cut short to six years after he saved the life of his prison warden during a riot. Rock Brynner is the son of Yul, a worldly gadabout who showed Ali around Dublin having put down some years of high-minded lollygagging in Trinity College. Eddie Keher stars in the documentary, which also features some of the last interviews done by the late George Kimball and Cathal O’Shannon.