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.
But through it all, Ali is the planet and everyone else is a satellite. In 1972, he was 30 and was just over 12 months removed from the first Frazier fight, which he’d lost. Sugrue put up £300,000 and got him to Ireland through Harold Conrad, a sportswriter-turned-svengali straight out of the pages of Damon Runyon. But although Ali owned just about the most famous face on the planet and despite the fact that the ringside seats were filled with the likes of Peter O’Toole and Ronald Reagan, tickets for the fight proved a desperately tough sell.
Most famous man
“It was before people had actually come to the conclusion of what they thought about him,” says Whitaker. “They were still actually unsure about him. But he was still the most famous man in the world and physically, he was very close to his prime as a boxer. He wasn’t in top physical shape for the actual fight because he had a cold but this wasn’t him coming back for one last payday or anything. It was actually a great opportunity for Irish people to come and see him.
“But one of the things that came up a few times in the documentary was that Irish people didn’t necessarily feel like they were dying to come and see him fight. Irish people are funny – there was definitely an attitude of, ‘Well, sure we’ve seen him on the TV talking to Cathal O’Shannon, we’ve seen him out at his hotel where anybody more or less could walk up to the door and say hello – why would we need to go and pay money to see him fight?’”
For Whitaker, When Ali Came To Ireland is the end of a long road, his third documentary to use boxing as the main strand after previous productions Saviours (2007) and Big Time (2008). “I think one thing I found doing this is that when you have a fascination with somebody, you kind of set in stone what you think of them. But the irony when it comes to Ali is that he wasn’t like that. He was obviously a very flexible man whose views could evolve.
“It’s very easy for us as Irish people to always think that we’re significant and that we’ve had this great effect on anyone who comes to visit us but it does seem that there was some small impact on Ali as a result of his trip here in 1972. He was surrounded by white people and was showered in love and admiration and it does seem to have softened his stance on white people at least a little bit. I was very taken with that thing he had, that ability to change.”
* When Ali Came To Ireland, New Year’s Day, RTÉ 1, 6.30pm