How a larger-than-life Kerry exile helped Muhammad Ali fight in Dublin

London publican Butty Sugrue, once dubbed ‘Ireland’s strongest man’, was force of nature

On April 4th, 1972, Harold Conrad arrived in London from New York. Booking into his hotel, he was handed three urgent messages to contact a man he had never met. Some guy by the name of Butty Sugrue sounded real anxious to get in touch.

Curiosity pricked, he picked up the phone and rang the local number attached. Next thing he heard was a thick Irish accent launching into a convoluted tale about how he'd once spent some time with the great Joe Louis and was now in a position to make Conrad a very rich man.

Always intrigued by that possibility, the Brooklyn native took a cab to Shepherd's Bush where 48-year-old Sugrue and his wife, Joan, ran The Wellington, a sprawling Irish bar. After the introductions, the barrel-chested Sugrue cut to the chase.

"Could you get Muhammad Ali for a fight in Dublin?'

He got this sort of thing all the time. Every city he passed through, some dreamer or schemer fancied bringing the greatest show in sport to town. Conrad could wangle that. After all, he was the tall, moustachioed figure who organised the photo shoot between a young Cassius Clay and the Beatles in Miami.

And nobody worked harder to get the champ back in the ring during the wilderness years after Ali lost his licence for refusing induction into the US Army.

Way more than a mere publicist or promoter, Conrad was a player. He made his bones working public relations in the casinos, moving easily in the demimonde of legendary 40s gangland figures like Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Bugsy Siegel.

He wrote a dime novel called The Battle at Apache Pass which sold over a million copies, walked the streets of Manhattan with Damon Runyon, and hung out in Havana with Ernest Hemingway during the revolution. A character based on him was played by Humphrey Bogart in his good pal Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall.

None of that could quite have prepared him for sitting across the table from a fast-talking Kerry exile variously described as a force of nature, a pocket battleship, and, during his stint with Duffy's Circus, Ireland's Strongest Man. That's how they billed him on the posters. Most evenings, he entered the Big Top to the sound of his colleague Michael Doyle fingering the accordion, the audience gasping the instant they realised the musician was perched atop a chair which Sugrue held between his teeth while walking along.

Sure, Conrad might have been able to brag about tooling around Naples with Lucky Luciano after the US government deported the mobster or arranging the famous literary summit between the poetess Marianne Moore and Ali, but Sugrue had boasts of his own too.

The strongest publican in captivity, as he sometimes styled himself, once wrestled a mountain goat and Jack Doyle (a friend who he financially supported) at Puck Fair in his native Killorglin, hauled a double-decker bus across O'Connell Bridge with his ever-resilient gnashers, and appeared on the same bill as David Bowie at the Royal Albert Hall.

In common

By comparison with Conrad’s New York sophisticate persona, the 5ft 6in Sugrue was rural, uneducated, a classic graduate of the university of life whose only real tool was an uncanny ability to wring a few quid from the least promising circumstance.

Yet the pair had much in common too, each adept at turning any situation to their advantage, capable of seeing and seizing an opportunity before others even recognised the chance was there. And when it came to knowing how to generate headlines, well, they both definitely knew a thing or two about that.

For all his background in strength-based gimmickry and far-fetched promotions (burying a barman alive in a coffin for 61 days!), Sugrue was much more shrewd businessman than country bumpkin and carnival barker. Even though it sometimes suited him to pretend differently.

He had obviously done his due diligence, discovered Conrad was coming to London and knew he was somebody who could actually deliver Ali to Ireland. During their initial chat in the pub, his visitor spun him a standard line about anything being possible once the money was right, and the Kerryman, in innocence or mischief, stuck out his hand.

“We got a deal, let’s shake.”

Not so fast. Tired of wasting time on chancers with neither the will nor the wealth to finance an Ali fight, Conrad told him there’d be no handshake until he could prove he had the cash. Sugrue didn’t blink.

“No problem at all, not at all. How much will it take?”

“Three hundred thousand dollars,” replied Conrad, knowing full well Ali was averaging in the region of $250,000 a fight just then.

“That’s nothing at all,” Sugrue said. “Come with me.”

They walked to a nearby branch of the Williams & Glyn Bank where, according to Conrad's recollection of events, the following dialogue took place inside the office of a Mr Moriarty.

“Would you tell this man I’m good for $300,000,” asked Sugrue of the bank official.

“Yes, Butty Sugrue is good for $300,000,” replied Moriarty. “This bank stands behind him.”

Within three days, it was announced that Ali would fight in Ireland in July. The moment most Irish journalists saw Sugrue was involved they dismissed the idea as ludicrous. Fourteen weeks later, he climbed through the ropes in Croke Park and Dublin earned its footnote on the most famous resume in sport.

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