In a room at the back of Dr Stuart Kirschenbaum’s clinic on Detroit’s Grand Boulevard, Al ‘Blue’ Lewis folded his immense heavyweight boxer’s frame into a chair, unzipped his anorak, and spoke in a voice so soft it barely registered on the tape recorder.
It was a brisk Monday morning in December, 2001 but within minutes he was suddenly transported back to his first, balmy evening in Dublin in July, 1972. Smiling, he recalled standing by the window of his room at the Ormonde Hotel wondering just how long it took for night to fall in high summer in this strange land.
“I was out in the country and saw these cows, they were some big old cows the size of horses man,” he said. “I saw them and I says to myself, ‘those are big old cows!’ I walked across to check whether it was even a cow, but it was, eating the grass and all. This big tall cow with big titties on it and everything. Ireland was very different from old Detroit.”
Lewis passed away last month at the age of 75, having suffered from Alzheimer’s in recent years. There was no great public fanfare, precious few column inches are ever afforded the death of an old, long forgotten fighter. Yet, revisiting his impressive 31 and 5 record offers a reminder that he was always more than a journeyman and, in any other era except the uber-competitive late 1960s and early 1970s, he might even have been a genuine contender.
As it turned out, a late start and lack of connections meant his calling card was to be the fact he was the other man in the ring the night Muhammad Ali danced in Croke Park. There are worse fates in boxing than being an entry on the most storied fistic CV of all, and in a career that never yielded a title shot, headlining Butty Sugrue's shambolic promotion brought a week on centre stage after a lifetime scrapping on the fringe.
“For a long time I was ashamed of that fight,” he said of an underwhelming contest that ended in defeat in the 11th round.
“People would say to me, ‘you did well’. But to me, I didn’t. Now I look at it and can relate to it better. I lost but I didn’t look like no punk in losing. I can understand where I came from and how I got to be in a ring with Ali. I appreciate that journey.”
His road to Dublin had been truly epic. Growing up in Detroit's unforgiving east side neighbourhood of Black Bottom, in a family of 15 kids, there were only three legit escape routes from the Brewster Projects; basketball (the Harlem Globetrotters), boxing (Joe Louis trained there) and music (Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson). There was one other potentially lucrative avenue and that was the option Lewis took when he began running some of the meanest streets in America.
One mugging went badly wrong, the victim died in hospital and, for his part in the attack, Lewis was sentenced to 20-35 years. At age 17. In Jackson State Prison, he sprung from 5ft 10in to 6ft4in, bulked up to a rippling 220lbs and started sparring. When he won the prison's coveted boxing championship for the fifth year in a row, Steve Eisner, a local promoter, came to watch him fight, handed him his card and said if, by some miracle, he ever got out of jail he could turn pro.
Seven years later – having earned early release for saving a warden’s life during a prison riot – the pair of them walked across the field to climb through the ropes to face Ali at Croker.
Lewis departed Dublin with an enhanced reputation, seven pint bottles of Guinness clinking in his suitcase, and his purse, $35,000 in cash, concealed in a secret pouch inside his shirt. With the money, he bought his mother a house and kitted it out with furniture. No member of the family had ever owned a home before.
In a wonderful eulogy, Dr Kirschenbaum quoted Ali's description of the incredible pain he felt when Lewis hit him in the ribs when sparring before his comeback fight against Jerry Quarry and also told the story of his own decades-long friendship with the man he called only "Blue".
Their relationship began at Detroit’s old Olympia Theatre. When a trainer took offence at how Kirschenbaum (a future Michigan State boxing commissioner) had scored a fight involving one of his boxers, Lewis intervened on his behalf, fighting off an attacker who was wielding a knife.
Four decades after that tumultuous introduction, his old pal cautioned mourners that Lewis’s life was, of course, much more than just a mere footnote in the Ali story.
A devoted father, he worked in a hospital laundry for a time, trained a couple of decent prospects out of Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s, and, after the horribly misspent youth, ended up meeting his wife Patricia when they sang together in the choir at St James’ Baptist Church.
“Everybody looked at me very strange in Dublin,” said Lewis. “But they treated me very well. Very well. Whatever I asked for, it was given to me. I was real important that week. Some of them were treating me like I was the champ. They treated me like I was somebody over there.”
He was, indeed, somebody.