In his classic book "Loser and Still Champion", Budd Schulberg opens the chapter concerning the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier bout at Madison Square Garden with quotes from both combatants, from match referee Arthur Mercante, and from the then MP for Mid-Ulster, Bernadette Devlin.
Among a crowd of ringside celebrities that included Gene Kelly, Salvador Dali, Diana Ross, Burt Bacharach and Ed Sullivan, Schulberg felt the sight of the Irish woman chanting "Ali! Ali! Ali!" was especially noteworthy. Unfortunately for Devlin, not everybody regarded her presence at the fight of the century as appropriate behaviour for a civil rights activist.
"I remember being castigated by the revolutionaries for going to the fight in New York," she said years later. "They felt my presence at the event gave it a credibility it did not deserve. They considered that I should have been on more serious business, and not participating in these lower-class type things. I was in the city on political business but Jimmy Breslin, the newspaper columnist, he had got two tickets for me and the woman I was travelling with.
“We weren’t going to pass them up, two tickets, good seats in the house to watch Ali fight. Of course, we got hammered by the political activists for choosing to be there as opposed to being at some serious political work. That whole experience got my head around the whole notion that thou shalt not laugh until the revolution is over!”
Next Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the bout that brought the entire planet shuddering to a halt and redefined the modern sports event, time enough then to consider the Irish contribution to that seismic New York evening.
Way down on the undercard, "Irish" John Clohessy (the prefix equal parts marketing ploy and nod to his forefathers) took time out from his day job with the New York Department of Sanitation to be decisioned by Paul Simonetti, a heavyweight out of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
On the undercard
If most of the celebs were still stepping from their limos on Seventh Avenue while "the fighting garbage man" from the Bronx was losing, the seats were nearly full by the time Danny McAlinden climbed through the ropes. Born in Newry in 1947, he moved to Coventry a week shy of his 15th birthday and carved out a fistic career as "Dangerous Dan". With a pro ledger of 14 wins, one loss and two draws, but no fights outside England, there was a sense he had been brought across the Atlantic to lose to Ali's younger brother Rahman, then boasting a pristine record of seven wins.
Nobody showed McAlinden the script, and the future British champion staggered his opponent more than once on the way to a unanimous decision. Ali watched the action unfold from a back corridor and then strolled to his dressing-room to prepare for his own appointment with history.
"Danny McAlinden was just a better boxer than I was at the time," wrote Rahman Ali. "He handed me my first defeat as a professional. Although he was not able to knock me down, he won the fight fair and square. He was able to land more punches on me than I was able to land on him. It was a tough experience to go through and it was a setback to my boxing career."
'It was fascinating to be at Madison Square Garden, just to experience the whole aura of the place'
McAlinden’s victory earned him just a few lines in the next day’s papers, and a potentially lucrative fight with the older Ali, as he scratched around for opponents while waiting for Frazier to give him a rematch, was seriously mooted but never happened.
As Devlin sat in the Garden that night, millions of Americans were watching her be interviewed on a previously recorded episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” on ABC. That high-profile television appearance was the culmination of a month-long tour of the country in which she’d spoken at 38 universities and shattered lazy American preconceptions about the auld sod.
Befitting a woman who once received the key to New York City from Mayor John Lindsay then arranged for Eamon McCann to hand it over to the Black Panthers, she denounced racism among Irish-Americans, slammed the Vietnam War, protested US president Richard Nixon, railed against capitalism and extolled socialism. In California, she visited Angela Davis, the Communist Party member, philosophy professor and radical icon, then awaiting trial in prison for supplying guns used to shoot at police.
With American newspapers dubbing Devlin "The Celtic Rosa Luxembourg", "the mini-skirted Castro" and "the Irish Joan of Arc", she was only ever going to be in one corner during Ali-Frazier. It was no surprise either that 16 months later in Dublin, Ali invited her and Michael McAliskey, her future husband, to lunch with him hours before he fought Al "Blue" Lewis at Croke Park, and then described her as "one of the world's great ladies".
“It was fascinating to be at Madison Square Garden, just to experience the whole aura of the place,” she said. “It was amazing to see these two poor craturs, two black people fighting even while people around the ring, racists in that place still managed to be racist, hated them for the colour of their skin. Their anger, their prejudice was so totally against Ali. These things stuck out for me. That fight was heartbreaking. I just kept hoping he’d pull it out. You knew he wouldn’t but still, you kept hoping. It was a dynamite night.”
That it was.