When Ali Came to Ireland

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How it’s New York: Boxing is a big sport in NYC, and Mohammad Ali boxed at Madison Square Garden in 1971 for the “Fight of the Century.”.Muhammad Ali
How it’s Irish: The film depicts Ali’s 1972 visit to Ireland.

Mohammad Ali, whose great grandfather came from Ennis in western Ireland, visited Ireland in July 1972 for a boxing match against a journeyman fighter from Detroit named Alvin Lewis.

That weeklong stay in Dublin by Ali, whose worldwide fame at the time was perhaps unmatched, is the subject of a 50-minute documentary shown this past weekend as part of the Irish Film New York festival at the Cantor Film Center of New York University.

The trip was orchestrated by Michael “Butty” Sugrue, a small-time promoter and bar owner always hungry for publicity for his establishment. His previous claim to fame was as a circus strongman and is seen in the film performing such stunts as using his teeth to lift a chair on which a woman is seated.

Ali had his own reasons for agreeing to the trip. Following a three-year suspension for refusing to serve in the military, a not-quite-fit Ali lost in his comeback bid to Joe Frazier in March 1971. Following that, he and his manager hit upon the idea of a worldwide barnstorming tour to get him back to prime shape while also earning money.

Ali is seen arriving in Dublin to jubilant crowds and fevered press coverage. Ireland at the time, according to the film, was an unlikely stop off point for stars of the prizefighter’s caliber. Ali, a renowned showman, announced

“I am Irish”

and that he had heard Ireland was green and that

“I like everything green.”

Ticket sales for the fight were slow and so Ali made himself available to the press to stir up interest. His interview on the television channel RTE is a highlight of the film as Ali explains that his reasons for regularly proclaiming himself the greatest – and the prettiest – and such. In America, he explains, the black man is required to act humble, to keep his head down. He rejected that, he says, to provoke a backlash that would draw attention – and earnings – to his fights.

A sad contrast is the footage at the end of the documentary of an obviously ailing Ali, who for years now has suffered from Parkinson’s brought on by the battering he took in the ring, making a return visit to Ireland in 2009, when he visited Ennis.

The filmmakers tell the story of Ali’s visit efficiently, and nicely convey the excitement of his visit. Evidently, though, there was not enough footage from that weeklong stay. The result is that the star attraction of the documentary is offscreen for stretches as viewers are treated to a little more than they might want of the backgrounds of Butty Sugrue and Alvin Lewis. Another problem is that the various talking heads are introduced once but not again, making it difficult to know who we are watching.

But the charm and charisma of Mohammed Ali is very much on display, making it easy to understand why 40 years after his trip to Ireland someone would want to make a documentary of his stay – and why we would want to see it.

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts
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