“When you call somebody up to talk about their experience with Ali, whether fleeting or long-standing, you are asking them to revisit one of the genuinely epic moments from their own life”
For nearly 20 years, Dave Hannigan has been Ireland’s sportswriter in residence in the United States. First with the Sunday Tribune through to his ongoing America at Large column in the Irish Times, Hannigan’s articles are a must read for Irish sports fans (unless you’re a UFC or Conor McGregor fan in which case you probably won’t like him!)
Written in 2002, The Big Fight, chronicles a week that Muhammad Ali spent in Dublin and his fight with fight Al “Blue” Lewis in Croke Park in July 1972. Hannigan tells the story of Ali in Ireland through the experiences of those who saw, met and interacted with him in Dublin.
At the time, Ali was on the comeback trail following his first fight, and loss, to Joe Frazier. Given his long lay off while he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, it was unclear whether Ali would ever be the same fighter he once was. He was still just 30 years of age however and it would turn out that his biggest days remained ahead of him. He was, and would remain for a long time, the single biggest and best known figure in world sport.
The Big Fight captures the magic and charisma of Ali while also capturing some of the magic and uniqueness of Ireland. It is hard to imagine any figure capturing quite the same attention and affection that Ali did – perhaps only the reception achieved by another famous African-American with distant Irish heritage, Barack Obama, compares.
Some of the anecdotes are quintessentially Irish – thousands jumping the wall at the stadium to get into the fight free, old ladies inviting Ali in for cups of tea and the sheer excitement of any global celebrity being in little ole Dublin. Ali took great delight in being invited to meet the Taoiseach, noting that Western countries usually didn’t invite him to meet the Prime Minister.
This book is a joyous, uplifting and entertaining read. It is full of fun and brilliant anecdotes that capture the people, the time and the place. It’s surreal to imagine the most famous black man in the world walking through Dublin at a time when any scale of immigration was in the very distant future. Hannigan captures a clear sense of a particular time in Dublin with the Troubles never far from anyone’s mind.
Those who spoke to Hannigan clearly cherished the memories of their interactions with Ali. In particular, the book will make you want to seek out Paddy Monaghan’s own book – a London-born Irishman adopted into Ali’s entourage like so many other strays. Hannigan also tells the fascinating stories of the promoters, Harold Conrod and Butty Sugrue, and Ali’s opponent in the fight, the reformed Al “Blue” Lewis whose own life story is fascinating.
There are some interesting thoughts on what impact Ireland may have had on Ali – did the love of an almost entirely white country help Ali to see that not all whites were “devils”? Ali was clearly interested in the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the idea of the Irish as an oppressed people. It couldn’t have hurt at least!
Hannigan recounts an interview Ali did on RTE One which captures Ali’s worldview at his time. The entire interview is well worth checking out and can be viewed in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QWvBBMtRak
Over a decade later, Hannigan would revisit another Ali fight – his final fight – in Drama in the Bahamas (2016). This later book is a grimmer, less joyful, tale that captures a fighter unable to say goodbye to the fame and adulation – that fame and adulation that is captured so well in The Big Fight which makes them an interesting pair of excellent books to read together.