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McGRATH: Muhammad Ali’s exploits helped 13-year-old navigate tough times

Sport Boxing Heavyweight Bout Croke Park Dublpic: 19th July 1972 Muhammad Ali stopped Al 'Blue' Lewis 11 rounds Muhammad Ali

Sport, Boxing, Heavyweight Bout at Croke Park, Dublin, pic: 19th July 1972, Muhammad Ali stopped Al "Blue" Lewis in 11 rounds, Muhammad Ali, left, having floored Al "Blue" Lewis in the 5th round, Lewis staying down for a count of eight (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:48AM

I don’t remember the name of the half-blind ex-fighter who sold us pencils to go with our scorecards outside Comiskey Park when I was a kid, but my father knew him. They were ordinary pencils, but Pops always slipped the guy a few bucks for them.

My father worked security at ballparks, racetracks and boxing venues to augment his modest policeman’s salary. He had a soft spot for the fighters, a guilty pleasure passed on to me.

I was all over the young Cassius Clay, his flash and dazzle a fun diversion in a grim, humorless game. My father voiced old-school disdain for Clay’s preening. He had been a Floyd Patterson guy, I think because Patterson had converted to Catholicism, and he put aside his career-cop’s antipathy for Sonny Liston to concede that the converted thug was scary good after his two fights against Patterson lasted two rounds total.

Clay? He’d be lucky to get out alive against Liston, my father insisted as their 1964 title fight approached. I hoped he was wrong, and it turned out he was, but I couldn’t lord it over him. He died of a brain hemorrhage at 51 two weeks before Clay shook up the world in Miami Beach. I was 13 and devastated.

The gloom began to fade some as I listened to Les Keiter’s radio call of Clay’s artful dismantling of the champion bully. Maybe this ‘‘miracle’’ was a sign that a family could survive this trauma.

Well, we did. It’s silly to credit Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, but a 13-year-old believes what he wants to believe. Ali was my guy, and neither his embrace of the Black Muslims nor his rejection of military service would change that, even as it cost him the prime of an epic career.

The Muslim dalliance was confusing because the incendiary rhetoric of Elijah Muhammad didn’t square with the playful showman’s image Ali delighted in projecting. Love him or hate him, he was impossible to ignore.

Ireland, the whitest country on Earth, adored him, as revealed with enchanting clarity in ‘‘When Ali Came to Ireland,’’ a documentary shown last week during the Chicago Irish Film Festival.

Ali’s boxing cred needed restoration after his humbling loss to Joe Frazier, and his bank balance needed replenishing after his lengthy exile from the ring. Hence, a non-threatening scrap against Alvin ‘‘Blue’’ Lewis, a journeyman who had been convicted of murder and paroled from a Michigan prison after saving the warden’s life in a race riot.

Ross Whitaker’s film sweetly recounts Ali’s 1972 visit to the Emerald Isle for the hastily improvised and charmingly flawed spectacle at Croke Park in Dublin.

Ali aside, the film’s unlikely star is promoter Michael ‘‘Butty’’ Sugrue, an impish rogue who had earned his fame performing elaborate feats of strength as a circus act and his fortune as the proprietor of a well-attended Dublin pub. Certain production details, such as security and accounting, didn’t occur to Butty. His only goal was to have the fight happen and prove he could pull it off, even if he lost his shirt.

Ticket sales? Dubliners knew how to evade Croke Park’s turnstiles, so why bother buying tickets?

Ancillary income? As receipts from program sales were being counted, a scammer made off
with them simply by showing up and saying Butty had sent him for the money.

Lewis was out on his feet in Round 5, but Ali played to the crowd by carrying him into the 11th. That’s when the imminent loss of a satellite hookup threatened an abrupt end to the telecast, so the referee staged a dramatic conclusion by grabbing the befuddled Lewis after Ali tapped him with a couple of light jabs.

Nobody minded. It had been a good show.

Ali’s daughter Jamillah watched the movie and loved it, clearly moved by the Irishers’ affection for her dad.

Whitaker, a talented young filmmaker, was all smiles as he explained how the movie came about. He relished telling the story and did a masterful job.

I was smiling myself, a matter
of good timing. Three days
earlier, we had buried my uncle Tod McGrath, my father’s
youngest brother. You handle
death differently as an adult,
but it’s painful to lose someone who’d helped fill an aching void in your life.

Real-life Ali is a sad reminder of the price he paid for giving his life to a blood sport. On-screen Ali was the same irresistible charmer who helped me through some rough times.

Thanks, Champ. I hope it was worth it.

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