Spine-tingling night when Brian Magee met Muhammad Ali

Brian Magee meets Muhammad Ali after boxing in the Muhammad Ali Cup in Louisville, Kentucky in 1996
Andy Watters

BRIAN MAGEE and Damaen Kelly stood with athletes from across the globe when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Before, there had been noise and giddy uproar in the stadium but when the former heavyweight champion, who passed away last weekend, emerged, there was stunned silence. Magee knew he was in the presence of greatness, of the Greatest.

“I remember it so vividly,” recalled Magee, who fought for Ireland in the Atlanta Games.

“Me and Damaen were on the field and Evander Holyfield ran up and handed him the torch and he lit the flame. It was amazing, it was spine-tingling. Because we were fighters as well, it meant so much to us to see that. I’ll never forget it.”

And it got even better. Magee got to meet Ali a few weeks later after he was selected to box in the Muhammad Ali Cup in the legend’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky.

“After the Olympics, they invited some of the top boxers in the world to have a box-off,” he said.

“I fought Jeff Lacey in the final, so it was a brilliant week for me. Ali was at the fights every single day, constantly meeting people all day long. It was unreal to watch, he was the most famous person in the world and, every single day, there was a queue to him sitting on a seat at ringside. All day long, it was constantly coming and he was signing autographs and getting photographs and this was a man whose health wasn’t the best. To get to meet him and shake his hand…

“They picked a few fighters to go and meet him and I was one of the lucky ones. He was telling jokes and he did a few magic tricks. He mentioned that he’d been to Ireland and I didn’t know that at the time. Everybody wanted his time, so to get in there and to meet him and shake his hand was fantastic.”

Ali had been battling Parkinson’s disease for 12 years by the time Magee met him in Louisville. But the three-time heavyweight world champion still had the presence and charisma that allowed him to transcend sport throughout his life.

“When he tried to stand still, he shook a lot and, when he shook your hand, it was very noticeable,” said former WBA World super middleweight champion Magee.

“But he was still a big man, a very handsome man and there was a presence about him, an aura about him when he entered the room. When you met him, you didn’t think ‘Ah, poor man’ or anything, you just went ‘wow’ because he just carried on normally shaking everybody’s hand and talking to everybody.

“He is probably the only famous person that never let me down - sometimes when you meet people, you think ‘he’s not what I thought he’d be’, but he was a bit more. You just walked away thinking ‘wow, he must have been some guy in his day’.”

Of course, Ali’s legacy amounts to much more than iconic fights like ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman or ‘The Thrilla in Manilla’ against long-term adversary Joe Frazier in a golden era for heavyweight boxing.

“When I was a kid, I just knew him for his boxing - the Ali shuffle and his showboating in fights,” said Magee.

“As I got older, I learned more about him; how he took a stand for everything and what he did. He was a great man and way ahead of his time. There’s no doubt in my mind that boxing wouldn’t be what it is today without him.

“Without Ali, there wouldn’t be the big money fights or the razzmatazz there is around the sport today. It all started with Ali. Before him, they had big fights, but he made it worldwide. He was the most famous man in the world - more famous than the Beatles, more famous than Elvis, more photographed than the president… He treated everybody the way he’d like them to treat him. If everybody did that, the world would be a better place.”

Will we ever see his like again? “No,” says Magee.

“You’ve seen it with the likes of Prince Naseem. Everybody tries to be Ali, bit nobody can carry it off - they don’t have his charisma. What Elvis was to rock ‘n’ roll, he was to boxing and sport. He’s the greatest sportsman ever.”


BARBEQUES and beers make this time of year tough for training fighters, who have to spend time in the gym while their mates have fun in the sun.

Belfast lightweight Joe Fitzpatrick admits he has found it difficult to stay focused on preparing for his return to the ring on Thursday at London’s iconic York Hall, Bethnall Green.

Immaculata southpaw Fitzpatrick - a Commonwealth Games silver medalist back in his amateur days - took his record to 4-0 by blasting out journeyman Ruslans Berdimuradovs in February and he steps up a level in class against English prospect Jordan Ellison on Thursday.

Ellison has four losses on his nine-fight record, but has won three of his last five and could cause Fitzpatrick problems at York Hall: “I can’t wait,” said ‘the Dragon’.

“The York Hall is like the Ulster Hall over here, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to fight in and it’s a step up as well in opponents. I haven’t been in the ring in a couple of months, so I can’t wait to get back.”

In his first 12 months as a pro, Fitzpatrick has fought four times and says he’s as fit now as he was back in 2014 when he joined Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan in the finals at the Commonwealth Games.

“It’s a tougher fight and I’ve been doing extra training - this is the fittest I’ve been since the Games,” he said.

“It’s tough training and keeping yourself in shape, especially round here when everyone’s out drinking in the good weather and all. Once or twice, I went and just drank diluted orange, but it’s the mind as well - you just need to stay away from it.

“I would say boxing is 70 per cent mental in your head and 30 per cent boxing and you need the rest too - you need to get the sleeping patterns right. It’s hard staying away from it all, but the training has gone brilliant - I’m training twice most days, sometimes three times a day with ‘Nugget’.”

Fitzpatrick says the faith his coach Gerard ‘Nugget’ Nugent has shown in him has steered him through some tough times. The talented 22-year-old admits he came close to hanging his gloves up.

“If it hadn’t been for Nugget, I probably would have packed boxing in,” he said.

“A couple of times in the last couple of years, I’ve just been giving up, I didn’t want to box any more, but Nugget stuck by me. He didn’t give up on me and he always pushed me, so I’ve a lot to thank him for.

“I wasn’t getting fights and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to box. But Nugget didn’t give up on me and now I’m back and I can’t wait to get back into the ring. I’ve watched a few clips of Ellison and I think, if I box to my ability, I’ll not make hard work of it.”

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick’s MHD Promotions stablemates Paul Hyland jnr, Darren Cruise and Alan Donnellan are all in full training for fights on the Rick Hatton/Frank Stacey-promoted show at the National Boxing Stadium, Dublin on June 25.

British featherweight challenger James Tennyson is back in training for his next fight for Frank Warren in July, while James Fryers is scheduled to return to action in the Devenish Complex on October 8.

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