That's Dan, that's our story... Remembering Danny McAlinden the Newry heavyweight who shared the stage with Ali and Smokin' Joe
“I’m looking for that Danny McAlinden ’cos he whupped my brother and I’m gonna sort him out…”
THE final count. One, two, three… A champion breathing his last.
Four, five, six, seven… His partner Angie holding his hand as the seconds tick away.
Eight, nine, 10… Danny McAlinden, the British and Commonwealth heavyweight king, the man who knocked out Jack Bodell and beat Ali’s brother at the Garden, passes away peacefully at 4am on Monday, March 8. He was 73.
What a man he was in his prime! Big Dan, blonde-haired with the twinkle in his eye… The stories he could tell, the people he’d met, the men he’d beaten….
Danny was born in Newry on June 1, 1947 and first boxed at the city’s Bosco Club before he followed his father Patrick and his uncles on the boat to England, a week short of his 15th birthday.
No red carpet was rolled out for immigrants in those days, no matter where they came from.
‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ read crude signs in racists' windows but Danny and his father found a place to lay down their heads at St Patrick’s Road in Coventry.
Before long they were travelling England building concrete garages.
Even at 15, Danny was built like a concrete garage. Broad shouldered and strong, he did a full day’s work and got a man’s wages (‘the full whack’) for his efforts. The McAlinden’s worked hard, put a few bob away and put down roots in Coventry.
Danny got a job at the Standard Motor Company in the city and was soon drawn to the sounds of skipping feet and fists on punchbags coming from Edgwick ABC at the Trades Hall which was attached to the company.
He began training with George Middleton at Edgwick and after success in England ABA’s, turned professional in 1969. His debut was in a prizefighter tournament at the World Sporting Club in Mayfair, London at which the recently-deceased Prince Phillip was a regular.
They called him ‘Dangerous’ and his style was uncomplicated and explosive. He came out swinging and knocked out three opponents, including future Ali challenger Richard Dunn, in succession to win the tournament and trousered a very tidy £1,000. Not bad for starters!
“He was very proud of that, he used to say (Norn Iron accent): ‘I knacked out three people on the wan night’,” recalls Angie, his devoted partner for the last 32 years of his life.
Angie first met Danny when their daughters were in the same class at nursery school together in Coventry. By then Danny was already a bit of a celeb and beloved by the city’s Irish diaspora.
Paul McKenna (owner of Armagh GAA sponsor Mac-Interiors) was brought up in Coventry and the champ was a regular visitor to the family home.
“He was good friends with our local barber Alan,” recalls Paul, who moved to Newry with his family aged 13 (Danny had gone the opposite direction as a 15 year-old).
“I brushed up in the shop and I enjoyed meeting the champ when he came in. He always got free haircuts – even when there wasn’t much to cut! I always remember his wit was razor-sharp!”
Perhaps he’d just come out of Alan’s barbers when he turned up at the nursery school in his white Mercedes one afternoon?
“You would see these enormous twinkling eyes and the blonde hair,” says Angie.
“I used to just say ‘Good morning’ to him and take Sophie in but one day he jumped out of the car and said: ‘Will you come and have dinner with me?’
“I said: ‘Oh, I’d love to but I couldn’t possibly even think about it’. We were both married, but not to each other! Off he went.”
Twenty years later they met by chance in a theatrical agent’s office in London’s West End. Danny tried his luck again.
“He said: ‘Is it you Angie?’
“I said: ‘Yes’.
“He said: ‘Let me buy you a cup of coffee?’
“We had a coffee and we were together for the next 32 years! There was never a dull moment with him. One day we were in London, where we lived and there was a charity abseil down this enormous office block going on. Suddenly he disappeared and I thought: ‘Where on earth has he gone?’ I looked up and there he was coming over the top of the building on a harness…
“He was the most amazing person, he truly was.”
IT’s a good bet that Angie would have spent a decent percentage of those 32 years with Danny listening to tales of glory days in the ring.
It was an appearance in Ring Magazine that paved the way for his most famous fight – a spot on the undercard of the ‘Fight of the Century’ – still the most famous rumble in history - in 1971 between Muhammad Ali and his great rival Joe Frazier at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
50 years to the day before he passed away, Danny fought Rahman Ali at the boxing Mecca and his victory was the first blow on a bad night for the Ali family because ‘Smokin’ Joe’ won the headline act on points.
“I met Danny several times and he always seemed so dignified,” says boxing broadcaster and writer Steve Bunce.
“His Ring Magazine status at the time and his slot on the Fight of the Century undercard remain very impressive. I loved the McAlinden, Bodell, Dunn, Johnson scraps from the 1970s – it was the fifties in colour. Danny would do some damage now – his punch power was no joke!”
With 300 million watching around the globe, that victory at the Garden was McAlinden’s most famous win but not the one he treasured most according to Angie.
“However, wonderful that was, he always said the best fight of his life – when he was totally ready and totally trained – was Bill Drover, the Canadian champion,” she said.
“He always said that was the one he was most proud of.”
Danny knocked out Drover in the fourth round and, with a hit-or-get-hit attacking style, his fights were action-packed. In 1972, then 25, he became the first Irishman to win the British and Commonwealth titles when he knocked out defending champion Jack Bodell at a raucous Villa Park, Birmingham.
It was a barnstormer of a scrap from the start. A succession of booming right hands thudded into Bodell’s lantern jaw and the heavyweights fell in a tangled heap twice during the opener.
McAlinden dropped Bodell 20 seconds into round two with another sledgehammer right and then threw hell for leather, battering him on the ropes until the referee eventually stepped in to stop it with Bodell on the canvas. McAlinden was lifted by his arms and legs and crowd-surfed on the horde of delighted fans who’d climbed over BBC commentator Harry Carpenter to invade the ring.
“He was proud he won the fight but he never thought it showed his true potential. He always felt it was a bit of a brawl,” says Angie.
He was managed by Jack Solomons (the legendary London match-maker whose many highlights included promoting Henry Cooper v Ali in 1963) and he treated Danny like a son.
After the Bodell win, Solomons matched McAlinden with an up-and-coming British heavyweight called Joe Bugner. McAlinden-Bugner would have been a massive event but it fell through when McAlinden unexpectedly lost what was regarded as a routine ‘tune-up’ against underdog Morris Jackson. Bugner went on to fight Ali (twice) and Frazier.
There was also talk of McAlinden challenging George Foreman but after he lost his British title to Bunny Johnston in 1975, his career went into decline. He won the Northern Ireland title (trained by then brother-in-law John Breen) but bowed out with a 31-12-2 record after a stoppage loss against Denton Russell back at Villa Park in 1981
“He was a very unassuming person and he never realised how well respected he was and how good he was,” says Angie.
“There were all sorts of problems – personal and political – within the boxing game that affected Dan very much and I think he felt that he never reached his true potential. I know he felt he could have achieved a great deal more.
“He felt he didn’t put enough into it or work hard enough because he had no realisation of how good he was and how loved he was. He was a very popular character in and out of the sport.”
Danny worked in security after boxing and also did some TV, appearing in The Bill, Eastenders and on The Catherine Tate Show.
DRIP, drip, drip... One day Danny left a photograph of himself and Muhammad Ali (the only copy he had) in a taxi. He mislaid his keys here, walked into a room and forgot why he did so there…
These things happen as you get older.
But a stage came when the episodes could no longer be dismissed as absentmindedness.
“He rang me one day and said: ‘I don’t know where I am’,” Angie recalls.
“We talked it through and he got his bearings and came home but it began then.
“He began to have little choking fits, clearing his throat a great deal and when he’d eat he’d be pushing his chest saying: ‘The food is stuck’. We thought it was indigestion and he didn’t want to go to the doctor but one day it got really nasty and he looked so poorly so I said: ‘Come on Dan, we’ve got to go’.”
The doctor was immediately concerned and tests confirmed that Danny had cancer at the base of his tongue. He was told him that his tongue would need to be amputated because a tumour ‘the size of a tennis ball’ had been discovered.
“In typical style, Dan said: ‘I’m not having that, I came onto this earth with a tongue and I’ll leave it with a tongue’,” says Angie.
He spent the next few months in hospital. He was unable to eat solid foods and had a feeding tube inserted. Eventually he got out of hospital and, exhausted, he slept around the clock as the radiotherapy and chemotherapy took their toll.
It reached the stage when doctors decided treatment was not working and they sent him home to enjoy one last Christmas with his family.
“They said it would be his last Christmas,” said Angie.
“So that was it – feeding tube, sleeping… Dan was a very good Catholic and so am I and we used to go to our local church to the healing service. Monks would come from Canning Town and it was a beautiful service.
“Then, as the weeks went by, he was getting a little bit better and the doctor said: ‘I think we can take him off the feeding tube’ and bit by bit he began to get stronger.”
Doctors couldn’t explain the improvement in his condition.
“The doctor said: ‘We don’t know why he’s improving, it’s nothing to do with me… I’m not really doing anything, I’m giving him some tablets but this is just a miracle,” Angie explained.
“His tumour was shrinking and I said: ‘Doctor we do have a very strong faith and we’re going to healing services’ thinking he would laugh at me but he said: ‘I would never poo-poo that, we can’t account for it and for nearly 12 years, until he died, Dan was the miracle of the London hospital.
“No one could account for the fact that the cancer disappeared. What had been so dark… he had been given weeks, three months maximum, to live but it just disappeared.”
THE reward for recovering from cancer should have been a long and contented old age but, in a cruel twist of fate, Danny was denied that. As the cancer went into remission and his physical health improved, his mental health deteriorated.
There were mood swings, sometimes violent, and tests confirmed the onset of dementia which doctors said had been caused by boxing. Angie attaches no blame to the sport.
“Boxing was his life, he loved it and he loved it all his life,” say Angie.
“He was part of the boxing fraternity and I would never wish that he hadn’t boxed.”
Danny did respond to treatment and led, Angie says: “Perhaps not a normal, everyday life but a happy life”.
“But bit by bit he began to deteriorate,” she adds.
“He had a fall and his knee began to play up until he had to go into hospital to have a replacement and he never walked properly again, he needed a stick or a walking frame.
“He began to wander and his confusion got quite bad. I was told that he would have to go into a home but I did everything I could to prevent that and I managed to keep him at home for a year because I promised that when it did come to the time I would let him go.”
Sadly, the time did come. In October last year the former heavyweight champion was admitted to a residential home and began to refuse to eat. By early January he was moved to hospital where doctors discovered that his cancer had returned.
“They knew at that point there was nothing they could do except make him comfortable but they phoned me and said: ‘You can come whenever you like’ and I spent the most beautiful weekend with him,” says Angie.
“I got there on the Friday, he couldn’t talk but he was able to squeeze my hand and understand everything.
“I was with him all day on Saturday, he had the last rights from our priest and on the Sunday, all the pain had gone, he was sleeping and waking and he listened as I told him how much we all loved him and I talked about the past and he died in his sleep at about 4am on the Monday morning of the 8th of March. I’m just thankful for that last weekend, it was just such a gift.
“That’s Dan. That’s our story.”
A fundraising page has been set up in Dan's honour in aid of the Building Bridges Boxing Club in Belfast. Go to: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/angie-kindell to donate