By John Haughey
Kilkenny hurling legend Eddie Keher was in Belfast over the weekend to pick up a special memento of his encounter with Muhammad Ali in Dublin 1972.
Muhammad Ali autographs Keher's hurley back in 1972
Ali was in Ireland in July 1972 preparing for his non-title bout with Al 'Blue' Lewis at Croke Park.
By that stage of his career, Keher had already established himself as the greatest hurler of his generation.
Therefore, journalist Raymond Smith struck upon the idea of arranging some publicity shots of the two sportsmen.
"I was (working) in the bank in Dublin at the time when I got the phone call from Raymond Smith.
"Because of the fact that the fight was going to be in Croke Park and its association with hurling, I was asked if I would come out to Kilternan where he (Ali) was training and staying," recalls Keher.
"I was absolutely thrilled that I was going to meet him."
Keher headed to Ali's south Dublin base with a mixture of excitement and nervousness but the Greatest quickly put the Kilkenny hurler at ease.
"When I arrived, he was out training. When he came in, I was actually very surprised because he was very quiet and very interested in the hurling and I found out that he'd actually seen it (the hurling) on TV.
"Then we went out to do the publicity shots and the press were already outside.
"Of course, once we got out, with the press there, I saw Ali the showman.
"I was trying to show him how to rise the ball and how to hop it on the hurl.
"Then he said:'Come on. We'll put on a show for these boys' and he started fencing with me with the hurley.
Raymond Smith kept calling him Cassius and I thought Ali was going to hit him a box
"We danced around and put on a bit of show and that was basically it."
Keher laughs that he was fearful that Ali might thump journalist Smith at one stage.
"You remember all the controversy after Ali's name change but Raymond kept calling hims Cassius and I thought Ali was going to hit him a box.
"But instead, he was so quiet (about that) and just great fun."
Keher got Ali to sign the hurley and the stick remained in the Kilkenny man's attic for most of the last 35 years.
"I didn't know what to do with it but by chance I was talking to Sean Morgan of Setanta Hurls (in Belfast) recently and he insisted that he would get the stick framed for me."
Keher travelled up to Belfast on Saturday last to pick up the framed stick at Casement Park from the Belfast company.
"It was such a thrill at the time. I was in the presence of greatness. After all, he was the sportsman of the millennium."