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EXCLUSIVE | Gene Kilroy: Muhammad Ali's Irish-American right-hand man

Gene Kilroy was there for it all. As Muhammad Ali's business manager - 'The Facilitator' as he wa...

EXCLUSIVE | Gene Kilroy: Muham...
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EXCLUSIVE | Gene Kilroy: Muhammad Ali's Irish-American right-hand man

Gene Kilroy was there for it all. As Muhammad Ali's business manager - 'The Facilitator' as he was known in the press - Kilroy helped 'The Greatest' manage his money. But he was more than that - a close friend, confidant, ally and now the last surviving member of Ali's inner circle. Now in his mid-80s and living just outside Las Vegas, Kilroy spoke with Off The Ball's Shane Hannon for an exclusive hour-long interview.

"There was no man on planet Earth as close to Muhammad as I was."

He's not wrong. If you look at photos of Ali training at his Deer Lake base in Pennsylvania, Kilroy is there in the background. If you watch back the video footage from the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in what was then Zaire, Kilroy is the first man in the ring to hug Ali after his defeat of the fancied George Foreman.

Kilroy had a front-row seat to history as Ali became more than just a heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

As the world in 2020 reels from race riots in the USA, spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some sportspeople speak out. The silence is deafening for others.

Ali was never afraid to speak out. Whether that was deciding not to fight in Vietnam for a cause he didn't believe in, or on segregation in the 1960s for black Americans. He spoke about his Muslim faith too, and devoted himself to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam until his death in 1975.

Kilroy remained close with Ali until Ali's passing in 2016 - his fourth anniversary taking place this week. And ultimately his friend transcended the sport that made him famous - he became a global icon the world over.

The fact that they both held Irish ancestry brought them even closer, as Kilroy recalls.

Gene Kilroy (background right) watches on as Ali trains at his Deer Lake training base in Pennsylvania.

"I did everything for Ali. My title was his business manager, I did all his tax shelters, I did all his investments, I did all the arrangements for Ali's shows.

"People said 'Gene Kilroy did everything for Ali but get in the ring for him!' I was blessed to be around a great man like that. I liked him not [just] because of his Irish heritage, but because of my Irish heritage!

"His great-grandfather [Abe Grady] came from Ireland, his mother's grandfather. He always said 'We're related!' and I would laugh and make a joke about it.

"My great-grandparents emigrated from Inchicore and came to the coal-mines of Pennsylvania. My family were active with the Molly Maguires [a secret labour movement in Pennsylvania in the 1800s].

"My grandfather on my Dad's side was killed in the coal mines, he was 42. And my grandfather on my Mom's side was killed in the mines when he was 39. The family survived because they had religion, they believed in never taking advantage of anybody."

Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was known then, forst came to international prominence in winning gold for the USA at the Rome Olympics 60 years ago. That, incidentally, was when Kilroy and Clay first met.

Ali with raised hands after securing the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.

"I was playing sports in Munich, Germany. I played three sports and was the only officer on an athletic scholarship - football, baseball, basketball. And they needed someone to sign pay vouchers for the 1960 Olympics.

"They asked me so of course I appointed myself. I remember walking down the street with Cassius Clay, and I had money. I was getting my government money, those guys had nothing.

"Some guy came up begging and he said 'I need some money'. At that time Cassius had eight dollars in his pocket, so he gave the guy three.

"I said to him 'Why'd you give the guy three that's [nearly] all you have there?' He said 'If he's lying to me he's going to have to answer to god, but god may be testing me.'

"So I realised this young guy, Cassius Clay, had a lot of depth to him. And then after he won the gold medal he walked all over the [Olympic] village, he had his gold medal on.

"If they would have picked a mayor of Olympic village, it would have been him. I remember people from Russia telling him 'You'll go back to Louisville now and you can't even eat in the restaurant, and he said 'Yeah, but we're going to change things.'

"His mother always instilled in him, 'Make the world a better place than you found it', which he did. He's from a great home, a loving home, a caring home. He always had time for the poor, the powerless, the depressed, the deprived.

Gene Kilroy (background right) watches on as Ali downs George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Zaire in October, 1974.

"We will never, on our time on planet Earth, see a man who was as courageous... I used to tell him if he weighed 220 pounds today, his heart would weigh 218. He had such a good heart, he had forgiveness, he saw no wrong in anybody.

"I remember telling Elijah Muhammad, his religious leader, he would walk in the bathroom and come out with two new friends, and I would have to run them away!

"We contributed to each other. I was interviewed at his funeral... I said 'I'm sure he's in heaven.' When he met Saint Peter at the gate Saint Peter said 'Muhammad, nice to see you. How about signing some autographs, some gloves, and go right in'.

"I said when he went in there he's back with his Mom and Dad, and Joe Louis, and all the good people. Like he said in Zaire, Africa - 'Nobody can get to me here now.'

"Nobody can get to him now - he's happy. And that's something that I look forward to - someday going back and hanging with him and his Mom and Dad, and my Mom and Dad. That's something I look forward to."

Kilroy has had an extraordinary career of his own - working with the Philadelphia Eagles for a time, while he spent years as an executive host for top casinos in Las Vegas.

But it's his time with 'The Greatest' he remembers particularly fondly, and he has plenty of stories to tell.

Over the coming week we'll be publishing various articles around Gene Kilroy's stories of life with Muhammad Ali - from the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Zaire, introducing Ali to Elvis, his rivalry with 'Smokin' Joe Frazier and fight in Dublin in 1972. You can watch the full interview on YouTube above.

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Boxing Gene Kilroy George Foreman Joe Frazier Muhammad Ali Off The Ball Shane Hannon