Above; ‘Butty’ seen here with Sophie Loren, Marlon Brando and Jack Doyle on the film set of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’. (1966)
Michael ‘Butty’ Sugrue was born on the 27th of July 1924 in the townland of Gortnascarry, four miles from Killorglin. Michael was one of six children of Timothy Sugrue, a farmer and his wife Eileen Reilly of Gortnascarry. Michael gained the nickname ‘Butty’ because of his squat and powerful stature. Upon leaving school, he was employed as a turf-cutter in the midlands where he entertained fellow workers with demonstrations of his prodigious strength. He joined the army in the early 1940s and spent many hours in the gymnasium, developing his body in the hope of becoming a professional weightlifter. He later toured Ireland for a couple of years with Duffy’s Circus, billed as ‘Ireland’s and Europe’s strongest man’, challenging all comers to match his feats of strength, which included lifting four 56lb weights attached to a cart axle or dragging a cart filled with ten men around the big top with a rope clenched between his teeth. His other feats of strength included pulling a double-decker bus with his teeth. During the 1950s he became well known as a wrestler and later as an entrepenur, famously fighting his friend Jack Doyle, ‘the Gorgeous Gael’, in a wrestling match in his home town of Killorglin in 1953, defeating him in the first round. He also promoted a number of touring shows, bringing boxers such as Henry Cooper and Joe Louis to rural Ireland.
Above; Michael ‘Butty’ Sugrue displaying his strength.
Emigrating to London in the early 1960s, he became a very successful publican. He made several appearances on television displaying his strength and attracted publicity through a series of stunts. One such stunt was staging an indoor ‘Puck Fair’, another was persuading one of his barmen to spend 61 days in a coffin buried in the garden of one of his pubs. His most ambitious promotion was a fight between Muhammad Ali (probably the most instantly recognizable person in the world at the time) and Al ‘Blue’ Lewis at Croke Park, Dublin, in 1972. The promotion was greeted with some skepticism in Dublin. Also, Butty’s idiosyncratic management style seemed to conform to the stereotype of the stage Irishman. The fight took place on 19th of July 1972, with Ali winning in the eleventh round. However, the organization of the event was a shambles. Among its more farcical elements was the fact that boxing gloves had to be flown in from London at the last minute because no one had thought to supply them. While Ali’s visit to Ireland captured the public imagination, the fight did not! The official attendance of 18,725 included at least 7,000 who got in free. This fell far short of the break-even figure of 30,000. Sugrue, along with co-promoter, the American Harold Conrad, financed the entire venture. Butty always maintained that he had not lost money, but others estimated that he was probably £20,000 out of pocket.
Above; (Top) Butty with Mike Meany who broke the world record in 1968 by spending 61 days buried alive in a coffin. (Bottom) With Ali in Dublin before the 1972 ‘Big Fight’ with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis.
Despite this, bringing Ali to Ireland was probably the biggest sporting promotion that Ireland had ever seen. Sugrue’s achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that it happened against the backdrop of some of the worst violence in Northern Ireland and in the year in which the Scottish and Welsh rugby teams refused to travel to Dublin for safety reasons. Sugrue’s friendship with former boxer Jack Doyle was a genuine and close one. Butty regularly paid an almost destitute Doyle to sing in his pubs. He was also going to put Jack up after the restoration of the Admiral Nelson but unfortunately passed away before he could do so. He also discreetly assisted many Irish immigrants in London. He died on the 16th of October 1977, collapsing in one of his pubs, the Duke of Wellington at Shepherd’s Bush, while carrying a fridge upstairs. He is buried in Churchtown, Beaufort.
Butty Sugrue’s unmarked grave under the pine tree to the left of the Celtic Cross.