The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland was the unlikely topic of discussion when Ballymena man Gerry Hamill rubbed shoulders with Muhammad Ali almost 40 years ago.
Former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Hamill had been boxing for an Irish team in America when he was given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the man considered by many as the greatest sportsman in history.
It came when Gerry and a number of members of the Irish party were invited to visit the Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania, where Ali prepared for his fights, in 1977.
“It was a fantastic training facility, up in the mountains and Ali and his entourage were all there,” Gerry told Times Sport.
“He was sparring with Jimmy Ellis who held a version of the world title during the three years that Ali was serving his ban.
“The session was open to the public and during it, the word got back to us that Ali had asked for the Irish amateur boxers to stay behind.
“He finished his session and got showered and then came out and spent an hour with us.
“He was a totally different guy away from the public eye and we chatted, of all things, about Ireland as a whole and about the ‘Troubles’ that were putting Ireland on the map for the wrong reasons at that time.
“The actual boxing end of things he treated in a very jovial, almost trivial sort of way, as some boxers tend to do.
“When we met him, he was preparing to box against Earnie Shavers and when we asked him about the fight, he would just say something along the lines of ‘oh, that’ll be no problem’.
“This was all taking place maybe a week or a couple of weeks before he met Shavers and he had done all his preparation and was very relaxed, down to earth and easy to chat to.
“I didn’t even think to take a camera with me - the picture that I’m in standing beside Ali was taken by someone else.
“The big fella pretending to trade punches with Ali was a guy called Neil Dunn, who was the heavyweight boxer in the Irish group - it was all good fun.”
Gerry remained a huge fan of Ali throughout his career, adding: “You couldn’t help but be carried along by what he was doing.
“It was through watching him in action that drove me on to reach the Olympics because as an amateur boxer, that was the pinnacle of what you could achieve.
“If you asked me if I thought Ali was the greatest, I would say yes.
“I’ve had older people say to me about Sugar Ray Robinson and then, as you come into the modern era, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. It’s always very hard to compare sportspeople from different eras in the same sport.
“I’ve been lucky enough to meet boxing greats like Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier but in my opinion, and in my lifetime, Ali was definitely the greatest,” added Gerry.