A villain among heroes

AS the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising approaches, Ireland’s historic attempt to claim independence from British rule is at the forefront of our minds.

But on the watch of FAI chief executive John Delaney, the political event is associated with football, much to the bewilderment of the nation.

Speaking to FAI media partners at the launch of the organisation’s strategic five-year plan last week, Delaney told RTÉ: “I think that it’s great that has been 100 years since 1916, that we’ll hopefully have new sporting heroes 100 years later in France and hopefully the Irish team can do the country proud.”

Who else, but Delaney, could champion the sacking of the GPO alongside the goal scoring of Jonathan Walters?
The revolutionary actions that would ultimately lead to the formation of an Irish Republic form the beginning of a story belonging to world history. Fifteen men were executed for their part in the Rising, demonstrating that their cause was a matter of life and death.

To dress football up as much more important than that (as former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously did) is to fall foul of hype. Even if football manages to capture the Irish nation’s imagination in the summer, it’s unlikely to be written about in another ten years, let alone 100.

Textbooks won’t carry the image of Robbie Keane spraying champagne in a locker-room in France and a remake of the 2016 campaign is unlikely to see Cillian Murphy play the part of manager Martin O’Neill.

Eleven men in green jerseys have had historic victories. The unforgettable goals of Ray Houghton at Giants Stadium, New York and Shane Long in the Aviva Stadium last year made the pair instant heroes, but the men of 1916 are immortalised.

To return to the Walters example, 100 years ago his English birthplace – Birkenhead – would have made him less than an ideal candidate for the cause Patrick Pearse fought for. If O’Neill’s charges share any similarities with the men of 1916 it is that they know their chances of success are slim.

And like past major tournaments with glorious failure (think 2002 World Cup penalty shootout defeat to Spain) rebellions prior to the Rising also met a disappointing end: The United Irishmen in 1798.

Anglo-Irish relations have unquestionably softened since 1916, but the fact that Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Dublin in 2011 called into action the Republic’s largest ever security operation, suggests a clear tension based on historical precedent.

Where football is concerned, the 1995 Lansdowne Road game between Ireland and England stands alone as the low point in an unhealthy rivalry between the pair. Abandoned after rioting by hooligans in the upper west stand, it took 18 years before another international friendly match was played by the two neighbours.

Delaney’s comments are not a direct reflection on how he views Irish and British football but he is wrong to suggest that the sport has any connection whatsoever to 1916.

Had he been commenting about the GAA, Delaney’s Rising reference could be considered better judged. Michael Cusack’s 1884 organisation was born from a cultural antipathy toward playing foreign and in particular British sport, with football regarded as an unconscionable code for GAA men.

Gaelic games are still the only approved sports for many patriotic to the Tricolour. Sporting heroes who win All-Ireland senior medals at Croke Park can rightly claim that their achievement belongs to a larger cultural movement that helped Ireland’s right to self-determination. Although undoubtedly popular, football has yet to become part of Ireland’s national identity in the same way that GAA or the commemoration of the Rising continues to be.

The subject of nationalism has witnessed Delaney embarrassed before. When footage of his rendition of the pro-IRA song ‘Joe McDonnell’ made headlines in 2014, he would later deny the offence only to apologise thereafter.

Eight months ago, the 48-year-old also admitted accepting €5m from FIFA in order to avoid the FAI pursuing legal action against football’s world-governing body after Thierry Henry’s handball ended Ireland’s chances of taking part in the 2010 World Cup.

Reported to earn an annual wage of €400,000 (£294,000), his salary seems staggering when compared to the famously low income of Patrick Pearse. But then Pearse’s oratory (not his money), has long been celebrated as his major contribution to history, with the final line of his speech at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside still, it seems, playing to the nationalist gallery: “an Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

By Delaney’s reckoning, hoping to have new sporting heroes in France equates to the same thing.

Any discussion about heroes should also include Irish supporters travelling to France. They have already been tipped by German magazine 11Freunde to provide the European Championships with an antidote to the Paris attacks.

Shortly after Ireland secured qualification to the tournament by way of a playoff victory over Bosnia, German author Alex Raack wrote: “The qualification of the Irish is a godsend. The Boys in Green can celebrate like no other nation, always peaceful, always sympathetic and emphatic, with an infectious, childlike joy.”

As ticket allocations are finally settled, ferries and planes booked, all that remains is a countdown to Ireland’s opening game against Sweden. With the stage set for a star-studded show only a villain could spoil things now.

This article was published by The Irish Post on February 13th 2016

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Inside the world of bare-knuckle boxing

Once the favourite past time of East End gangsters, bare-knuckle boxing has witnessed a distinct overhaul lately, with a vast collection of videos on YouTube making its appeal more mainstream than ever before. The videos show men like Barney ‘Gorilla’ McGinley, ‘Big’ Joe Joyce and Paddy Doherty reciting threatening monologues and calling out bitter rivals, while on-going family feuds continue to fuel bitter contests in nondescript yards and empty car parks.

Without stadium audiences, media press conferences or ring walks, the sport as a live spectacle is all but a closed affair for outsiders. A typical bout can last up to 45 minutes before being ended by a designated ‘fair play man’ or referee. Unlike professional boxing and mixed martial arts, there are no rounds or protective gloves.

In its 1970-80’s heyday, men like Lenny ‘The Guv’nor’ McLean and Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw brought a fierce notoriety to bare-knuckle boxing in the UK. In conversation with writer Jon Hotten (who chronicled the pairs’ three fights), he says that the media interest in their rivalry was staggering and even included ‘Time Out’ magazine featuring Shaw on their front cover. Both men were archetypal London gangsters in a bygone era of merciless villains. This past tradition followed a routine of unlicensed fights in small hall venues, with the winner taking a modest fee for his nights work.

These days, something of an unspoken code has developed within the sport. As mentioned, senior figures within the Travelling community known as ‘fair play men’ often intervene in a fight or stop it, should one or other participant be judged unfit to continue. Where gambling is concerned, Eamon Dillon, author of ‘Gypsy Empire,’ tells me that a trusted third party will, on occasion, be tasked with holding cash of up to £60,000. The expense, he says, is usually “bankrolled by families rather than an individual.” Such a cost also ensures a barrier to entry for fighters considered to be weak, likely to be a nuisance or whose only interest is self-gain. While unplanned fights tend to be considered dishonourable, they can also lead to legal proceedings, in some instances for public order offences. These fights usually take place on or near Traveller sites across Ireland and England, with a small crowd of onlookers. No matter the occasion, family pride is always at stake. A brother or cousin of the fighter will film the event, and replays can be watched at the touch of a button.

Digital media and camera phones have led to a proliferation of video clips with inexperienced fighters on show and children scrapping on the street. While professional boxing has witnessed a noticeable decline in television viewing figures since the age of Muhammed Ali and later Mike Tyson, the popularity of mixed martial arts and UFC has given greater legitimacy to what Hotten refers to as ‘ultra-violence in the ring.’ His is certainly a theory that makes sense when the fame of athletes like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey are considered. Worldwide press tours and a forward-thinking social media strategy have resulted in casual fans tuning into UFC events they once dismissed as boring. The use of tight fingerless gloves does of course mean that MMA bouts are not – strictly speaking, bare-knuckle contests, but the two sports do overlap insofar as concussive punches are expected.

There have also been well-documented cases of bare-knuckle boxers attempting to excel in MMA fights. After a number of street and backyard fights, internet sensation, Kimbo Slice, originally from the Bahamas, won his first three UFC heavyweight fights before eventually retiring in 2010 after losing to Matt Mitrione. To most observers Slice’s early antics were a mixture of senseless violence and limited skill, where upon his next victim would dare to antagonise a daunting physical specimen. Slice’s fights were a guaranteed blood fest and he was bound by no man. His challengers were a contrast to Traveller community bare-knuckle boxers, competing in ‘straighteners,’ local fights organised to settle a score. A one-minute scuffle with Slice could prove priceless for potential heirs to a coveted YouTube throne.

The difficulty in accessing the achievements of a fighter like Slice (and bare-knuckle boxers elsewhere) is that they make excessive claims about their ability. Similarly, if a Traveller community fighter is identifying himself or herself as the best in town, it’s almost impossible to judge. A largely unskilled opponent can expect to be soundly beaten by a well-trained amateur.

The exceptional case of seasoned bare-knuckle maestro Joe Savage and former heavyweight Smokin’ Bert Cooper tested this logic in 1994. Claiming to have over 40 wins, Savage was beaten within minutes of the opening bell after suffering two knockdowns. Despite the grainy video footage that remains of the bout, its clear Cooper has talent befitting his profession and the mismatched Savage is not fit to be considered a journeyman.

Had Cooper been at his peak he would most certainly have entered a ring with Tyson Fury. The latter’s newfound fame is likely to continue at breakneck speed given the appetite from media and boxing fans to see him sell out Wembley arena in a rematch with Klitscho or further down the line with Anthony Joshua. The Gypsy King, as Fury likes to be known on social media, is unlikely to avoid the limelight either. From controversial comments on homosexuality and outlawing abortions, to sexist rants aimed at Katie Hopkins, he is not always on his best behaviour outside of the ring. His post-fight celebratory singsongs won’t be chart hits either, but he does bring unpredictability to a heavyweight division that has largely been dismissed as lumbering giants contesting dreary fights.

Bare-knuckle boxing will continue to heap praise on Fury and hope that his reign is remembered like the fighting spirit of his father. It’s safe to assume, too, that bare-knuckle boxing’s latest stars will continue to fly below the radar of traditional combat sports. Those inhabiting this world are revered within it, but taken out of it they are likely to flounder against men who have been properly trained to defend themselves.

Best of bare-knuckle

  1. Lenny McLean – The original bare-knuckle hard man, claimed to have had over 4,000 fights to his name and famously played ‘Barry the Baptist’ in Guy Richie’s ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.’
  2. Roy Shaw – A constant menace to McLean, Shaw served time in Dartford prison for armed robbery and befriended the Kray twins while in Broadmoor hospital.
  3. Kimbo Slice – Making a name for himself through YouTube with countless backyard victories, Slice also appeared on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live,’ America’s long running late-night talk show.
  4. Paddy Doherty – Best known as a celebrity big brother winner, Doherty is better remembered in bare-knuckle circles for two brutal fights with the Joyce family.

Gypsy Kings: Turbulent times on the road to be a somebody

The first ever all-Traveller world title fight takes place on Saturday in Manchester between Billy Joe Saunders and Andy Lee. With their friend and kinsman Tyson ‘Gypsy King’ Fury already at the centre of a storm for his controversial views and unconventional behaviour, Tim Martin explores the troubled background to the weekend’s unique contest.

SIX months ago there was a comfortable certainty in the Traveller community that they were guaranteed a world boxing champion by the end of 2015 – and one to be proud of.

Tyson Fury, self-styled ‘Gypsy King’ had not long confirmed he would be facing Wladimir Klitschko on 24 October, but Fury was always going to be the underdog in that contest. He wasn’t the cert.

The locked-on champion would be produced by the world’s first all-Traveller world title bout, scheduled for 19 September in Limerick, between Andy Lee (below right) and Billy Joe Saunders, for Lee’s WBO middleweight belt.

Lee is London-born but known to all as Irish. He’s just the wrong side of 30. He made a globetrotting assent to the top of the WBO middleweight mountain by fighting in whatever far-flung location required, and has lately been scrapping with all the determination of an unlikely hero in a Hollywood script.

Saunders, 26, was raised on bare-knuckle boxing in Hertfordshire and is a proud Romany Gypsy. He has a mouth prone to occasional controversy. He represented Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics and has had 22 professional fights since, all in the UK. He’s won them all.

What an occasion it promised to be, Lee versus Saunders, staged not just in a venue of almost mythical significance – Thomond Park, the home of Munster rugby, and so case-hardened to athletic war that its official slogan is ‘Stand up and fight’ – but on a weekend of magnitude for Irish sport.

The nation’s rugby team had thrust themselves forward as the most dominant force in the northern hemisphere with back-to-back Six Nations wins. Their opening 2015 Rugby World Cup fixture against Canada was happening just hours before Lee was meant to meet Saunders.

But Lee-Saunders was called off, in disputed circumstances, rescheduled for October, and moved. Then it was postponed, again. This coming Saturday, finally, it is due to take place at Manchester Arena in front of 20,000 fans, three months later than expected.

THE HIATUS has been amply filled by Fury, 6ft 9in and as mouthy as he is massive, firstly in the build-up to his tilt at a world title then in the post-win furore. He has been both hero – in the ring, for beating Klitschko, an admirable sporting feat – and villain, for his smörgåsbord of offensive views.

Boxing has never been an arena for angels. Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather Jr; these are but a small sample of world champions who’ve served prison time for crimes well beyond merely disengaging their brains before they spoke.

Fury’s drive-by prejudice has nonetheless, on the basis of his religious convictions, damned gay people, affiliated them with paedophilia and declared abortion a sin. He has said in the past he would hang his sister if she slept around. Last week he said ‘a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back’.

But this is not a story about Fury.

This is a story about two of his fellow Travellers, seeking redemption and glory.

This is also a story about the perception of Traveller communities, and an appalling tragedy that contextualised that, particularly in Ireland, where Lee-Saunders was originally meant to be staged.

And it’s about sport, of course. We must not forget the sport.

WHEN LEE first became a middleweight world champion a year ago, he did so by way of a right hook so devastating that opponent Matt Korobov lost control of his legs. A series of unrelenting blows followed but it was that set-up shot the fight is remembered for. It’s the most reliable of all of Lee’s punches. Before Korobov, he used it to knockout effect against John Jackson in Madison Square Garden.

Like Saunders, Lee is an Olympian who boasted an impressive amateur career. He was born to Irish parents in Bow, East London and boxed alongside his brothers at Repton Boxing Club in E2 before he and his family moved to Castleconnell, seven miles outside Limerick, when he was 14.

While training at the St. Francis Club, a young Lee won a silver medal for Ireland at the 2002 World Junior Championships. That inspired the late, legendary Manny Steward to work with him and they later had a seven-year professional partnership that lasted until Steward’s death in 2012.

The pair worked together at Detroit’s Kronk Gym, from where the boxer launched his professional career in 2006. Since then, he has recorded 34 wins (24 knockouts), two losses and a draw (last time out, in April) in 37 fights. Since Steward’s death, Lee has worked with an English trainer, Adam Booth, based in London.

Saunders’ training base these days is Macklin’s Gym Marbella (MGM) but his home is still a Traveller’s site in Hatfield, albeit in a ‘luxurious chalet’, earned in the ring.

When I met Saunders in researching this piece, he told me that he often returns home from training to find his two young sons, Billy Joe Jr and Steve, bare-knuckle sparring outside. This has the makings of a family business.

Saunders is the great-grandson of the bare-knuckle boxer Absolom Beeney, one of the outstanding prize-fighters who worked the boxing booths of England’s show grounds between the wars.

He is fiercely proud of his heritage, and that of Fury, who he has defended through the recent storm. ‘The criticism of Tyson is because of who he is and where he’s from,’ Saunders told yesterday’s Independent on Sunday. ‘Because he’s a traveller, he’s not been accepted.’

Fury, it should be pointed out, is one of Saunders’ closest friends, as well as Andy Lee’s second cousin. Fury’s Irish heritage includes a maternal grandmother from County Tipperary and a paternal grandfather from County Galway, also the birthplace of his father, John.

John Fury had his own career as ‘Gypsy’ John Fury in the 1980s although he is probably better known now for spending five years in prison for gouging a man’s eye out in a brawl. He was released in February.

In highlighting what Saunders seems to see as British prejudice against the Traveller community, he went as far as saying that Fury should ditch his British passport and move to Ireland ‘where he would be more appreciated.’

The notion that the Irish people as a whole warmly embrace the Traveller community is a moot point, as we’ll see. Nor could it be said that the demand for tickets to see Lee against Saunders in Limerick was overwhelming.

AT ONE stage in the build-up to the initial date, it was proposed that Katie Taylor – Ireland’s European, World and Olympic champion – might appear on the undercard. Her brilliance was fresh in the Irish public consciousness after a set of outstanding performances in Azerbaijan as she won a gold medal for her country at the inaugural European Games.

A few days after her appearance was floated as a possibility, Saunders was asked for his thoughts on women’s boxing, and spoke on camera to his friend and boxing broadcaster, Kugan Cassius.

‘I think women are there for sex every night, hard sex,’ Saunders said. ‘Cleaning, cooking, washing, and sex. They’re not there to put on headgear and get punched. That’s my opinion on women, but I’m just a sex maniac.’

His warped viewpoint portrayed a deeply chauvinistic image of his sport at precisely the time when support for Taylor to be included on the Limerick bill required articulation, not just from him, but from all parties.

Taylor responded on Twitter: ‘I feel sorry for his wife and daughter if that’s his only view of women.’

Taylor did not end up on the undercard, although my own efforts to confirm the reasons for the breakdown in negotiations bore no fruit. On the one hand, one might assume Taylor wanted no part of a bill featuring Saunders, even though he quickly apologised when his remarks were made public and caused a backlash. On the other, you might think Taylor would want to be part of what was scheduled to be a huge occasion.

I couldn’t get an answer from any of the parties involved although Taylor’s manager Mark Devlin insisted ‘there was never any ill will’ between him and the organisers.

In any case the Lee-Saunders fight for 19 September was cancelled. The official reason later provided was that Lee had a virus, even though he had been training as normal. I was following events closely because this feature originated as an idea to cover the Limerick bout and explore its cultural significance.

So what was going on? The virus remains the official explanation although sources say this version of events coincidentally came as ticket sales stood at around 7,000, for a venue with a capacity of 34,000. Stadium director John Cantwell said only that the fight was being moved for reasons out of his control. It was rescheduled for 10 October, in Manchester.

I spoke to Saunders in late August, after the Limerick cancellation, and he suggested that ticket sales hadn’t been good there. He also floated the notion that the city’s reputation might have put some people off.

‘That’s what everyone has been saying to me [about Limerick],’ he said. ‘Stab city. People don’t want to go. I’m not saying it’s like that now, I’ve heard the city has changed but it still has that image.

‘People I know were thinking, “I’d love to go but it’s not worth it.” Even though people were ringing me to book tickets, I only had 500 [requests] and that’s very unusual.

‘Looking back on it now I can see why, because people on social media were saying “Be careful when you get to Limerick.” That was disappointing to read. Now, with it in Manchester, I have had 1,000 [ticket requests]. My phone hasn’t stopped and tickets haven’t even gone on sale. I’m willing to bet there isn’t a spare seat left on fight night.’

As it transpired, that fight night didn’t happen either. Saunders sustained a cut to the eye in a sparring session and had to postpone his involvement. October came and went without the bout Ireland had been expecting. Sport in any case was overshadowed by tragedy, coincidentally on the day the rescheduled fight was meant to happen, 10 October.

A FIRE in the early hours of that Saturday at a Traveller’s site (below) in Carrickmines, a suburb of Dublin, killed 10 people, five of them children.

The victims included Thomas Connors, 27, his wife Sylvia, 25, and three of their children, Jimmy (aged five), Christy (aged two) and Mary (five months). Also killed were Sylvia’s brother, Willy Lynch, 25, his pregnant partner ,Tara Gilbert, 27, and their children Jodie (aged nine) and Kelsey (aged four), along with Willy Lynch’s brother, Jimmy, 39.

More than two months on, there has been no confirmation how the fire started.

At the time, the Irish Taoiseach, prime minister Enda Kenny, called for a public show of respect for the Traveller community. Ireland’s footballers observed a minute’s silence before their Euro 2016 qualifier in Poland on 11 October but support from the nation was not unequivocal.

In the aftermath of the fire, 15 survivors were expected to be relocated to temporary accommodation nearby but opposition from local residents scuppered this council plan.

According to the Irish Times, the extended Connors family were forced to live ‘in mobile homes on a car park on the Ballyogan Road – a site which council officials say is “not ideal,” having neither sewerage facilities nor running water.’

To suppose the actions of local residents would have differed had those survivors belonged to the settled community is to speculate, of course, but denying the right to water after such a horrific event is uncharitable by any standard.

After the funerals for the Connors family took place in Wexford, Taoiseach Kenny was accused of ‘state discrimination’ for saying he understood why businesses and pubs in Wexford closed on the day. He said there had been ‘incidents on some occasions where things have got out of hand’.

Groups of Travellers responded by protesting outside Leinster House, Ireland’s parliament, to demand changes to Traveller accommodation and force their government to act on Traveller discrimination.

The fire had nothing whatsoever to do with boxing, or any of the fighters in this story, but spoke volumes for the standing of the Traveller community in Ireland. A tragedy that should have united a society instead became divisive. A local councillor, Josepha Madigan, who in 2014 had opined that building Traveller accommodation on valuable local land would be ‘a waste of valuable resources’, was targeted on social media for a perceived slight on the dead.

She had given a post-fire interview in which her historic suggestions had been questioned and in which she explained her point had been ‘from an economic perspective, not anti-Traveller.’

One critic called her ‘a racist cunt’ and ‘a heartless piece of sub-human shite’ and urged that ‘somebody will take you out, end your miserable existence, and if they can’t, they’ll find members of your family.’

To repeat those threats here is not to give them any credibility above their reality. They were made, almost certainly, off the cuff and fearless of reprisal. In that sense they were not unlike Fury’s threat that journalist Oliver Holt, who reported his comments about homosexuals and abortion, would have his jaw broken ‘with one straight right hand’. They were made as if it no longer matters what you say on platforms you think are ‘only’ going to be viewed via the internet.

This is a hugely complex problem, it goes without saying. Not social media, but the marginalisation of a community, the wider community’s response and the response to that. We can all baulk at the more extreme beliefs of Fury but his societal norms demonstrably differ from most.

MIKE DOHERTY of the London-based Traveller Movement says in any case it is wrong to pigeon-hole the Traveller lifestyle. ‘Gypsies and Travellers are expected to be responsible for and apologise for the actions of everyone who is considered a gypsy and Traveller,’ he tells me. ‘[But] the legal system recognises that it’s the individual that causes a crime, not a whole ethic group.

‘When Peter Sutcliffe did what he did, the Bradford community weren’t somehow seen as responsible for him. There was no sense of collective guilt. The mayor of Bradford didn’t have to make a speech to apologise on behalf of the Bradford community. That’s often not how the conversation runs for Travellers. It’s more a case of “You people don’t half leave a mess” and I’m thinking “Well I don’t”.’

Billy Joe Saunders himself says: ‘It’s a shame that when people think about Travellers they tend to think about robbing and thieving. That’s not the case.’

He tells me: ‘People need to step back and see that this fight is bigger than our Travellers’ stories. He [Lee] is representing Ireland and I am representing England. Look at it differently. People should be saying “These boys have come from tough backgrounds but they aren’t the robbing type.”

‘That happens in all cultures. This idea that we should all be tarred with the same brush needs to stop. People should see what we are doing for our community and appreciate that we are two genuine men. We are doing big things for our country and we deserve a little leeway.’

Andy Lee says: ‘I come from a generation of middleweights that didn’t fight one another [meaning Matthew Macklin, Martin Murray and Darren Barker] and that was a shame, but Billy and I are rivals in our community, in our division and in world boxing.’

Some 200 miles north of Saunders’ Hatfield home, Jennings Gym in Chorley, Lancashire, is a venue where numerous Traveller boys are trained under the watchful eye of Traveller coach Mike Linfoot.

Linfoot says the youngsters under his supervision have no interest in Fury’s views outside of sport. They don’t care what he has to say about homosexuality. Their focus is solely on his boxing and where it has taken him.

Saturday’s title fight, he says, will be an unmissable one-off in their community.

‘Every Traveller in the country will be talking about this for weeks after the event. Hour after hour on campsites, fathers and sons will analyse it. Everyone wants to say I was there.’

His group look up to Fury, and Saunders, and Lee, because, he says: ‘They aren’t spoken to the way young Travelling boys usually are. The boys understand Andy, Billy Joe and Tyson don’t hide their heritage, like a lot of other people feel they have to.’

This article was published by Sporting Intelligence on 14th December 2015

 

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Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders meet at a press conference in London before their WBO middleweight fight

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WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee

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WBO middleweight challenger Billy Joe Saunders

Irish drummer soars to Olympic heights

Of the advice that Irish Musician Jonny Colgan wishes to pass on to those thinking of making a break from his homeland to his new setting of London, one part seems prescriptive; the other, measured enough to encourage a generation of emigrants to follow in tow. “Only come over here if you think you’ve got what it takes; London is an incredible place, particularly if you believe in yourself.” The 27 year-old Belfast born drummer has established his talent with notable repute after arriving to the city four years ago.

In the summer of 2013, Colgan had to survive a last minute call to perform at Hyde Park with folk outfit Hudson Taylor. The occasion filled him with nerves, as it would most people playing to a crowd of 65,000, but this was his first unrehearsed live session playing with Dublin brothers Harry and Alfie Hudson-Taylor. “It was insane,” he recalls excitedly. “We practically flew across (Hyde Park) in a golf buggy. We didn’t have a chance to sound check; I was playing someone else’s drum kit. The stage was so big, the vista of people looked like an old computer game. They didn’t really have any features.” Such was his introduction to summer festival gigs. Colgan had been showering at a backstage portakabin, when he was told by a bandmate that they were due to replace warm-up act Tom Odell before The Rolling Stones closed the show. “I remember standing in a towel, popping my head out, thinking this is a joke,” says the Ulster man. “Harry and Alfie were interviewed (after we came offstage) and watching it back, you can see they were lost for words.”  Drinking champagne followed that night, but a life of luxury has since made way for sleeper buses and meals on the road.

Shows in Ireland are very much the homecoming type with Hudson Taylor, and are always fondly remembered on their drummer’s watch. “Personally, for me being from Belfast, getting the chance to play in your home town is fantastic. We played the Mandela Hall in February, which sold out and was so loud. It’s not that the crowds in England are particularly reserved or anything, but this was on another level. It made me feel really happy to come home.” The joy that comes from these musical highs are similar to the emotions Colgan felt when he sat behind a drum kit in Stratford’s Olympic Stadium and played at the opening ceremony of the XXX Olympiad.

Having reached the point of “What do I do now?” once he arrived to sign a lease on an apartment in Morden (centred in the Borough of Merton), Colgan set his sights on finding work in the music industry before he planned on going down the road of hunting for temp or bar work. Bringing himself to the attention of well-known artists like drummers Ralph Salmins and Mike Dolbear paid off when the former recommended him to an Olympic talent supervisor. “My immediate reaction was, “I’ve just met this guy, why would he put me forward for a job?” reflects the freelance musician. After nine months in the role of drum captain, the opening ceremony was received to rousing ovation. “It was a crazy moment. You can imagine the goose bumps. I was completely overwhelmed.”

While London poured over sporting success and heartache in equal measure for a fortnight, the sense of accomplishment to an Irish immigrant who participated in that one night of spectacular ceremony stays long in his memory. It is the effort of Irish counterparts that endures, too. “When the parade (of nations) happened, I remember seeing people from Ireland come over and cheering the team on and I just thought to myself, this is a crazy thing to have been a part of. I felt really proud.” He found it welcoming to be inundated with well wishes and calls from family and friends after the event, as well. “It made me feel like a minor celebrity for a while, so it did take some time to readjust again.” Timing, much like his touch with a drum set, is something that serves Colgan well wherever he tends to go. A recent break to Vietnam excused him from band activities only to return and pick up the reigns for a short European series of gigs. Toward the end of this month, he will cross the Irish Sea with Hudson Taylor again. As they make their way to Cork from Belfast, it’s plain to see Ireland’s call is still fleeting, but it doesn’t beat to the sound of his drum.

Hudson Taylor close their show to a standing ovation at Dublin's Olympia theatre

Hudson Taylor close their show to a standing ovation at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre

Jonny Colgan at London's Olympic Stadium

Jonny Colgan at London’s Olympic Stadium

Frampton settles score with average Avalos

Carl Frampton fought a seamless fight as he savagely destroyed Chris Avalos in five rounds to successfully defend his IBF super-bantamweight title for the first time. Returning to ‘The Jackal’s Den’, as Belfast’s Odyssey is endearingly known on fight night, Frampton wasted little time in forcing his prey into submission. In front of a 9000 capacity crowd, his slick talking Californian challenger was silenced by a series of stunning shots that called on referee Howard Foster to wind up the fight before a second half could be sounded.

Needing oxygen as he sat pained on his stool at the end of the contest, Avalos had no time to reflect on meeting a challenge that was so obviously greater than the skills and technique he possesses. What he does know now is that sharing a ring with Frampton can quickly lead to the onset of stage fright. For that is how his performance is sure to be remembered.

Not helping his cause from the opening round when he decided to illegally clip the champion with a less than subtle right hand, Avalos was warned about his conduct, to a lengthy chorus of boos. Often characterised as an artful counter-puncher, Frampton choose to showcase much more of his attacking attributes and in so doing often had time to swing freely at Avalos. During an inexcusable moment of recklessness in the second stanza, the American lost his concentration and slightly bowed from a body blow, let his guard down. As he stood unprotected, Frampton wouldn’t follow suit by dithering and instead smashed his man with all the subtlety of a Saturday night out. Blood lay on the face of Avalos in the third as heavy pressure continued to be met tamely. Trying to front up in a war remained his preferred option but after taking a powerful over the hand right in the fourth, a more defensive resolution should have been introduced. Without such a tactic, Frampton’s fast hands met their target perfectly. Clean shots to the head continued at a pace well-known to the Jackal’s past conquests, particularly Kiko Martinez. Unlike the Spaniard’s glass chin and relentless energy, Avalos looked shot of physical stoutness and emotional belief. In the end, he was left to surrender after sustaining further damage in the fifth by which time Mr. Foster had concluded that unanswered punches had to stop for the benefit of all involved.

To the delight of a celebrating stadium audience and a suitably entertained host broadcaster in ITV, Frampton once again highlighted his intention of being the very best at 122-pounds by casting aside the frivolous claims of a sorry contender. Watching from ringside, Scott Quigg surveyed the fight and could be the next worthy opponent to pick a bone with the IBF’s in-form champion. A summer match-up between the pair is a strong possibility.

Before the fireworks of the main event a packed undercard saw a range of entertaining bouts.

Brixton Heavyweight Dillian Whyte forced Beka Lobjanidze to retire in a manner that suggested the Georgian was content to walk away from fighting at the first opportunity given to him. Having been caught with a left cross in the fourth round, Lobjanidze was then put to the floor by Whyte’s flailing elbow. Looking decidedly uninterested in proceeding, the Georgian somewhat controversially elected to remain on his knees and lose the bout.

Denton Vassell struggled with wilful Victor Plotnikov as the Ukrainian dominated the first title fight of the night. With a vacant IBF Inter-continental welterweight title to inspire both men, Plotnikov tagged his prey in the opening round with a fierce left hook that almost had the desired effect of putting Vassell on the canvas. Instead, the Manchunian’s legs wobbled but failed to buckle. Noticeably hurting from Plotnikov’s unending combinations, the ‘quiet storm’ was disappointingly meek. Unable to adjust from a position of inferiority, he failed to protect his head throughout the distance. On one such occasion in the final round, Vassell had to defy a referee’s count (Vassell’s second of the night) to continue but he only remained with his pride, not a welterweight belt. Plotnikov had his hand raised soon after.

Anthony Cacace put on a comprehensive display against durable Spaniard Santiago Bustos to take his unbeaten record to eleven. Effective when lining up punches from distance, the featherweight had his rival on the canvas in the third after a serious of punches that ended with what appeared to be an illegal push. When preferring to counter-punch, the bearded Belfast favourite relied on switch-hitting and firm left hooks to swat away any attempts to be placed in a toe-to-toe event.

Conrad Cummings eased to a sixth successive win against previously unbeaten Roberto Palenzuela after being awarded a unanimous victory in his international middleweight contest. The Coalisland boxer broke the defences of his opponent with measured confidence. Setting up vicious attacks with straight left hands for much of the fight, the 23 year old also used well-timed combinations to take full advantage of Palenzuela’s inexperience. Suffering flush headshots from the second round onwards, the Spaniard grimaced on the ropes for long periods of the six rounds.

WBO European Featherweight champion Marco McCullough made his ring return after a hand injury and barely drew heavy breathe en route to a first round stoppage victory over Malkhaz Tatrishvali. With Tatrishvali judged to be in no position to defend himself, after unwisely turning his back on McCullough, referee Hugh Russell Junior waved off the fight less than 70 seconds into the action.

Cyclone’s latest addition Josh Pritchard enjoyed a successful four round outing as he produced a wide points triumph over Aron Szilagyi. Making his professional debut the English youngster convinced each judge that his work was deserving of a shutout win.

Gennady Golovkin should be feared by all including Miguel Cotto

Forget split decisions, fine margins, hostile crowds, bloodied faces, controversial stoppages or luck. None of it matters to WBA Middleweight Champion Gennady Golovkin.

He has yet to be party to those elements of professional boxing that even the best fighters endure. The 160-pound destroyer finds a way to solve any dilemma facing him. Simply put, show the man a ring and he will put on a knockout show.

Leaving audiences mesmerised by performances at iconic venues like Madison Square Garden in New York and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas has seen GGG’s international appeal nearing fever pitch. California was briefly charmed last time out when Marco Antonio Rubio lost a count in less than four minutes.

At this point in his career—with a 31-0 record, 28 knockouts—Golovkin seems unstoppable. Unfortunately, such a reputation comes with one notable drawback: finding a willing opponent to fight.

As Guillermo Rigondeaux has witnessed from the super bantamweight pack, success can only be prolonged to a point, until it is one day met with avoidance. No one among Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg has entertained the Cuban’s challenge.

The comparison is thankfully a little less dramatic in the case of Golovkin. He has plenty of options to consider, including gaining or losing weight to shuffle among the middleweight class. Yet as he mentioned post Rubio, Miguel Cotto (39-4) is the man to be hunted.

The narrative of Cotto not being capable to establish himself at 160 pounds has been revised after his dominant display against Sergio Martinez in June. The four-weight champion was almost assured of victory after a punch-perfect first round that saw Martinez floored three times.

Such form is the minimum requirement for a meeting with Golovkin.Cotto’s all-action persona might look more spectacular than Golovkin’s measured footwork when coming forward, but it is hardly more effective, as the Puerto Rican’s four losses would suggest.

Based on skill and style, both men share similarities. The pair rarely nurse early rounds, steadily moving rivals to the ropes or a corner. And preparations to set up vicious knockdowns are never far from being executed by either.

Golovkin’s preference is to instantly strike at an unprotected head or body. The slightest defensive surrender or momentary high guard ruins challengers time and again. Matthew Macklin needed two ribs mended for thinking a head shot was to follow a right-handed uppercut to the chin. Instead, a whipping to the body left him down and out in Connecticut.

Since that night in June last year, Golovkin has boxed a total of 20 rounds in four fights and knocked three opponents out. Curtis Stevens avoided such fate through retirement in Round 8.

Cotto far outstrips the Khazak in terms of experience and is of course known for his own power and hand speed. A reliance on counterpunching and combinations has forced submissions in the past.

Consider these Cotto’s strong suits.

When they are well-rehearsed, as with Antonio Margarito second time around, few would beat the 34-year-old—except Gennady Golovkin.

In the event that the two meet, expect GGG to manage the ring as he has done so expertly to date. Though a bout into the competition rounds can be reasonably predicted given Cotto’s resilient nature, it’s difficult not to imagine a moment when the open shoulders ofGolovkin stretch to their limit and provide the impetus for a shuddering knockdown.

The smallest of gaps will always be punished. Cotto’s defences might be sound, but they certainly aren’t impenetrable.

This article was published by The Bleacher Report on Tuesday October 28 2014

What’s next for Leo Santa Cruz?

When Leo Santa Cruz admitted at the beginning of the month that Al Haymon had bought out his contract from Golden Boy, after the former decided against further negotiations for a super-bantamweight unification fight with Guillermo Rigondeaux, the Mexican drew the wrath of a boxing public, all too keen to write him off as a coward. Those assessing his actions on social media repeated a mantra that seemed more a vendetta against the talented WBC title holder rather than legitimate criticism. Their taunts of “running from Rigo” echoed far and wide.

Santa Cruz’s shyness to fight comes at a time when Rigondeaux has been shown to be fallible, with two knockdowns in his last outing. The difficulty for Santa Cruz appears to be being able to take heart from his most recent performances. Opposition that has included journeyman Manuel Roman and a less than heavy handed Jesus Ruiz brought comprehensive victories, but not the type of brawl expected of someone with an eye on becoming the best in the division. The investigation into whether he can move forward with such an ambition is becoming more than a cause for concern.

Supporter discontent is obvious and won’t be subdued until Santa Cruz shares a ring with a respected rival. Inside the boxing business, his professionalism has been maligned by those directly involved with the Rigondeaux negotiations. Golden Boy President Oscar de la Hoya has since expressed his disappointment on the matter while Rigondeaux’s manager Gary Hyde questioned the attitude of someone brazenly taking easy paydays at the expense of high profile fights.

Speaking to Behind the Gloves, Hyde was less than sympathetic to the suggestion that ‘El Terremoto’ should continue to be held in high regard within the 122 pound division.

“I don’t believe Leo Santa Cruz will ever fight anyone with a heartbeat. He is fighting complete and utter nobodies. I don’t want to be disrespectful toward any fighter, but the boxers he is fighting are a disgrace to boxing. (Having the opportunity) to fight them on big bills as well, is not fair.” Hyde’s words are representative of a lengthier discussion on Santa Cruz’s past rejections to participate in unification bouts.

A match-up with IBF titlist Carl Frampton was, according to Cyclone Promotions, effectively cast aside when the Belfast man became the mandatory challenger for the WBC title in April last year.

Some credence may be given to the idea that Santa Cruz’s development continues to be propped up by a very healthy television contract with Showtime. Indeed, a financial package upwards of $3 million could potentially have been retained had he opted to stay the course with the legendary Cuban.

Looking forward, the opportunity to secure a bout with noteworthy opposition is fast becoming a task with endless significance. Making weight with another sparring partner or fighter who registers only with the sports aficionado’s will all but end dreams of becoming an undisputed champion in the division. While the likelihood of such an achievement has already been written off in some quarters, being relegated to the position of afterthought to conversations involving Rigondeaux, Frampton and Scott Quigg would scupper expectations of becoming a box office draw.

Tempting to put the proud traditions of Mexican, willing-to-fight-anyone type of boxing to rest is a dicey game, too. Saul Alvarez, Juan Manuel Marquez and to a lesser degree Abner Mares, epitomise the hardy attitude of men reared by their country’s warrior-like psyche. They are to be revered and admired in equal measure, accepting of an underdog tag if facing pound for pound generals. In the case of Alvarez and Juan Manuel Marquez, both can attest to taking aim at the very best in Floyd Mayweather. Their boxeo compatriot takes his place among such company by birth right but not currently by showmanship. Instead, it is from the portrait of a Mexican male, observed by late national poet, Octavio Paz that Leodegario (Santa Cruz’s full name) seems cast. ‘Whether young or old, pure Spanish blood living in the Americas or of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, he seems to me, to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is his mask and so is his smile.’ Discarding this mask and showing himself to be ready for war is now the only favourable option for Santa Cruz.

The month of May decides a future WBC title challenge from either Andres Gutierrez or Hugo Ruiz. In the interim, a potential bout with Mares has been lost to a March contest for the former three division champion, as he takes part in Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions debut against Arturo Santos Reyes. Contemplating featherweight fights seems somewhat premature given the desire of others to do business at 122 pounds: but while Frampton gets ready to make a first IBF defence with Californian Chris Avalos next week and Rigondeaux frustrates himself with another duel in Japan (this time Shingo Wake), their intentions are indubitable.

Frampton wants a fight with Scott Quigg in the summer, while Hyde plans on shocking the WBA champion into action once he recovers from a lengthy injury to his right hand. “I’ll be looking to force that (Rigondeaux) fight, the minute I hear he is in the gym” he says.

The task then for Santa Cruz is a simple one, re-establish himself as a man of Mexican principal, make difficult decisions and finally engage with negotiations face to face, without the mask.

This article was published by behindthegloves.com on Sunday 22nd February 2015

Shot in the arm for Irish Boxing as Frampton sets up ITV debut

Irish boxing has been given a huge shot in the arm with the news that Carl Frampton will showcase his first IBF Super Bantamweight world title defence on ITV.

Airing live on February 28, the fight with mandatory challenger Chris Avalos means a return to free to air world championship boxing in the UK and Ireland for the first time since Carl Froch won the WBC super-middleweight title in 2008. The announcement ends Cyclone’s previous three fight television deal with Box Nation.

The event, scheduled to be broadcast from Belfast’s Odyssey Arena, sees Frampton return to the location after September’s outdoor contest with former champion Kiko Martinez at the Titanic Slipway. Looking forward to the new venture, ‘The Jackal’ was typically upbeat in front of a packed media audience at London’s Heron Tower.  “It’s a wonderful platform to show my talent. I can’t wait to get going and put on a great show.”  A full undercard will begin proceedings on ITV4 with super flyweight Jamie Conlan expected to entertain television audiences in his WBO Intercontential title bout with number two ranked Warlito Parrenas.

Frampton then takes centre stage before 11pm as he seeks to extend his unbeaten record to 20 wins.

While head of ITV Sport Niall Sloane wouldn’t be drawn on viewing figures estimates, interest in the fight could see millions tuning in. He spoke of his emotion at securing the deal. “We are delighted to be given this opportunity. This works for us. Barry is a very persuasive man and Carl is an exciting boxer. It is a great time to be presenting his talent and a wonderful time to be back.”

Negotiations between Cyclone and ITV began in the New Year with little difficulty.  “It was all relatively easy. I had a phone call with Niall (Sloane) and it was all done fairly seamlessly, said McGuigan. Such a partnership is likely to create further anticipation of a future matchup between Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz but McGuigan insists that his immediate target is to deliver a world class product for television audiences. “I want to have a long term relationship with ITV. We will have to demonstrate that it is worthwhile for them. We are prepared for that and I sincerely hope that we have a future. It opens the door to a whole host of opportunities.” Before Frampton, ITV hosted Irish super-middleweight champion Steve Collins as well as Prince Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn and most recently Amir Khan.

Californian Avalos has already predicted a knockout loss for Frampton and McGuigan is in no doubt that his premier attraction will be tested considerably. “It’s a tough fight. This guy will forensically examine Carl’s capabilities, both his chin and his heart.”

This article was published by Irish-Boxing.com on Tuesday 27th January 2015

Schools Rugby: Methodist College remain the team to beat in the Ulster Schools Cup

The three-time defending champions are likely to be tested by Wallace High Lisburn

It might only take a glance at the photograph of last year’s Ulster Schools Cup champions to remind the current Methodist College Belfast collective of their historic task at hand.

The image of ecstatic young men at Ravenhill, each holding up three fingers, is a gesture few have a chance to better. For the class of 2015, holding an extra digit aloft to signify four consecutive titles would greet a triumph that has eluded every Methody alumnus since the competition’s birth.

The one-school dominance that has thrived in Ulster since 2012, is likely to be tested by Wallace High Lisburn. An unbeaten season has included victory over Methody at Pirrie Park, with this term earmarked for improving upon last year’s semi-final loss. A confident approach can be assured toward the latter end of proceedings but as with every other attempt to upset the holders, much depends on mental affairs.

The sense of belonging at Ravenhill on St Patrick’s Day is Methody’s alone. How they do it has been a matter of experience lately. Being hardened to the case of provincial naysaying helps, too. While every school has their own view of success, if each could band together to deaden Nick Wells’ managerial grip on the Schools’ Cup, the decision would be unanimously welcomed.

He insists that his team have benefitted from the attitude and performances of previous years, as they prepare for a fourth straight title.

“These boys realise this is what it’s all about. It’s why we train the way we do. It’s why we target the tours the way we do. They saw the wonderful atmosphere at the newly opened Ravenhill last year against Sullivan and they want a taste of it.”

Preparations this month have taken a backward step however as sickness has seen a crisis of sorts in the champions’ camp. As a result, several senior figures have had to be stood down for regular fixtures.

Previous to the lashings of illness, Wells’ side outlasted their provincial counterparts at the Clongowes Wood Schools’ Rugby Festival in October. The Co Kildare invitational was largely disappointing for those of a northern persuasion, given their comeuppance by Leinster’s likely lads and Colegy College Wales.

Methody have since gone on to impress on their pre-tournament tour of Portugal, convincingly beating the Portuguese u-19’s 25-7. As with the past three years, there are few weaknesses that opposition can point to and say with surety that the Malone Road outfit will crack in time. Wells is not slow in expressing his thoughts on perceived or actual shortcomings.

“I know some people say you lose the ambition and drive for competition but I look at it the other way – we have all the experience in our favour and we are the cup specialists.”

Aside from the peerless form of Wallace, RBAI have lost only two matches from thirteen, with both losses against strong opposition. When the pair met in December, supporters were left to reflect upon a highly entertaining 17-17 draw and an early preview of the action awaiting them in February, when the sides enter in round three.

Last year’s runners-up Sullivan Upper have had a consistent year to date but have been unable to match Belfast’s elite too often. Another final is perhaps an unattainable target.

Should the Hollywood side be forced to play a less prominent role, Wallace will seek to fill the void. A bulk of provincial representatives add their flair to a well-balanced and developed squad, with outside centre Andrew Cardosi arguably the best in his position across Ulster. Their attacking displays are capable of winning games inside a half. Royal School Armagh attested to that in November when they conceded five tries without registering a solitary point.

Priority and pride dictates that captain Sam Moore will remind his team they have a duty to overturn Methody’s semi-final victory 10 months ago. Since then much has changed in determining who might be rightly considered favourite to win a return game; but little can be expected to prevent another ferocious cup battle between now and March 17th.

Among the opening round winners, Limavady Grammar prevailed in a closely fought contest with Wellington College while Banbridge Academy put on an entertaining show for home supporters with a 45-point win over Antrim Grammar.

This article was published by The Irish Times on Wednesday 21st January 2015

Injury-hit Irish squad target top 24

Matthew Cosgrave’s recent ankle injury has been a major part of the problems facing the Irish Men’s Gymnastics Team ahead of their World Championships campaign in Nanning, China. Following his unfortunate luck, compatriot Chris O’Connor fell from the high bars during the Northern European Championships in Denmark a fortnight ago, to end his chances of national representation on the world stage. Two teenage debutants, Daniel Fox and Adam Dalton have been selected in their place and will have to handle the pressure of keeping Irish Olympic qualification for Rio 2016 on track.

80 countries will compete at the event with the top 24 securing safe passage to next year’s World Championships. From there, the first eight will guarantee automatic entry to Brazil. Missing the senior experience of Cosgrave and O’Connor has upset preparations but with former Olympian Kieran Behan heading the team and Andrew Smith expected to excel in the all round individual competition; the target of making the next round of qualification in Glasgow 2015 is attainable.

Cosgrave insists that progress will be defined by how the team perform and less so on the success of one or two men. “We have two guys who are excellent floor competitors and if things go right for them, they could make the floor final,” he says. “There are possibilities for individual success but the big hope for us this time around is to make sure we make that top 24.” Irish representation at Olympic level has been markedly low in the past with only Barry McDonald taking his place at Atlanta before Behan in London 2012.

The intensity of competition for places on the Irish squad has however shown that the current standard within the camp far exceeds previous periods of disappointment. “When I started competing internationally there was really only myself and one other guy but the fact that we can send out a very strong team with two of our strongest members injured is a great credit to how far we have come,” comments Cosgrave. The notion of an Olympic dream for an Irish team is one that owes much to the achievement of Britain’s team bronze in London two years ago. In attempting to learn from the example of Louis Smith and company, Team Ireland have introduced English man Barry Winch to take charge of the senior set up at the Championships. At club level, British coaching is familiar to the bulk of the squad too; with Behan training in Tolworth and Loughborough University home to a handful of students within the group. The Michigan based duo of Rohan Sebastian and Ian Makowskev are transatlantic exceptions to the rule.

The motivation of becoming the first Irish gymnastics team to reach an Olympics is tempered by the challenge of balancing the demands of elite level competition and remaining financially sound. Cosgrave supports himself through his work as a locum, taking shifts across the main Belfast hospitals. While this comes with a certain amount of flexibility, he is well aware of the difficulties that are shared by the squad. “We have guys who have just finished school and are taking time out to train full time. When they are not training, they are coaching. Four or five are doing that. For the likes of me and maybe one or two others, trying to work a job to keep ourselves going is hard. If we were funded it would take so much stress away, not having to think about finances all the time and how many hours you can fit into the gym each week. Obviously that means getting better results too.” The sum total of Irish efforts in China will be seen by a crowd of 9,000, all of whom could yet be witnessing a seminal moment in the country’s sporting history.

An edited version of this story was published in The Irish News on 2nd October 2014