Saturday, November 15, 2008

The day I knocked Olympic boxer Kenny Egan out

We ducked and weaved, laughing a bit while we faced each other, him a world class boxer and me a guy who'd never been inside a boxing ring before. "Keep your guard up" he says as he jabs at me, "Raise your fists a bit more". I feint to the left, he thrusts with right fist, I come back with a straight right and an uppercut. I connect. He goes down. I lean over.

"Are you okay there, Kenny?"

Barely an hour before I'm sitting in the car park of the National Stadium checking I have my pen and notebook ready, steeling myself for a bout to meet someone I've admired for a while, ever since his triumphant return to Ireland after winning a silver medal - the fourth in Irish boxing history - in the Light-heavyweight final of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Kenny Egan, 26, is from Neilstown in Clodalkin, Dublin, where he still lives and boxes. The man is built like a block. A big block. When we meet I'm surprised that I'm surprised by his physical presence - it shows how little I know about what sort of training and work goes into being an Olympic medal winner.

I'm not what you'd call a boxing fan. I haven't attended the matches, couldn't tell you who any of the world champions are and before the interview had never been to the National Stadium. I did however watch Egan fight in the final against China's Xiaoping Zhang on August 24 and with the rest of the nation wondered what the hell the boxing officials were thinking. I then watched his homecoming, listened to his rousing urges for more young people to get involved in sport and for more resources to be allocated to making this happen. His passion was evident.

Showing me around the High Performance training area in the National Stadium, he impresses on me the difference between where we are now - a world-standard training room, and the school hall in Clondalkin that currently houses the Neilstown boxing club. "We still take the bags down in the evenings and tidy everything away" he says. "But that will change soon."

Looking around this training area, I'm reading names like Michael Carruth, Wayne McCullagh, Andy Lee, Darren Sutherland, Katie Taylor and Kenneth Egan on the walls. Everything is focussed towards motivation and success, training and fighting to do one's best. The walls are covered in motivational quotes from boxers who have trained here: "In boxing, tough is not enough" reads Barry McGuigan's "Combining skill, strength and persistence produces results at the highest level. Boxing is like chess: You don't think, you don't win". Darren O Neill's simply reads "Confront and overcome all your obstacles. Success awaits at the other side."

Punching bags hang at regular intervals with apparatus all around. Here a €40,000 machine to measure punching speed, there a truck tyre, frame and sticks. "You beat that into the frame" Kenny tells me "It strengthens up the stomach muscles". The weight room is no less impressive - bedecked in mirrors, motifs and what looks like top quality equipment. "The High performance programme is in place since 2003 only", says Kenny, "But we've gone from the previous four or five to 20 internationals a year."

(Photos from Flickr and my personal collection)

It was his older brother William who got him into boxing at the age of eight. "I remember watching Carruth fight at the Barcelona Olympics and knowing Willie boxed, I wanted to find out more, so Willie brought me down to Neilstown. I gave it a go and stuck with it".

Stick with it he certainly did, with eight Irish champion titles under his belt in the last decade, as well as a European Bronze in 2006. He's ranked fourth in the world and second in Europe. This year, he proudly says has been the best year ever for the club which is over 30 years old. "We have over 60 young people with us now - we can't take any more. This time last year we had 30. We're hoping to have ground broken in January for a new, dedicated building."

He's got great support at home, where he lives with his mother Maura and his father Paul. "To be honest, Darragh, if you told me before the games that I could come home with a silver medal, I'd have taken it with both hands. There was no major media presence in the Olympic Village, so apart from the internet and what the gang over with me were telling me, there was no real way to know. But coming home to the reception I got was mindblowing - I didn't really know how to deal with it.

Everything from the reception in the airport to being recognised in shops to all the things I've been doing and asked to do - from opening shops to signing autographs to posing with local kids and their mobile phones - I'm sure most children in Clondalkin have me on their bebo at this stage. I've been on Podge and Rodge, with Gerry Ryan, on Seoige and of course the nine o' clock news the night I got home".

It's actually his appearance on the news that we talk about most - Kenny standing outside Boomers in Clondalkin, the local kids crowded around to get their faces on camera and him telling the people of Ireland to get young people off couches, away from the TV, the X-box and the playstations and get out into the fresh air, into a local sports club, to get out and get active.

When I ask him, somewhat tongue in cheek what exercise I should be doing, he immediately recommends a good run. "There's no secret, Darragh" he says, "No magic formula. It's about regular exercise, a balanced diet and eating good food at regular times and a big fluid intake. At the height of our training we're drinking 6 litres a day - I lost 3 kilos after one heavy exercise session."

When I ask, quite seriously, if somewhat tentatively, if boxing isn't just one person beating another up, he sighs in recognition of a common misconception, one he feels that keeps people from seeing just how skilful the sport is. "I tell you one thing", he says when I tell him I'm from Kilkenny, "You'd never see me on a pitch with a hurl. It's a weapon. I look at that sport and think it's mental. too fast and potentially violent. Fair play to the lads who do it - I couldn't."

"Amateur boxing (which means, I've found out, more that you don't get paid than it's "lesser" than professional) is four rounds of two minutes, where points are scored for landing and avoiding hits. It's not about knockouts, it's not about damage, it's about a technical approach to using your body to show your skill in movement. In the ring you need to be 100%. If you're not giving it everything, you're only cheating yourself. You can't cut corners. You're going to be found out very quickly if you're not giving what you've trained to give."

In fact, admits Kenny, that's why he didn't qualify for the 2004 Olympics. "I slipped up mentally" he says "Because boxing is about 10% physical and 90% focus and commitment. I didn't have it." In an interview before the Olympic final, Egan's head coach Billy Walsh said "At the highest level of sport you want that extra one or two per cent. All the top sportsmen in the world come under mental strain and the guys who deal with it the best are the guys who come through." Indeed, of the 54 Irish athletes that went to the games this year, the haul of three medals was thanks to three of the five boxers participating.

Talking about Christmas, he'll spend it at home with the family. "I'm very close to my mam", he says, "She hasn't watched me fight since I was 16. She didn't come to Beijing because she has a fear of flying, but she's an important part of all this. There'll be the five boys at home, still in the sitting room on Christmas morning, slagging each other and having the craic. The Nationals are on in February so I never go mad. I didn't have a 21st because my birthday is in January. But I don't mind any of that. The proudest moment of my life was qualifying for these games. This has been a goal. I've reached it."

At the moment he's looking at the future carefully. There's a lot of talk of him turning pro - he's just back from watching the Calzhage-Jones fight in Madison Square Gardens and he knows how much prestige, money and work that would bring to his life. "I don't know, I don't really want to, to be honest. It's a cut-throat game, a different kettle of fish altogether." he said in a recent interview. "I can't rule it out. But I have a meeting coming up with the Sports Council and if we can look at the future for me in the amateur game here, I'll do that just as quickly"

His passion and enthusiasm for Ireland and the future of irish boxing is evident though as he names the team behind him for Beijing. Gary Keegan, the High Performance programme director was a big influence. So were coaches Billy Walsh from Wexford and Zauri Antia from Georgia, who, Egan points out, "must make a massive commitment to training camps and fights abroad, meaning they could be away from their family up to six months of the year." Phil Moore and Gerard Hussey were the sports psychologists with John Cleary being the strength and conditioning coach. Jim Moore and Tony Davitt are training the junior team he says.

"Irish boxers have been doing brilliantly this year", he tells me. "Since May we've won four gold and two silver at the EU Championship finals, we won gold in Instanbul and bronzes in Serbia and Austria. Katie Taylor is just off to China to defend her world title, and has already won gold and boxer of the tournament award at the Women's EU Championship. 18 year old Ray Moylett from Mayo is World Youth Champion, that youth team winning one gold, one silver and two bronze medals from the tournament in Mexico. The lads have just won three bronzes at the European senior championships and there's three more Olympic medals in the country."

"I think if people knew how much work, commitment and dedication goes into the sport, we'd have a larger following" says Egan. "We need more encouragement, more support, more dedicated facilities". In a wonderful opinion piece in the Irish Times, Fintan O' Toole writes:

"Boxing does for these young men, in other words, what education and community and society ought to do but don't. It treats them as people who can achieve very tough things, not just in sport but in learning to be a man.

It gives them respect and demands in return that they respect themselves. It defines them as individuals - in few sports is the competitor quite so nakedly alone - but it also creates its own family and its own community. It has no time for self-indulgent victimhood. It both teaches and recognises the dignity that is won in struggling against unfavourable circumstances."

At the moment, Kenny is busy. There's been many award ceremonies, including a People of the Year award and the Dublin Bus Community Support Awards. He's been doing a lot for charities - Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Rebuild for Bosnia ad awareness of suicide in Ireland have all benefited and he's recently finished shooting on his new DVD, which was released yesterday.

Kenny Egan: Back from Beijing is a look at what's been happening in his life since the fight and the return home. "I only watched the fight recently", he says, "I'd been avoiding it, but meself and Billy went upstairs and stuck it on the big screen. It's painful to watch." No surprise there. At the end of the third round, judges failed to score several punches by Egan that would have given him the lead. NBC announcers concurred on this point. (Source: Wikipedia)

"By my count I won the fight by 3 points. I did the best I could do, that's what matters to me. With 14,000 Chinese fans screaming in the stadium, obviously the pressure is on, the atmosphere unbelievable. The scoring was unfair. deep don in my heart of hearts I feel I won the fight, but that's sport. However in the whole tournament I was only hit seven times in 20 rounds, scoring 48 points. I'm happy with that too."

"The DVD is gas - some funny bits, some great craic with the Neilstown boys and a cracking soundtrack from the Coronas. It's been an amazing journey for me, the experience of a lifetime." One can only wonder if he'll be repeating it four years from now in London.

Standing in the training room, holding the Olympic silver medal I can only imagine what Egan, and all the other boxers put themselves through to get to this point. "It's about discipline, self respect and manners" he tells me, "It's so technical and you learn so much, it puts you in great shape physically and mentally". I decline to wear the medal, respecting how much work has gone into getting it.

It's something Egan wants to help other boxers achieve. "This has been a long time coming", he says. "If I stay on for London 2012 it's a lot of work, but after that I can see myself getting into training or something. Maybe coaching with the High Performance Unit here. Helping out up at Neilstown. I couldn't handle a nine-to-five, sitting around looking at a screen for the rest of my life. This is what I want to do. That's why I do it."

"Ah sure come on, stand over me like you've knocked me out", he says, as Niamh takes the photos. "People love getting that shot". It's one to show me mammy anyways. I look like an eejit but sure I'll never get the chance again.

Of course it's not just the DVD now. Kenny is on the internet, with blog, Flickr, Bebo, Facebook and Twitter account on the go. "I'm learning" he says, "It's a bit of work, but I'll get there". Having met him, I'm sure he will.

"Send that on to me, will you please?" he says as we shake hands, his massive southpaw dwarfing mine. "I'm sure I'll like it." I hope he does. Gentlemen though he is, I certainly don't fancy a real fight with him.


  1. Thanks for another great post Darragh. I really enjoy your writing style - you tell a great story.

  2. Thanks Keith! I found it quite difficult to write - the interview was great but I just didn't know where to start.

    Glad this one seems to have been okay. There'll be more soon :)

  3. Nice piece Darragh, well done. He's a top man.

  4. Thanks John, I was very impressed, as you may have guessed ;)

  5. Great post mate. Seems like a genuine nice guy and a hard worker. Delighted for his success.

  6. 'never been inside a ring before....'

    oh i doubt that vicar ;-)


    Great post man!

  7. Another 'knock-out' post!

    Congrats Darragh and I take my hat off to Kenny for his many achievements. His Mum must be so very proud of him. I shall be following his progress towards London 2012 with new-found interest.

    Go Kenny, Go!

  8. Great post Darragh. I have no interest in boxing, but still enjoyed reading that. My dad, uncles and granddad all used to box. The closest I ever got to a boxing ring was seeing David Gray in the National Stadium last year, and the frames in the Ulster Hall, another big boxing venue in Belfast.
    Keep up the great writing!

  9. What a knock-out post, Darragh. Just how long did you spend with Kenny? What a comprehensive post! The minute details.

    All the photos too! Was there a professional photog on hand? Impressive.

  10. @Anthony - the fact he was so genuine made the interview such a pleasure. I realise how many interviews he's had in the last while so I was grateful for his patience.

    @Ben - shup you, I'll get Kenny after you ;-) but thanks.

    @Steph - Thank you very much. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on.

    @Jennifer - Hey, good to hear from you again! I was a bit like yourself without the interest in boxing until I saw how much work goes into it. Still though David Gray and the Frames are a great combination as well!

    @Alexia - thank you! I spent the best part of an hour interviewing Kenny - most details from himself, the others from online reading. Niamh and I took the photos of the stadium and the others are taken from his Flickr stream, something I've edited the post to reflect, thanks for the reminder!

    To think as well, this was all thanks to Twitter and a great contact. Cheers Stephen!

  11. BPOTM perhaps? ;)

    This post is the sort of thing that would look really well presented in a newspaper or magazine - great picturres, a really well presented story and layout. I have to commend your efforts on this one :)

  12. @thechrisd - cheers Chris. I'm still trying new things out with this medium, so all feedback welcome!