A Bang That Could Have Been Bigger – remembering Willie Casey’s unique career.

The bang was certainly big, but all too brief.

Willie ‘Big Bang’ Casey exploded from nowhere onto the pro scene in the early part of the last decade, but the light emitted from his personal ‘big bang’ lit up the sport for too short a period.

Some may reach for ‘brightest stars burn the quickest’ adage to explain the brevity of his top-end impact but, in truth, some bad decisions shortened the wick.

Such is his desire to appear continuously upbeat and positive, Casey would never admit it, but those around him are aware the Limerick man feels he underachieved. Indeed, when reflecting upon his career, the Limerick man can has a twinge of regret with some of the paths he was advised to take post his monumental European title win.

So, we here at Irish-boxing.com were delighted to learn the former European champion is back in the sport.

The coaching role he has taken up within Team Graham McCormack, albeit minor, gives the now full time welder a chance to make an impact in the sport again and brings a unique, much loved and even inspirational character back into the game.

With Casey about to start what could prove to be a career second chapter we decided to look back at chapter one of one the most interesting Irish boxing innings.

It didn’t always smile on him, but fortune did seem to favour Casey early on in his career.

After just four fights Casey was invited to Canada to fight hot prospect and Tyson Cave. While it was seen as a big chance for the Southill slugger against an opponent tipped for world level, Casey wasn’t expected to win.

The moving of the fight from six to eight rounds last minute increased the pay day and the Irish fighters chances of victory. Indeed, Casey got to the slick operator in the last six minutes, Cave caved in and ‘Big Bang’ registered a stoppage win that raised eyebrows and Casey’s profile.

Luck found Casey again soon after and he found himself in the career changing Prizefighter tournament.

Former world champ Wayne McCullough had to pull out of the knockout Sky Sports broadcast tournament and the Munster man was in.

The diminutive battler took full advantage of his slot in a competition renowned for transforming careers. Not only did his all out action style suit the three round format, but it entertained the fans.

The most casual friendly show in town also provided Casey with the chance to get his unique personality across to a massive audience. It was more Norman Wisdom than Clarke Gable, but the camera and indeed the mic loved the happy-to-be-there star in the making.

By the time he lifted the trophy with a lovable big happy head decorated with an ill-fitted sponsored cap, Casey had won the hearts of all those watching.

It wasn’t quite a star is born, but those in the know were well aware they had a talent and personality that, although quite different to Bernard Dunne, had the ingredients to fill a void left by the Dubliner’s retirement.

The man behind the Dunne era, Brian Peters, certainly noticed Casey’s appeal and he put in a plan in place that would lead to a historic fight.

The next two wins recorded in Cork and CityWest were routine and recorded away from the spotlight, but a Wayne McCullough call out and and defiant response kept the southpaw in the public eye.

“I’ve no disrespect for Wayne McCullough, regardless of what he said. If he feels he’s up for it, well and good for him and all I can say is, ‘let’s get it on’,” said Casey.

After a quick refuel the rocket rise was back on, but not in a fight with the Pocket Rocket. Brian Peters confirmed the Limerick man would fight none other than Kiko Martinez.

Just three years after the Spaniard took just 86 seconds to turn a raucous Point Theatre into an oversized and overpopulated morgue, he was set to face the newest name on the scene.

“He might be unbeaten in Dublin but he hasn’t fought in Limerick yet,” joked Casey.

“Not too many gave me a chance when I went out to Canada to fight the Canadian champ but I knocked him out. Not too many people gave me a chance when I went into the Prizefighter but I ended up winning that as well.”
 
Martinez was relatively unknown in the wider boxing, but was a Darth Vader figure in Irish boxing.

Big Bang would love a clash with Mini Tyson

He has gone on to win world titles and has since become the most loved and respected away fighter to visit to this island, but at that time was a fear figure christened ‘Mini Tyson’ by RTÉ.

It was an easy sell. A fighter who swapped press conference glint to steely glare once the bell rang against the closest thing to Clubber Lang Irish fight fans had seen – and it was to be aired on RTÉ.

However, Peters somehow managed to switch things up and rather than face a fighter with strong Irish boxing history he would take part in a history making fight.

Casey and Tallaght’s Paul Hyland would become the first Irish men to share the ring in a European title fight.

Granted neither fighter had Bernard Dunne appeal, but the narrative made it an easy sell. It was stylist versus slugger, Dublin versus Limerick, coaching legends Phil Sutcliffe versus Paddy Hyland and the self-deprecating give-it-a-go merchant in Casey versus the always confident sweet scientist Hyland.

The pair’s appearance on the Brendan O’Connor show highlighted every divide. Very much in the mould of his father, a dapper Hyland, cravat and all, took the stage with Casey on prime time tv and the pair sold the fight brilliantly.

Neither came off the better in terms of the fight, but Casey’s unique charm shone through and ensured when he returned to the show for a second time viewership records were broke.

The fight itself was better entertainment. The atmosphere in Limerick University was hostile to say the least toward the talented Dub, but he seemed to revel in it smiling his way into the ring.

He cut a relaxed figure and his body language feed the boxer versus fighter theme. The youngest of three boxing brothers looked like he was ready to let his skills pay the bills.

However, the fight played out different. Hyland elected to fight a fired up Casey with fire, it resulted in a classic and ultimately a Limerick win.

Casey and Martinez squared off in the ring after and whet the appetite for what looked as if it was going to be another Irish classic involving the dangerous Spaniard.

‘Mini Tyson’ told ‘Big Bang’ he was just minding the strap, while Casey delighted the thousands in attendance and the hundreds of thousands watching on the box by letting Martinez know no one could take the belt off him.

Again it had that Bernard Dunne feel to it. Here was a fan friendly fighter with a granny grabbing personality who had captured the imagination of the wider public and whose journey the hardcore and the casual could invest in.

The good times were back and here to stay, but as quick as ‘Big Bang’ had exploded onto the scene he was departing.

An offer to fight the then Gary Hyde managed Cuban maestro Guillermo Rigondeaux for the WBA regular world title came in and from that moment on Casey’s momentum was gone.

It was an offer many felt should have been rebuffed and hindsight wasn’t long about proving them right – stopping Casey in extra quick fashion.

The ‘Rigo’ fight not only damaged Casey’s career, but harmed Irish boxing.

Indeed, that one fight could be deemed the overarching catalyst for the current Dublin famine.

Of course, Casey had no responsibility to boxing and had to do what was best for him. At the time he felt would never may never get the chance to fight for a world title again and the party line suggested he was keen to test himself against a former amateur legend.

The ever game St Francis graduate didn’t pass. His 165 seconds in the ring with Rigondeaux saw his fall mirror his quick climb.

The meteoric rise to the head of the queue for a shot at the interim WBA super-bantamweight title had defied boxing convention.

Ten months before, very few outside that environment he inhabits knew his name, but he had managed to bank Prizefighter victory and European title before taking on a legend.

It wasn’t just a brilliantly timed body shot from a somewhat insulted Rigondeaux – get a Spanish speaker to translate his post fight interview – that done the damage career-wise for Casey.

The promotional and managerial subplot and some bad decision was the real knockout blow.

Although terms quite possibly favoured him, Brian Peters did have a safer journey laid out for Casey – and if that road was followed the RTÉ cameras would have followed. There is an argument if Casey and Martinez had have fought on RTÉ and the national broadcaster didn’t feel like they had been given two fingers by the sport they may still be involved.

Nevertheless, DolPhil elected to go it alone. RTÉ were out and TV3 were in. CityWest became the venue and the show was anything but a success.

Again Casey went into the clash confident he could win and felt the opportunity was to good to be turned down – and while he may have been financially rewarded his career suffered as a result.

The RTÉ link was gone and so as a result was access to the wider public, that casual lifeblood was slowing draining away. DolPhil hit the rocks and Casey was left somewhat in limbo.

The Frampton fight was still an option and may be one both regret not making, Casey because it would have been a chance to jump straight into the big time spotlight and Frampton because a fight against Casey would certainly have worked wonders for his profile down south.

However, that clash never materalized, another of a long list of Irish boxing shames.

The Limerick southpaw soon teamed up with Gary Hyde, the man who plotted his demise in terms of bringing the sensational Cuban to Ireland to defeat him, and relocated to Northern Ireland to train with Paul McCullagh and the then Emerald Boxing crew.

There were good wins against Daniel Kodjo Sassou and, especially, Jason Booth either side of a dubious defeat in Norway to Andreas Evensen in 2012. Indeed his post Rigondeaux CV is surprisingly strong, but a fighter who had captured the imagination of the Irish public after 10 fights and seven nights in the ring was now operating under the radar.

The Frampton fight was still discussed, but as time passed it looked more like a payday for the Munster favourite than what was once deemed as a fight with Scott Quigg-Frampton hype capabilities.

Casey jumped up the weights to fight Marco McCullough in 2013 and it was rumoured victory in that one would have paved the way for a ‘Jackal’ meeting, but the Belfast man was too big and inflicted a third career defeat on Casey.

Two more fights followed, interestingly enough both on Cyclone Promotions cards, but there was no return to massive spotlight nor even a big send off for a unique but very important career.

The bang was certainly big, but all too brief.

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sport for a living for 19 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: editoririshboxing@gmail.com