By Paul Gibson follow Paul on Twitter @BallsOfWrath
It takes no great time, effort nor Poirot-esque powers of deduction, to pinpoint Anto Connolly’s three priorities in life. In a very particular order they are as follows: family (partner Dee and young boys, Wyatt and Fionn), craft (professional boxer) and football team (Glasgow Celtic).
The first literally screams out its presence to me from over 9,000 miles away the instant Connolly answers my phone call – it is 10 week old Fionn articulating his concerns over Dee’s attempts to change and put him down for the night, while two year old Wyatt watches on knowingly.
Anto emigrated from Dublin four years ago on a working holiday visa and, finding the quality of life on Australia’s south western coast to be entirely to his liking, he never had much intention of using his return ticket. Meeting Dee and starting an Austral-Irish family sealed the deal and Perth has been home ever since.
Recently, with priority number one going well, priority number two began to make its voice heard once again. It must have made a compelling argument for, following a ten year absence from the sport, Connolly has been drawn back into the sweet science’s thorny embrace.
He was a decent junior back home in Clondalkin, a working class area of south west Dublin that has produced such prized pugilists as Bernard Dunne, Kenny Egan and Conor McGregor. Good enough, in fact, to win Irish titles. Amongst his scalps was Ireland’s current top Welterweight, Dean Byrne. The two men are still close and Connolly credits Byrne’s encouragement and support as one of the big drivers behind his ring return.
But after years of drifting in and out of the ring, he left the scene altogether in his late teens. “I always knew I had the confidence and the ability, it was a lack of dedication and willpower when I was younger that stopped me going on and winning international medals. In going back into the boxing gym now, I’m looking for a bit of closure.”
Connolly, a boxing nut who states that since the age of 14 he hasn’t read or watched anything that was not connected to the sport, has only ever had one dream: to contest a professional boxing bout. This year, at the age of 29, the dream came true.
Photos from that encounter with Thailand’s Payak Sithpajuk also show priority number three coming to the fore. Decked out in the green and white hoops of his beloved football team, his only disappointment was that a new pair of boots covered half of the Celtic-inspired tattoos that adorn his calves.
Anto tells me that he would have left the ring in Western Australia that night with a smile on his face even if he had been knocked out in the first round. As it happened, it was his opponent who suffered that fate and Connolly’s dreams are thus rapidly expanding in their scope.
“Why not push on now, why can’t I make that dream bigger?” he states rhetorically. “It’s only myself that can decide to put a stop to the dream or to continue moving forward.”
Chasing these dreams is further reason to stay down under, for Anto fights at that most exiguous of divisions: Minimumweight. “If I had to go back to Ireland now, I may as well just call it a day with the boxing. From where would they fly in an opponent for me?”
It is a valid question. Though the five foot four inch Connolly walks around at 48kg, few other fighting men in the northern hemisphere do likewise. He is the first ever Irishman at the weight and searching on Boxrec for potential British, or even European, rivals results in a “No Data Found” message.
Boxing’s lightest category tends to be dominated by the naturally smaller-framed Asians and Mexicans, with the odd South African thrown in for good measure. The Pan-Asian arena is very much Connolly’s target market and a base in Australia is ideal to mount a title challenge.
This he hopes to do quicker than you might expect. Part of the reason for this is that Minimumweight is the most sparsely populated of all boxing’s weight classes. While 1,708 professionals are listed as campaigning at Lightweight, there are less than 300 Minimumweights operating today. Put a different way, that is 1,400 less obstacles to claiming one of the belts on offer.
As Connolly points out, “the nature of this division, you go on an eight, nine, ten fight winning streak and suddenly you can get a crack at a genuine world title.”
First up may be a shot at the WBO or IBF Asian Pacific belts that are due to fall vacant in the middle of 2015. Anto sees no reason why he shouldn’t be throwing his hat in the ring for either and points to the careers of two fellow Irishmen down under in TJ Doheny and Jake Hanney as justification for his belief.
New South Wales-based Super Bantamweight Doheny won a vacant Pan Asian Boxing Association belt in his fifth contest while, in Sydney, Welterweight prospect Hanney is in line for a PABA title shot after just four fights.
More importantly than citing precedents, however, Connolly backs his own talent to earn him an opportunity. “I’ve good footwork, pros like Sam Hogan [unbeaten Australian Light Middleweight prospect] are getting in the ring with me just to watch how I move my feet. I’ve a good chin, fast hands, I’m a natural at 47.6kg and I carry power for the weight.”
In addition, as a late bloomer, Anto bears none of the mental or physical scars from brutal ring wars that some contemporaries may be carrying. A keen student of boxing, he also points out that, at the lower weights, it is not as uncommon for a boxer to emerge in their late twenties. Indeed, looking at the rankings, six of the top fifteen are over thirty years of age with a seventh in his forties.
The ingredients are all there, all Anto needs is a decent pot to stir them in. A carpenter by trade, he spends his days waterproofing residential properties in the Perth suburbs. But whereas a younger single man can spend his cash on strength and conditioning, Connolly prioritises his family’s needs when his pay packet arrives.
He has recently linked up with CDL Boxing Promotions and hopes to be on their upcoming 22nd November 22nd card, but the search goes on for meaningful sponsors keen to join him on his journey and ease some of the financial pressures all fighters face early on in their careers.
As philosophical as ever, Anto knows it is all in his hands, however. “It is up to me to go out there, do the business, and make people want to get involved.”
It is the type of positive attitude the affable Connolly displays throughout our conversation. With quotes like, “there’s no point letting small minds tell you that your dreams are too big”, he could be positioning himself for a run at the motivational speaker circuit when he hangs up the gloves.
But that won’t be for a while yet and, in the meantime, his disposition will stand him in good stead as he deals with the pressure, and simultaneously balances the demands, of a professional boxing career, a full-time job, and a young family.
There may be bumps in the road along the way but, in speaking with Anto, his genuineness tends to make you not just a supporter, but a believer as well. Look out for his name in 2015.