He’s young, gifted and Irish and may well be one of the hottest prospects in world boxing today. A bold statement maybe but one that is gathering support among seasoned observers who are watching developments in Bernard Dunne’s career with growing interest. However there is one man who is refusing to be carried away by all the hype and bluster and that’s the man himself. Dunne’s good in fact he’s very good and he’s not shy about telling you but he also knows that for a novice in the minefield that is professional boxing disaster is only a punch away while glory takes years of blood, sweat and tears.
Many back at home were surprised to see Ireland’s best amateur make the transition to the pro game at the relatively young age of 21. The Neilstown man had only just missed out on qualifying for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and indeed eventually made it Down Under as a reserve. Although he wasn’t called upon in Australia it looked like Dunne would surely travel to Athens 2004 as Ireland best chance of repeating the 1992 successes of Wayne McCullough and Michael Carruth.
It wasn’t to be though and the dawn of 2001 saw Dunne’s attention turn to bigger goals. He left his head guard and vest behind with an excellent record of 119 wins against only 11 defeats having remained unbeaten in all domestic contests from schoolboy right up to senior level picking up thirteen Irish titles along the way. Giving up the Olympic dream wasn’t an easy decision though. Dad Brendan was a three time National light flyweight champion who had represented Ireland at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Bernard’s decision to turn pro meant that he would forego the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps and live the Olympic dream.
Never one to dwell on the past though Dunne prefers to look to his own future and that of Ireland’s future Olympians. While on a short visit home earlier in the year Dunne made sure to take in the National Senior finals and he was clearly impressed with what he saw, “I thought the standard of this years championships were very high” said Dunne.
“The thing that impressed me most was that a lot of this years champions are very young guys. A lot of the guys in the finals were under twenty. You had a lot of guys still in their teens and while next years Olympics might be too soon the next ones should be fabulous for those guys. They’ll be picking up the experience now and they can carry that in to the next Olympics. They should still be trying for Athens but they’re so young that it’s not the be all and end all.”
“There’s definitely some real talent there, especially in the lighter weights, the bantams and featherweights really impressed me. You had the two Belfast guys, Gillen and Lindsey in the bantamweight final and Stephen Ormond from Quarryvale at featherweight. With those guys Ireland has a lot to look forward to for the future.”
And if Ireland has a lot to look forward to from an amateur point of view then in the shape of Dunne the future looks very bright in professional terms. It was clear from an early age that Dunne was a prodigious talent. Sparring with then W.B.C. bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough at the tender age of fifteen gave Dunne a glimpse inside the world of a champion and he wanted in. Once the decision had been made to turn pro Dunne knew that he would have to follow in McCullough’s footsteps and cross the Atlantic.
Utilising manager Brian Peters excellent U.S. connections Dunne set off for Los Angeles leaving behind friends and family as he started out on the road to glory. It wasn’t an easy decision and while Dunne has now settled into life alongside the rich and famous in Hollywood he admits to suffering from homesickness on an ongoing basis, “I’d go home tomorrow if I could. If it was possible to do what I’m doing here back home I’d be there in a flash. I’m here for one thing only and that’s to box. The sparring is just phenomenal over here. I never got sparring in the amateurs. In the three years before the Olympics I very rarely got sparring. If I had that kind of competitive sparring at home maybe I would have fulfilled my amateur potential instead of not achieving the goals I had set for myself. But I’m out here now and I’m getting everything I want and boxing wise it’s been fantastic, absolutely fantastic.”
One boxer who Dunne is unlikely to be mixing with in Los Angeles is Scotland’s Alex Arthur. The highly rated Edinburgh super featherweight was hoping to secure the services of Roach for his corner but Dunne isn’t so sure, “I don’t think that’s going to happen now. It’s a pity because Alex is a really nice guy and he’d be great work for me and everyone else in the gym. Me and Alex got on really well in the amateurs, we were good pals and he would have been good company over here.”
While life inside the ropes couldn’t have gone any better it hasn’t always plain sailing outside the ring. Visa delays, the financial collapse of promotional firm America Presents and injury limited opportunities in the early stages of his pro career but it was a brain scan irregularity last October that created cause for most concern. Thankfully it quickly became apparent that the scan had been flawed but rather than rush back into the ring Dunne made sure to get the issue cleared up once and for all by undergoing follow up scans that were reviewed by a number of eminent neurosurgeons Stateside.
The all clear meant that Dunne was free to resume his career and begin a lucrative three year promotional deal with Sugar Ray Leonard but the scare left him doubly determined to make the most of his talent. “I nearly had it all taken away from me”, admitted Dunne “but if that’s going to happen I’d rather it happened in the ring. It’s just made me work even harder since then for what I want to achieve in the sport.”
Inking terms with the former ring legend turned promoter was another key moment in the youngster’s career. Leonard has a T.V. contract with U.S. cable network ESPN giving Dunne valuable exposure to the American public. However while the Neilstown man has impressed in his six outings to date it been his performances behind closed doors that have really got tongues wagging. Right from the off Dunne was thrown in at the deep end in sparring at the WildCard Gym mixing it up with world champions like Johnny Tapia, Manny Pacquiao and “Famoso” Hernandez. While that’s an impressive enough feat in itself it’s been Dunne’s recent sparring sessions with “Sugar” Shane Mosley that have made hardened fight observers sit up and take notice.
When Dunne was signing professional terms back in 2001 Mosley was considered by many to be the best fighter pound for pound in the world. Back to back defeats at the hands of Vernon Forrest in 2002 cost him that status but a second win over Oscar De La Hoya in their upcoming rematch in September would see him go some way to reclaiming top spot. The fact that Dunne appears so comfortable in sparring with a seasoned pro who apart from being one of the worlds best fighters is also around two stones heavier than the Dubliner speaks volumes for Dunne’s ability.
“I’ve been sparring with them all at this stage, top guys like Johnny Tapia, Willie Jorrin, Manny Pacquaio, Israel Vasquez, Shane Mosley, Paul Spadafora……. I’ve been in with all those guys and acquitted myself really well with every single one of them.”
“You see these guys on T.V. and think, wow, these guys are brilliant but when I get in the ring with them I’m on a level playing pitch. It gives me an awful lot of confidence then when I actually get in to the ring and box guys who are at the same level as me career wise but I’m that much ahead of them because of the sparring I’m getting.”
Despite the rave reviews from those who have been privileged to watch his sparring sessions with Mosley, Dunne is refusing to get carried away. “I think some people are getting a little too excited too quickly. You know they’re talking about me as a top twenty contender and saying that I should be fighting for a title by a certain time. But you have to pull the reins back a little and take your time. You’ve got to learn to talk before you walk basically.
“I’m just putting in the foundations at the moment but the hype that has been following me is unreal at times. I suppose that comes from working with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Freddie. When you have those guys around you people assume that “oh, he’s going to be a two time world champ and the greatest since whoever. All that stuff is further down the line right now it’s all about building a foundation over the next year or so and then we’ll see what happens.”
With that in mind Dunne is equally mature and honest when discussing the chances of showcasing his talents back in his home city. “To box back in Dublin in front of a home crowd would be a dream come true but I want to make my name here first and then go home and show everyone what I can do. I don’t want to fight at home until I’m the finished article. There’s no point in me going back now and people saying, “Oh Bernard Dunne, he’s supposed to be this and that but he’s not really up there yet.” I want to get up there and say ok, this is what I’ve done.”
So for the time being Irish fight fans will have to follow Dunne from a distance. The next step in his blossoming career comes this Friday night when he has his second scheduled six rounder. In the opposite corner at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut will be Terrell Hargrove. The Kentucky native has a record of six wins against five losses and looks a durable enough sort. However with T.V. exposure practically guaranteed and a host of relations making the trip from Boston Dunne will be out to impress and that could mean a short and painful nights work for Hargrove.
Oops there we go again, already looking beyond the next step and onto bigger and better things for Ireland’s brightest prospect. We should be thankful that in the midst of all the hype and excitement at least one man isn’t getting carried away with it all.