Niall Kennedy has defeated dark days and is now ready for fairytale heavyweight headliner

“It’s on an IKEA mantlepiece I’ve made at home.”

Ireland’s most understated heavyweight keeps his first professional belt in a typically unglamorous location.

Wexford 33 year old Niall Kennedy claimed the Massachusetts State heavyweight title back in March, and goes in search of another belt this weekend.

Not usually a man for the spotlight, the Gorey fighter takes centre-stage on Friday night and he is finally starting to come into his own.

The big man looks to upset the odds in Mashantucket, Connecticut when he comes in to face rising local talent and New England champion Alexis Santos [18(15)-1(1)]. The fight tops a DiBella Entertainment bill at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino, and is a million miles from where Kennedy thought he would end up.

Undoubtedly a talented sportsman – Kennedy played in midfield for the Wexford GAA team all the way up through to Under-21s – he has perhaps not yet fulfilled his potential in the ring.

A break in the 2000s coupled with domestic rivals who always seemed to get the better of him, Kennedy left the amateurs with the 2006 Intermediate title being his crowning achievement.

Looking back on his past, Kennedy can scarcely believe how far he’s come, and told Irish-Boxing.com that “for a chap from Willow Park, we were a boxing estate in Gorey, and I would be one of the worst boxers to come out of Willow Park. There were Irish champions from there, and I only ever won one Irish title.”

“I’m not saying I was a bad amateur, but I definitely didn’t box ever to my potential. I drank too much, dark times, stupid times. But from where I’ve come from, to where I am.. I’m headlining a show in Foxwoods Casino in America!”

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Fiercely loyal to his team, Kennedy credits his fantastic rise to trainer Paschal Collins of the Celtic Warriors Gym in Dublin and promoter Ken Casey of Murphys Boxing – and Dropkick Murphys fame.

“I’m blessed having Paschal since day one,” stated Kennedy. “He’s always been honest with me. He eats me out of it because he knows what to expect.”

“Paschal, I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good a man-manager he is. He’s been brilliant for me personally.”

“Who wants a 30 year old heavyweight who doesn’t trash talk, doesn’t build fights, hasn’t got an amateur background, hasn’t an Olympic medal, who takes on people like that? He jumped at it and took me on straight away.”

“I’m lucky that he’s got me in with Ken too. Ken is very similar to Paschal, he’s not a money-motivated person. Very loyal and he has been very good to me.”

“The very first time I met him, he gave me the keys to his house, told me to stay there – I was in the house on my own, he’d never met me before!”

For many, the amatuer code is something of a safe haven, and a move into the pros can often be fraught with difficulties. With Kennedy it is the complete opposite, and a regular lengthy commute has acted as almost a forced therapeutic exercise.

‘Boom Boom Baz’ described how “It’s a 130 mile round trip a day. I trained at home in my darker days. You know, if you’re tired and you’re sitting on the couch, you don’t end up going to training, you stay sitting on the couch.”

“I get in the car and, if I’m in bad form, I’ll start driving up towards here and my mind has to switch on, there’s no point wasting 65 miles of a drive if I’m not going to put it in when I get there.”

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While he credits his team for his success, and thanks his colleagues at An Garda Síochána for their “massive” help, there is one more crucial cog in the Kennedy machine – his family

Wicklow Garda Kennedy was married early last year and recently welcomed his first child. A notoriously hard-worker with good boxing backing, he now feels he has the emotional support and motivation to really kick on.

Kennedy described how “my wife, Niamh, she’s the best support structure I’ve had ever. She knows me really well, she can tell when I’m up, when I’m down. We all have up and down days, it’s about having that person beside you. I’m just blessed that I have her supporting me.”

“Niamh is after having a beautiful little baby boy, so life at the moment is brilliant and this is a drive for me to start providing for my family from boxing as well as from work.”

“I’ve this little, beautiful M.J.. He’s still in the hospital for a while because he came a little bit earlier than we anticipated, but he’s flying it. If he’s fighting in there, I can surely do it in the ring.”

“I’ve suffered a lot in the past from depression, and I think in life you have to have everything in place for it to work out – and for the first time in my life, it just feels right, everything feels right. I’m putting in the effort, and I seem to be getting our the reward. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be beating this lad and moving on.”

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Moving on and supporting his family are big motivators for Kennedy, but he is still at the financially unviable stage of his career. While his fight on Friday wont bring in much, considering the platform, it remains a massive opportunity and a chance to secure some proper pay-days.

Kennedy revealed that “we didn’t care about the money, literally.”

“We’re getting very mediocre money for this fight, we shouldn’t be taking it. But that just shows you how much they [Team Santos] didn’t want me to take it.”

“What we’re getting paid for this fight, I should be getting paid for for fighting in the Red Cow. Paschal told me ‘you’re better than the amount they’re offering,’ but I said ‘this is going to open doors for us, so we’ll take it, we’ll take the fucking door and all!'”

Kennedy does have support, and certainly isn’t look to paint himself as a sob story. Immensely grateful, he notes how “Murphys pay for everything going over and Conal Thomas is after jumping in with me and he’s after helping me in a massive way. He’s given me a fuel card to pay for the diesel, which is massive because I’m in Dublin four days a week, sometimes five. Then there is Fun Palace Casino and the Amber Springs Hotel.”

Should the door get taken on Friday night, Kennedy may be presented with a choice. He is now within touching distance of the top level – and a top level boxer who also works a full time is not generally a thing.

A career-break may be in order, and Kennedy outlined how “I’d love to stay, I love working with the kids in Wicklow, I love going around, into the schools, but it’s going to be something I’m going to have to take a look at.”

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“It’s something that I’m going to have to sit down with work after. Doing this camp, seeing how intense this camp is – the next level, I don’t think I could do it with work.”

“I’m doing all the work, I’m probably training harder than any other heavyweight in the world, I’m fairly confident of that, but I’m not getting the rest periods. I’ll have to have a look at that. I know I have to keep improving.”

Going into the fight with Santos there is certainly a more solid confidence about Kennedy than usual – partly due to a phenomenal training camp and partly due to a brilliant win last time out.

Back in March, in front of a packed-out House of Blues in Boston, Kennedy stopped the strong Jaime Barboza in the eighth and final round to claim the Massachusetts State title. The same opponent had gone the distance with Santos a few months earlier.

While he controlled the fight, it was a tough one for Kennedy and the Yellow Belly learnt a lot both before, during, and after the scrap.

Kennedy recalled how “Paschal was saying to me after that you couldn’t have bought those eight rounds – and then still to have the snap in my punch in the end to get rid of him.”

“I doubt myself, I’ve haven’t got massive self-confidence, but the Barboza fight showed me that I’m a little bit better than I think I am.”

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“He [Barboza] wasn’t a nice fella at all! He was an asshole to me before the fight and I’d never had that before.”

“I’d say this lad [Santos] could do a little bit of that shite as well. I just don’t believe in that. I suppose there are people that you might get a bit of bad blood with, but why if you’ve never met them. I wont bad mouth him, I’ve never bad mouthed anyone in my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity he’s given me and the platform he’s given me.”

Currently in America having flown over on Monday, Kennedy is counting down the minutes until he steps into the ring at Foxwoods.

He’s done all he can do, and what’s left is to deliver.

Kennedy noted how “I’d say I’m boxing at 60% of my potential at the minute. I’ll have to box at 100% of that 60 in this fight or I wont win.”

“Paschal’s happy with me in the sense that we’ve covered plan A, B, and C at this stage and we can deal with whatever he brings to the table.”

“My thing is to empty every last drop that I have in me. I’ve trained very hard, and I think I’ll reap the rewards.”

“Life isn’t a fairytale. It would be a fairytale outcome if I win this fight, but that’s not the end of me regardless, I know where I’m supposed to be.”

Boxing is said to be the loneliest sport in the world, but Kennedy has an army behind him spread across an ocean. From supporters, to teammates, to coaches, and most importantly to family.

“It’s time for me to start repaying them,” he says plainly – and when he returns to the IKEA shelf and the Massachusetts title early next week he adds how “please God I’ll have another belt throw beside it now for the little man.”

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Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie