by Ronan Mullen
Clad in the blue and gold of his native Premier County, Matthew Macklin soon made it clear that GAA HQ was a press conference venue very much settled upon by design.
“For me, performing in Croke Park has always been the ultimate dream” declared the one-time Tipperary hurling prospect upon his initial return.
And though Birmingham-born Macklin has made peace with watching his county’s pursuit of Liam McCarthy from this side of the touchline, the desire to showcase his wares at Ireland’s sporting mecca has yet to waver.
“You go from hurling for Tipp at under-14 and under-16 to having fought in Madison Square Garden on Paddy’s Day. Those are things you want to achieve when you start your career. But the pinnacle for me would be fighting or defending a world title at Croke Park.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day, however. After all, Macklin hasn’t boxed on Irish soil since he outpointed Rafael Sosa Pintos at the National Stadium in 2009. And while he had been due to return to the South Circular Road for his official homecoming this past August, an untimely injury to then trainer Jamie Moore put paid to those plans.
Fittingly, the rescheduled date of November 15 will mark almost five years to the day since his last outing in Dublin. If that constitutes a significant stretch of time by any standard, it’s practically an archaeological age in boxing terms.
Having stepped out of the ring in 2009 a fighter still very much on the road from domestic honours to the world scene, the 32-year-old nowadays has his feet firmly tucked under the sport’s top table.
Although yet to capture the ultimate prize, Macklin is now a veteran of three commendable world title tilts. To say the first of these, a 2011 split-decision loss to Felix Sturm, was controversial would be an understatement. Indeed, the post-fight recriminations suggested that amongst the only people in Cologne who didn’t think the visitor had won the bout were the trio of judges charged with scoring it. Macklin, for his part, would eventually get a second bite of the cherry on St. Patrick’s Day of the following year.
Once more he was lauded for his showing, this time pushing hall of fame shoe-in Sergio Martinez to the pin of his collar before falling on his sword in the final stanza. In comparison to those which preceded it, however, the most recent of Macklin’s ill-fated title challenges turned out to be altogether more humbling.
A third-round howitzer from Gennady Golovkin would ultimately leave him not only nursing a broken heart, but a pair of broken ribs for good measure. While losing in that manner to anyone else would have been detrimental to his future prospects in a stacked 160-pound division, coming up short against the heavy-handed Kazakh has proven very much par for the course.
Loath as he may be to admit it, on some level Macklin will have known he was betting with house money as he stepped through the ropes that night at Connecticut’s Foxwood Casino. Eighteen months on, however, the man they call ‘Mack The Knife’ is hoping to lay the foundations for one last shot at the middleweight jackpot.
Although a win in his upcoming encounter would launch him very much into the reckoning in that regard, he knows better than to consider it a means to an end. Indeed, Saturday night’s match-up with Jorge Sebastian Heiland tallies among the toughest non-title bouts of his career.
While the fight, having been ratified by the WBC as an official eliminator for their belt, offers Macklin a tangible route to world championship challenge number four, Heiland will justifiably have designs on securing a maiden bid of his own for 2015. As incumbent holder of the WBC’s Intercontinental title, he’s already laid a marker in that respect.
A win over his esteemed host on Saturday would allow the Argentine to lay another. Macklin, however, emits the air of a man not quite ready to accede to the role of middleweight gatekeeper just yet. Having seen Carl Frampton give professional boxing north of the border a new lease of life, the two-time European champion returns to Dublin with the expressed intention of doing likewise in the south.
After all, not since the heady days of Bernard Dunne has the sport truly pervaded the public consciousness in these parts. While Belfast prodigies such as Jamie Conlan and Marco McCullough have flourished in Frampton’s blazed trail, the returning Macklin will also be hoping to afford similar opportunities to Ireland’s best and brightest.
Olympic silver-medallist John Joe Nevin, for one, is set to make his home debut as a professional on the 3Arena show. The long-simmering feud between Anthony Fitzgerald and Gary O’Sullivan will also serve as chief support to the main-event, while prospects Declan Geraghty and Jono Carroll have an opportunity to boost their international profiles in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Premature though it might be to suggest Saturday will herald a renaissance for Irish boxing, hope springs eternal.
With Limerick’s Andy Lee and Dublin’s Stephen Ormond firmly on course for title challenges of their own in the new year, a successful Return of the Mack could potentially complete something of hat-trick in that respect. For Macklin the stakes have rarely been higher, but having spent the best part of his 13-year-career trying to raise them, he wouldn’t want it any other way.