By Paul Gibson
For too many centuries to remember, the Irish nation has poured her people far and wide over distant lands. And much like the famous black stout that flows from St James’s Gate Brewery, these brave wandering souls have seeped into the culture and history of every patch of foreign earth on which they have settled.
The vast Irish diaspora numbers more than 80 million and with around half that green army residing in the United States of America, it is little wonder that some of the world’s more raucous March 17th celebrations take place annually along the US Eastern seaboard. Some say New York City, the Big Green Apple every St Patrick’s Day weekend, has a decent claim to be the most boisterous shindig of them all.
The sport of boxing in the US, meanwhile, that traditional domain of the feisty immigrant underclass, is becoming less synonymous with the Irish with every passing generation. When the American Federal Republic was still in its adolescence, the Irish, alongside their Italian and Jewish neighbours, dominated prize fighting in the same way they ruled the ghettos that were born to accommodate the cargo that survived the hell of the coffin ships that crossed the Atlantic.
But by the time Jack Kennedy took up residence in the White House, young Irishmen Stateside had long since found easier ways to earn a buck than stepping between the ropes. Today, a decent Irish American boxer is about as common as a four-leaf clover and so, once again, America must import the human goods direct from the Emerald Isle.
This Saturday in Madison Square Garden, while the Hudson flows green half a mile to the west, a couple of Ireland’s finest fighting exports will do their bit for what East coast promoters dream can one day rival the Cinco de Mayo extravaganzas in the Nevada desert.
The Dublin featherweight, Patrick Hyland, headlines the McMayhem in Midtown show, but on the undercard the Cork middleweight, Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan, is just as big a draw. If you want to Irish up an event, a fighting man from the Rebel County with a Shamrock shaved into the back of his head is always a good way to go.
Having fought in the US four times previously, most recently just two weeks ago, O’Sullivan is no stranger to crossing the Atlantic to earn his living.
“I just head over to fight,” he tells me. “I’ve always said, I have gloves and I’m willing to travel so I’ll fight anyone, anytime, anywhere,” before adding with a laugh that a shamrock-based hairstyle tends to help secure fights in cities like Boston and New York around the middle of March each year.
This week, as fight night rapidly approaches, Spike’s biggest challenge is balancing his physical preparation with the demands of media outlets that know full well the narrative of the Fighting Irish is one that Americans still can’t get enough of. Particularly when the lead protagonist is just a few wins away from following in the footsteps of Andy Lee and Carl Frampton and claiming a world title.
The morning of our conversation alone, O’Sullivan traversed the New York metropolis for televised interviews with Fox and NBC and radio show appearances on six separate stations. A couple of days earlier in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh was as honoured to meet Spike as Spike was Mr Walsh.
It’s just part of the job, part of a boxer’s responsibility to promote a fight and though a naturally reserved guy, O’Sullivan has no problem with it. What must be more difficult is doing it for a month over 3,000 miles from home, particularly when that home is blessed with a wife and three beautiful daughters.
Big Time Boxing – Undercard“I’m a family man so of course I miss my kids, my wife, my mam and dad and my brothers and that but it’s got to be done. The way I look at it is that I’m fighting for their future.”
Spike’s immediate future is the 27 year old Colombian brawler, Milton Nunez. The Irishman is a heavy favourite but Nunez, who has been in with the likes of Gennady Golovkin, Daniel Jacobs, Matt Korobov and Sergio Mora, is no tomato can.
“He’s going to be a bit dangerous,” says Spike. “He’s got 25 knockouts in his 28 wins and when he’s been beaten he’s been beaten by good guys like Golovkin and Jacobs so it should be a tougher test than the previous guy, Larry Smith.” The over-matched Smith was blasted out inside two rounds in Massachusetts at the end of February.
As ever, O’Sullivan is in great shape. When in Ireland he trains in the country’s premier gym, the Celtic Warrior in Dublin, under the watchful eye of Paschal Collins and surrounded by enough talent to provide all the quality sparring he needs. In New York he has been using three different gyms but with sparring partners such as super welterweight star, Boo Boo Andrade, and Mark DeLuca, an unbeaten middleweight prospect that tends to knock out whatever is put in front of him, Spike is wanting for nothing Stateside. That’s good news for it is in the US that O’Sullivan sees himself fighting for the foreseeable future.
“I just can’t get the fights in Europe. Matthew Macklin and Chris Eubank Junior, none of them want to fight me so my immediate future is in the States. They’ve a different attitude out here where they’re willing to fight anybody so, all going well on Saturday, I’ll be back in the ring in April, May and again in June.”
It is largely thanks to O’Sullivan’s link up with US promoter Ken Casey that he is being kept so busy. Casey is the heart and soul of the Boston Celtic Punk group, Dropkick Murphy’s, and is the ideal man to tap into Irish American sentiment and help Spike become the star his talent demands he be.
A fight in Madison Square Garden, for many the iconic home of boxing, is a sign that things are moving in the right direction. Spike has performed in the likes of Wembley Arena, Upton Park, the O2 and the National Stadium in Dublin so he is no stranger to a big venue. But even so, the Garden is special.
“It’s the home of boxing, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically, “and it’s one off the bucket list for sure. I remember getting up in the early hours of the morning with my father and watching fights from the Garden. Evander Holyfield was always my favourite but I watched them all. It’s great to be there now myself so I’m just going to enjoy it, I can’t wait.”
Waiting was something O’Sullivan became reluctantly familiar with as the fights dried up during the three years he was signed with Frank Warren: a period in which he was he should have been entering his prime boxing years. And Warren continues to be somewhat of a thorn in Spike’s side in terms of securing the one fight he wants above all others: Chris Eubank Junior.
The animosity between the two had already been simmering over a low heat when, safe in the knowledge O’Sullivan was already committed to fighting Dublin’s Anthony Fitzgerald last November on the Macklin v Heiland undercard, Eubank Jr. riled the Corkman by telling anyone who would listen what he’d do to Spike should the two meet in the ring.
“After he was mouthing off about this, that and the other, I went straight to Frank Warren’s office in London and said to him, I’ll knock out Fitzgerald first and then I’ll deal with Eubank. They agreed to it verbally but…..” Here he tails off, almost as if there is someone next to him saying, leave it Spike, remember your blood pressure buddy.
A cheeky kiss at the weigh-in, an even cheekier shoulder charge during the ring announcements, and then a right uppercut from hell in the opening round did for Fitzgerald but Spike is still waiting for Warren and Eubank Jr. to come good on that verbal agreement.
He is confident he’ll get his man in the end, however. Money always talks is his view and as it would sell out anywhere in Ireland and most venues in the UK, it is a financial no-brainer for the promoters. And belts, as O’Sullivan is all too aware, are the other great incentive for professional boxers.
“When I get the world title I’ll offer him a shot,” he suggests generously before adding a rather blunt caveat. “I’d love to smash him up, I genuinely would. He’s an arrogant fucker and I’d like to bust him up and knock him on his arrogant ass. That’d be sweet.
Such violent bombast has become so commonplace in boxing that it tends to come across more amusing than threatening these days. But Spike is such a mild-mannered and softly spoken guy, a characteristic magnified by the naturally gentle lilt of his Cork accent, that when he makes such intimidating statements, the menace literally drips from his words.
Roy Keane, born barely a mile away from O’Sullivan on the other side of the River Lee, is cut from a similar cloth. Your first impression is that neither would say boo to a goose. But it soon becomes clear that they’d quietly rip the feathered fucker’s head off if he looked at them sideways.
Despite the relative safety of being on the other end of a telephone line, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I judge it prudent to move the conversation on to less treacherous ground and the happier fact that Spike has the promise of a first crack at a world strap himself.
Old foe, Billy Joe Saunders, who outpointed an undercooked O’Sullivan back in the summer of 2013, has said he’ll make his first defence against his friend should he make it to the top of the pile. Spike helped Saunders prepare for his European title fight with Emanuele Blandamura and can’t speak highly enough about the British Olympian and number one ranked middleweight contender.
“I get on really well with Billy Joe. I went over and sparred with him for a week before his Blandamura fight and I couldn’t have been treated any better by himself, his family and his friends. He’s an absolute gentleman and I’m sure he’ll be true to his word.”
But Spike is not a man to get ahead of himself and his focus this week is 100% on Milton Nunez. Victory is expected though and once achieved, it would be rude not to celebrate it in New York over St Patrick’s Day weekend without a drop or two of the black stuff.
This pleasant thought led us to discuss the challenges of finding top quality Guinness and while Ken Casey is probably as good a man as any to locate a decent pint in NYC, he’ll be doing some to match the quality of product and drinking partner Spike is used to back home.
In honour of being the first native of Cork to win a WBO belt, fellow Munsterman and Irish President, Michael D Higgins, invited O’Sullivan to his official residence for lunch. Pints of Guinness were poured and Spike confirms “they were good, very good.”
String together a few wins in the US, and then beat a BJ Saunders or a Chris Eubank Jr. for a world title at a sold out Pairc Ui Chaoimh, and there’ll be more than free Guinness offered to Spike O’Sullivan. They’ll probably give him the keys to the city and every bar in it.