Saturday 19 August 2017

Paul Kimmage: 'As you watch them embrace and listen to the sobbing there are tears running down your face'

He was then thirty-nine; she was twenty-seven. They (Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe) had been married in January of that year, 1954, despite disharmony in temperament and time: He was tired of publicity; she was thriving on it. He was intolerant of tardiness; she was always late. During their honeymoon in Tokyo an American general had introduced himself and asked if, as a patriotic gesture, she would visit the troops in Korea. She looked at Joe. "It's your honeymoon," he said, shrugging, "go ahead if you want to." She appeared on ten occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned she said, "It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.""Yes, I have," he said. Gay Talese, 'The Silent Season of a Hero'

John Kavanagh and Dylan Tuke: ‘It’s the arrival of Tuke that lifts the roof for the first time. He bounces into the cage and acknowledges the applause: His home. His crowd. His dream’
John Kavanagh and Dylan Tuke: ‘It’s the arrival of Tuke that lifts the roof for the first time. He bounces into the cage and acknowledges the applause: His home. His crowd. His dream’
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

The month was December, 2015. Conor McGregor was going head-to-head with Jose Aldo in Vegas that weekend and the fight was top of the agenda on UTV's now sadly defunct Friday Night Sport. Jody Sheridan, the producer, sent me an email with the details:

"Part One will be a look ahead to the McGregor fight and a chat about the legitimacy of the sport in general. The other guests will be Ash 'The Bash' Daly and Trevor Hogan, so plenty of scope for a good barney. In Part Two we'll touch on the night's rugby and then have a decent chat on the sports books of the year. Any questions just give me a bell."

The question was where to start?

Who in God's name was Ash 'The Bash' Daly?

Was McGregor a legitimate champion or a pantomime act?

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Conor McGregor

Was Mixed Martial Arts really a sport?

How can anyone condone or promote such violence?

The Fighting Irish, a 'Reality Bites' documentary exploring the burgeoning Irish MMA scene, had just aired on RTé and I spent the afternoon preparing for the debate by watching it again. Dylan 'The Nuke' Tuke, a young wannabe McGregor from inner-city Dublin, had confirmed my prejudice; the kid was a human pitbull who spewed profanity and seemed to glory in violence.

"There's a code of honour in boxing that I don't see in MMA," I announced on the show that evening. "Take this kid, Dylan Tuke - he just wants to hurt people." Hogan had watched a lot of MMA and made some interesting counterpoints. Daly was mostly horrified: "You've got Dylan completely wrong," she said. "He's not like that at all."

There was a lot about MMA I didn't understand that evening. And even more about Aisling Daly: I'd no idea she had been the first Irish woman to fight in the UFC. I'd had no idea you could be called 'Ash the Bash' and be articulate and intelligent and (sorry, man's thing) hot. I'd no idea McGregor had floored her once with a punch on his first day in John Kavanagh's gym. I'd no idea Kavanagh had reacted by beating McGregor up. And I had absolutely no idea that Daly was almost a second mother to Tuke and that he called her 'Mama Ash'.

Five weeks ago, curious about their world, I started making regular trips to Kavanagh's gym on the old Naas Road. Ten of his protégés had secured fights on an upcoming BAMMA-BELLATOR promotion at the Point and, as we sat against a wall, watching them sweat and grapple and work, I asked him to paint me some portraits: 'Who are these kids?'

They all had a story: James Gallagher from Strabane; Sinéad Kavanagh from Dublin; Chris Fields from Swords; Niklas Stolz from Germany; Richie Smullen from Arklow; Kiefer Crosbie from Dublin; Blaine O'Driscoll from Dublin; Brian Moore from Wexford, Richard Kiely from Dublin.

But the one who stuck out was Tuke, not because of where he was going - at 19 he was already being acknowledged as the best Irish prospect since McGregor - but because of from where he had come; an unbelievably harrowing upbringing that might easily have destroyed him.

"That's one of the great things about sport," Kavanagh explained. "It gives kids like Dylan a chance. He still has some anger issues, and every now and again I have to bring him into the office and clip him around the ear, but he's getting better.

"And he has a great shot at this. He's a pet project here and this is his family now. And if the fighting doesn't work out I'll have a job for him as a coach because that's another side to his personality: he is kind, considerate and very, very intelligent."

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John Kavanagh, MMA coach of Conor McGreggor during an interview at the One Zero Tech Conference in the RDS. Photo : Tony Gavin 21/10/2016
John Kavanagh

It's Friday evening at the Point. Showtime. O'Driscoll, Crosbie and Kiely have won their fights; Stolz has just been beaten. Kavanagh deposits the German with the medics on the ground floor and then heads upstairs to the dressing room where Tuke is preparing for battle.

The young Dubliner has been on his feet for an hour, sparring with Ciarán Clarke and bouncing off the walls like a firecracker. His fists whirl with perpetual motion:

Pow! Pow! Pow!

His feet dance and bounce and weave:

Bam! Bam! Bam!

He is primed and ready and excited. "Bring out that old man," he shouts of his opponent, Cameron Else. "I'll take him now."

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FIGHTING TALK: Aisling Daly from Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym

Aisling Daly (above) offers some gentle words of encouragement but watches mostly in silence, her face a mask of tension and angst.

Kavanagh smiles and gives the kid a gentle pat, and then an official arrives and gives the order to descend. They are held at the bottom of the stairwell for five minutes and the tension is palpable.

There are no guarantees when you enter the cage.

It is 22:03 when they enter the arena. Four hours have passed since the first fight - a unanimous decision for Dubliner Ian 'Concrete' Cleary over the Englishman, Andy Lofthouse - but it's the arrival of Tuke that lifts the roof for the first time. He bounces into the cage and acknowledges the applause: His home. His crowd. His dream.

"You never heard such cheering."

"Yes I have," he said.

Cameron Else, a 30-year-old from Margate in England, has been around the block a couple of times. He knows an excited young buck when he sees one and Tuke is still on cloud nine and being blinded by the occasion when he's suckered by a punch that sends him crashing to the canvas. The crowd are stunned. Tuke has been humiliated. The referee has stopped the fight after just 20 seconds.

Kavanagh is sickened.

"This sport brings you the highest highs and the lowest lows," he says. "We had a big build-up, everything went perfect - but it's small blows sometimes and the other guy landed. What's next for Dylan? That's up to him. Some fighters will see a loss as a reason to quit, and some see it as an opportunity to learn.

"I know Dylan's personality. I know how he's going to deal with this. I know what he's going to do with it. It's tough when you get put down like that so fast in your home town but he's a sportsman and understands how it goes. He has a famous team-mate, Conor McGregor, who had fast losses and turned it around and went on to become world champion. And I see Tuke doing the same."

Tuke recovers, congratulates his opponent, and is followed by Daly and Chris Fields into the medical room. He spends five minutes answering questions and being examined by the event doctors and tries to make light of what has happened to him. "I feel fine," he laughs. "I'm ready to fight. Bring out that old man!"

Then he looks at 'Mama Ash' and his face just cracks.

Is this pantomime?

It doesn't feel like it.

Is this sport?

I don't know.

But as you watch them embrace and listen to the sobbing there are tears running down your face.

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