Wednesday 16 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: Fighting fit for his record bid

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Kenny Egan's senses are alive again, his life beautifully mundane.

If history sits on his shoulder, it feels weightless. Tonight, you see, isn't so much a story of records or milestones as one of recovered faith. He goes to the National Stadium with enough optimism in his soul to light up a small city.

Last week, Jim O'Sullivan dipped his head in the dressing-room door to wish him God-speed with the record bid. Jim won 10 national titles in the late '80s and early '90s in a long, meandering career that embraced several different weights. Kenny's now trying to match that figure in a single straight line. Jim shook his hand firmly and offered heartfelt encouragement. A lovely, gentlemanly gesture.

Ten consecutive titles has never been done before. If Egan beats Belfast teenager Tommy McCarthy in this evening's light-heavyweight final, he will, essentially, have separated himself from the rest of his sport. It will also be his eighth consecutive title in a single weight division, a feat only ever previously achieved by Mick Dowling.

Immortality

So Kenny Egan is, arguably, just nine minutes of boxing away from immortality. That thought triggers a wistful chuckle from the Olympic silver-medalist. Having followed his older brother Willie to Neilstown gym at the age of nine, Kenny boxed in All-Ireland finals at ages 11, 12 and 13, losing all three.

"I remember thinking 'ah here, this is not worth it!'" he smiles. "I just thought I was in the wrong sport altogether."

He has since established himself as Ireland's most decorated amateur boxer of all time. Billy Walsh, head coach of the High Performance Programme, believes that an Egan victory tonight will set a standard of achievement that may never be repeated.

"It's hard to believe that, in this day and age, we have a guy who is so committed to amateur boxing that he's now going for 10 consecutive national senior titles," explains Walsh. "I thought we'd never see another boxer do it after Jim O'Sullivan.

"I suppose Michael Carruth's Olympic gold medal makes him our greatest amateur boxer. But Kenny wasn't too far away from that in Beijing, he's been a European medalist, he's been to the top eight in the World Championships three times. So he's been our most consistent and decorated boxer in the history of the sport.

"And the thing about Kenny is, if he wins this, he isn't finished. There's still another few years left in him. I know his ambition is to go to London and, by the time that comes around, there could be another one or two to be added to it. Hopefully."

Mention of the next Olympics, naturally, triggers slightly melancholy reflections on the last. Egan travelled to London last Sunday to witness the remarkable construction effort under way for the 2012 Games.

"I got the goosebumps on the back of the neck again," he smiles. Qualifying for London begins at next year's World Championships in Korea and he feels incredulous that "it's coming around again so quick".

Beijing ennobled and scarred him in just about equal measure. He came home to a media lusting for tittle-tattle on the poster-boy of a triumphant team and found himself walking into propellers. By the time he defended his Irish title, he was in poor physical shape and, though beating McCarthy 9-5 in a turgid final, he overheard unpleasantness in the crowd.

Soon after, he went missing for an international against the US, relocating to New York for a week from where, unwisely, he chose to Twitter updates on his state of mind. And, short of having his face on 'Wanted' posters tacked to lamp-posts, Kenny Egan couldn't have come home feeling more like a fugitive.

"When I came back from the Games, there was an awful lot of pressure on me to win the Irish title again in 2009," he now reflects honestly. "And, to be honest, I wasn't training at 100pc capacity. I think it was my worst seniors performance of them all.

"I boxed terrible. Even though I won the fight and came back into the centre of the ring to have my hand raised, in my head all the hassle that was happening outside the ring was dragging me down.

"Last year was just a disaster inside and outside the ring. I'm just a normal fella, same as all the other lads I hang around with. I've still got the exact same mates I had before Beijing. The only thing that's changed is the way other people seem to see me.

"An awful lot of people outside that circle tend to just look at me as someone famous, a fella walking around like a superstar. But that's not me. Then I have people taking pictures of me if I'm out having a pint and, all of a sudden, it's 'Egan's on the p**s again!'. That kind of stuff.

"And it's hard to actually adjust to that. For a while, there were people ringing the house, wanting to talk about this, that or the other. Wanting to talk about New York. And me Ma would just tell them I wasn't there.

Ridiculous

"I mean, it's in the past. I slipped up, I apologised. There's earthquakes happening around the world, people dying and some journalists still want to talk to me about New York! It's ridiculous."

The nadir, of course, came with news of Darren Sutherland's tragic death. Egan remembers the Monday night vividly, the sudden blizzard of phone-calls, the Sky News bulletin and -- eventually -- the dreadful, confirming exchange with Billy.

"Is it true?"

"It's true."

He says now: "I don't know what happened and I still can't believe he's gone. Darren did everything right in his life, from diet, to training, to rest. He just wanted to be a champion. He didn't drink and he didn't suffer from depression. He was a happy-go-lucky guy who loved his boxing. When you spoke to him, he talked about nothing else.

"I can only imagine that he was a little down in himself. It's happened to me a few times since Beijing. But I was lucky enough to be still living in the same house with my family. Darren was over in London on his own. I don't know if that played a part, but it must have been hard. It's still so hard to get your head around..."

Kenny is respectful of tonight's teenage opponent, McCarthy, a bronze medal-winner at the '08 World Youths Championships in Mexico. But the champion's form has been strikingly sharp in his two fights to date, landing heavily, conceding little.

There is serenity in his life again and he has seen the foundations go down for Neilstown's new gym, due to open in December.

"Mentally, I'm flying," Kenny Egan smiles. "And I'm in an awful lot better shape than I was last year.

"If I make it 10, I know it's a place in history. And, if that happens, great. But I'd love to be alive and kicking to see the record being broken again. I'd love to walk up to the ring and shake the guy's hand. Even if I'm 106!"

Irish Independent

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