Gloves are on as Murtagh seeks another group winner
By helping to establish a boxing club in Kildare town, Johnny Murtagh is returning to his sporting roots, writes Johnny Ward
Published 10/01/2010 | 05:00
'GOOD lad Lorcan. Are you ready to fight for me?" "I am." "You better be -- I'll need you to fight in two weeks." "I'll be ready."
With that, the youngster scurries away, his round of sparring complete. Showing the technique and agility of a kid who knows what he is doing, he is around the same age now as his coach was when he started boxing nearly three decades ago.
Alas, his coach -- after winning a national title -- abandoned the sport at 15, at least in practice. He went on to become Johnny Murtagh, world-renowned Flat jockey -- but boxing never left him. That much is obvious as he paces around Kildare's fledgling youths' boxing gym in the town's business park, which had its unofficial opening last Thursday evening.
Facilities are as yet rudimentary; moreover, the heating is temporarily out of order, which you expect to prompt a stream of complaints as it is minus seven degrees outside and feels even colder. Not a bit of it.
The relative simplicity of youth is so plain to see: smiling faces, boundless enthusiasm to learn the skills and a willingness to make new friends. And once a dictaphone is commissioned to capture some of this spirit in words, a duet of youngsters suddenly mushrooms into a crowd ten-strong.
The theme quickly becomes apparent: they all want to be boxers. "Well, we wouldn't be here if we didn't," quips Dale, already lacking nothing in confidence at ten years of age. "It's very exciting with Johnny here," offers Dean, 13. "I mean he's a famous jockey." (The best jockey going, according to 11-year-old Darren.)
One declares that he wants to be Muhammad Ali, whose framed photograph is about the only decoration in the hall. I ask another would Johnny have made it as a boxer. "Oh yeah! One-two uniflu!" With that, he fashions a mock uppercut and darts away, laughing.
"We're trying to get as many people as we can in here two nights a week, to give them a bit of discipline, a few goals in life," Murtagh explains. "Everybody needs goals."
He certainly had no shortage of them as a teenager, excelling at many sports until a fateful night in his home county of Meath nearly 25 years ago. To this day, Murtagh does not know who the bystander was at the fight night that evening who told the youngster's mother that her son had all the right attributes to become a jockey. Murtagh's father had harboured the same hope for years but never realised it. It was the beginning of a story that features numerous Group Ones and stardom.
But this gym on a freezing Kildare night is a million miles from the bright lights of fame. For head trainer Paddy Phelan, Murtagh (who completed his coaching course last week) and their six colleagues, there is no monetary reward. The only money that occupies their minds is the grant they hope to get from the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, or the few bob they cobbled together to get the project started.
Murtagh and Phelan met many moons ago, as the former recalls. "I worked with Paddy in John Oxx's and he left to go working on the buildings; he's now a carpenter. I didn't really know him until I bumped into him by chance at Royston Boxing Club in Newbridge. I used to go over to Royston to train in the off-season when it was quiet.
"When I got talking to Paddy, he told me there were a lot of lads from Kildare town going over training to Royston and then just when they started to get good, they'd drop out because it was five miles away, they struggled to get a lift -- and so on."
Murtagh started to ruminate over the prospect of setting up something in Kildare town, near where he lives with his wife Orla and five children. Phelan had tried before a couple of years ago, but the idea ran aground.
"Paddy told me that it would take a bit of doing, but I basically said 'let's get it going' -- and we got moving from there."
They had to start somewhere and so it was -- with minimal equipment and little other than the spirit of the coaches on offer -- they had their first night in the town's CYMS Hall last October. Murtagh, who has ridden in the most pressurised races one can be involved in, often on the hot favourite, was nervous. "I said to Paddy, 'we could have 10, we could have 20', but he said that we'd do well, that there's a big catchment area -- many of them had boxed before but just walked away. I was blown away; 150 turned up, with loads of parents as well."
There were 170 the second night and, looking around last Thursday, some of the parents have stuck around. Among them is Murtagh's weighing room colleague Michael Hussey, whose daughter has taken to boxing with relish. She probably had a word or two with eight-year-old Lauren Murtagh over the course of the night.
That was remarkable, too: the ratio of boys to girls present was far less lopsided than one might have expected. This apparent anomaly can probably be attributed to the achievements of one girl, who can number Ballydoyle's top jockey among her support base. "I think Katie Taylor has done a lot of good for the sport. Both Katie and Bernard Dunne will hopefully be here for our official opening night," he enthuses. "She's a girl, yes, but she was boxer of the year last year between women and men. She's our main hope for [Olympics] 2012; she's a very big gold medal hope. She's very pleasant to meet and I'm a big follower of her."
Mid-chat, the interviewee is distracted, as two on-duty Gardaí enter the hall. He gruffly excuses himself and, momentarily, I am left to wonder if something is amiss. Instead, Murtagh greets the two policemen with genuine regard and introduces Phelan. His handshake firm, the head coach jokes that it is "probably a good thing" that he has not met them before.
In a matter of seconds, all the kids are sitting on the floor, forming an impromptu audience as the two Gardaí take the stage. They extol boxing's many positives and offer their services should the children ever feel in need.
It dawns on me now that there is so much more than two hours of sports practice twice weekly at the heart of this venture. If jockeys are prone at times to muttering little more than what is safe and banal, this is a break from that. Murtagh has grappled with his own demons and won; when he sees a group of eager youths before him as he did last Thursday, he can appreciate that he is helping to form their future. "I'm well aware of what is out there: a lot of drink, a lot of drugs, bumping into the wrong people. In here they'll bump into nice people, they'll make good friends. The guys I boxed with, I still know them. Kids need to be busy and these lads -- from 11 up to 17 -- are at that kind of age where they need a purpose in life and some little goals along the way.
"We're not going to save the world but if everybody does a little it'll go a long way. We brought the Gardaí in (because) . . . this attitude towards the Gardaí in Ireland, you know . . . I feel that people have lost respect for their mothers, their fathers, the Gardaí, whoever.
"They're there to do a job, to protect us and I feel that if any of those young lads have a problem -- be it at home, at school or at work -- they can walk into a Garda station and they can meet these people who they met tonight. The local priest will be coming next week, too.
"We have lost faith and our morals. The way I was brought up you had to respect people. I always remember my father saying make sure you call a fellow 'Mister' until he said to call him otherwise."
Phelan, who has been coaching now for ten years, is also infectiously positive about their project and conscious of what they are trying to achieve. "We're teaching them an art and we're teaching them discipline. Most boxers I knew didn't cause trouble: they went on to be good kids. Johnny is a great bonus to have on board. I went to all the schools and all the kids know Johnny Murtagh. I said to them: 'if we can't make boxers, we'll make a jockey out of you!' Let's be honest: what top sportsman would give two nights a week to coach kids?"
Down the line, hopefully not too far, they will have a standard boxing ring. After that, they hope to have tournaments, catering for the area, the county -- and hopefully even Leinster.
Interview over, Murtagh accompanies me out the door, pausing to joke with the two women who have been there all night to take the kids' names and to offer them apples, oranges and bananas. He drives me to the train station and wonders what I think of the gym.
His life motto is 'The river doesn't need pushing' -- to let life flow in the pattern set out. But with these kids in Kildare, some of life's most memorable chapters are being shaped and written.