Boxing: The bubble had to burst for Dunne and for Dublin
Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00
Last Friday night Bernard Dunne felt obliged to announce his retirement from the ring on national television.
It was a brief appearance on the Late Late Show but he was still in danger of wearing out his welcome. There was no great emotional outpouring from the audience nor, we suspect, from the people watching at home.
The public's relationship with Dunne had been more of a passing fancy than a lasting love affair. He hadn't stayed at the top long enough to put down roots in the nation's affections.
The first defence of his world title ended in trauma. Dunne's reign as world super bantamweight champion lasted three rounds. A week later, he was on the Late Late pouring out his troubles: the people sympathised and then moved on.
That was almost five months ago. When he turned up on the same show last Friday, few people cared -- he was yesterday's man.
It's forgivable for a fighter to believe his own hype, indeed it's almost a necessity. But there's no excuse when journalists swallow the hyperbole hook, line and sinker too.
The Bernard Dunne story revealed a section of the Irish sports media at its parochial worst. They ignored the inconvenient reality that Dunne was a big fish in a small pond. They didn't critique his fundamental flaws -- the paltry defence and limited power. They didn't question that his record was built on carefully-selected journeymen. They were in denial about his actual stature in the game.
They solved the American question by pretending it didn't exist. But America is the only country that matters in boxing and he wasn't even mapped there. As the cheerleading reached its crescendo on the night he beat Ricardo Cordoba, the silence from America was even more deafening. Bernard Dunne was strictly small-time: a local hero who once had been a small fish in a big pond before heading back to Dublin.
He'd spent the first three years of his professional career in the United States. He was apprenticed to the master trainer Freddie Roach in Los Angeles. He fought and won 14 times in America but it was his final fight there, in August 2004, that set the alarm bells ringing.
Matched against a rugged Mexican named Adrian Valdez, Dunne was cut in the first round and ended the bout in what would become a familiar sight: his face a mess of blood and bruises. The pyramid of boxing talent in the States is wide and deep; Valdez was rated a mediocre pro there but, according to some ringside witnesses that night, he was too good for Dunne who was deemed fortunate to get the points decision. It was his last fight on American soil: how long he would have lasted there remains an open question.
The second half of his career began in Dublin in February 2005 and it was from this point on that the bandwagon started to roll. And it wasn't long before the alarm bells starting ringing again. In just his second fight back home he was floored twice in the 10th round by Yuri Voronin and was lucky to survive.
Jimmy Magee had spent the night slavering over Dunne's alleged brilliance; he barely mentioned Voronin in his commentary and could hardly bring himself to acknowledge that the Ukrainian had landed the almost-disastrous blows. But by then RTE had come onboard the bandwagon in a deal engineered by Dunne's manager, Brian Peters, and had abandoned even the pretence of objective coverage. The RTE deal was instrumental in driving the hype and transforming a marginal fighter on the international stage into an all-conquering star in his home country.
Dunne was a stylish boxer with quick hands. One of his best performances came against Esham Pickering on the night they fought for the European title in November '06. The European title might have been boxing's equivalent of soccer's Intertoto Cup but it kept Dunne's name up in lights as a sycophantic local media continued feeding the guff to a gullible public.
Then along came Kiko Martinez. The ferocious little Spaniard drove a wrecking ball through everyone's delusions in the space of 90 seconds in August 2007. It
was to Dunne's great credit that he managed to overcome the devastation wrought upon him that night. But it took a lot of Peters' money to lure Cordoba, the champion, to Dublin -- for Dunne to have any chance, it had to be on home soil.
During that epic fight, Dunne finally proved that there was substance beneath the style. He went deep into his system to survive an 11-round war and found the fighting hunger he needed. It was an immense performance.
It was also a one-off. He was in the big league now and could no longer be sheltered. Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym came to Dublin six months later and brutally exposed the champion's limitations.
Dunne essentially was a Celtic Tiger phenomenon: a bubble fighter in a bubble economy. Dublin was a boom town, people were happy to flash the cash for a night of blood lust and patriotic baying down at The O2. Thousands of 'fight fans' sprung up overnight to acclaim a boxer whose charisma outside the ring exceeded his class inside it.
Dunne had real courage, and a fighter's heart, but the reckoning had to come some time -- for his boosters in the media, for the city itself and for its hometown hero.