'It's like my life came crashing down on me in the last week'
John Joe Nevin is determined the brutal attack he suffered will not finish his career.
Published 13/04/2014 | 16:30
His father, Martin, opens the door and leads us into a crowded kitchen. We edge towards the sink with our cameras and bags and try to find some space. Later, we will put names to the faces – his father, Martin; his mother, Winnie; his brother, Paddy; his sisters, Mandy and Alice – but for the moment we are strangers. They're wearing black. It feels like a wake.
John Joe Nevin is sitting on an armchair in the far left corner under a portrait of the Sacred Heart. His legs are propped by cushions and a wheelchair. He's wearing a grey hoodie, jean shorts and a white sock. "That's the bad leg," he says, pointing to the bandages and swabs. "That's the one where the bone popped out (through the skin) but they can't put a cast on."
I place a recorder on the counter beside him. He beckons his family to leave the room and within minutes two things are obvious: He is really hurting; and it is not just the wounds.
"I don't want people to see me this way," he says, when I inquire if he has had many visitors. "I want people to know me for what I am, the fighter that I am, and the great movement that I have in my feet. People always talk about the way that I move but not like this."
We meet on Thursday afternoon, a day after he was discharged from the Midland Regional Hospital in Tullamore. His father loaded his wheelchair into the car and they drove straight to Mullingar, where his aunt, Eileen, was lying in a coffin. She was 49, and had died on Monday after a year-long battle with cancer. Her husband gave him a trinket she liked. He intends to wear it until he dies.
"It's like my life came crashing down on me in the last week," he says. "First of all getting told you might never box again and then my aunt going. But I've always been kind of blessed in ways with boxing and that's what motivates me that things might not be too bad. That God will look down on me and see the pain I am going through and say: 'We'll keep you out for a few weeks but you'll be back boxing soon'."
Five months have passed since his decision to turn professional with Green Blood Boxing and Berkeley Sports and Media. Green Blood is Tom Moran, a former manager of Tim Witherspoon, whose ambition was to create an Irish team and sell Irish boxers to the Irish American boxing public in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Nevin would be the cornerstone. In the 103-year history of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, he is the only boxer – besides Katie Taylor – to medal at all of the major championships, Olympic (silver), World (bronze), European (gold), and European Union (gold). And the only boxer, besides Taylor, to make it to No 1 in the International Boxing Association world rankings.
His first fight was scheduled for Boston on March 17 and after six tough rounds with Alberto Candelaria – a previously undefeated Puerto Rican – the kid delivered in style. "There was more pressure on me going into that fight than the Olympics," he says. "I was starting another career and didn't know what to expect. I had never seen him box before, I was fighting at a heavier weight (junior lightweight) and we were using eight-ounce gloves so it was the real deal.
"I hit him with every shot but he had a chin made of stone and I'd never have taken him out of it. But it was a good win. He had never been defeated so it was a great start for me. I could have taken a lad I could beat in one round but this stood to me. I got six rounds with a good lad and was delighted I got the win."
Two days later, he returned to Mullingar. Two weeks after that, he started training again. Last Saturday morning, he was driving to the bookies in Mullingar when the phone rang. "I just can't get my head around it to be honest," he says. "One minute I'm driving with my brother to have a bet and an hour later I end up in hospital with my two legs broken."
"What happened?" I ask.
The call was from his father. A caller to the house had asked if John Joe would intervene in a dispute he was having with his sons. "He wanted me to go and have a word with them," Nevin says, "so me and Paddy went straight up there and I walked over and started speaking with them. They were quite understanding at first but it all happened in a split second." He remembers that the wife of one of the men "was in the house and she came out with what was believed to be the weapons."
"She gave them the golf club?" I ask.
"It was a golf club and a piece of stick. The two of them started beating me. I retaliated in self-defence but had already been badly injured. I tried to get up and tussle with him and the doctors reckon that when I did, the other bone snapped in my leg. I fell to the ground and saw the bone and tried to push it in. I was screaming to my brother, 'I can't get my leg right' and they were beating me at the same time.
"It happened so quickly. I remember some lad coming in and he asked them, 'Can I just get him to the hospital? Will you please just let him out of the yard?' I thought I would have been killed because any man that hits a golf stick and takes my bone out in one slap . . . if it had been my head it was good night."
"It's an act of savagery," I suggest.
"Yeah, it is."
"Why would they be so vicious against someone who is regarded as a national hero? Why would they do something so hateful?"
"The only reason I can think of now, when we look back on it, is that there was a bit of jealousy there, I think."
"We've had a call saying it was related to a relationship you were having with a woman."
"No, that's not . . ."
"It's not true?"
The pain from his shattered right leg was excruciating. He was taken to the hospital in Mullingar and then by ambulance to Tullamore, where he was operated on that evening, and again on Monday. On Tuesday, when he could not stand on crutches, an X-ray revealed his left leg was broken too and he was forced into a wheelchair he hasn't used since he got home.
"When do you think you'll go out?" I ask.
"Whenever I'm fit in my own head that I want people to see me. The way they remember me."
"How long will that take?"
"Whatever it takes.
"You've got the wheelchair?"
"But you won't go out in that?
"It's not about being in the wheelchair; I don't want people to see me like this. I should be . . . I'm always the busy-body around Mullingar, running in the streets or in my car (a 5-series BMW) driving around. It's just not like me."
"Your pride has been hurt?"
In August 2012, a month after he had returned from the London Olympics with a silver medal, he was asked by Miriam O'Callaghan if he thought his success had made people look at Travellers differently. "I'd like to think so," he replied. "That was the plan. I've never denied where I've come from, and always went out to do well for my community."
I show him a headline from an Irish Independent at the time ('Games can bring Travellers and settled people together – Nevin') and ask how he feels about the coverage of the attack and the anti-Traveller sentiments that have prevailed on the airwaves. "It's really upsetting," he says. "I remember those words, that the Games could bring people together and they did. There was none of this bias. It was just all about John Joe Nevin doing well, and everyone got involved."
His family, friends and phone have been his only source of comfort; some big names – Barry McGuigan, Carl Frampton, Andy Lee, Niall Breslin, Keith Duffy, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor – have sent texts or tweeted messages of support.
"It shows you how far I came in the sport and how much people appreciate me and what I've done for the country," he says. "I know I come from the Travelling community but in their eyes I'm doing something special for the sport and I'm proud of my achievements to date."
"Does that help?" I ask.
"It helps motivate me. It helps me want to get back, for me to be a world champion. I want it more now than ever. Hopefully, somewhere down the line they'll write a movie about this. People have been tweeting me already: 'Who are you going to pick to play your part in Hollywood?' Look at Eamonn Magee – he was in a wheelchair with two broken legs and he ended up being a world champion and defending that title afterwards. So I'm hoping to do the same and do a bit better."
His spirits seem raised as we head towards the doorway. He's hoping to start rehab in three months and to return to the ring in six. "They say the bones set better, stronger when they've broken," he says. "Is that true?"
"I think it is," I reply.
We wish him well.
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