Boxing: Dunne and dusted
FOR most retiring boxers there is always the obligatory encore. But Bernard Dunne's announcement yesterday that he had decided to hang up his gloves, somehow had a finality about it. There is wise counsel in his decision to let go of a lifelong love.
At 30 years of age he has relatively low mileage on the clock, 30 bouts, 165 rounds in over nine years as a professional. Even for a super bantamweight that is no more than a decent 'run-in'.
By comparison, Ricardo Cordoba, the 25-year-old Panamanian, has already 36 fights to his name.
But it's the scale of his only two defeats that will have weighed heaviest on the minds of Dunne and his close associates, who have watched his career rise, fall, and rise again before that crashing fall in the 02 Arena last September.
So devastating, so ruthless was the Thai, Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym, in dispatching Dunne after only three rounds, that there seemed little point in overstaying his welcome in the game. What would be the point when a lifetime ambition had already been achieved.
He'd been down the road of recovery before, and he's been through his quota of ham and eggers. The route to redemption again was stacked with just too many odds against him. The point where future wellbeing overrides battered pride has been reached.
And anyway the environment of super bantamweight is an increasingly tough one. Some of the division's tougher nuts have moved up to featherweight, Israel Vazquez among them, but the landscape that Dunne would occupy is still populated by rugged fighters. Poonsawat is three years unbeaten, Cordoba has put that night in Dublin behind him and Celestino Caballero heads the current cast.
Dunne might bristle at the notion that he's checking out against this background. Whatever about his former trainer Freddie Roach's contention that he was always "a little chinny in the early going" no one could ever contest his absolute bravery.
So, how he will he be remembered in the Irish sporting psyche? For sure that glorious night last March, hours after Ireland's Grand Slam success, when the intensity of his fight with Cordoba was such that the blood routinely squirted over the ropes and on to the notebooks, equipment and clothes of the press-men bunkered beneath the ring, will always guarantee a welcome for him in the pantheon of Irish boxing greats. Irish world champions have been few and far between.
It was epic, heroic and brutal. And Dunne prevailed, fulfilling the promise he made in his formative years and would regularly hark back to, even as the lights looked to be going out on him in a slow-burn career.
Respect for Dunne soared that night as he climbed from the canvas twice in the fifth round to claim the belt in the 11th with three stunning knockdowns of his own. If there was ever doubts about his durability or fortitude they evaporated there and then.
But for some the manner of the two defeats on his CV will also help to shape his legacy. When he was beaten, he could be badly beaten and that stunned look on his face last September illustrated just how vulnerable he was to brute force, the type that saw Kiko Martinez sweep him aside in just 86 seconds on another fateful night two years earlier.
That Dunne only fought his one and only world title bout at the age of 29, 29 fights into a pro career, reflected the box-lite approach taken with him. There was caution attached to almost every move and some of the 28 opponents he sent packing had questionable reputations to say the least.
Dunne could scarcely avoid a career in the ring. From the age of five it appeared his destiny was mapped out for him, the road ahead of him already paved by his father Brendan's journey to the Montreal Olympics in 1976 as Ireland's light flyweight representative.
His mother Angela is also of boxing stock, a sister of a former Irish amateur middleweight champion, Eddie Hayden, so Dunne was in essence a boxing blue blood. Growing up in Neilstown Dunne traded everything to pursue life as a boxer. He was cocksure, but he had talent to back it up.
He'd spar with his dad in the kitchen and when he was done he'd tell his mother in another room that 'her man' needed seeing to. It wasn't always the exaggeration of a young boy.
In all his amateur career yielded 11 national titles and by 15 he had sparred with one of his childhood heroes, Wayne McCullough.
The dream of following his father to the Olympics was almost realised in 2000 when he travelled with the team to Sydney as a reserve, but didn't get called up, an experience that left him bitter and disillusioned with his sport and the Olympic movement.
Within a year ,however, he had struck up with wannabe promoter Brian Peters, a publican and boxing fanatic from Meath who had ambitions of igniting the sport in the capital city.
Peters organised a smooth transition for Dunne over to America, and he had his first professional fight in 2001, soon signing up under Sugar Ray Leonard's promotional banner.
There was the early setback of having his licence revoked by the New York state athletic commission when abnormalities were detected on his brain during a routine MRI on the eve of only his third professional fight in Buffalo.
But more in-depth tests conducted in UCLA earned him the all-clear and a return to the pathway plotted by Peters on one side of the world and Roach and Leonard on the other.
He married, lived in Santa Monica and honed his fighting skills with some of the best sparring any young boxer could have hoped for. He was regular foil for the great Manny Pacquiao and Johnny Tapia. Leonard predicted a world belt in two to three years and Roach was equally bullish about his prospects.
Homesickness was a constant companion, however, and when his three-year deal with Leonard ended, incorporating 14 fights of little significance, Dunne took the decision to return home.
Whether his technical skills depreciated after that is open to scrutiny, but his presence in Dublin marked a renaissance of sorts of professional boxing in this country.
A deal signed with RTE on his return to Ireland in late 2004 augmented that, but did little to fast-track Dunne's route to a world title shot. In truth, he was lined up against too many journeymen. Opponents like Sean Hughes and Yuri Voronin hardly tested him or had patrons on the edge of their seats.
It was really only after that defeat to Martinez that his step was hastened. The more he was doubted the more he believed he could atone and away from the glare of the lights of the O2 he rehabilitated with two fights in Mayo.
His team, headed by long-time trainer Harry Hawkins, hired the fitness expertise of the former Irish rugby trainer Mike McGurn and the difference was appreciable. His body fat dropped and as he climbed into the ring last March he was stronger than he had ever been.
The harsh reality of boxing is the imbalance between time at the top and the time spent getting there.
Dunne now leaves boxing with a record he can never be even remotely ashamed of -- 28 pro wins, 15 either by straight countouts or interventions by the referee, and just two losses.
He had six months as champion before it was all blown away. He leaves the legacy of a young man who did what he said he would do. He shined a light on Irish pro boxing again and however briefly the gold on his belt glistened, it can never be taken away from him.