Boxing: Sutherland finally taking on the world
WITH the kind of understatement so typical of the sport, the programme in which Darren Sutherland makes his professional debut at DCU on Thursday has been branded 'Conquering the World'.
Sutherland meets the Bulgarian Georgi Iliev in a super-middleweight six-rounder in what is a support act to Rendall Munroe's defence of his European super-bantamweight title but will be regarded by home supporters as the most intriguing contest of the night.
When Sutherland signed up with Frank Maloney after winning a bronze medal at the Olympics, it conferred a certain status before he even lifted a glove, a status guaranteed by the promoter's association with Lennox Lewis and other former champions. The hype was a given too. By fight-time on Thursday, it will have been cranked up to the point where Iliev is a mere staging point on Sutherland's inevitable march towards European and world titles. Not that he'll mind much himself. Eleven years ago Sutherland, a feisty 15-year-old with a Caribbean accent, walked through the doors of the St Saviour's club on Dorset Street for the first time. A coach asked him his name and what he wanted to achieve. "I'm Darren Sutherland," he replied. "And I want to be the first black Irish world champion."
In a way it has been surprising that Sutherland waited until the relatively advanced age of 26 to kick-start his professional career. By his own admission, amateur boxing was little more than an interlude until he reached the real business of the professional game to which his unquestioned charisma and attacking instincts are most suited. For Maloney, he stuck out like a sore thumb in Beijing. Here, the promoter thought, was the Irish fighter he had been waiting all those years to sign. In truth, Sutherland and amateur boxing were strange bedfellows. Among the tightly-knit Irish boxing team that went to Beijing, it was always noticeable how Sutherland, more than any other fighter, was his own man. You saw it when he refused to be downbeat after losing his semi-final to James DeGale. "A loser's medal," Paddy Barnes would later spit after failing to reach the light-flyweight final. But Sutherland had his own script and always stuck resolutely to it.
It didn't always make him the most popular boxer in the country. Flick back to the national championships last February and Sutherland's gripping contest with Darren O'Neill for the middleweight title, Sutherland prevailing to the loud jeers of a partisan crowd, strutting around the ring afterwards declaring "I'm the champion," pleading with them on television afterwards not to be sore losers.
If Sutherland hits his stride as a professional, it will be interesting to see if he can gather a swelling support behind him as Bernard Dunne, John Duddy and Andy Lee have done. It would be a shame if he didn't because behind the brash exterior Sutherland is as thoughtful and determined a character as you will find. Anyone he worked with in the high performance unit will attest to that. If he was more attuned to doing things his own way, they respected him for it and knew the hard road he'd been down: the tough days he'd spent at Brendan Ingle's gym in Sheffield, the eye injury that nearly finished him in 2005, the years he somehow balanced his studies for a sports science degree with his boxing career. They never minded him talking big because that's how he lived his life.
How far he can go is anyone's guess but, with the backing of Maloney behind him, he's unquestionably a contender and a welcome addition to the flourishing professional boxing scene in the country. If he takes care of Iliev, as he should, his immediate target will be to claim the Irish super-middleweight title and that would carry him into territory where the likes of Lee, Duddy, Matthew Macklin and Brian Magee could be lurking.
Before he can entertain designs on being the next Joe Calzaghe, Sutherland has a lot of boxing to do.