Thursday 22 March 2018

Barnes stepping into a world indifferent to Olympic status as he opts to turn professional

Paddy Barnes looks dejected after his light-flyweight preliminary round defeat to Spains’ Samuel Carmona Heredia – he is now joining the pro ranks. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Paddy Barnes looks dejected after his light-flyweight preliminary round defeat to Spains’ Samuel Carmona Heredia – he is now joining the pro ranks. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Paddy Barnes always puts me in mind of a beautifully evocative Rocky Marciano self-portrait from the 1960s.

Talking to Irish boxing writer, Thomas Myler, Marciano declared: "If one of my opponents chopped me in half, both halves would get up fighting!" Barnes rhymes perfectly with that picture. His style has never been inordinately structured or technical and, if anything, there's often the impression of frenzy about him in a boxing ring.

To paraphrase something Thomas Hauser said of Joe Louis, his fists become "weapons that seem to fire automatically."

But you don't medals at successive Olympiads without some science to your pugilism too and Paddy Barnes will, rightly, forever have a place in Irish hearts for his achievements in Beijing and London. Quite what that place amounts to in any tangible terms, however, is surely open to question.


There was little drum-roll to last week's news that he is turning professional, the story getting predictably scant purchase in the shadow of an All-Ireland final countdown. The plan is for Paddy to have a hometown debut next December, just four months short of his 30th birthday. This, naturally, was presented as good news.

Just a pity it didn't really feel that way.

Why? Well if, post-Rio, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) could find no use for a double-Olympic medalist, is it logical to assume that their plans for re-energising a clearly shaken High Performance Unit involve people who will bring more insight to the education of their juvenile boxers than Paddy Barnes?

The answer to that, regrettably, is a rather flat NO.

Because the question of legacy is one that the IABA has never seriously addressed for all of boxing's recent medal success. On last month's evidence in Brazil, the need for a HP Director (a position they have steadfastly refused to fill) looks more compelling than ever. But, beyond that, could the sport not wisely harvest anything from the international experiences of men like Kenneth Egan, Darren O'Neill and Barnes?

Turning professional at 29 might sound glamorous, but it isn't.

The decision propels Barnes into an environment largely devoid of the structure and peer support that facilitated an often painfully fastidious lifestyle in what we still recognise as the 'amateur' game. Attempting to monetise that decision will involve - as it always does with pro boxing - a great deal of transparent hogwash and, of course, the calculated selection of opponents.

To build his market, Paddy must build a record first and it takes time to do that. Time and competitive patience.

Maybe the hope is that he can quickly become a high profile presence on big-fight undercards. His close friendship with Carl Frampton might be a help here, but - ultimately - if Paddy hopes to get wealthy in the ring, he needs to be writing the back page stories himself.

The 'big-money fight' he openly covets is a rematch with triple world amateur champion, Zou Shiming of China.

This would have obvious appeal, given their history together. In June, Shiming retained the WBO international flyweight title and holds a three-year pro record of eight wins and one defeat now. But he is 35 and, presumably, moving ever closer to retirement. The idea of handing Barnes an early shot at his belt might hold dubious appeal to Shiming, given it took a countback verdict to separate them at the London Olympics.

If a single fight could capture a boxer's warrior spirit, that was probably the one for Barnes.

When he had fought Shiming in Beijing, the judges' verdict was a humiliating 0-15 defeat for the Belfast man. Incandescent with anger, Barnes famously proposed afterwards that the judges be drug-tested for handing down such a decision. He did not deny that Shiming had won the fight, but the suggestion that he had done so without the concession of a single scoring punch offended Barnes massively.

So London, in part, had a redemptive quality for him. He went there feeling desperately pressured, as explained to Seán McGoldrick in 'Punching Above Their Weight - The Irish Olympic Boxing Story.'

"I was fighting for my life" said Barnes. "I was after buying a house in Belfast and needed to win a bronze medal to secure my funding from the Sports Council. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to pay the mortgage. Had I lost, I would have had to go down to Tesco looking for a job."

Freed of that pressure, he gave Shiming the mother and father of fights in what was their third contest as amateurs. The two men have never spoken, but it has long been an expressed dream of Barnes's that they might have a fourth meeting, this time for a $1 million purse.

Trouble is, that's not an opportunity likely to come in the short-term, if ever, for Barnes and he will surely know that his immediate future is one of relatively low-watt gatherings and fights unfolding in halls that hum with conversation.

One obvious blessing is that he will box at flyweight, meaning an end to the wretched wasting he has had to endure in recent years in service to the penal 49kg weight limit for light-fly.

There are stories to make your hair stand on hand of the virtual self-abuse that had to become a part of Barnes's schedule to fight in a division that, some time ago, ceased to be a natural fit in terms of basic physiology. This came spectacularly to a head in Rio where the toll taken to successfully weigh-in just three hours before his contest with a tough young Spaniard became all too visible.

By the end of that fight with Samuel Carmona Heredia, Barnes looked so weak you sensed he might have had trouble negotiating a revolving-door.

That he was only beaten on a split decision told you all you ever needed to know about the reserves of character and pride that rage within Barnes. But therein too resides a gentle worry. Because that kind of courage can be a double-edged sword for a professional boxer through ten or twelve rounds unless those immediately around you are tuned as much to care for the person as work towards a dream.

What we do know is that Paddy Barnes, whoever he's contracted to, will bring personality and colour to his new day-job. The man who marched in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, holding up a sheet of paper with the message 'Open for Sponsors@Paddyb-Ireland (twitter)' and the one who - having playfully trolled Rory McIlroy for his absence from Rio - subsequently offered him, his services as a caddy, won't need any tutoring in how to work a crowd or charm a press conference.

We can take it too that, as much as his new circumstance allows, he will be no pushover for pro boxing's many spivs and opportunists and their facility for swooping down like squadrons of magpies with promises of riotous wealth based on make-believe. Nor will he defer on the gym floor to anyone throwing hardman shapes.


But Barnes will come to quickly understand too that his five-ringed history carries little weight in his new surrounds.

Twenty two years ago, I remember chatting to the late Ernie Fossey in an East London gym as he worked on re-inventing Olympic champion, Michael Carruth, into a hard-nosed professional."This is a different game he's in now" Fossey told me. "And he's got to be rough and streetwise. If you stand off in this game, they'll whack you. That's what I hate about the amateurs - all you hear is BREAK, BREAK, BREAK.

"Professionals don't move away. They're punching to do damage, not score points."

Carruth had a decent pro career, losing three of 21 contests. But there was no crock of gold at the end of that rainbow and, in time, he ended up selling carpets for a living. For all but a small minority, that's how professional boxing works, ultimately serving up only cruelty.

Paddy Barnes is a tough little man who will give it his best shot and you couldn't but wish him every blessing. Just a pity he felt no option but to make the jump.

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