Burnett completes stunning journey with double world crown
Building a profile outside the ring is the unenviable task now facing Ryan Burnett, Ireland's latest and perhaps least known world boxing champion, in the wake of his stunning achievement in unifying the WBA and IBF bantamweight straps at the tender age of 25.
Burnett looked destined for greatness from the moment he won a gold medal at the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore seven years ago. But his career touched so many voids since that he seemed fated not to fulfil his potential.
But on Saturday night, the nine months he spent recovering from a bulging disc in his lower back in 2011; his year-long battle to reverse a decision to deny him a professional licence after a blockage was discovered in his brain and a six-week stint living with his father, Brian, in a car in the UK were obliterated from his memory, as he became the first Irish fighter to unify world titles on Irish soil.
After an absorbing, if at times scrappy, contest fought at close quarters in Belfast's SSE Arena, Burnett was crowned the new WBA bantamweight world champion after fashioning a unanimous points' victory over defending title holder, Zhanat Zhakiyanov from Kazakhstan.
The pair had sparred in Ricky Hatton's gym in Manchester at the start of Burnett's professional career when he had the better of the exchanges. And when it really mattered Burnett again prevailed, though not as convincingly as the scorecard of two of the judges (119-109; 118-110) suggested. The third judge's score of 116-112 was probably a more accurate reflection of how a bruising encounter had panned out.
Burnett, indeed, was taken to hospital afterwards complaining of a pain around his ear but he was released a couple of hours later and was well enough to re-join the celebrations. He may also have suffered a neck-shoulder ligament injury during the contest in which he extended his unbeaten record to 18 fights.
"I had visualised this moment. I had seen it so clearly with one belt over one shoulder and one belt over the other. I knew that I would do it," Burnett said.
"It was a very tough fight but I had a very tough camp to prepare me for it. I had a game plan but he was so strong that I had to adapt to his game and thank God I was able to come through and win.
"I have proved my point and I have shown what I am made of," added the new champion, who won the IBF version of the title when he outpointed defending title holder, Lee Haskins in June at the same venue.
Burnett doesn't have the anything approaching the same profile as the city's catalogue of other professional boxers such as Carl Frampton, the Conlan brothers, Michael and Jamie, and Paddy Barnes, though he is particularly proud that he is now portrayed on a mural near his home on the Antrim Road.
But in terms of the lighter weight divisions, the world is now his oyster. He has never taken the easy option when it comes to choosing opponents. His ambition is to be remembered not just as a world champion, but a great world champion.
According to promoter Eddie Hearn he will be back in action - almost certainly in Belfast - in the spring. "Now we want to bring Ryan back for another big fight in March or April. There are plenty of options out there including Paul Butler or one of the other champions."
Burnett has the option of defending his WBA and IBF titles; seeking another belt in the bantamweight class or moving up to the super bantamweight division and, given that Saturday's night all-action contest was beamed live in the United States on the HBO network, he could conceivably fight in America in 2018. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of the possibility of an all Belfast showdown, although remarkably Burnett, Barnes, Frampton - who were all coached in their teens by the legendary Gerry Storey - the Conlan brothers and James Tennyson - who improved his record to 20-2 by knocking out Darren Traynor in the most explosive fight on Saturday's programme - are all within 18 lbs of each other in weight.
The discrepancies within the judging in professional boxing were again highlighted with veteran Dublin lightweight Stephen Ormond the victim of an astonishing decision in his contest for the IBF East/West European belt against unbeaten Belfast boxer Paul Hyland Jr.
Ormond overcame a third round knock-down to dominate his opponent but unbelievably one judge gave Hyland the contest 117-110 while another favoured the home town fighter 114-113 which was sufficient to give him victory on a split decision. Promoter Eddie Hearn did promise Ormond a rematch, however.
Rio Olympian David Oliver Joyce and Kildare's Gary Cully, both trained by Pete Taylor, achieved comfortable wins within the distance - with Joyce's fight lasting less than two minutes.