Eamonn Sweeney: From being homeless in England to a world champion - Ryan Burnett's rocky road to the top
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As he walked towards his dressing room last Saturday night, Ryan Burnett realised something was wrong. "I just felt like my head was swelling from the inside. Then when I got into the changing room my coach started talking to me and I couldn't hear what he was saying. I knew there was something up. And then the doctor came in and had a quick look at me and before I knew it, I was in the back of an ambulance and on my way to hospital . . . I was thinking to myself, 'I hope I'm OK here.'"
He'd just won the biggest fight of his life, a points win over Kazakhstan's Zhanat Zhakiyanov which unified the IBF and WBA bantamweight crowns, but nothing ever seems to come easy for Ryan Burnett. There was the time back in 2011, just after he'd won the World Youth Olympics title, when he suffered a disc injury which necessitated six months of physiotherapy and kept him out of boxing for a year.
When Burnett decided to turn pro in 2012, a routine brain scan revealed an abnormality which would apparently prevent him boxing again. "My whole world fell down around me. It was over before I'd even begun," he remembered. Yet Burnett's father Brian refused to accept the neurologist's verdict. Where were the slurred speech and the slow reactions which should have gone with the condition described to them?
A man with no academic background, Brian pored through medical journals and his research persuaded him that his son should undergo an angiogram which revealed that, in Ryan's words, "There actually is a blockage in the brain but from birth the brain has created its own pathway around the blockage. So my brain is still getting all the blood it needs to get so therefore I'm not in any danger."
It was a huge reprieve for Burnett, still just 19. "I'd never done anything with my life except for fighting. I knew that fighting was the only way to have a good life. Once I got the news that it was OK to keep going, I cried my eyes out so I did."
You might have thought this was enough for one young man to overcome. Yet there was more in the pipeline. After four professional victories Burnett parted company with his manager Ricky Hatton and, without any money coming in, found himself homeless in England.
For six weeks he and his father lived in a jeep loaned to them by Hatton. Burnett's recollection that, "We always had somewhere to park the car and we knew people who would let us into their house to get cleaned up. It wasn't as rough as what it seems," indicates a determination to avoid self-pity invaluable in the circumstances.
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As a whole year went by without him securing a fight, Burnett must again have wondered if his dreams were ever really going to come true. Yet, just three years later, he is both WBO and IBF world bantamweight champion. And when he got to the Royal Victoria Hospital last Saturday night there was good news. No neurological damage, just a ruptured ligament in his neck. It had probably ruptured in the sixth round, leaving the Belfast boy to fight through pain for half a world title fight. I suspect Ryan Burnett is Ireland's most under-rated sportsman right now. I'm convinced he's the toughest.
There's a shot taken in 2005 by a German photographer which shows a couple of guys sparring in the Holy Family gym in Belfast. One of them is a grown man, the other is a kid whose gloves look absurdly big on him and obscure his face. The caption reads, "Ryan Burnett, 14, Catholic and Thomas Waite, 27, Protestant, in boxing ring with Gerry Storey." Gerry Storey is the man who's watching the pair of them, an expression which combines affection, watchfulness, amusement and intelligence on his face.
Ryan Burnett is a Holy Family old boy. That's important because Holy Family, in the New Lodge area of north Belfast, is important. It's not just the fact that it's been so successful, over 100 national champions, tons of internationals. Or that its alumni include Carl Frampton, Burnett, Paddy Barnes and Hugh Russell. What makes Gerry Storey the greatest grassroots coach in the history of this country is that he worked in such difficult circumstances, uniting Catholic and Protestant youngsters in a city riven by sectarian division and, lest we forget, once at the epicentre of a war which cost thousands of lives.
Storey didn't just overcome those divisions, he actively sought to combat them. And Ryan Burnett was one young man who benefited from the lessons of the club. "It was a place where Catholics and Protestants could go and the thought of sectarianism wasn't even there. Growing up with that sort of mentality was very, very good. It was where I learned not to be like that."
Those Holy Family lessons have had wider repercussions. Like the Protestant Frampton, the Catholic Burnett's success transcends division. And when a Belfast crowd is united it gets behind its fighters with the type of fervour which prompted promoter Eddie Hearn to declare after Burnett's victory on Saturday night, "He has built a fortress here in Belfast."
To a certain extent the great Irish boxing tradition is a great Belfast boxing tradition. This is a city of great little men, champions like Freddie Gilroy, Rinty Monaghan, John Caldwell, Carl Frampton and now Ryan Burnett. It won't be long, I suspect, till we're adding the names of Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan to that list.
Yet it shows how meteoric Burnett's rise has been that when he won his World Youth Olympics title he was regarded as an heir to Barnes whereas now it's the older man who's playing catch up.
Burnett's lack of Olympic medals meant his entry into the pro ranks lacked the fanfare which has attended Barnes and Conlan's fledgling fights. He had to chisel away under the radar, fighting in Sheffield, in New York, in Dublin and Leeds and the National Gymnasium of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Bulgaria. The young man was in a hurry, fighting in February, March, April and July in 2015, guided by coach Adam Booth, David Haye's old trainer.
In October of that year Burnett won the European bantamweight title and he added the British crown less than six months later. This June he annexed the IBF world title with a points victory over Britain's Lee Haskins. Then came the fight with Zhakiyanov, a battle-hardened champ who, back in the Hatton days, had sparred with Burnett and taught the raw kid a thing or two. It was a tougher first title defence than most champions go for but Burnett reasoned, "Sometimes you have to take risks. If you gamble at high stakes, the rewards are big."
The gamble worked, Burnett comprehensively outpointing an opponent who'd lost just once before in his career. Intriguing possibilities lie ahead. There's England's outstanding and hugely experienced Jamie McDonnell, who has defended the WBA title successfully five times and is unbeaten since 2008. (McDonnell is WBA 'Regular' world champion while Burnett is now WBA 'Super' world champion. I would explain it but it doesn't really make much sense. It's just modern boxing, innit.) There's also the exciting WBO champion Zolani Tete of South Africa who claims Burnett is running scared of him and will make a statement of intent by defending his title in Belfast next month.
The great Shinsuke Yamanaka has been at the summit at the sport for over half a decade, only three bantamweight champs in history have made more successful defences. Yet at 35 he may be in decline and in August was stopped in four rounds by Mexico's Luis Nery. But the unbeaten Nery failed a dope test after the fight and the WBC title has been declared vacant for the time being. There are plenty of excellent up and comers to consider too. Maybe bouts with Barnes or Conlan to match the famous Gilroy-Caldwell fight from 1962 lie in the future.
The present, though, belongs to Ryan Burnett. Outside the ring he looks a pale slip of a lad, frail enough in appearance to make you worry about what boxing might do to him. Yet there is no denying what it can do for him. "I knew that fighting was the only way to have a good life." Remember?
Life has thrown plenty of blows at Ryan Burnett. He hasn't dodged them all but he's managed to ship the punishment and keep going, this five foot four inch, eight and a half stone 25-year-old who remembers the days of the bad brain scan and the nights in the jeep and says, "Any problem I've ever had in my life my dad has made OK. I always knew that it would be fine because my dad was telling me it was going to be fine." After all he's been through, what was a mere ruptured ligament to Ryan Burnett?
His is the most heartening Irish sports story of this year. This is our Rocky.
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