Ewan MacKenna: Boxing to Daniel Kinahan is what football was to Pablo Escobar - and it's choking the sport in Ireland
Journalism has always loved boxers, and with good reason. Firstly, those in the sport usually have a great story to tell, as society is sadly structured in a way that means many pugilists come from a rung on the ladder that isn't supposed to produce heroes.
Secondly, despite their on-canvas risks and rewards, they need to tell those stories to put bums on seats so they can make a tough living.
In a world of media managers and marketing suits, that rarity has made boxing more beautiful still.
But it's also made these last couple of weeks so strange. At the start of February, Sandra Vaughan, described as the CEO and sole shareholder of boxing management company Mack the Knife Global (MTK), released a video that reminded of the bishop in Father Ted blaming all ills on journalism.
"None of the new management team or owners, nor any of the Irish boxers signed with MTK Global, have any connection with crime, yet many Irish media continue to drag up past affiliations and sensationalise and slander MTK Global and their stable," she fumed. "As CEO I cannot and will not allow this to continue. How are we ever meant to move forward as an organisation when we keep being dragged into the past by media? This witch-hunt by Irish media has left me with no choice but for MTK Global to pull out of the Republic of Ireland for the immediate future."
That was followed by a Trump-esque Twitter campaign as MTK got fighters to run with the hashtag #FairNews. It was a directive sent to a WhatsApp group containing all boxers with instructions as to how to upload a banner to go across profile pictures that said the same. But this isn't about some cheap spat with the media that left sportsmen with little choice of an opt out. It's more important.
Vaughan's move was baffling, particularly for the overlooked reason that it makes no sense. Hers is a business with 29 Irish fighters on their books (including Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes and, in an advisory capacity, Carl Frampton) and they have invested considerable time and effort into dominating this market and making a go of the sport here. Now though they've run for the DUP's hard border, raising questions when all they had to do was give answers. The CEO has decided to fight fire with petrol, but it wasn't all that was unusual. Neither was the omerta that followed.
Those on even the highest balconies in the sport have never been hard to access, and that has included MTK who have wanted to sell their product. But since Vaughan's move, it's been hugely different. Time and again, people in various positions were approached, including fighters at all levels, and the request was simple. An off-the-record talk to fill in blanks and to hear them and their company's side of the story. Nothing more or less, yet in hindsight that may have been naive.
Phone calls went dead.
Texts came back refusing.
WhatsApps were seen and ignored.
Voice mails didn't produce a response.
Granted, there were a few words of insight and advice after a lengthy attempt to pull back the curtain. One person agreed to talk but only under the condition of not just anonymity but on an encrypted line, saying "it says much about boxing that just to chat about an aspect of a sport, it has to be like this". Another involved said if they were approached by MTK tomorrow and "told to walk away from all they have, I'd do it instantly". They added: "You'd be better staying away from it too."
It made you wonder was all this down to fear of biting the hand that feeds, or just plain fear.
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MTK Global has a colourful and questionable history.
Back in 2013, former Irish middleweight and world super-welterweight contender Matthew Macklin founded it as Macklin's Gym Marbella (MGM) although the name later changed after problems with the MGM hotel. He'd long had an interesting and likable story as, Birmingham-bred, summers in Tipperary had seen him take to and thrive on hurling fields. He's always been a gentleman to deal with and has a very bright brain to go with it, and he saw this gym as a community-asset, something to give back. But the asterisk was Daniel Kinahan as co-founder.
The two were and are close friends but while the former was the face, that slowly changed over time as the latter grew more confident in terms of what he could add and what the gym could do.
Boxing to Kinahan has been described by those close to this as what football was to Pablo Escobar. Sources say he's long had an obsession with the sport - as did rival crime boss Gerry Hutch who was a major player in Irish boxing when Kinahan was only a kid. There's an undoubted talent for management and a passion there to the point that promising super-featherweight, Dubliner Declan Geraghty, stood up for the cartel leader's importance to the sweet science. He called him a "great manager" in an interview lately and noted that "if it wasn't for him boxing would have never got back going in Ireland". He may be right but the problem is that's like saying Nikolas Cruz has been good for the weapons debate in the United States as if cause and effect can be separated.
For Kinahan, the untangling of issues has become harder in recent years. In August 2014, a Hutch gunman in attempting to assassinate him mistakenly shot former Irish champion Jamie Moore, who was in Marbella working as a Sky Sports pundit, in the hip and leg, leaving him lucky to be alive. It was a close call all round but for Kinahan's boxing ambitions, worse was to soon follow.
On 5 February, 2016, during a weigh-in at the Regency Hotel in Whitehall for the European title bout between between Jamie Kavanagh and Antonio João Bento, Hutch gunmen entered - some dressed as a Garda special unit, one as a woman. An associate of Kinahan's was killed in another attempt on his life and suddenly MGM's links to organised crime became clear to those who don't dabble in the underworld. This was it crawling to the surface and outrage finally abounded.
MGM had grown massively and was taking over European boxing in a way Kinahan had taken over European cocaine. It was ruthless and there was little room for other players, but as one informed source says: "Hutch is a strategist and, really, he destroyed Kinahan's rise as a boxing manager when he picked the weigh-in for that attack."
Suddenly the Boxing Union of Ireland were wary of their fighters with its president Mel Christle telling The Star last year: "The reality is that the presence of an MTK fighter on a bill at present, in the view of the Boxing Union, would put at risk, the safety of patrons and other persons involved in the boxing event. It's as simple as that."
Unions elsewhere were worried and that ought to have ended Kinahan's boxing ambitions, but did it? That's meant as a logical and fair question given what we do know, rather than an accusation.
You see, Sandra Vaughan has had a colourful history too.
She met partner Kevin Kelly after he was jailed for six years in 1995 for dealing ecstasy and cannabis although they're reported to have split in 2005. A former hair-dresser, by 2008 she had amassed a fortune and paid £10m in order to buy out the Fake Bake tanning and beauty business that would get endorsements from the likes of Madonna. Vaughan was and has never been implicated in wrong-doing but her associations still drew plenty of unwanted attention to the point both her home and company were raided by the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency in August of 2010. The charges were subsequently withdrawn.
Kelly - who had gone on to front a Marbella-based business with Daniel Kinahan – was by 2012 rescued by Spanish police having been kidnapped, tied to a bed, tortured and beaten by what the Spanish government referred to as the "Irish mafia". By 2013, Fake Bake UK was liquidated and Vaughan had married a trainer at the MTK Global, Danny Vaughan. He, as an aside, is a convicted benefit fraudster and did 10 months in jail for for his part in a 13-year £100,000 scam. "This happened in the past before I knew Danny," Sandra did admit and rightly pointed out "he made a mistake and trusted someone he shouldn't have but has since paid every single penny back. He's now working with disadvantaged kids."
Then, last October, Vaughan bought out MTK and a statement on their website confirmed an "external management team" taking its place.
But there's an obvious query given all of the above. Just how external is she and what's different?
There have been other red flags as well and reasons for everything from skepticism to cynicism around this. On social media for instance Jack Catterall, who holds a perfect record, boasts he is still "advised by" Kinahan. Meanwhile in December, in a since-deleted tweet, another MTK fighter Stephen Simmons said "all chats" must go through MTK, Matthew Macklin who has remained on the board in an advisory capacity, and Kinahan too. As much as things change and all of that...
Vaughan clearly is an intelligent businesswoman that has done extremely well in both past and present. But owning those traits, why is she surprised by the tone and the questions coming her way given MTK's own past and present? Why would she want a company with links to a criminal empire in the middle of a drug war? Why would she want into that company given the name it developed through incidents in and away from boxing? Where did the money come from to build up what she bought? Why are some fighters saying Daniel Kinahan is still involved in all of this?
For a person in charge of the most powerful boxing force in Europe it seems odd that Vaughan has shied away from clearing this up as, while it could be smoke without fire, that smoke is toxic and it's choking. Indeed what irked MTK most around Ireland was their cancelled show here last month. Up to that point the Gardaí wouldn't commit to providing security but with that thrashed out, and with five fighters on the card for a night in City West, the return was on. The media reported that six Garda armed units in waiting though and the hotel had second thoughts, pulling the plug. Yet if Vaughan has an issue with the symptom, she's surely thought about the disease.
Sadly, in a sporting sense that smoke is choking too. Boxers have given Ireland some of our proudest moments in recent years and some of our best sportspeople . But actions speak louder than their silence and both actions and silence have chipped away at their long-term legacy.
It's true boxing has always had somewhat of a connection with crime throughout history. It's also true that you could point towards other sports as just look at the morality and legality behind the petro-pounds fueling football. But it's the direct nature of the link here that means you cannot turn away and say it's okay. These boxers come from places that know better than most what gangs can do to communities, and it's that which in weak moments can convince you that they are to be excused when the opposite is true. It has to mean on this count they cannot be excused.
That's hard to write given their achievements in sport, their input into society outside of sport, and knowing them personally.
The inconvenient truth from a scandal standpoint is MTK are seen as an excellent management company where fighters don't have to worry about selling tickets; Macklin for all his choosing of friends is great to have in your corner; and Kinahan, if involved as fighters have said but MTK deny, knows this game as well as he knows other more gruesome ones. And still... The fighters might use that as justification but others shouldn't turn the other cheek to them and to this.
The Republic, for all its boxing history, has for the most part been a graveyard for the pro-side of the sport. Lennox Lewis had to give away tickets when he came to The Point Depot. Naseem Hamed in his pomp had to work out on Grafton Street to garner interest before he got near the canvas. That was on a country that didn't support boxers, but this current graveyard is different.
Now it's the boxers that aren't supporting their country.