Monday 19 February 2018

"He would climb over the gates as a kid and he would say 'Gerry, I'm going to be a world champion'"

Ryan Burnett during a press conference ahead of his World Bantamweight Unification title fight at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. (Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Ryan Burnett during a press conference ahead of his World Bantamweight Unification title fight at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. (Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Jack O'Toole

This Saturday Ryan Burnett will make the walk to the centre of Belfast’s SSE Arena with the IBF Bantamweight title in his grasp.

It’s a walk that he has imagined a lot over the last two months. He’s played the fight out over and over again in his head and he’s visualised lifting the WBA Bantamweight title and what the scene will look like when he’s crowned as a two-time world champion.

At Thursday’s final pre-fight press conference he’s sitting at the top table  beside promoter Eddie Hearn, and while Hearn spends most of the time questioning the other fighters on the undercard about their preparation, Burnett just sits there and stares at the vacant WBA Bantamweight title.

"I don't know if you noticed when I was up there, but I just kept looking at the belt, it was all I could think about," Burnett tells me in a quiet corner at the Waterfront Hall.

In the build up to this fight, Burnett (17-0) has been asked an inordinate number of times why he wants to take on Zhakiyanov (27-1) in his first title defence.

The Ricky Hatton trained fighter defeated former AIBA world champion Rau'shee Warren in his last fight, and Burnett could have easily taken a couple of more fights to continue to build his profile as a world champion before challenging for other belts at a later stage.

He’s asked why he's taking the Zhakiyanov fight so soon in almost every pre-fight interview and his answer invariably begins with “I don’t just want to be a world champion, I want to be a great world champion.”

It’s a throwaway line to use for anyone in his position but there’s a sense that he genuinely means it.

Ryan Burnett (Northern Ireland) celebrates after defeating Lee Haskins (England) during the IBF Bantamweight World Championship bout at the SSE Arena Belfast on June 10, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Ryan Burnett (Northern Ireland) celebrates after defeating Lee Haskins (England) during the IBF Bantamweight World Championship bout at the SSE Arena Belfast on June 10, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

When Burnett first went down to Belfast's Kronk Gym as a nine-year-old, he was immediately sucked into a world that would soon dominate his life.

After two years at the Antrim Road club, coaches Pat McStravick and Tony Dunlop were struggling to find opponents for him to fight.

Burnett dominated his age group and swept multiple underage titles before joining Paddy Barnes and Carl Frampton at Gerry Storey’s Holy Family Boxing Club in the republican area of New Lodge.

Burnett quickly blossomed under Storey and trained at his gym every evening alongside Frampton and Barnes.

When training would finish, Storey would drop Frampton to his house in Tiger’s Bay, for fear of letting him walk home alone, while he would drop Burnett to the gates outside a nearby park before helping him over the railings to walk the rest of the way from there.

“I used to take him over to the park and he used to shadow box before he went over the rails,” said Storey.

“His parents were caretakers and they had a house near the public park and before he went over the gates he would tell me ‘Gerry, I’m going to be a world champion. I’m going to be a world champion Gerry’.

“He had a fantastic amateur career and he beat nearly everyone he fought (94-4 in the amateurs), and even the fights he did lose, there was nothing in them. But he became a world champion and he has the chance to add a second belt now. We’re all very happy for him.”

Burnett is relatively unknown to the Irish sporting public but he is revered on the Antrim Road where he has been painted onto a mural near Cassidy’s bar.

He can’t quite understand why locals would want to paint his face on the side of a wall, but he has a strong understanding of his roots and he appreciates the support.

“The community all chipped in together and they decided that they wanted to put my face on the side of a wall,” said Burnett.

Another Youth Inspiring Mural by Glen Molloy of The New World Champion Ryan Burnett going on a wall up the Antrim Road near Cassidy's bar 👊👊👊

Posted by Belfast Boxers on Monday, July 10, 2017

“I don’t know why, but it’s nice, because they’re the streets I grew up on as a kid and people look at me now with respect, and it’s nice to have that feeling.

“A lot of people say to me where would you love to fight? Would you love to fight in Belfast or Las Vegas or Madison Square Garden?

“I tell them all the time I want to fight in Belfast. This is my home and this is where I want to be. To have the opportunity to unify the division here is the cherry on top.”

However, the opportunity to fight in the first unification fight on Irish soil was not a chance that was handed easily to him.

Burnett’s record may read like the story of a prodigious talent that flew through the ranks, but his journey has been far from straightfroward.

In 2011, less than a year after winning gold at the Olympic Youth Games in Singapore, a bulging disc in his lower back ruled him out for an entire year. In 2012, he failed a brain scan before his first professional fight, delaying his pro debut by another 13 months.

Four fights into his professional career and there was the split from Hatton Promotions before he spent the next six weeks sleeping in a Vauxhall Mokka Hatton loaned him while he was looking for a new gym.

Burnett and his father Brian eventually got in touch with former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee, who put the pair in contact with his trainer Adam Booth.

The pair immediately clicked and Booth was willing to take Burnett under his wing, and into his family home, on one condition; that he took as many fights as possible in his first year of training.

After spending over a year out of the ring following his departure from Hatton Promotions, Burnett racked up eight consecutive victories in 12 months, which prompted Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing to sign him to a three-year promotional contract in October 2015.

“I watched him on a couple of Frank Warren shows and I knew that he had talent and that people were starting to talk about him,” said Hearn.

“But then I spoke to Adam Booth and the way that Adam was talking about him sold me. Adam has knowledge, he knows talented fighters, and I couldn’t believe the things he was saying about Ryan Burnett.

“He made me believe this guy is the real deal. Stylewise, skillwise, temperament, power, he’s probably the most talented fighter he’s ever trained, and obviously given the people he’s trained, you’re going to have to take that seriously.

“But this fight is not something that you expect to happen after winning a world title, normally this fight comes two or three fights later, but because of their belief you feel confident, because they’re so confident.”

Their bond is unique and Booth said that Burnett’s IBF title win over Lee Haskins in June was the greatest night he’s ever had as a trainer.

He said that Burnett was a part of his family and that he’s never come across a fighter that works harder than him.

“It’s second to none,” Booth said of Burnett’s work ethic.

“I can’t imagine that anyone could have a better work ethic than him. If you have anywhere near the same work ethic as Ryan Burnett you’re doing very well.

“He’s a very determined and very driven young man. There’s something burning deep inside of him.

“I never have to give Ryan any momentum, it’s already there. I’ve worked with some very determined fighters but Ryan is just a whole other level.”

McStravick told me at the Kronk Gym that Burnett always wanted to make something of himself. He had this unyielding desire to make it in boxing.

He learned how to box from Tony Dunlop and Gerry Storey in north Belfast. He learned what was possible for fighters like him from Carl Frampton and Paddy Barnes. He told me that Andy Lee taught him how to act like a world champion and that Booth is teaching him how to become a unified world champion.

But the walk, the walk is a path that he’s been on his whole life, from the rails of the park gates to the centre of the ring. A journey that has been about will as much as skill.

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