'It was unbearable pain' - The Irish PE teacher who once lived out of his car and fought Amir Khan with a broken leg
As Michael Conlan prepares to make his pro debut in New York, Will Slattery chats to another Irish boxer whose story is equally remarkable.
There was a loud crack, followed by dull thud.
The crack was the sound of a leg breaking, a spiral fracture roughly six inches above Oisin ‘Gael Force’ Fagan’s left ankle.
The thud was the noise of Fagan’s backside touching the canvas inside the ExCel Arena in London, as the now rehabilitated golden boy Amir Khan danced away from his handiwork.
Looking back on the fight that took place just over eight years ago, the Dubliner calls it the ‘worst night of his life’ – and it isn’t a particularly hyperbolic conclusion.
For those familiar with Fagan’s story up to that point, watching the Khan bout would have been like enjoying the first Rocky, only to come upon an alternate ending where Apollo Creed violently stops the titular hero in two.
After a career of struggling in boxing’s unglamorous lower tier, part of which he had spent living out of his car, Fagan had finally received the star treatment - Sky TV cameras and a headline fight – only for the boxing gods to dust off a file marked ‘worst case scenario’, and run through every possibility written down.
A broken leg, less than expected take-home pay and the fact that the second round TKO was one of the few times his friends and family actually got to see him fight live, meant the then 34-year-old enjoyed the experience about as much as anyone else in London that night who had been violently – and repeatedly – punched in the face.
"It was unbearable pain,” Fagan says of the moment when a powerful Khan punch in the first round caused his ankle to fold beneath him.
"It was the worst night of my life. Most of my friends and family came over to watch it. Now lots of people know me as the guy who got battered by Khan - it wasn't the case!
"I was falling down without getting punched. He hit me with a good shot but I broke my leg and I still got up and fought on. Nobody, especially Sky Sports, mentioned that. I hate the fact that people didn't take that into account."
Fagan's corner threw in the towel in the second round against Khan.
When he heard his left leg fracture, Fagan’s lack of a medical degree didn't prevent him from succinctly assessing his injury: ‘oh f***, I’m in trouble here’.
If this was a boxing film, his entire career would have flashed before his eyes at that moment, with the Dubliner reliving the tumultuous journey that saw him end up in a Pay-Per-View main event in the first place.
It comes as no surprise when he mentions that an independent filmmaker is halfway through a documentary about his life – after all, Fagan's story manages to combine the plot of about five different sports movies.
Despite winning an Irish national title, a US state title and 22 of his 27 bouts before clashing with Khan, he was never really meant to be a boxer. He was a youth football star, first in Tallaght where he was born, and then Portmarnock, where he moved when he was 13.
He excelled on the pitch, and the extent of his amateur boxing career was three fights over a six year period in his early 20s to keep fit while he waited for the football season to start.
He won the three contests, at least.
Fagan took a couple years to find himself in the adult world – he had stints as an apprentice carpenter and behind the Dunnes deli counter – before he was offered a full athletic scholarship to study at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
"I did everything late - I went on my football scholarship at 24 and I went pro as a boxer at around 30 years old," he laughs.
"Most people are retiring from boxing at that age!
His collegiate experience was an unusual one - he got a degree in physical education and political journalism, with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
While he was ostensibly meant to be a jock, he developed into a crusading Woodward and Bernstein-esque student reporter, which saw his scholarship slashed in his final year after he wrote editorials in the student paper about racist incidents, deceitful university administrators and the dismissal of a local food manufacturer from the college canteen.
"Some of the injustices that the college would inflict, I wouldn't have it," Fagan says.
"I was the political editor of the newspaper and I kind of noted it.
"The last year I was stuck with a bill of f*****g five grand and I almost didn't finish my degree but thankfully my parents were able to sort it out."
He was able to keep his cage-rattling under enough control to graduate with good grades, but problems with his visa meant it was a struggle to get work. Fagan was reluctant to trouble his parents for money and was similarly unhappy to impose on friends.
The net result of his pride was oftentimes he would sleep in his car, leaving the confines of his passenger seat bedroom to train before seeking refuge in a friend’s shower where he could clean the sweat off himself.
He had a serious girlfriend at the time, but her southern Baptist upbringing meant that living out of a car was probably a more palatable arrangement for her parents than him sleeping in their daughter’s bed.
"I had done well in college but I fell on hard times," Fagan says.
"I started living in friends’ houses because I didn't have the visa to work yet. I didn't want to take the piss so sometimes I'd stay in their house for a couple of nights and then I would be staying in the back of a car. I was praying every night. I didn't know what I was going to do.
"My parents are the best people in the world and if they had known I was struggling they would have got some money together and sent me a few quid but I didn’t want to tell them that things weren't going well for me."
Fagan eventually stumbled upon a local boxing gym where, despite not having fought in years, his natural fitness, physicality and willingness to punch and get punched for money impressed a promoter enough to earn a spot on a local card.
Michael Conlan will make his pro boxing debut on St Patrick’s Day in a packed out Madison Square Garden, the sport’s most famous arena, and earn a substantial pay packet for his night’s work.
Oisin Fagan laced up his gloves for the first time in the decidedly less palatial AMC Flea Market in Oklahoma, a contender for the bleakest-sounding sports venue on the planet, and earned $200 for his pugilistic performance.
Fagan in action in Dublin in 2014.
"The promoter was rubbing his hands together like a Don King type of character, like 'I'll get this fella murdered for $200'," Fagan laughs.
"I ended up fighting a guy called Sheldon Mosley after about two months of training and I won, even though I was still going through some pretty hairy times."
That fight against Mosley (who finished his career with a scarcely believable record of 1-13) started two careers for Fagan. He could now call himself a pro boxer, and after being offered a job as a PE teacher by a school principal in the AMC Flea Market crowd, he could call himself a teacher too.
The next few years were spent teaching and fighting, with Fagan regularly popping into class on a Monday morning with bruises from his weekend’s work. The dual pay checks were needed, because boxing in America doesn’t pay well if you aren’t a big name, or at least have a savvy promoter who will build you a cushy 20-0 record fighting the poor genuine Sheldon Mosleys of this world.
Amazingly, in just his seventh professional fight, Fagan said goodbye to his students on a Friday and flew to Las Vegas to fight the son of a legend in the MGM Grand.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., a future world champion, was building his resume as an 18-year-old fighter hoping to match the stellar career of his dad, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.
Fagan was paid $1000, flown to Las Vegas and was expected to be pulverised in front of 16,000 bloodthirsty Mexicans.
“When I was on the plane I looked down on Las Vegas and saw all the mad lights and just thought, 'I'm gonna be fighting there in a couple of nights',” Fagan said.
“It was basically a coming out party for Chavez Jr. Erik Morales was the main event and Miguel Cotto was on the card. Chavez Sr. was a good friend of Morales', and Chavez Sr. walked junior out in front of 16,000 Mexicans.”
Fagan fought Chavez Jr in the MGM Grand in just his fourth fight.
But for a tactical error where he was caught by Chavez Jr after throwing an overhand punch, Fagan could have dealt the future star his first loss. Instead, it became the first of many near misses in a career that just came up short of taking a truly big scalp.
“A lot of Mexicans came up to me after and said if Chavez senior hadn't walked him out, I would have won the fight,” he says.
“For three seconds of madness I lost the fight. That fight didn’t change my life, but it is a good story to tell over a few drinks.”
That Chavez bout didn’t change his life and neither did the shot at glory provided by Khan. Fagan got decent if not astronomical money for fighting the Olympic silver medallist but was subsequently out of work back in Dublin, as he struggled to get his teaching degrees recognised while waiting for his injured leg to mend.
He laughs now looking back on how crazy he was about trying to speed up the recovery.
“After I broke my leg I got up and I 'crutched' five miles a day at speed,” he says.
“That's how feckin mad I am.”
For better or worse, the Khan fight on Sky proved to be the highpoint of Fagan’s career – from an exposure point of view, if not performance-wise.
He fought nine more times, winning five, before retiring in 2014. He is now a boxing development officer for the IABA, funded by Dublin City Council, working with children in disadvantaged areas, and is getting married to his fiancée, Petra.
He didn’t make a fortune in boxing, but considering his embryonic amateur career, the late start to his professional one and his predilection for taking on authority, he didn’t do too badly overall.
Still, when he imparts advice to the next generation of fighters on his workdays, he surely tells them to do the exact opposite for their boxing careers, right?
“I wouldn't get into a conversation with most kids about what I used to get up to!”