Monday 16 September 2019

Remembering Darren Sutherland: Ten years on from the boxer's death, those who knew him still can't fathom why

It's 10 years today since Ireland's 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Darren Sutherland passed away at his flat in London. Those who knew him still can't fathom why but the light he brought to their lives and to Irish boxing remains undimmed

Darren Sutherland
Darren Sutherland
Darren Sutherland. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

"It was July 2009, four months before his death and he had so relaxed into the happy moment that even Teresa's outburst amused him. He sought her hand. 'We will take a look at the palace' he said. 'We have our whole lives to do it.'" - Ronald Reng.

The final paragraph of 'A Life Too Short - The Tragedy of Robert Enke' reaches towards the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what resides behind smiling eyes.

Enke was a professional football goalkeeper who threw himself under a speeding train 26 days after Darren Sutherland was found dead in his Bromley apartment.

The German's struggles with depression were known to everyone close to him. But he was a master of concealment too, understanding implicitly the need in his profession to look impregnable to the outside world.

Sutherland had no comparable history of depression when he took his own life on September 14 ten years ago, but there was growing evidence of a young man seemingly falling out of love with the life of a professional boxer.

He'd turned pro almost immediately after winning a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, winning all four of his fights in the paid ranks on technical knockouts. Outwardly at least, Darren's progress under the management of Frank Maloney looked to be running in perfect harmony with his hopes.

Sutherland had a radiance about him. A natural charisma. He'd grown up in thrall to a golden age of British middleweights - Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Michael Watson - that routinely drew his father, Anthony, to 'Friday Fight Night' on TV.

Darren would exult in the naked showbiz of the ring entrances, the flashing lights, the thudding sound-tracks, the hooded heroes stepping through clouds of dry ice towards their workplace.

He had spent the first seven years of his life in London, the next four on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent before the family settled back in Dublin initially and, eventually, Navan.

And he was 15 when he first walked into St Brigid's Boxing Club in Navan and began training under the eye of Gary Keegan.

But Sutherland then auditioned for a part in the doomed Brendan O'Carroll-directed movie, 'Sparrow's Trap', where he caught the attention of Brendan Ingle, working as an adviser on the fight scenes.

For almost the next four years, he was based in Ingle's Sheffield gym, drawn to the dream of emulating that stable's superstar, Prince Naseem Hamed. But his time in South Yorkshire proved deeply unhappy in the end.

A couple of months before going to those Beijing Olympics in 2008, he told this writer: "I couldn't resist. He had Prince Naseem at the time and, having gone over for a week just before doing my Junior Cert, I decided to move over full-time. I spent three and a half years there and ended up hating boxing."

Returning home at almost 20, Darren Sutherland had a decision to make.

Mindful of the stark educational cost of his time chasing an illusion in Sheffield, he settled back into a school uniform - alongside pupils up to four years younger - to sit his Leaving Cert at St Peter's College in Dunboyne.

And he bought a little car, to save himself what he called "the humiliation of getting on a bus".

His Leaving Cert duly attained, Sutherland was reunited with Keegan in '05 and his assimilation into Irish boxing's High Performance unit on the South Circular Road led - essentially - to an accidental Olympic story. Darren's only interest in boxing was to become a professional world champion, his instinct in the ring ever faithful to that dream.

Beijing silver-medallist, Kenneth Egan's, memory of Sutherland's arrival into High Performance offers a glimpse of the technical reinvention needed for someone they came to know as 'The Dazzler' to reach an Olympic podium.

"He hadn't really been on the radar because of his time in England," Egan remembered last week. "I'd heard of him alright, this talented kid now up in St Saviours. But I hadn't seen him.

"Then he came out of nowhere one year and won the Seniors at 75kg and I remember everyone saying 'Wow, this guy can box!'

"But he had this pro style and we didn't think he had any Olympic aspirations. I was just talking about this with his old coach, Jimmy Payne, the other day. When Darren came into High Performance, we brought each other on something fierce.

Sparred

"I sparred many a round with him, both in the Stadium and St Saviours. He was very big for a middleweight and we'd have some right dog-fights in there, me getting the upper hand one day, him the next. Now that was some testament to him, being a weight below me.

"In the High Performance unit, the sparring was obviously behind closed doors, but you'd nearly pay to watch it. It'd be himself, me and Darren O'Neill.

"He was a come-forward fighter, O'Neill was a big puncher, I was the boxer. Throw the three together for sparring and we were all learning off one another. One big thing Darren (Sutherland) had was a phenomenal jab. People fighting him for the first time could be pulverised by it.

"But an even bigger thing was his discipline. Because he was big for his division, he was watching his weight 24/7. He was THE High Performance athlete seven days a week. Whereas I wasn't. And the rest of the team weren't.

"That's being honest. After competition, I'd go home, let the hair down and go on the piss for a couple of weeks. He'd be chomping at the bit, wanting to know when we were back in training.

"Always ready for the next chapter."

They roomed together only once, during a multi-nations tournament in Dagestan before the '07 World Championships in Chicago.

Egan recalls been woken at four in the morning, to the sound of Sutherland skipping in the corridor.

"I woke to the clicking and clacking of the rope," he remembers. "Next thing, the kettle is boiling and Darren's making his porridge. That was the perfectionist in him. When I met Billy Walsh (coach) the following morning, I just said 'Ah here!'"

Sutherland had won three Irish senior titles by the time he climbed that podium in China, Walsh remembering "a tremendous athlete, just a ball of muscle with power and speed".

But he remembers, too, a deep thinker, someone for whom personal standards set could never be equivocal.

"He was the only one of the team at the time that I used to text every day to see how he was," Billy Walsh remembered last week.

"Just to make sure that he was alright. Because he was very explosive and would build up a lot of lactic acid in sessions. And you were always checking that the session planned could be married to his educational workload (Sutherland was, by now, pursuing a Sports Science degree in DCU).

"But you could have great fun with him too. When he was young, he was in the Billie Barry School of Dancing. I remember at one stage in the gym, he was trying to teach me to breakdance. And to do the moonwalk!"

Sutherland's Olympic medal win spoke of a profound ability to learn from setbacks. Well beaten by Venezuelan, Alfonso Blanca Parra, at those World Champions in Chicago, he beat the same opponent 11-1 a year later to guarantee himself a podium place.

But there was a sense too, almost immediately, of him moving on to another challenge within seconds of climbing out of the ring that day, given he would then lose his semi-final to James Degale, a boxer he had beaten four times in five previous bouts.

Post-Beijing, there was no ambiguity to Sutherland's future ambitions.

sutherlands.jpg
Darren Sutherland. Photo: Steve Humphreys

His long-stated dream of becoming "the first black Irishman to become world champion" brought him to choose Maloney ahead of a host of suitors in the pro ranks. Egan remembers keeping in touch with him on Facebook. And Walsh recalls Sutherland's visits - whenever home - to the High Performance gym and his counsel to boxers in the unit about how lucky they should consider themselves, given all the support structures in place.

Three months before his death, he admitted of the professional's lifestyle: "It seems like I'm on one continuous training camp in London. Being away from home is very tough, but this is a tough business and I know I have to make sacrifices to do well."

That was after securing his fourth straight win in the pro ranks, a third-round stoppage of Gennady Rasalev at York Hall in what would be the Ukrainian's last bout.

Despite the ease of victory, Sutherland received a bad cut in the bout that - it seems - was slow to heal.

Tony Sutherland would say at the subsequent inquest that the day before his son died, he was feeling down and losing confidence in his sport, declaring that he wished he had given up boxing after the Olympics.

News of his death swung like a wrecking-ball through the lives of those who knew him.

Walsh - still coming to terms with the sudden death from a heart attack of his youngest brother, Ollie, just three weeks earlier in Spain - was driving home to Wexford on the N11 when Gary Keegan rang.

"I had to pull into the side of the road," he recalls. "I just couldn't fathom what I was hearing."

Egan was in the throes of a chaotic fall into alcohol abuse that, effectively, thieved the next two years of his life after the Beijing Games. Sitting on a barstool in the Oliver St. John Gogarty in Temple Bar, he remembers seeing the story on Sky News confirm phone calls already received and, scarcely able to process the awful reality, just drinking on.

Now nine years teetotal, Egan remembers: "None of my life was really real at the time. A lot of the people we were meeting after the Olympics were very false and it turned me into a false person.

"Eventually, I just had to cop on.

"But, at the time, I nearly used the news to stay drinking. None if it made sense to me, still doesn't if I'm honest. Because there were never really any signs, none that I could see anyway.

"I just couldn't understand how someone with what seemed a perfect life, someone with a good contract who seemed destined to be a world champion... for it all to end so quickly… it's still a great puzzle."

Maloney is said to have suffered a mild heart attack on finding Sutherland's lifeless body that day at his Hawkworth House apartment.

Shamefully, it took five hours after the discovery of the body for the awful news about their son to be communicated to Tony and Linda Sutherland. By then, the death had been made public on social networking site, Bebo.

The Sutherlands continuously expressed concern about the circumstances of Darren's passing and his body was exhumed in 2010 to allow for a second post mortem. Croydon Coroner's Court returned an open verdict at the inquest two years later.

A decade on from his passing, the light of Darren Sutherland's life still remains vivid to those who knew him.

They kept his favourite quote on the Stadium wall - "The harder you train in the gym, the easier it will be in the ring" - and when Ireland won an unprecedented five medals at the subsequent European Championships in Moscow, Walsh remembers: "We all still felt his presence.

Interviews

"In their interviews after those championships, all the boys referenced a sense of 'someone looking down from above…'

"You know, Darren would light up a room when he walked into it. He was a really smart, intelligent guy. Very charismatic. He was the whole package. Just a tremendous human being actually."

A decade after his friend's loss, Egan remains struck by the profound fragility of the human condition.

"I look back now and remember someone who maybe put too much pressure on himself," Egan reflects. "He was always chasing perfection which, of course, nobody ever gets. What he did to win that Olympic medal was phenomenal when you think it wasn't his natural style of boxing.

"He had to adapt in a window of only about three years, but he did it.

"But looking back, it puts me in mind of a swan on a calm lake. Just gliding along, nice and calm but, underneath the water, the legs are going a thousand miles an hour.

"I could never know what was going on in the background because he wouldn't really allow anyone in. Darren never really socialised outside of training. We'd all be playing cards or whatever, just killing time, but he'd be in his books, doing an essay or something. Maybe listening to some podcast.

"He was always planning for the future. 'Too many fighters end up with nothing' he'd say. And he was adamant that wouldn't happen him.

"Just an amazing man, an amazing athlete. I was just talking about it to Jimmy (Payne) the other day.

"'You know', I said, 'if I had had even 10 percent of Darren's discipline, I'd have been doing alright!'"

If you have been affected by the contents of this article, contact The Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie

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