Cinderella Man of Dublin
As his showdown with Amir Khan looms large, Oisin Fagan is again playing the role of underdog, but, he tells Vincent Hogan, he wouldn't like to have it any other way
He sees himself as 'Cinderella Man', an old pug mistaken for a bum. People play polite games, but he doesn't need to be told the score. Oisin Fagan has lived too interesting a life not to know his place in boxing's food chain.
Next Saturday night, he fights Amir Khan in London. And he doubts the Bolton fighter even knows his name.
Last Wednesday night, they did a conference call with some fight journalists. It started with just Fagan. His story got picked at like a cold microwave meal until Khan and Frank Warren came on the line. And, suddenly, the Dubliner was forgotten.
So he sat in his Belfast digs, listening to Khan talk about hunger and redemption. The Englishman's last fight had been a shock 54 seconds misadventure against Colombian, Breidis Prescott. Khan hoped for a re-match, he said. He needed to right some wrongs.
And for maybe 45 minutes, Oisin Fagan sat eavesdropping on a discussion that never once returned to his corner. "It was Amir this, Amir that..." he remembers.
"I was completely forgotten. Nobody asked me another question. Seemed like nobody really cared. The fella (Khan) never even mentioned me. If you asked him my first name, I bet you he wouldn't have known. I was going to hang up."
Eventually, it drew to a close. "'Okay, anybody else got any more questions? No? Okay thanks Frank and Amir for taking our call." Then a pause. "Oh, and thanks Oisin." Fagan stayed silent.
"Pretended I wasn't even there, if only to save my embarrassment!" he smiles.
He is sitting in a shopping centre sandwich bar, just off the Falls Road. A rich burgundy bruise swells his bottom lip. There's a faint inky blackness under the skin of his nose, like underlay showing beneath a threadbare carpet. Oisin Fagan has a fighter's face.
He is 35 and a Dubliner who, through the best and worst of times, has been invisible to his home city.
The best? Probably when he got a shot at Julio Cesar Chavez junior at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The worst? When, penniless and homeless in Oklahoma city, he discovered that boxing was probably his only escape.
Soccer had been Fagan's game; Glasgow Celtic his passion. Brought up in Tallaght until he was 13, the family then moved to Portmarnock. He wasn't, he says, a bad kid. Just "a messer", a "bit mad".
He was expelled from Portmarnock Community School just before his Leaving Cert. The reason? "A litany of stuff," he says. "The final straw was that I went into school with a pair of me Ma's tights on me head and squirted water pistols at some teachers. Just messing, a bit of craic really.
"But I suppose it had been building and that was the straw that broke the camel's back."
He slipped into a succession of jobs that offered a salary but never fulfilment. Apprentice carpenter. Apprentice engineer. Apprentice butcher. For maybe three years, he worked the deli counter at his local Dunnes Stores.
Soccer was what defined him. In '96, he had triggered a little commotion with his performance for Portmarnock in a cup game against Cherry Orchard at Tolka Park. Leeds United were interested in the winger. Louis University in Chicago flew him over for a trial.
As a first-time student, he was offered a "nine tenths" scholarship in Chicago. "So how much would I have to pay?" he asked.
"No can do."
For two more years, he played with Portmarnock, unaware that Louis University had posted his details on the internet. Then he got a call from the University of Science and Arts in Oklahoma. "How would you feel about a full scholarship with us?"
And that's, essentially, when Oisin Fagan began to grow. Within two years, he
had graduated with honours degrees in PE and Political Journalism. "I actually found out I had a brain in the end," he smiles.
Fagan wanted to teach but struggled to get employment. There were issues with his visa. The paperwork was complicated. No-one seemed interested enough to explore the possibilities and, slowly, his life plunged into a downward spiral.
At 28, he essentially became Oisin Fagan of 'no fixed abode'. He slept on floors. He did odd jobs for friends -- "digging holes in their back gardens, whatever" -- just to get some dollars. And he decided, above all, that he wanted to come home.
"The worst time was one night I was sleeping in my car," he remembers. "It was freezing cold and I didn't have the money to get petrol so that I could use the heater. And I'm lying there thinking, 'There has to be a better way than this'."
His girlfriend of the time was a devout Baptist. Her family were good people and they saw in Oisin a weak soul in need of saving. They suggested that he convert to their faith, but he resisted and there the relationship ended.
The stress in his life brought him out in great, ugly hives and he had money neither for a doctor's appointment nor a prescription bill. He took himself to the Catholic Worker House and, like any other down-and-out, they saw to it that he got treatment.
All this time, of course, he could have phoned home, the only impediment being pride. "I was a 28-year-old man for God's sake. I didn't want help from anybody."
And it was around this time that something drew him in the door of the Badlands Gym in Oklahoma city. Fagan used to box to keep in shape while playing soccer and he'd actually had three amateur bouts in Dublin. So now he presented himself to the local promoter, looking for the price of a plane ticket home.
"Don't care who you put me in against," he told him. "You can put me in against a killer, doesn't matter. I'll give it my best shot. If I take a beating, I take a beating. How much would you give me?"
The promoter had a young kid starting out, who needed an introductory corpse. "Two hundred dollars," he told Fagan.
"I'll take it," said the Dubliner.
So he trained for four weeks, then fought Sheldon Mosley in the AMC Flea Market. He knocked the kid out in four and, suddenly, the promoter could see dollar signs. Fagan fought twice more in quick succession, two more KO victories.
By now, he was working as a teacher too. The principal of Columbus Elementary had been in the hall the night of his fight with Mosley. "I hear you're a teacher," he said to Fagan. "Well, we've just had a vacancy for PE."
Soon it was July '03 and there was sun in his life. Boxing seemed easy. But he was paired against a guy called Isaac Mendoza and Mendoza turned out to be reality in a cape. He broke Fagan's nose and fractured his cheekbone in three places.
The kids in Columbus were mainly hispanics from a low socio-economic background; tough kids who grew to like the hard edge to their new teacher. Routinely, Fagan would report for duty on a Monday morning sporting a black eye.
And someone would look at him with a great melon-slice smile and chuckle 'Ah Mister Fagan, I see you've been fighting again!'
By his seventh fight, Fagan was being spirited into the winking, neon Taj Mahal that is the MGM Grand to fight Chavez on an Erik Morales under-card. Sixteen thousand Mexicans filled the arena. Chavez's legendary father, led him into the ring. The place had the feel of an abattoir.
It is at this point in the conversation that Oisin Fagan takes his wallet from a pocket and produces a photograph from that night in Vegas. It shows him delivering the perfect uppercut to a shocked-looking Chavez. Their fight went the distance, but the Mexican won on points.
Vegas gave him the best of feelings and the worst. He says that Chavez to this day describes it as one of his toughest fights. "Which is nice, just a little keep-sake for me."
Yet, Fagan found that his purse had been cut in the changing room. The deal was for $1,250. He was handed an envelope containing $1,000.
The promoter mumbled something about Oisin's parents being given tickets and how, well, tickets didn't exactly grow on trees. "Just chancin' his arm," says Fagan.
Not long after that, he changed promoters.
"I signed up with Stacy Goodson in Arkansas," he says. "The other promoter was just feeding me to the dogs. I wasn't being trained properly. If someone's in my corner telling me I'm s**t, that really messes with my head.
"Goodson started working on my confidence. Boxing is a great sport, but it's a terrible business. There's a lot of people, particularly promoters, just in it for themselves. I'm lucky enough. Goodson was a good promoter. And Brian Peters is the same. They're both good fellas. But they're the best of a bad bunch".
Under Goodson, Fagan fought former unbeaten IBF lightweight champion Paul Spadafora at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Michigan in March 2007. Spadafora edged a split decision and was booed out of the ring afterwards. For the Dubliner, it was just another cruel 'nearly day' in the life of a journeyman fighter.
"I knew what his people were thinking before the fight," he says. "They saw that I had no amateur record. They were saying, 'Surely this bum isn't going to do anything!' I actually thought I won the fight."
By now, he was repaying his debt to the Catholic Worker House, delivering food to the poor of Oklahoma city every weekend. And he had fallen in love. Next summer, Fagan hopes to marry his beautiful fiancee, Alissa, in a ceremony in Indianapolis.
But his visa expired, he came home last summer and has struggled to have his degrees acknowledged by the Department of Education. His last fight was against Latvian Konstantin Sakara, on a low-key bill in the National Stadium in July. An unimpressive points win.
So Oisin's CV isn't the kind you'd expect to unduly trouble an Olympic silver medalist and all the indications are that Khan is not losing much sleep about next Saturday.
Yet the Dubliner's faith helps him believe in fairytales. "I see this as a God-given opportunity," he says. "When I think of all the boxers who could have been Khan's next fight, I'm just thankful that it's happened for me.
"And he's overlooking me, like everybody does. He's obviously not even thinking about me at all. That really suits me. I like the underdog role, the me against the world scenario.
"Look, I know anything can happen in boxing. He could hit me with a lucky punch in the first few seconds and I could be f****d. You don't know. But, if I'm in there for any amount of time, I plan to make it more than tough for him.
"He's going to know that he's in a fight with an Irish warrior.""
A camera crew has been following Fagan in recent weeks, making a documentary about this 'opportunity'. And Oisin Fagan has his entrance music planned for Saturday night in London's dockland. 'Drop-kicked' by Irish rapper, Rob Kelly.
Everything is in place for Dublin's own 'Cinderella Man', then. All he needs is life to imitate the movie.