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Nevin has given up a lot, but it's hard to break family ties

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John Joe Nevin

John Joe Nevin

SPORTSFILE

John Joe Nevin

John Joe Nevin left a lot behind when he turned professional but it seems that the one thing he cannot leave behind is home.

His Olympic silver medal will forever be the high watermark of his amateur boxing career. But it obscures other achievements.

He is the only male Irish amateur to be ranked world number one by the global governing body, the AIBA. He is the only one, besides Katie Taylor, to win medals at the four major championships: Olympics, world, European and European Union. And he is the only Irish male to win medals at two worlds, in 2009 and 2011.

The foundation for this glittering career was laid down at Cavan Boxing Club where he began his apprenticeship as a boy under head coach Brian McKeown.

But it was with Billy Walsh and the High Performance Unit in the National Stadium that Nevin made the quantum leap into a world class talent.

That training facility at the Stadium became a home away from home for him, as it has for many other top amateurs over the last ten years. They got the best of everything, and still do: the technical coaching, strength and conditioning, screening and testing, psychology, nutrition, physiotherapy, medical support, bed and board. And all of it free, along with their annual grants from the Irish Sports Council.

They had a mentor and friend in Walsh; they had a family in their team-mates; they had fun and they had success.

When he finally turned pro in early 2014, Nevin lost all of this. He was cutting away the safety nets; he was walking away from a brilliant and benevolent infrastructure that had enveloped him like a warm cocoon. But he had the guts and the ambition to do it.

Nevin will turn 26 in June. He and his wife have one child, a boy. His plan is to become a world champion and make the truckload of money that will secure their future. But of course the road between here and there is treacherous; it is fraught with risks seen and unseen.

The makers of the documentary that premiered on RTE2 last Wednesday night tracked him after he turned pro. The film begins with him arriving at the gym in Philadelphia that was to be his base camp. Inevitably it is on the wrong side of the tracks. "This is like the Philly ghetto, this is the Puerto Rican ghetto," says his guide as they drive through a beaten-up neighbourhood on their way to the Harrowgate Boxing Club.

The feeling is palpable of a young man starting over, uncertain and isolated, a long way from all he knows and loves.

Tom Moran, an Irish-American, is his manager and the owner of Green Blood Boxing, the company with whom Nevin is signed. America is the home of the professional fight game. "To be a world champion," says Moran, "he needs to learn things that he doesn't know yet. But he can't get that in Ireland, he can't get that in England . . . But, you know, he's always thinking about when he's going home as soon as he gets here."

And therein lies the crux. Nevin, likeable, charming and open, admits he's "a homebird". And naturally he misses his loved ones. "Family is everything," he says, "family is blood."

But he stays and wins his pro debut, in Boston on St Patrick's Day. Two weeks later he's in Tullamore hospital after what can only be described as a crazed assault by his cousin. His right shin bone is broken in two places; it is a compound break where the bone is left protruding against the skin. His left fibula is also fractured. He has a steel rod inserted between the knee and ankle of his right leg.

Six months of hard rehab begins six weeks after the assault. But Nevin admits that before the rehab started he went on a prolonged bender. He wouldn't be the first sportsman to go off the rails when faced with a career-threatening injury. Deprived of his beloved gym work, traumatised by the attack and frightened for his future, he finds temporary escape in the bottle. "It got a bit messy and it's not a nice place to be in, but, it was a place that made me happy at the time."

By the end of 2014 he is back on track. In the meantime he has decided not to press charges. "Family is family. You're not going to go against family in court and give him jail or testify against him . . . When people say that Travellers don't put Travellers to jail, well, no matter where you go, (people are) not going to put their double first cousin in jail."

Everyone has family, the ties that bind. In Nevin's case, the ties that bind ended up breaking his legs. And they were there to help him drown his sorrows too. And they are there still, apparently keeping him in Ireland.

He is back training where he began, with Brian McKeown in Cavan. There is obviously a deep relationship between fighter and coach here. But he cannot be getting the high-class sparring that is so essential, and so much more available in America.

John Joe Nevin has some hard decisions to make. He has given up a lot already to chase his dream. But it seems he still hasn't given up enough.

thecouch@independent.ie

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