Thursday 20 June 2019

rebel with a fighting heart

Gary O'Sullivan is a late developer in pro boxing but he's in it for the right reasons, writes John O'Brien

HIS name is Gary O'Sullivan. But they call him Spike and his destiny is to become WBO middleweight champion of the world. He knows this because his mother's idol was Marvin Hagler who trained in a gym in Brockton, Massachusetts. His father's idol was Rocky Marciano who had trained in the same gym before Hagler. Spike's hero was Steve Collins and, guess what, he'd also become a champion out of the same Brockton gym.

Want more? Well, when Spike first went to America to train and box, where do you imagine he ended up? That's right. In the same gym in Brockton working with the legendary Petronelli brothers who had fashioned all those champions. Crazy, off-the-wall stuff, Spike says. He calls it fate.

* * * * *

September, 1995. It's a short stroll from Spike O'Sullivan's house to Páirc Uí Chaoimh where Steve Collins is defending his WBO super middleweight title against Chris Eubank. He walks alongside his father, Denis, and drinks in the magic of the occasion. If he closes his eyes, he can still see Collins entering the ring, the music blaring as he climbs through the ropes. óró, Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile/Anois ar theacht an tsamhraidh.

He can see Eubank, Simply the Best, mean and arrogant-looking, the jeers ringing around the packed stadium, the way he skips over the ropes and commands the central space in the ring. Boxing as entertainment. Boxing as razzmatazz. Spike had been a fighter for six years by then. That night taught him he didn't just have to be a boxer. He could be a dreamer too.

Denis had been a decent amateur himself and teaching his sons to box came like second nature. Spike is five now, proud owner of his first gumshield, his father seated before him, throwing out a jab, encouraging Spike to feint and come inside with a right to the body. "Just a little bit flatter Spike, keep your left hand up. Much better Spike. We'll make a fighter of you yet."

He first entered a ring in Swansea when he was nine, ready to fight, ready to win. He remembers being delayed in the dressing-room because the singlet they were trying to attach to his body kept falling over his puny shoulders. He weighed 26.15kgs and he flattened his opponent in the first round. He won his next 11 fights inside the distance and was a national champion at 15.

So where was the stellar amateur career? The glut of senior national titles? The everyman dream of becoming an Olympian? When Andy Lee, his good friend from Limerick, was preparing for Athens in 2004, why wasn't O'Sullivan, just as accomplished a fighter, in the high-performance gym in Dublin alongside him? "Short story," he smiles now. "I was at home making babies."

Life intervened. He got married, had a daughter, then another. He took an apprenticeship, as a sheet metal worker, so he could find a steady job to support them. Not that he lost touch with boxing. In 2003, with the help of his family, he established Loughmahon Boxing Club and started coaching fighters there, several national champions among them. His own boxing career, what remained of it, sidled away into the margins. It remained there until Paschal Collins called one day in late 2007. Billy 'Boy' Walsh was fighting for an Irish title in Cork early the following year and Collins was looking for another local fighter, someone with popular appeal, who could help fill the Neptune arena. Someone informed Collins that Spike O'Sullivan wasn't just the best amateur boxer in Cork, he was the most popular as well.

O'Sullivan liked the proposition, but never imagined his pro career would go much further. For a night anyway, he figured, he would live the dream. He fought Peter Dunn, a journeyman pro from Yorkshire, and stopped him in the sixth. Dunn had lost nearly all of his 54 fights before then, but he was tenacious and difficult to stop. Encouragingly, O'Sullivan felt himself grow stronger as each bell sounded.

A few weeks later, Collins was on the phone again, asking whether Spike would be interested in fighting in Boston on St Patrick's Day. "I thought Boston? Like, I believed I'd never be outside this community. I'd been to Portugal once. But America? It seemed so far away. I said, 'Paschal, if you wanted me to go to America to fight Tyson, I'd be there'."

He fought a well-touted debutant from Ohio by the name of Robert Harris. O'Sullivan watched him patrol the ring, looking smart and tidy, a proper boxer. So he thought he'd test him, see how he'd take a punch and, like Denis had taught him years before, he rattled his ribcage with a right hook and watched the breath puff out of him. Then he flattened him with a follow-up. Harris, his confidence destroyed perhaps, only fought twice afterwards.

O'Sullivan has had 15 fights now, 15 comfortable victories, and what impresses most about him is the rich detail he can recall from each of those contests, the knowledge he possesses of each fighter before and after he fought them. People told him that Dunn, for example, wasn't much of a boxer and a record of 105 losses in 121 bouts would seem to confirm it, but O'Sullivan approaches from another angle.

"Look, he was a journeyman but he was tough and very experienced. I'd looked at his record and noticed he'd been very seldom stopped. I was the first in 30 fights or something to stop him and he didn't get stopped again for another 35 or 40 fights after that. It's all there on Boxrec. Check the records."

He thinks too of the day in 2009 he fought Jimmy LeBlanc in Massachusetts for his first minor title belt. LeBlanc's record was uninspiring, but he'd fought well against a boxer who had gone the distance with Oscar De La Hoya and, for a novice like O'Sullivan, represented a fair test. By the fourth it was over, LeBlanc disqualified for repeatedly clinching. O'Sullivan had destroyed the 34-year-old with his jab.

Fifteen victories, nine inside the distance, and still he senses the doubts. A while back he saw a rankings list of the top 10 boxers in Ireland pound-for-pound and noticed he was No 10, a place behind Willie Casey. O'Sullivan was gobsmacked. No disrespect to Casey, but he couldn't see the logic. "People underestimate me," he says. "I know people who said after my debut 'he'll go nowhere. He got lucky'. I don't mind that. It motivates me."

In the latest WBO middleweight rankings, O'Sullivan stands at No 5 and he hopes to get a shot at the current belt holder, the American Peter Quillin, known as Kid Chocolate, by March next year. "There are no fighters in Ireland with a world title hope," says his friend and Loughmahon PRO, Mick O'Brien. "That's undisputed. Katie Taylor might have turned pro but she didn't. The same with John Joe Nevin. Everything is down to Spike O'Sullivan. That's the way it is."

In July, before 40,000 spectators at Upton Park, on the David Haye-Derek Chisora undercard, O'Sullivan fought Matthew Hall of Manchester and earned the WBO international belt that, ultimately, will earn him a shot at a world title. The bare bones of that victory, a points decision after the first 12-rounder of his career, are uninspiring. There was a context to the fight, though, that only those close to O'Sullivan knew about.

"I'd two-and-a-half weeks' training prior to the fight," he explains. "You need 12. It was a last-minute kind of thing. I'd to drop 18lbs in three weeks. I got conjunctivitis because of all the stress to the body. I remember ringing Mick one morning. I was in a bad way. I was sparring and couldn't even see the punches coming. But I was never going to give up. I always knew I'd win the fight. My concern was I'd fail the medical."

So he restrained himself a bit. Didn't load up with power punches. "I'd learned from experience, from watching hundreds of fights on tv. Guys going hell for leather to finish a fight and then running out of energy. Here I am in a fight after only two-and-a-half weeks' preparation. I did the maths. I need to conserve myself."

He thinks winning is his destiny now. Not just beating Hall, but becoming world champion, putting Cork boxing on the map. That's what Mick keeps telling him and so many uncanny things keep happening, he can't help but believe him. The last Irishman to win the WBO middleweight title? Steve Collins. Where did he win it? Cork. And now it is Collins' brother, Paschal, training Spike to be the next champion. How could any of them have scripted it?

Collins encouraged him to see Alan Heary, the sports psychologist who helped Steve become world champion, and it was inspired advice. In their discussions Heary fixed on what he reckoned to be Spike's greatest motivation: his three daughters. That's what it boiled down to. What O'Sullivan was fighting for. The love of his children and his burning desire to provide a good life for them.

"Before the Hall fight he said something that will always stick in my mind. 'Spike, he will hit you once, but your three daughters will be behind you and they will push you back and you'll hit him twice'. I've seen the fight 10 times over and in the fifth he hits me really hard, I thought he'd broken my jaw. I see it in slow motion. I'm on the back foot. But I grit my teeth and then I come back and hit him twice. It's incredible."

All these little things. The little connections adding up. He knew he'd handle the raw atmosphere of Upton Park because he'd fought Ryan Clark in front of 23,000 at the O2 Arena the previous year, his first promotion under Frank Warren, and the electricity of the occasion had lifted him. Clark wasn't a fearsome opponent by any means, but he hadn't been KO'd in 37 previous fights and, impressively, O'Sullivan had finished him halfway into the first.

He remembers being in his dressing room at Upton Park, being hurried by officious, busy-body types with clipboards and headphones, anxious to keep the TV schedule moving. "Fuck off," he told them. He was determined to enjoy his moment. He took a deep breath, looked at his daughters and thought of his dear Uncle Seán who had lived just across the road. "I thought, wow, it's all coming together. Seán loved his boxing. He'd be very proud of me if he was alive today."

So he moves on now. Back in the Neptune arena in three weeks he'll fight Dennis Sharpe, another journeyman pro from New Jersey, but one who managed to go the distance with Andy Lee in New York last year. He had been due to fight Jamie Cox, a 16-0 middleweight from Swindon, and he feels sorry for Cox that the opportunity for an international belt was taken away from him. But he says he'd be happy to fight Cox in the near future. And Matthew Macklin too. He isn't afraid of any fighter.

One way or another, he'd like more recognition. After beating Hall, the GAA invited him to parade around Croke Park before the All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Cork and Galway and he appreciated the gesture. In Cork, there have been civic receptions, meetings with Lord Mayors. In Mahon community centre across the road from the gym, the kids got together and painted a life-size mural. Spike and Muhammad Ali together. He melts every time he sees it.

Always it comes back to home. In the harsh days before he fought Hall, he trained with Collins in his gym in Blanchardstown, charging up and down the stairs every day, kettle bells weighing down his arms. When the lactic acid began to burn like molten lava in his legs and he felt he couldn't go on, he would hear Paschal's brother Mick urging him on. "Do it for the girls Spike. Do it for the girls."

"You know, maybe I have the ability to be world champion," O'Sullivan says calmly. "Maybe. I don't know. I'm not 100% sure. But now I have my children. I thought it was a curse when I was 18 and I said what am I after doing? I'm after ruining my life. Now I know it's made me the man I am today. Everything I do is for them. They've given me the belief I can do it."

And to dream big dreams. He's not making money at the moment, he's honest about that, but he trusts Collins and believes in the plan they have laid out and that, in time, it will bring him everything he wants. To be world champion, just like Steve, defending his crown in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, then walking home through familiar streets, his belt and his family and friends with him.

He thinks too that maybe one day he could outdo his hero. Collins won belts at middleweight and super middleweight and Spike believes that his destiny might carry him to three. Why not? He's 28, precious little mileage on the clock, no savage beatings inflicted on him, another eight to 10 good fighting years left in him. Why not indeed?

He stands outside the community centre now and sees his daughter Katie playing football in the schoolyard across the road. He scrawls through his phone and picks out his favourite picture of her, taken the day he brought her to the local shopping centre to have her ears pierced. Because it might hurt a little, he told her to give the teddy bear a squeeze when it happened but no, she said, she'd rather hold her daddy's hand instead. And the big, powerful fighter with the soft heart folded. "Oh man," he says smiling. "I dissolved into tears. I couldn't believe she'd just just said that."

Do it for the girls Spike.

When things get tough, they are the only words he needs to hear.

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