When Paul McCloskey challenges Amir Khan for the WBA junior welterweight title next month in Manchester he’ll do so as a prohibitive underdog, but then that isn’t anything new for an Irish fighting man. Not since the days of “Rinty” Monaghan has a boxer from the Emerald Isle taken to the road to haggle with an English world titlist and been favoured to have a belt in possession at the end of discussions, yet rarely has it prevented them from pushing the envelope in spite of it.
In June1989, Dave “Boy” McAuley, the fighting chef from the Pandora Restaurant in Larne, County Antrim, travelled to London to challenge Duke McKenzie for the Croydon stylist’s IBF flyweight crown. With sports books having him pegged as a 3/1 long shot, including the one drafted by his own manager, Barney Eastwood, McAuley was left to revel in the limelight free shadows of Belfast’s bustling Castle Street gym.
“In the Eastwood stable, we had the best sparring partners in the world imported from Colombia, Panama and South America,” he remembered proudly. “I sparred some of [Barry] McGuigan’s guys and learned an awful lot. We had fantastic trainers in Bernardo Checa, Eddie Shaw and Paul McCullough — we had it all. So I sparred and trained at a very high level and then had some really good, tough world title fights which gave me a good standing for when I fought McKenzie.”
Despite the fact McAuley had made his bones in a duo of exhilarating yet unsuccessful tilts at the powerful WBA title holder, Fidel Bassa, in front of a national television audience, the team behind him understood the betting line which had been posted against their man and set about making it work for them. “The reason why I was such an underdog was because I hadn’t fought for 15 months,” he opined. “They thought that it was my last chance — that I wasn’t really interested and was there for the money. Mickey Duff (McKenzie’s manager) was told that McAuley just wanted a few extra pound to keep him going until he gets a job, that’s the bluff that we put forward, whereas we knew I was going to die trying to win that world title.”
In front of the 3,700 fans that breathed life into Wembley Arena that fateful midsummer’s evening, McAuley whipped the rug from beneath McKenzie with a crafty display of infighting which carried him to a unanimous decision victory. McKenzie, unbeaten in 23 contests and expected to triumph at a canter as a result, was simply unable to repel the Irishman who, unburdened with expectation, showed what he could do when the shackles were off.
“When you have nothing to lose, it takes all of the pressure off you,” he surmised. “McKenzie — he had it all to lose and literally nothing to gain by fighting me, I wasn’t bringing much to the table as a beaten challenger for the world title on two occasions. Duke was a very good fighter — we just knew in our camp that we had the edge.”
Four years after the McAuley triumph, Eastwood journeyed to Glasgow in a bid to upset the applecart once more. This time he’d shunted his heft behind Belfast super middleweight Ray Close, a substitute drafted in to face the controversial WBO titlist at 168 lbs., Chris Eubank. It was a bout which kick-started a series of clashes between 1993 and 1995 which featured the “Brighton Braggart” against Irish opposition, a run his former promoter, Barry Hearn, recalled came about by chance yet made for keen business.
“They were all top ten contenders, Ray Close was a mandatory if I remember rightly. Eubank was very busy – he was defending his title roughly every seven or eight weeks so we had to go through the top 10 and domestic fighters make better TV ratings generally, so that was the reasoning behind it,” Hearn said. “Ray Close was not necessarily a super world class fighter, he was very much in your face, had a decent chin, decent technique, a very good pro, [but] he was predictable.”
Despite Ray’s limitations, his stubborn resolve would push the erratic Englishman to the wire twice in separate, contentious meetings, efforts which saddled him with a draw and then a split decision loss in the return fight at the Kings Hall in Belfast. Ten days prior to that rematch, Cabra born battler Steve Collins managed a more successful invasion of his own, when he pounded the resistance out of Leicester-born WBO middleweight king Chris Pyatt in the fifth round of a low key affair in Sheffield, a victory which played second fiddle in the national press to an undercard display from a certain Naseem Hamed.
Three months later, and Ireland’s former Olympic representative, Sam Storey, attempted to follow Collins’ lead against the ubiquitous Eubank in Cardiff only to fail dismally, succumbing just after half way. “I think Eubank was a class above Sam,” Hearn reflected. “Sam was probably coming towards the end of his career, he put up a decent show but he didn’t have the power to trouble Eubank.” Newspaper reports suggested that Eubank had been motivated to perform in a bid to appease his paymaster at Sky, Sam Chisholm, supposition that Hearn rejects. “Eubank was his own man, he had his own style. He wasn’t the type of fighter you could say, ‘Tonight you’ve got to look good,’ he wouldn’t take any notice of anybody, he’d just do his own thing.”
That “thing” led him into trouble. After seeing off Storey, Eubank notched two more hot and cold victories before the whimsical showman went down in flames to the aforementioned Collins, not once, but twice. Unlike in his challenge to Pyatt, however, or indeed the one McCloskey faces against Khan, Collins had managed to negotiate home advantage for himself, which laid the platform for a brace of spiteful encounters with Collins’ greater sense of purpose bringing him home first both times.
After Collins’ retirement in 1997, Irish hopes centred on the Las Vegas based Ulsterman, Wayne McCullough, who the following year went on to challenge for the WBO featherweight crown against the man who had stolen “The Celtic Warrior’s” thunder years earlier in Sheffield, the knockout artist Hamed. McCullough remembers a fractious fight week in Atlantic City, during which nothing was as it appeared.
“It was a crazy build-up,” he recollected. “I was walking on the boardwalk the day before the fight and a bunch of English guys came over and asked for my picture.” McCullough chuckles at the gesture which, nevertheless, left him buoyed after the group revealed they were there to support him and not their self aggrandising countryman. “Irish fans, English fans, Scottish fans you know there were about 12 thousand people there and about 11 and a half thousand were supporting me that night.”
If the fans were in McCullough’s corner, the press had lodged themselves unequivocally behind the favourite. “Oh yeah, they were all on the Hamed train,” he lamented. “Hamed had knocked out 18 guys straight before he fought me and he’d fought the likes of Kevin Kelly. Kevin is my good buddy but Kevin hasn’t got the greatest chin — with Hamed and me it was different. I’d won the WBC belt and moved up two weight classes to fight him but I’d never shown any signs of being hurt. All of a sudden it looked like a mismatch. I was gonna be blown away in one or two rounds at the most and I was thinking: ‘What? Like seriously?’ I think the media got caught into his hype and didn’t realise he was fighting someone who was a real champion.”
McCullough, given little chance of victory, withstood Hamed’s nuclear hitting to make a row of it, a loser with the judges after 12 rounds yet a moral victor with those in attendance. “The Pocket Rocket” had shown the pluck synonymous with his people. “I just think it’s in our blood you know, Irish fighters might not have the best skill in the world but they have the heart and the desire to win and they always seem to get the fans behind them. The Irish will give it 100 percent no matter what, win or lose,” he declared.
It’s that fighting spirit which keeps his countrymen coming back through the turnstiles in their droves, backing which Hearn feels will make an impression in Manchester. “Their vocal support is second to none. I’ve seen the Irish support from McGuigan at home, even someone like Steve Collins in Boston and it does create quite an intimidating atmosphere, there’s gonna be quite a lot of Irish fans following McCloskey at the M.E.N and I’m sure they’ll be heard.”
It’s a theory with which McCullough concurs. “Paul McCloskey has no pressure on him and when you have no pressure going into a fight, what have you got to lose? You’re supposed to lose anyway,” he said. “There’s gonna be a lot of Irish fans coming over but I’m telling you there’ll be a lot of English fans supporting McCloskey as well.”
The former action fighter from the Shankill Road maintains that boxing is as vital in his homeland as it ever was. “I think there are more pros over there than there’s ever been,” he said. “When I left to come to America in ’93 there was probably a handful of professional fighters – it was dying out. Everybody was staying amateur cos they started paying [them] but now there’s so many pro events going on, there’s a big buzz about Irish boxing.”
It’s a crescendo which Hearn believes could raise the roof on April 16th. “If Paul should beat Amir Khan, then they have another superstar on their hands.”
McAuley, the Irish raider who led the way in the modern era understands what that would mean, perhaps better than anyone.
“It would be fantastic, it’s what Ireland needs. I think we’re ready for another world champion.”