By Steve Bunce
IN THE Crumlin gym, the green blazer in the frame is a tiny and brilliant reminder of Phil Sutcliffe’s history.
Last week over 100 boys, girls, men, and women walked past that blazer and filled every inch of the Dublin gym. There was nowhere to move, the heat was rising, and the noise hit another level. Eddie Hearn was on his way.
They skipped, they hit the bags, and they shadow boxed. And all the time glancing over to see who was watching. Some younger than 10, some older than 30, but all members of the Crumlin Boxing Club. All amateur boxers. Nobody was on their phone, they worked furiously to impress. It was, in many ways, just another busy night inside just another amateur boxing club. It could have been West Ham; it could have been the Rotunda or any of the other hundreds of clubs that go under our radar in this business.
At the very heart of the club, walking from boxer to boxer, was Sutcliffe. He is just part of a big coaching team. The man with the green blazer and a very special history. In the Seventies, his achievements were close to fantasy.
He is the great Phil Sutcliffe, the man who defied the odds at a time when boxers from Eastern Europe dominated the sport. Sutcliffe and his green vest took on the might of the old Eastern Bloc and returned with medals. At the European championships in Halle, East Germany, in 1977, all eleven gold medals went to Iron Curtain boxers and ten of the silver medals; that is domination. Sutcliffe won a bronze at light-flyweight that year.
In those long forgotten Cold War days, boys like Sutcliffe were fighting against kings, iron-curtain royalty. And most of the Easten bloc boxers were also terrible drug cheats. He won a bronze medal at the 1977 and 1979 European amateur championships, losing both times to the eventual champion. He had similar luck at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics; he lost to Daniel Zaragoza in Moscow and Maurizio Stecca in Los Angeles. Stecca won gold, both won world titles. Sutcliffe, make no mistake, was elite.
“They were hard times, for Irish boxers, we were not expected to win anything,” Sutcliffe said. He was right. The list of great Irish and British boxers who went to tournaments in the Seventies and Eighties and came back with nothing is long and impressive. Sutcliffe was a pioneer.
Sutcliffe has been at Crumlin Boxing Club from the very early Nineties and that means he has been part of the Irish amateur boxing revolution; a time when Irish boxers started to win medals at all events and across all ages. The nation is a powerhouse now and the Crumlin is packed with tomorrow’s fighters. I stopped taking notes when the names started flowing: “He’s only 14, he is unbelievable.” “She’s 24, changed her life and she is amazing.” It was endless, the talent everywhere. And, yes, they did want to be the next Katie.
It is the gym where Sutcliffe first saw the kid, Conor McGregor. He was there one night, about ten years of age, hitting a bag and wearing his football boots. The gym is in the middle of an estate, the streets outside have their attractions, and the gym does not always win the struggle.
It did with McGregor: “He could always box, he was a great talent,” Sutcliffe said. McGregor is back now, still involved with the club. It is a side of McGregor that gets ignored.
Hearn and his travelling party arrived. He gave away some VIP tickets, but he made them work for their freebies; the seniors had a press-up competition, and the juniors had a plank competition. It was brutal. Men and women were collapsing.
“We have been to a few gyms recently and this place is amazing. It is at the heart of a community,” said Hearn. The gym is a throwback, a place lost in time, a place familiar to men like Sutcliffe. Hearn seemed shocked by just how many boxers were packed inside the gym. It is the type of place that gets ignored, the type of place where the men and women running it, just get on with their business night after night and don’t demand headlines. Nobody will get rich training children five nights each week at the Crumlin. Or, for that matter, at any of the other boxing institutions in Dublin.
“They will not all box at the Olympics, they will not all be the next Conor McGregor, but it never hurts to dream – that is why they keep coming through the door,” Sutcliffe added.
And they do keep coming through the door and they are not all Irish; there are a lot of immigrants, united inside the walls: Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis. The full spectrum of sons and daughters of parents looking for a better and safer life. The following night, the city was burning. On Saturday at the Katie Taylor fight, I forgot to ask Sutcliffe if the Crumlin doors had been locked shut on the night of unrest – the pubs and bars and restaurants had all bolted their doors. I doubt the Crumlin locked out their boxers.
“Down here, inside this gym, nothing really matters,” Sutcliffe told me. “It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you have got. In here, you are just another boxer at the club. That’s it, and that is enough.” It is enough and that is the same in all the real gyms all over the world. Same dreams, same men and women devoted to making those dreams happen. Katie Taylor talked to me in the ring at the end of the fight and talked about her dreams. It is a simple boxing dream, and it all starts inside a place like Sutcliffe’s Crumlin Boxing Club. It should be a mandatory stop for anybody on a Dublin trip.