BN: Historically, Belfast is proper fighting terrain. Tell us about growing up as a rare face of colour on the streets around Turf Lodge. Did you endure much racism?
CA: My family was one of the first mixed-race families in West Belfast, but we weren’t made to feel different. You faced a small bit of racism now and then, growing up in school and by certain people. But it wasn’t every day.
We were made to feel welcome. My family were well-known in Turf Lodge; my grandad helped build the amateur boxing club I boxed for (Holy Trinity ABC).
BN: Were you a feisty kid, a natural scrapper, before becoming actively involved in boxing?
CA: I was naturally feisty—a few anger issues when I was younger and was always frustrated, a cheeky little kid. Boxing was a way of letting that anger out; you see it in my style of boxing.
But I don’t think I properly lost my temper until I was about 18. Boxing taught me to control it (the anger), learn not to be a naughty kid in school, and let it all out in the gym. But as you grow up, you mature. You just lose that frustration.
BN: Do you feel the well-documented knife attack you endured at a fast-food outlet in 2017 will always be a part of your story, or will it become a footnote as you live out a storied career?
CA: Six years on, people still ask me questions about it. I’ve got a scar down my face; people tend to ask or stare at it. They always want to know the story. I don’t mind; it’s a part of who I am.
I went through some dark phases at that time, hit rock bottom. I had to pull myself from a dark hole. Getting stabbed made me a better person and a better athlete. I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my career. Going from where I was to who I am now is a great accomplishment, and I’m proud of who I’ve become.
But I don’t want people to remember me as the boxer who got stabbed. I want to be remembered as a great boxer and a great champion. At the same time, if I can get my story out there to help somebody else, then I will do.
BN: Where would you be if you didn’t persevere in boxing after the attack?
CA: Jail. I would’ve sought revenge. That’s what I mean when I say I was going through dark times. It was ‘Do I go left, or do I go right?’ Do I refuse to let these people define me and define who I am, or do I seek revenge and mess up my whole career and my life?
You can have quite an ego as someone who’s a proud man and a proud fighter. We all have egos, and at that stage of my life, I felt like I had been violated.
BN: I heard you knocked back an approach from Love Island. How advantageous can these platforms be to a fighter?
CA: In this age, social media and fame are important. But for me, Love Island was never who I am. It’s scripted. You have to be fake, and that’s just not who I am. Hypothetically, if I was on Love Island and someone stole my girl, I’d end up chinning them!
For some, it might be a way of getting exposure, but I’m not in boxing to become famous or to have clout. I’m here to be a world champion and achieve my dreams and goals. My boxing style already gets me the exposure it should. The only way I wanna get exposure is by giving the fans great fights.
You’ll get a lot of stick for it once you come out (of reality TV) and continue the job, but I understand that it’s benefitted a lot of people, Idris Virgo and Tommy Fury, to name two. It has its pros and cons, but it’s not for me.
BN: Much has been made of your potential to become Ireland’s first world champion of colour. At what stage did that become a personal goal? What would it mean to you as an individual were you to realise that?
CA: Just before I turned pro, I realised it had never been done. Some great fighters from Ireland have been mixed-race or black; there’s Tommy McCarthy, and there’s Darren Sutherland – who sadly committed suicide in 2009.
Sutherland was a fighter I looked up to, followed closely because he was also mixed race. His fighting style excited me. I was saddened to hear the news; I was just a kid. Growing up and understanding more about boxing and Darren from other Irish fighters who boxed with him, he sounded like a great man and an unbelievable fighter. He would’ve won a world title, without a doubt—the first black Irish world champion.
I moved to Belfast as a mixed-race kid from London when I was six or seven. Around 2015-2016 I said, ‘If I turn pro, I want to be the first black Irish world champion.’ But if someone else achieved that before me, I would support them. As of now, it still hasn’t been achieved; it’s still the goal.
I want people to know that you can still achieve great things regardless of skin colour, culture or religion. I want to be a role model for all the kids coming through the boxing ranks. I can pave the way for other fighters from Belfast and Ireland from different backgrounds.
BN: You have a very explosive fight style. Is that something that comes naturally, or was it moulded over time?
CA: It just comes naturally. From the amateurs, I’ve always had that explosive style. I’m naturally explosive in anything sporting that I do. It’s just genetics, something I’ve had from a young age.
BN: Where have you made the most significant developments since teaming up with coaches Joe McNally and Declan O’Rourke at the Rotunda gym in Liverpool?
CA: Joe and Declan make me focus on my mistakes. I know what I’m doing wrong but putting it all together can be hard when you’re sparring, hitting the bags, or fighting.
It’s all good knowing what you’re doing wrong, but without someone there to correct your mistakes, you’re gonna keep doing them.
Joe’s got an unbelievable IQ. He can see all the fine details that I’m doing wrong. It’s nothing major, but it moulds me into an all-around better fighter.
BN: Liam Smith and JJ Metcalf are among the stable at Rotunda. Who’s giving you the most demanding rounds in sparring?
CA: I’ve never sparred with either of them. Sparring’s gotta suit everyone. In camp, I’m focused on a certain opponent, so we bring sparring in that’s a similar style. My toughest sparring in Rotunda was actually Thomas Whittaker Hart and Scott Forrest. One’s a cruiserweight, and one’s a light heavyweight.
But Liam and James (Metcalf) are fighters who have both been at a high level for so long. I’m 26; I’m up and coming. I can learn so much from them.
BN: How has your recent move down to super-welter affected you physically? How compromised are you?
I’m the same, if not more dangerous, at 154. I still carry that power, speed and explosiveness.
I performed at middleweight for a long time and at ‘75kg middleweight’ in the amateurs – basically super-middleweight. You’ve got boys coming down from light-heavy, maybe a bit heavier, to make middleweight. Even though I am unbeaten at middleweight, I always gave them that [natural size] advantage. Moving down to 11st, I benefit because I’m much stronger than my rivals in the division.
BN: You’re currently ranked 11th with the EBU. Above you, there’s Brits Sam Eggington (number six) and Josh Kelly (number four). Do those fights appeal to you? Is the EBU title attractive to you?
CA: I didn’t even know I was ranked eleven in the European rankings. That’s new to me! But yeah, the EBU is definitely a route I want to go down. That’s my next step, to get myself in a position ready to challenge (for the European title), and I think that’s no more than two-three fights away.
You can’t skip levels in boxing. I wanna prove that I’m European level before pushing on. If an opportunity to fight for a world title came up before I had the chance to fight for a European title, I’d knock it back.
I’m not a British fighter; I’m an Irish fighter. Fighting a Josh Kelly or a Sam Eggington for a British title doesn’t make sense. But those fights definitely interest me. If fighting one of them could position me to fight for the European, I’d do it.
Josh will probably push on to world level now, and his teammate, Abass Baraou, is number one to fight for the European title. Sam Eggington lost his IBO but recently stopped Joe Pigford. I’ve got my eye on anyone in the top 15.
BN: If Jermell Charlo doesn’t return to 154lbs, who do you fancy to succeed him as the division leader?
CA: Caoimhín Agyarko! Once those belts vacate and scatter, I’ll be targeting one of them. Once I get one, I’ll take over the division, and then it’s up to middleweight.
You’ve got Tim Tszyu; there’s ‘Beefy’ (Liam Smith) if he returns to 11st after the Eubank fight. There are a lot of names. James Metcalf might challenge for one of the titles; Josh Kelly, too. And then there’s Crawford and Spence potentially coming up! Hopefully, they stay at welterweight [laughs].
BN: What ambitions, if any, lie beyond your goal of becoming the first black Irish world champion? How much of a motivation is money?
CA: I’ve always said I wanna be retired at 30-32, so I’ve got maybe six years left. I don’t wanna be in this game for too long. I know I’m only 26, but I’ve been boxing for 20 years, and it does take its toll on your body.
I box because I want to achieve my goals and create a history and a legacy. My goal, for now, is just to be the first black Irish world champion, maybe unified. And then move up to middleweight and try and conquer there too. When I achieve that, I’ll either create new goals or call it a day.
I’m not in it for the money – you wanna make as much money as possible, obviously – but the money will come naturally. Your career has to be planned out, and you need the right people behind you to help you achieve that. I have the right coaches and backing from my promoters. If you invest wisely, there are ways of making money from boxing. But primarily, I wanna be the first black Irish world champion.
BN: What is it about your personality and fight style that gives you confidence you can become a breakthrough star in Irish boxing?
CA: I’ve got a fan-friendly style. I know I’ve got the talent and skills, but becoming a world champion takes much more than that. You also need great heart and determination – and I have all that!
You have to have the right fights at the right time, but because I started my career doing six-rounders and I’ve only ever fought three journeymen, I’ve pushed on more than most would have at the start of their career.
I’m already pretty popular back home. The Irish fans support me; they always have. I’m at the stage now where I just need big meaningful fights to bring back home and show everyone exactly how good I am.