BEFORE he was the European cruiserweight champion, Tommy McCarthy was a wide-eyed 11-year-old putting on boxing gloves for the first time under the tutelage of Patsy McAllister at Oliver Plunkett ABC in West Belfast.

Born to a mother in London and a father in Belfast, McCarthy was back and forth between the two cities from the age of about six weeks. After his mother sadly passed away when he was seven years old, he lived in Belfast permanently with his paternal grandparents. And it was his grandfather’s words of advice that led him to where he is today.

“I was a fan of boxing from as far back as I can remember – the days of Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and my favourite, Lennox Lewis,” McCarthy reminisces. “I always wanted to box but as I was an only child I didn’t have any brothers to follow to the gym and I wasn’t from a boxing family. But one day my father’s friend took me to the boxing club and I just loved it.

“As well as boxing, I was also playing Gaelic football and hurling, so my grandfather said to me, ‘Look, you need to put all your energy into one thing. If you divide your time too much you’re never going to excel. Gaelic games will get you to Dublin, but if you focus on boxing you’ll go round the world.’ From then on I decided to put all my effort into boxing.”

Tommy’s grandfather was right. In addition to winning eight national titles at various age levels, McCarthy represented Ireland with distinction at major tournaments across the globe. After earning a bronze medal at the 2008 World Youth Championships in Mexico, he followed this up with silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India. In 2013, he reached the quarter-finals of both the European and World Championships, which were held in Belarus and Kazakhstan respectively.

“I loved my time as an amateur,” McCarthy looks back fondly. “I was on the national team from the age of 14, so you form a really good bond with the guys. You’re in Dublin at the High Performance Unit from Tuesday to Friday, so you’re more or less living with your friends – you become like a family. Guys like Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Sean McComb, Tyrone McKenna and Tyrone McCullagh. We were all really tight. When Paddy and Conlan started doing well internationally, that drove me on. It was always like a competition between us all. It was good, friendly competitiveness.”

Following his successful spell in the amateur ranks, McCarthy made his professional debut in May 2014 at the age of 23. In the space of just two years he racked up nine straight victories, including a unanimous points win over Jon-Lewis Dickinson – a former outright holder of the British cruiserweight title. His 10th pro test, however, proved a step too far.

“The Matty Askin fight definitely came too early for me,” admits McCarthy. “I kind of knew that at the time, but I didn’t want to say no to the opportunity – it was toxic masculinity! I knew deep down that I wasn’t ready. Matty had actually come over earlier in the year to spar. He came for a week and the spars were really boring. He was so much more experienced than me. I remember thinking afterwards, ‘I’d hate to fight that guy.’ The next thing I knew I was fighting him!

“It just wasn’t my time. Matty had been a pro for eight years, so everything was coming together for him. He was nearly 28 and in his prime. He beat me [via unanimous verdict] and then went on to win a British title. He was a very good boxer. I don’t think he actually fulfilled his potential. I think he retired too soon.”

After the Askin loss in November 2016, McCarthy fought on only three occasions over the next two years – all low-key six-rounders. It was a trying time in his career.

“I was in no man’s land,” he remembers. “I was all risk and no reward, so I couldn’t get a fight. I was really in the wilderness for a couple of years. I ended up going to all the sparring camps and I became like a frigging sparring partner. I then linked up with [manager] Mark Dunlop and he said, ‘Listen, you haven’t fought enough. We need to get you busy.’ The problem was, I was in a sparring partner mentality because that’s what I’d been doing.

“I fought a guy [Kent Kauppinen] who’d had five fights and five defeats. Before the fight I thought to myself, ‘I’ll stop this guy in the first round.’ The next thing I knew we were in round six and I was like, ‘What the f**k am I still doing here?!’ I just couldn’t go through the gears.”

In March 2019, the chance to face unbeaten prospect Richard Riakporhe presented itself to McCarthy. Despite feeling confident heading into the contest, things did not go according to plan for the Northern Irishman – far from it.

“I only had two weeks’ notice for the fight, but I was fit and I thought I’d beat him, no problem,” McCarthy recollects. “I underestimated him big time and I was undercooked. In the fourth round I saw him winding up a right hand and I thought I was going to catch it on my gloves. But he just banged me and my legs went. That was all she wrote.”

Tommy McCarthy
Dave Thompson

The manner of the defeat to Riakporhe hit McCarthy hard. So hard that he seriously contemplated retirement.

“Once he beat me I thought, ‘I’m obviously not as good as I think I am,’ recalls McCarthy. “I said to my family, friends and team, ‘That’s it. I’m packing it in.’ But then after speaking with my cousin and my wife, they helped me to see sense. So I decided to give it another go. Since then Riakporhe has gone on to win the British title and show that he’s a top fighter, so I’m glad. I want him to keep doing well because it looks better for me!”

Seven months after losing to Riakporhe, McCarthy entered into a make-or-break encounter with touted Italian Fabio Turchi. Fighting on hostile ground in Italy, the bout would prove to be a turning point for the visitor.

“Turchi was undefeated and he’d built up a good record,” explains McCarthy. “In the amateurs he’d won an Olympic Youth silver medal and World Youth bronze [both in 2010], so I knew he was a top-class boxer and a bit of a wrecking machine. I think his team were looking at me as a credible opponent but, basically, as someone who was finished.

“After the Riakporhe loss I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to let that happen again.’ I ramped everything up behind the scenes in terms of training and my mentality, so I knew that I’d beat Turchi. I went over there and did the business, and that changed everything for me.”

Although he was the away fighter on foreign soil, McCarthy was not fearful of a hometown decision. Not until the second scorecard was read out, anyway.

“At the final bell I felt like I’d won, so I wasn’t nervous,” he attests. “Open scoring was in use, so after eight rounds I knew I was up. In the corner with four rounds to go, [trainer] Pete Taylor said to me, ‘Win two rounds here and you’ve won the fight.’ I felt like I’d done that. When the scorecards were announced at the end, the first one was for me, but the second one was for Turchi. That’s when I panicked. I thought, ‘What the f**k?! I’m going to get robbed here.’ So I was over the moon when the third judge called it for me.”

One year on from the Turchi triumph, McCarthy found himself contesting the vacant European cruiserweight crown against tough Belgian Billal Laggoune. His preparation, though, was hardly ideal.

“I broke my hand in sparring about two or three weeks before fight night,” informs McCarthy. “I’ve broken my hand a few times, so I knew straightaway that it was broken. It swelled up like a balloon, but I played it down and said to my team, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll just ice it.’ I stopped sparring, stopped hitting the bags, and was just doing pads with the paddles. There was no way I was pulling out. I was getting in that ring even if my hand was hanging off. The opportunity was just too big.”

When his moment came, McCarthy grabbed it with both hands – in spite of one being injured.

“I felt like I was in control up until the ninth round,” he thinks back. “I remember Laggoune stumbled into the ropes in the ninth and I thought, ‘If I throw a barrage now the ref might step in.’ So I threw a flurry of punches and more or less punched myself out. I should’ve known better. That meant for rounds 10 and 11 I was absolutely wrecked. I had to wait for my second wind to kick in, which thankfully it did in the 12th. I got up on my toes and was able to box my way to victory. One judge scored it a draw, but I was relieved that the other two judges saw it the right way and had me winning.”

Currently ranked in the top 10 by the WBC, WBA and IBF, McCarthy is completely clear on his next target.

“I want a world title shot now – definitely,” the 30-year-old declares. “I’m No. 9 with the WBC, so I’d love to fight [champion] Ilunga Makabu. That’s the fight I really want next. It’d be a dream come true to win the WBC title. I’m the European champion, so the next step up is world level. It’s all about progress.

“I think the top three cruiserweights in the UK are me, Riakporhe and Lawrence Okolie. Riakporhe is No. 3 with the WBA and Okolie is fighting for the WBO title soon. They’re world-level fights – good fights for me in the future. Especially if Okolie wins the title, it’d make perfect sense to have him defend it against me.”

In less than two years, the Ulsterman has gone from contemplating retirement to contemplating a world title fight. It just goes to show what can be achieved if you persevere through the difficult times and refuse to give in. As the saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn. And right now, even on a grey winter’s day, the sun is shining on Tommy McCarthy.