Gloves off

Sat, Apr 24, 2010, 01:00

The Celebrity Soccer Classic next month at Tallaght Stadium has a champ fighting its corner: Bernard Dunne. GAVIN CUMMISKEYasks the former boxer about adjusting to life after sporting success

EVERY MORNING NOWADAYS he wakes up and walks into his own living room, flings Finnian over his shoulder and glares at Caoimhe, who is reliably located on the floor among the toys. Caoimhe is his princess. She returns the stare smiling with the same penetrating eyes as her father. Pamela is there as well. The Dunne family. In the Dunne house. He goes outside to feed the dogs.

This is why I shed blood for all those years.

Boxing had denied the former super bantamweight world champion these little, daily joys. But not anymore. Life in the ring is already a collection of memories gathering dust in the back rooms of Bernard Dunne’s active mind.

“Don’t be just sitting at home thinking about what you have done,” is his advice to himself. It is about planning for the future. “I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been. Thankfully, a lot of it can be done with my kids. I can throw them in the car. The great thing is, no matter where I am, most days I know I am going to sleep in my own bed in Dublin. I want to see Caoimhe and Finnian before they go to bed every night. I want to see them every morning. That’s a big plus. That wasn’t possible when I was training. That was hard.”

They eat breakfast together before he chases Finnian out to the car; Caoimhe follows at her own pace, as they cross town for a meeting with Glen Killane, RTÉs head of sport. All the time on the phone. With a combined age of six, they are remarkably quiet when their daddy is chattering away. They can see he is at work and they get to tag along so they understand it is a fair trade off to be ciúnas. The three of them have something else in common: they are all learning the Irish language at the same time. It becomes interspersed in conversation.

Go on Finn, say it.

Póg mo thóin.

Laughter crackles throughout the early morning drive. The mobile vibrates, and silence.

Among others, he is on to Noel Kelly of the celebrity management company, a stable Dunne shares with Ryan Tubridy, Gerry Ryan, Gráinne Seoige, Craig Doyle. After meeting with Killane he drives into Donnybrook village for more business, but this is also a chance to catch up with a good pal.

“Shaggy!” he exclaims on seeing the Leinster and Ireland winger Shane Horgan.

Horgan is also a boxing enthusiast and delivering, as promised, a signed Leinster jersey.

“I got the Munster one yesterday: wanna see it?”

Horgan declines. There are Kilkenny and Kerry shirts perfectly folded in the boot as well. All signed.

So Bernard Dunne has become a jersey collector? No. Bernard Dunne Charities needs such items for an upcoming auction to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association (IMNDA) and the Caring and Sharing Association (Casa) that supports people with disabilities. The upcoming event is a stellar dinner in Citywest Hotel on Saturday, May 8th, for up to 800 people, following the second annual Celebrity Soccer Classic Dunne is at the Shamrock Rovers grounds in Tallaght, which seats over 5,000.

“Paul McGrath is on board,” he beams. “Other players we have playing are Ronnie Whelan, Packie Bonner, and John Delaney is involved. Then there are some Dubs. Manager Pat Gilroy, Ciaran Whelan and Jason Sherlock, too, and some ex-Rovers legends.”

Katie Taylor will be also be there. He wanders into a list of sports names that unfailingly answer yes when Bernard Dunne calls.

“We’ve got Devon Murray who plays Seamus in Harry Potter as well. And then there are lads like myself, a wannabe footballer.” A self-confessed hatcher from his Palmerstown United days before boxing interrupted that pursuit.

You see, boxing drew a line under everything until recently. It is an all-consuming art form (or barbaric blood sport, depending on your perspective), with sacrifice the core value if the peaks of the profession are to be scaled. Bernard Dunne let normal adolescent experiences slip by for boxing: his family was kept at arm’s length, too, and eventually his physical health was put at risk, most evidently in his last two fights. (The penultimate battle being against the crafty Panamanian world champion Ricardo Cordoba at a mesmerised O2 Arena on March 21st, 2009.)

Dunne’s career has been reminiscent of Barry McGuigan’s feats in the 1980s, mainly because he brought the Irish people along for the ride. Everyone was drawn in by his courage and personality.

“It’s ours,” Dunne stated from the ring, severely battered and bruised, just seconds after his fragile 8st 10lb frame somehow produced the inner resolve to knock Cordoba out in the 11th round and capture the WBA belt on that never-to-be-forgotten night. The Irish rugby team had just captured the Grand Slam for the first time in 61 years earlier that day and then Dunne shocked the world by stopping Cordoba – he had to as he was well behind on all three judges’ score cards. That night, he needed to do something he had never done before.

Now, again, he finds himself in uncharted territory. This is when he tends to impress.

“What happened was I ran the Celebrity Soccer Classic last year with some friends, Alan McQuillan and Mark Hargadon. Literally, we put our heads together in a pub one night. It’s amazing what can be achieved by three average minds with a few beers.

“From that it just progressed. Last year we did a fundraiser for a young lad down in Clare named Patrick Ryan, who had died. I was close to the Ryan family and knew what Casa were doing.” They raised €42,000 in 2009.

“This year we decided to turn it into an annual event so we formed a committee and decided to bring awareness to charities on an annual basis. So, [this year we’re supporting] the Motor Neuron Disease Association and Casa again. Motor Neuron was an easy decision because of my friendship with Jimmy Magee - his son Paul passed on from motor neuron disease in May, 2008. He was an international 10-pin bowler and a Shamrock Rovers player in the 1970s. I would be close with Jimmy since my amateur days and I am also friends with his other son Mark - we play poker.”

“For this year’s event, we’ve got some great prizes, and we’re hoping to raise over €100,000. Tour America has given us an all-expenses-paid Royal Caribbean cruise to raffle. We only printed 500 tickets and are selling them at €20 each. It is a great opportunity for someone to get a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

“I’m also putting up four sets of boxing gloves signed by me, Wayne McCullough, Barry McGuigan and Steve Collins – the idea being someone might get greedy and bid for the complete set of Irish world champions’ gloves at the dinner. Then there is Maurice O’Brien, a master chef, who is offering to go to somebody’s house to cook for a dinner party.

“The soccer match should make for a great family day and the parents can enjoy the nostalgia of watching some of the great footballers of the past. During the match there will be a draw for the Caribbean cruise and a jersey from Italia ’90.”

He is actively flogging tickets for Tallaght stadium, which holds 6,500 – the 700-plus dinner is almost a full house, an obvious draw being Jimmy Magee’s QA session with some of the celebrities. “I’m from Neilstown and I know what it is like to come from a tough upbringing but now I’m in a position to help people so it is great that I can turn up somewhere and make an impact, help people who are less fortunate. I have seen a lot of suffering and it costs me nothing but my time to give something back. It’s about raising awareness, not just funds.”

On September 6th, 2009 a vicious block of Thai granite named Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym came to Dublin. Even though Dunne had been planning his eventual exit from boxing, Poonsawats immense power accelerated the current change of direction. He could have reinvented himself in a number of ways or, at just 30, chased after his world-title belt.

It is an accepted process that fighters make the obligatory comeback from retirement at least the once. Not Dunne.

“The main reason I retired was for myself and my family. Pamela and the kids sacrificed a lot as well during my career. I wanted to be there for them. The point is I achieved everything I set out to achieve in boxing . . . so I was happy with my lot. I really was.

“I know I could have spent the next two or three years getting stronger again and building myself back up for another world-title shot. And I’m sure there were plenty of guys out there who wanted to fight me but I had missed enough of my kids’ childhoods.

“It was a difficult decision to make but now I know it was the right decision. It would be different if I was sitting here and people were calling for me to retire, pushing me out of the game. But it was the opposite. There were plenty of people putting pressure on me to continue and, honestly, that would have been the easy option, to keep fighting.

“There were some decent paydays out there as well, but I would have been going through the motions, which is never the wisest move in boxing. We’ve seen it countless times in this sport; the great fighter refusing to let go. It can’t just be a financial thing. They have to be still chasing that buzz. I wasn’t done, but I knew it was a great time to go in order to focus on the rest of my life.”

So what’s next? Charity events, media work and then comes the book. His autobiography, to be published by Penguin, is due later this year.

The lessons gathered in boxing, he feels, are transferable. “The beauty of boxing is there is nowhere to hide. Your strength and weaknesses are on show. Boxing is a sport that finds you out very quickly if you are not prepared properly or don’t have the mentality to survive in the ring.

“I always knew there were other things I wanted to do with my life. I will always be known as Bernard Dunne the boxer, and I am proud of that, but there is more . . .”

The Celebrity Soccer Classic takes place at Tallaght Stadium on Saturday, May 8th, kick-off 2.30pm; See or; free phone 1800-403403