‘Boxing is about manners and letting nobody walk on you’

Phillip Sutcliffe coaches youngsters in Crumlin where sport has long working-class tradition

 

Courtney Daly’s eyes sparkle and her long black ponytail whirls around her head. She’s a tiny powerhouse of pure energy as she flits, graceful and fierce, around the ring at Crumlin Boxing Club in Dublin.

She’s training with her coach, Phillip Sutcliffe. “Come on, champ,” he urges as she darts and jabs in the ring. “Beautiful, that’s beautiful,” he encourages her.

A two-time Olympic competitor, Sutcliffe believes the 16-year-old could be the next Katie Taylor. Asked who she admires, Daly’s face lights up. “Katie,” she says. And what does she love about boxing? “Basically everything.”

“Katie Taylor’s been coming here since she was a baby,” Sutcliffe says, looking around the gym. “Her father used to bring her. My son has boxed her. She’s our wonder girl.”

Daly already has five Irish amateur titles. She has no doubt boxing is going to be her career.

She is doing the Leaving Cert Applied, including some work experience at a local national school. Some things about Crumlin she does not like.

“People out on the streets on drugs; young kids smoking, and the gang stuff. Horrible,” she says. Then she brightens again. “But it is where my boxing club is. And I love Phil. He is like a second father.”

However, Crumlin Boxing Club may be its own little world, but the outside world cannot always be kept outside. The radio is on constantly, pumping out pop music and the news.

The news bulletins speak only of gangland crime. Each carries new details about the aftermath of the horrific violence that began with a fatal shooting at a boxing weigh-in at the Regency Hotel on Friday, February 5th, and erupted again with a reprisal killing last Monday, threatening a bloodbath.

Phillip Sutcliffe jnr was in the Regency Hotel, one of a number of boxers who had gone there to be weighed in for the “Clash of the Clans” tournament due to take place the next day in the National Stadium. His father and several others from the Crumlin club were with him.

The tournament was called off. “The French guy I was meant to fight, Alexandre le Pelley, has an impressive record. The last guy that beat him for the European title is now number two in the world for the WBC title.

“I am already ranked in Europe but if…” he stops himself, smiles, “When I beat him I’d have got into the top 10. It would have been a big night for me.” His manager, Belfast man Pat Magee, is looking out for new fights for him.

Sutcliffe snr says the whole episode was “devastating” for his son and others, especially young Jamie Kavanagh, a former member of the Crumlin club, who was going for the vacant European WBO lightweight title. “Very traumatic and very disappointing,” says Sutcliffe snr.

The club is not a stranger to troubles. Sutcliffe jnr fought in Belfast’s City Hall during the loyalist flag protests. “We just went in the back,” he says.

Daly is in the club seven days a week. If she is not training or sparring, she leads warm-up routines for the younger boxers. “It takes a lot of time and dedication,” she says. “Every day, home from school, dinner, training.”

Unlike many girls her age, she is trying to gain, not lose, weight. “I eat all the time,” she says. “I don’t stop eating.”

She is a great dancer, too, but she says she has given it up to concentrate on her boxing. “I realised boxing was more important to me,” she says. “They are quite alike. You are on your toes.”

Her father is a coach at the club and her brothers are also talented young boxers.

Behind the swimming pool, the boxing club is on the edge of a park named after Willie Pearse, brother of Patrick, at the heart of the working-class suburb on Dublin’s southside.

The original boxing club, located in a lovely old pavilion belonging to the Imperial Tobacco Company, later Player Wills, got burned down. When the company closed, it donated the grounds to the city, as long as there should always be a park and a club.

On the outside wall of the club, a sign declares: “Crumlin Boxing Club – Centre of Excellence.” In all its years, it has been never been touched, never defaced by graffiti.

Refurbishment

Last year, it won the title of best Irish boxing club and best club for coaching, despite having been closed for several months for refurbishment. Each day, there is a constant traffic of people.

The early morning schoolchildren in the club yield to their parents, some of whom struggle valiantly to complete the rigorous boxing fitness circuits that Sutcliffe and fellow coach Patrick “Bra” Brady put them through.

Later on in the day, professionals and serious amateurs come in for training. In the evenings there are more classes for under-17s and, once a week, a show that brings in boxers from all over Dublin.

There is a network of clubs around Ireland, mostly run by voluntary effort and with the support of local communities and small businesses. The big money in boxing is all at the top.

“This is a legendary club,” says Shane “Butch” O’Reilly, who runs Bluebell Boxing Club and has brought some of his lads down to spar with the Crumlin boxers.

“Phil has been in this game a long time. “He’s helped plenty of other clubs to get started. If anyone needs to know anything, Phil’s the man. His son, Phillip jnr, hopes to be a European champion next year. But it isn’t all about the winners. As Phil says, we are all one big happy family.”

The rules for coaches are pinned up on the wall. The code is clear, simple, direct. They include: “Be happy, keep members happy. Encourage all members, whether they are good or bad boxers.”

Sutcliffe jnr comes in to train with his father. He is superbly fit and athletic, and moves with an easy elegance. “Future world champion,” says Sutcliffe snr as they spar. “Remember I said it to you. Crumlin Boxing Club.”

He mops his brow with a towel. “I’m getting too old for this. I should have my feet up by the pool in Spain,” he laughs.

Everyone says that Sutcliffe is even-handed and has no favourites. However, his pride in his son is clear to see. He even wears a T-shirt with Phillip jnr’s name emblazoned on it in sparkly gold letters.

Sutcliffe takes no sides and will not discuss any of those believed to be involved in this latest phase of feuding among gangsters, though some of them are believed to live in or near Crumlin.

But he sends out his own messages. Putting the under-17s through their paces during the evening training session, he shouts out. “What do we think of drugs in this club?”

“No drugs!” shouts one boy.

“Why?” responds Sutcliffe. “Because you’ll end up getting shot,” says another boy.

“Right,” says Sutcliffe. “It might feel nice the first time but then you’ll be going around like…” He mimics the glazed stare and zombie walk of a junkie.

The boys and girls look serious and keep moving. The club’s office doubles as a kitchen and smells of toast. Nicola Hayden is printing out schedules for the club’s annual trip to Italy in March. A group went to Russia before Christmas.

Her husband coaches. She does secretarial work, and their son William boxes in the club. Their younger children do their homework. “William didn’t like team sports and was doing badly at school because he was dyslexic,” she says.

“Then he got support with his work and the boxing is giving him confidence and he’s flying. This club is like a second home to us.”

The Haydens had a German student staying with them on the night after the Regency Hotel shooting. “She was shocked. She asked me, “Are all boxers in Ireland gangsters?” I tried to explain to her that there might be a criminal element, but it is just a small minority,” Hayden says.

Just an hour or so after the Regency Hotel shootings last Friday, President Michael D Higgins spoke at the official reopening of a Dublin boxing club in Arbour Hill.

“I do not need to convince this particular audience of the many merits of the sport of boxing. Not only is it perhaps the best sport to develop overall fitness, but it is also one that instils such valuable qualities of character in those who undertake it – such as tactical awareness, endurance, discipline and self-control.

“Importantly, like other sports, it teaches one that losing is part of life, that one can learn from failure, and that success comes from hard work,” said the President with passion in his voice.

1930s terraces

The 1930s terraces that make up Crumlin’s core were built to rehouse families from inner-city tenements. Brendan Behan was one, though he was reluctant to make the move, describing it as “Crumlin, where they eat their young.”

Phil Lynott was also from here, and singer/songwriter Paddy Casey. During the boom, middle-class buyers nervously wondered if Crumlin was “all bad”, as they were priced out of other districts.

Today, the suburb has a neat and settled look and is socially diverse, even if it has the problems typical of Ireland’s neglected working-class areas .

Paul McCaffrey was one of the Crumlin’s many young unemployed, having left school early for a plumbing apprenticeship.

Today, he is busy repainting lines on the floor of the club for a visit by the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries.

He has been placed in the club through the State’s Tús scheme. “I got put in here for 20 hours work for 20 on top of my labour,” he says. “At first I thought very negatively about that, but it has completely changed my life.

“Before this I was basically just wasting away, getting depressed. I’d get up at 2pm and watch TV, the life of a bum. Six months later and I am completely rejuvenated. I’ve stopped smoking. I eat brown rice and fish, I can run for an hour.”

His son – he was 15 when the child was born – is also now a member of the club.

Strutting

In many gyms there may be guys strutting about with their chests puffed out, he says: “It’s not like that here. Phil is a hero – if you were homeless, he would take you in. No question. He knows how to keep you motivated. You are taught how to speak to people, how to bring discipline into every area of your life.”

Boxing in Ireland has a proud working class tradition and is, says Sutcliffe, diverse and inclusive. “We have Muslims, and Protestants and atheists. We have Travellers – a lot of Travellers and they have good parents who support them.

“The boxing tradition is strong in the Travelling community and there are some champion fighters who’ve come through the club here.”

Some of the youngsters are vulnerable. “We don’t save them all,” says Sutcliffe. “Some of them slip away, get involved with the wrong people. They have no work and they see these guys who don’t work either but have big cars and all the rest.

“Some of them take advice from the likes of me, some of them don’t. We try to be fair and firm and friendly. Some of our young boxers come from families with real difficulties. They are good kids.”

Boxing is in his blood. “My father was in the British army – he boxed for the Brits,” says Sutcliffe. “My mother held down three jobs and I was working by the time I was 11. I joined the Irish Army and became its boxing coach.

“Most of my brothers boxed. The Sutcliffe family won five Irish titles in one year.”

The drugs plague has touched his family. “One of my brothers was stabbed to death in Fatima Mansions in a row over drugs,” he tells The Irish Times.

Every ledge and shelf in the club is laden with trophies, and the walls are plastered with posters of boxing legends and photographs. He has trained many of Ireland’s most famous boxers. The Carruth brothers Michael and Fergal, John Joe McDonagh, John McDonald, and Conor McGregor, now the highest paid cage fighter in the world, are part of the club’s alumni.

In one, Barry McGuigan is seen with actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. The Clones Cyclone trained the actor for his role in, The Boxer, finishing with a couple of weeks sparring in the Crumlin gym before he went on set.

“He was as disciplined in his work as my son is at his. There’s our president, Eamon Brown, Christy Brown’s brother. There’s Big Bang Casey – he won a European title for us,” says Sutcliffe.

“There’s me with Muhammad Ali in 1978. I fell out with him. He said, “Come here, you Irish leprechaun, and sit on my knee.” I told him to eff off. I was proud when I was 18. He was only being himself – I’d sit on his knee now!”

Some of the photos reflect trouble and sadness. “There’s Shane O’Reilly – he died in a car crash. There’s Daniel Doyle – he got shot in a park when he was 23 and he’s in a wheelchair now.

“There’s Paul Kavanagh, shot last year. There’s his nephew Jamie who was meant to go for the European title last week – his father Gerard was shot dead as well.”

There are photographs of people who are in prison. There are pictures of gangsters and gardaí, and some in which gangsters and gardaí are side by side holding boxing trophies. The club reflects the community.

“Boxing is about respect, and learning an art,” says Sutcliffe. “It is about how to defend yourself, not punching the head off someone in the street. It is about manners and letting nobody walk upon you.”

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