Deirdre Gogarty – a trailblazer who fought her corner
The girl from Mornington defied convention to pursue her world boxing title dream
Deirdre Gogarty and Christy Martin trade blows during a bout in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 16th 1996. Martin won the fight with a decision in the sixth round. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello /Allsport
Deirdre Gogarty is welcomed by her mother Mrs Edie Gogarty after returning home to Ireland with her world title belt. Pic Paddy Whelan
Deirdre Gogarty was 26-years-old the night she got paid three grand for a fight watched by over a million people.
Called up on 10 days’ notice, she fought on the undercard of Mike Tyson v Frank Bruno II, 20 years ago next week. Her opponent was Christy Martin, who Don King, promoting at the time, making out like she was the best woman boxer since Eve jabbed the apple from the tree. But Gogarty took her the distance, despite conceding 15lbs in weight.
It has gone into fight lore as the bout that made women’s boxing, at least for a while. It was bloody and it was brutal. Gogarty bust Martin’s nose in the second round and in the process made Martin her fortune. The sportswriter Richard Hoffer was ringside for Sports Illustrated and a few weeks later, Martin was on the front cover. Pretty soon, Christy Martin was commanding $350,000 a fight and talking fondly of “the most profitable bloody nose in boxing history”.
As for Deirdre Gogarty of Mornington, Drogheda, Co Louth, she went home with that cheque for $3,000.
Home by then was Lafayette, Louisiana, way down south by the Vermillion river – a long way from the Boyne of her childhood. And though three grand might not sound like much given the firehose of riches that was washing Vegas down that night, it was a long way from where she started too.
“I was really disgusted with myself after that fight because I felt I’d got the biggest opportunity of my life and I’d blown it. I considered retiring at that point. It is my most known fight, much more so than winning the world title a year later. The $3,000 would be laughable nowadays but it was money to me at the time.
“And I was so shy and intimidated by everything back then that I just went, ‘Oh no thanks, I’m fine’. And Pat heard this and got very angry. ‘Don’t you ever turn down a penny in boxing,’ he said. ‘Because this is a brutal sport. You are in that ring alone. Make whatever money you can while you can.’”
Before there was Katie, before there was anyone, there was Deirdre Gogarty. She fought out of Lafayette because there was no boxing for women in Ireland. That’s not meant as a generality – there was literally none. The Irish Boxing Union refused to hand out licences to women right the way up until the late 1990s. Even when she was world champion, she couldn’t fight in her home country.
She grew up normal and respectable and middle-class, one of seven kids to parents who were both dentists. Boxing came and looted her from that life in 1985, with Barry McGuigan driving the getaway car. For the next two years, she hung a bag in a walk-in cupboard in the house in Mornington, punching it only when there was nobody around to bear witness.
“I was afraid that somebody would see me and ask me what I was doing. I didn’t want to have to answer that because boxing was so unaccepted at the time for a teenage girl to be doing. I grew up with very proper parents who didn’t believe young ladies did things like that. So I kept it a secret basically for a few years. But then when I saw Sugar Ray Leonard fight Marvin Hagler, I decided I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. So I went to the local boxing club.”
At first, she hung around and watched. Her mam assumed she was going to make eyes at the boys, the coach figured the same. But it was the boxers she was looking at. Their movement, their speed, their footwork. In time, the coach said she could to a bit of training seeing as she was always around. But initially he wouldn’t coach her to box. What would be the point?
“There wasn’t much of a pro boxing scene either but any attempt even to have an exhibition was dismissed. Nobody would give a straight answer as to why it wasn’t allowed. They’d say things like, ‘Well if you go an get your own officials, you can do your own thing’. But sure anyone who knows anything about boxing was involved with the IABA so who were we going to get?
“I think they were just afraid of the unknown. I think they thought that maybe women wouldn’t take it seriously or that they wouldn’t box well or that they would be an embarrassment or a liability or that it would go against the traditions of the sport. If they let it happen, they’d have to put a whole infrastructure around it, they’d have to provide facilities and put on fights and all that stuff. I think it was just a nuisance to them, basically.”
Gogarty was lost to it though, whether it existed or not. She decided she wanted to be a world champion, without really knowing how to go about it or even the name of anyone who held a belt. She wrote letters to coaches in England and the US, telling them her weight and saying she would pay her own way if they’d give her a fight.
She managed to get one fight in Ireland, in the Limerick Arms in 1991. She fought a kickboxer who wanted to work on her punching and in order to circumvent the authorities, they called it a kickboxing exhibition. It was the only outdoor fight of her life and they got drenched in the rain. It became clear that she would have to leave Ireland if she was going to do this.
“I didn’t want to leave. I had hoped that people would see my ability and go, ‘Oh yeah, she can really box, let’s give her a chance’. But it never happened. I don’t think I ever really made peace with it. But it was a matter of asking myself how bad did I want to be a world champion like Barry McGuigan. What’s the price I’m willing to pay?
“People looked at me like I was totally mad and like my life was a total waste of time. Why don’t you put your time into a real job? Why don’t you do something more respectable or more feasible? When I look back at it myself, it was insanity. But when you’re young and you have a dream and you have the drive, there’s really nothing will stop you. I like to say to the kids I coach that common sense doesn’t always apply when you’re trying to do something that is uncommon.”
She bounced from one contact to another and eventually pitched up in Lafayette, on the front porch of a coach named Beau Williford. He wanted nothing to do with women’s boxing and only let her through the door as a favour to a friend in England. She wasn’t overly gone on Louisiana either and presumed she would gravitate north to the Irish enclaves in New York or Boston quick enough. Twenty-three years later, his family is her family and Beau’s wife is godmother to her son.
Fights came thick and fast once she got her feet planted. She won a few, lost a few. Made her way. Her third fight was nominally for a world title but she was cannon-fodder really, a tomato can for a girl fighting at a higher weight and standard. But at least she was there. Mixing it. Doing it. Living.
“Everything about boxing was terrifying to me. I’m an extremely shy person so anything involving crowds of strangers was so intimidating to me. And then when you get into the ring, it’s not like losing a game. You lose, it’s because you’ve got beaten up. And you got beaten up in front of everybody.
So why do it?
“Gosh, it’s so hard to say! I think if you’re a boxer, you’re just born with a love that you can’t do anything about. The excitement of it, the thrill of winning, the challenge. When it came to that fear I had, it was a matter of overcoming something in myself and I liked that part of it.
“You really learn who you are and what you’re willing to overcome. It meant that when I walked into other situations in life that would have scared me, I was able to compare it to boxing. If I was really nervous about doing something, I could say to myself, ‘Well, you were able to climb through the ropes to fight, you should be able to do this.’”
In all, she fought 23 times as a professional and came through it with a record of 16 wins, five defeats and two draws. On March 2nd 1997, 10 years almost to the day after walking into the boxing club in Mornington, she became world champion, taking a points decision against Bonnie Canino in New Orleans. But boxing is seedy and boxing is dirty and what should have been her crowning achievement turned to ashes when she went to get paid.
“It was a bit of an anti-climax in the end. It was supposed to be my biggest payday and I never saw a penny of it. I finally won the world title and the promoter scarpered so nobody got paid. I mean, it’s funny now but it was pretty bad at the time. I had quit my job and everything. I was supposed to get $12,500. That was huge money to me, it would have set me going for the future. But I never got a penny.”
She retired the following year, disillusioned after a succession of injuries and cancellations and sham matches for bad money against fighters who weren’t in her league. She considered coming home but by then she had some roots down.
Her trail was blazed, in any case. Soon after she won her world title, she got a letter from an 11-year-old girl from Bray, Co Wicklow congratulating her and hoping that one day women would be let box in the Olympics. When she was inducted to the International Women’s Hall of Fame last July, Katie Taylor used Twitter to congratulate her this time around.
“I’m just glad they can box over there now. My coach always told me that I was opening doors for other girls but that it would be 10, 15 years down the line. He was right. It didn’t feel like it at the time. It just felt insurmountable back then.”
Everything did. Even though nothing was.