“Sometimes I wish Beijing never happened, because it seems cheap to sell yourself for just a single piece of silver” – Kenny Egan
August 26th, 2008
When the five man Irish boxing squad touched down in Dublin after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they were welcomed home as heroes by a jubilant crowd at the airport.
Kenny Egan, Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes stood atop the airplane steps, holding their Olympic medals proudly, having secured the country’s best results at the hallowed games since 1956 in Melbourne.
Sutherland and Barnes had claimed bronze medals – the former lost to his amateur rival James DeGale – while team captain Egan won silver after being controversially beaten in the light-weight final by China’s Zhang Xiaoping.
John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce – the remaining two members of the team – were eliminated in the third round, but all five Irish boxers were beaten by the eventual gold medalists in their respective weight divisions.
There was huge optimism and interest in Irish boxing, and the future looked bright for all five fighters. Their achievements meant that 12 of Ireland’s all-time 23 Olympic medals were earned in the ring, and big things were forecast for the tracksuit clad boxers who emerged through the arrivals gate on August 26th.
Life is seldom straightforward, and there has been a mixture of triumph and tragedy for those five talented pugilists in the time since that heroic return from China.
Of those three beaming young boxers on the plane steps, one would be dead and would be an addict within a few years of winning those Olympic medals.
This month marked the anniversary of Darren Sutherland’s tragic death.
The 27-year-old was found dead with his wrists tied together at his flat in London in September 2009.
An open verdict on the cause of death was provided at a subsequent inquest, but it is believed that the humble Mulhuddart middleweight took his own life.
Sutherland had been struggling to sleep, experiencing stress and was seeing a counselor in the buildup to his tragic death. The Dubliner turned pro under promoter Frank Maloney in October of ’08, having previously won three national and two EU titles in an impressive amateur career which was capped off with an Olympic bronze.
“From the minute I watched Darren in the Olympics he was the only fighter I wanted to sign,” Maloney stated at the time. “I believe he will be my fifth world champion, following in the footsteps of Lennox Lewis, Paul Ingle, Scott Harrison and David Haye.”
Sutherland won his maiden professional bout at DCU, and followed up his winning start with three consecutive victories in the UK.
Tragedy, unfortunately, cut Sutherland’s life short.
The 2012 inquest heard that the 2008 Olympian was “losing confidence in his boxing”, was unhappy with his training, and that he wished to quit the sport but was was fearful he would owe large sums of money to Maloney if he did.
His death rocked the Irish boxing community, and the wider community in general. Sutherland’s old amateur foe James DeGale has worn the initials ‘DS’ on his boxing shorts since Sutherland’s death, and dedicated his IBF super middleweight world title victory against Andre Dirrell in 2015 to the Irishman.
“It’s for Darren Sutherland as well, of course,” DeGale revealed afterwards.
“My late rival. When he took his life back in 2009 it was horrendous. From when he passed, I’ve always had ‘DS’ on my shorts. And this world title is for him as well. A great guy. A great fighter. Unbelievable fighter. We’ve had some great, great scraps. It’s for him.”
Sutherland’s death illustrates the pitfalls and pressures of professional boxing, and how tough the transition to from amateur to pro can be for young men.
He is gone, but not forgotten.
Kenny Egan was – in many ways – the poster boy for Irish boxing after the Beijing Olympics.
The Dublin heavyweight captained the Irish team, and was good looking, charming, and easy to like.
Many felt he was robbed of an Olympic gold, a feeling which he shared, unsurprisingly. A DVD chronicling his path to a silver medal titled ‘Kenny Egan – Back from Beijing’ was released, and Egan was a hugely popular figure in the country.
“Everyone says to me I went to the Olympics and I won the silver,” he later observed.
“I lost the gold in the final; that’s how I look at it. Okay, I came home with the silver medal, an amazing achievement. If I was offered that at the start of it, I would have taken it with both hands.”
Egan enjoyed a stellar amateur career, winning 10 Irish titles in total, but the Clondalkin native elected not to turn pro after winning silver in Beijing.
However, the Dubliner suffered with alcohol addiction for many years, and was indulging in heavy binges just two months before the Beijing Olympics. On February 28th 2009, he failed to show up for a fight against the USA at the National Stadium, and had apparently left the country.
He later apologized for his no-show – it transpired he was on a bender which ended up in New York City – but also pulled out of his undercard slot on Bernard Dunnes’s historic ‘World Title Fight Night’ at the O2 a month later in March. That July, Egan won the Open Senior Light Heavyweight title against fellow Dublin boxer Darren Cruise, and won a bronze medal at the 2010 European Amateur Boxing Championships at Moscow in 2010.
His life went off the rails, and unsurprisingly, his boxing career stalled as a result. He was fighting alcohol and porn addiction on a daily basis, and he even revealed how he hired prostitutes while representing Ireland at the World Championships in his autobiography, Kenny Egan — My Story.
“I had thought of suicide on a number of occasions,” he revealed in 2014.
“Only from heavy drinking and the aftermath of benders. I was in a deep depression, and not being able to stop the drinking would bring the idea of suicide into my head.”
Egan eventually retired in 2013 after losing to rising prospect Joe Ward for the third consecutive time in the Elite Senior Finals, and has overcome his battle with addiction, having been sober since 2013.
He is now married, is a Fine Gael councilor, and will actually return to the ring in October for a special charity bout in the African country of Uganda as part of his work with Nurture Africa.
His battles after Beijing serve as another reminder of the dangers of overnight fame and the pressures of boxing.
Peaks and Valleys
Paddy Barnes has had ups and downs since winning bronze in ’08, but the good outweighs the bad.
The Belfast light-featherweight won another bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics, and gold for Northern Ireland at both the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Barnes also won gold at the 2010 European Amateur Boxing Championships, and was chosen as the flag bearer at his third Olympics in 2016.
Expectations were high for Barnes and the other Irish boxers (such as Michael Conlan, Joe Ward and Katie Taylor) in Rio, with many predicting the Irish boxing team to emulate the heroes of Beijing in ’08.
Given his experience and pedigree, Barnes was tipped to come home from Brazil with yet another precious medal. It wasn’t to be.
It was a hugely disappointing Olympics for an undoubtedly talented team of Irish boxers, and one that was marred by controversy and accusations of fixing.
Katie Taylor was defeated, Michael Conlan was robbed, and Barnes failed to navigate past his first opponent in the round of 16. Relentless Spanish fighter Samuel Carmona Heredia ended Barnes’ hopes of a third successive Olympic medal, and in truth the Belfast native looked drained before the first bell rang in Barra.
“I feel I’m too big for the weight. There was doubts about me making the weight. Seven weeks ago I was 58 kilos. I didn’t think I was going I was going to make it myself but I pushed that hard because it was the Olympic Games,” he conceded afterwards.
The games ended in disappointed for Barnes, and at the age of 29, he decided to follow his close friend Michael Conlan in turning pro after the games.
The 30 year old has made a good start to life in the pro ranks, winning all four of his bouts thus far. His first fight ended bizarrely when his outclassed opponent lifted Barnes above his head, but the Belfast boxer claimed the WBO European flyweight belt against Silvio Olteanu at the Waterfront Hall in his most recent fight.
The victory has earned him a top 15 world-ranking, and Barnes has his eye on a world title next.
Nine years on from their glorious return from Beijing, each medal winner has left his own legacy.