Boxing | Remembering Darren

Boxing | Remembering Darren

When James DeGale announced his retirement last month, it was inevitable that from an Irish viewpoint, memories of his rivalry with Darren Sutherland would be evoked.

Sutherland’s death a decade ago, had a genuine, lasting impact on DeGale. So much so, that when he secured the IBF title in 2015, Sutherland’s name was visible on the shorts of DeGale.

It took you back. It had you watching some of Sutherland’s old fights; recalling a fighter and a person of substance, decency and integtirty.

This perusal ended with a video of that night; most of it in a humble dressing room in DCU.

*****

The heather-grey of his hooded Adidas tracksuit-top, sat, unanchored, on Darren’s black-peaked Under Armour baseball cap. Underneath that again, Darren sat, still and determined. Rudimentary beginnings maybe, in the annexes of DCU’s sports hall.

But this was where he always wanted to be. At the inception point of a professional boxing career.

Tottenham, north London. An impromptu exhibition fight, aged 7. The swagger and the confidence to enter; unprompted and aided only by a conviction in himself.

And then the saunter home, laden with a moulded plastic trophy. His boxing-loving father, Tony, bemused and amused. His mother, Linda, equally so, but also definite in her assertion, that Darren would amble into no more rings.

Following London, the Sutherland’s returned to Tony’s home in St. Vincent. A French colony, and in turn a British one. Paradisiacal on the surface, but a country with its own flaws. A haven for tourists, and with that a basis for industry; but it’s record on LGBT rights more archaic than merely conservative.

While it was home for Tony, it was of limited opportunity. Subsistence farming, a traditional but at times staggering boat-building industry. A major producer of banana’s and a leading producer of the neutral tasting arrowroot. Dublin awaited after 4 years. No more Afro-Caribbean music in the form of calypso, soka or reggae. It was to Dublin now.

St. Brigid’s gym in Blanchardstown would be an initial boxing haven for Darren. It was there, under the tutelage of Gary Keegan, that he made his first, genuine steps towards a boxing-shaped career, as a 15-year-old. Keegan would later in his own career, rise to director of The Irish Institute of Sport.

On the wall of his office, prominent above his desk, would sit a striking photograph of Darren, kissing the bronze medal he won in the Worker’s Gymnasium, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He wasn’t long under Keegan, although this was not the end of their working relationship. Shortly before he was due to sit his Junior Certificate, Darren travelled to Sheffield and to Brendan Ingle’s gym.

A significant stone’s throw from the river Don – rising in the Pennines and marauding through the city, stopping at one juncture to course it’s way around an unorthodox settlement of fig trees – Ingle had set his stall in the old-church building, with its white façade, and polka dotted window; sitting on a slope, swimming in names of boxing renown and significance.

Herol Bomber Graham. A middleweight fighter of massive ability and dexterity; but for whom opportunities came at the wrong moments, world title fights either too late or in the wrong circumstances.

Prince Naseem Hamed. A diminutive southpaw, a WBO, WBC and IBF title holder, whose apparent narcissism was bettered by his unorthodox ability to lead with the uppercut and change stance and approach on a whim.

Darren was in good hands; and that initial visit propelled him to spend three and a half years in Sheffield. All part of his boxing education, but something Darren said himself, he didn’t enjoy.

“I decided to move over full-time. I spent three and a half years there and ended up hating boxing.”

Ingle, once a middleweight boxer himself, with a mixed bag of results, died on a mild-Friday in Sheffield, in May, 2018. His two sons would continue his work in the gym, something they had graduated into as their father’s health deteriorated.

But long before that, and long before Darren’s Olympic success, Ingle saw the potential in Darren.

“Darren stole everyone’s heart over here. He’s a terrific prospect and a lovely kid with it. I don’t know what it is about Dubliners but Darren has it. He’s a born fighter and also has a natural charm. He has all the moves that Naz {Hamed} has and is a joy to watch. He’s also a good-looking kid but you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Ingle was not merely an admirer, he was a believer. It was hard not to believe in a talent so inherent and raw. A fluid athlete who could box; but equally could fight.

Returning home to complete his studies, Sutherland took up  his boxing residence under John McCormack in St Saviour’s, a renowned inner city boxing club, unfolding from an old red-bricked fire station on Dorset Street, initially built in 1901, progressing into a centre for pugilistic excellence from 1964 onwards.

McCormack was equally enthused by the potential he saw in Darren.

“To be honest, I don’t think Irish amateur boxing has seen anything like this for a long time. I wasn’t around when the great Terry Milligan was in his prime in the early ’50s but people still rate him among the best they have seen at the Stadium. In a few years, I think we might be talking in the same way about young Darren.”

And people were.

All these epochal phases in Darren’s life and career, the pain of living apart from his family, learning his trade; was all part of the early journey, that saw him sat on a wall-fixed changing room bench in Glasnevin, awaiting his first bout in the paid ranks against Georgi Iliev.

Iliev had been here before; to Ireland. A knockout win over Castlebar’s Keith Cresham, at the University Arena in Limerick, 5 months beforehand.

Darren sat. Earphones in, knuckles wrapped around the jaded wooden bench. His trainer, Brian Lawrence, inflicted calm; settled as he went about his duties. Nearly three dozen five inch strips of boxing tape, hanging tightly from the breeze blocked wall.

Darren took off his hooded top, leaving his cap adrift. He turned his grey bucket chair around, and sat. One earbud removed. At times, Darren let his head bow. At times, he stared straight ahead. The atmosphere was undisturbed. He sat in his warm, pumpkin-orange Sir Benni Miles t-shirt. Bandaged and taped, Brian measured his wriggle room. Darren stretched his fingers; they needed to be compact but not too restricted.

The strapping was checked by an official, and Darren and Brian began to relax. Properly relax; warm smiles, some laughter.

Darren stood. Cap off, some water, some stress testing of his bandages. At one stage he held his head particularly high. Drinking it in.

A visitor knocked. Black leather jacket, same good looks as his son. Tony embraced Darren. The pair laughed and spoke. A night to begin all nights. A father, as proud and in love with his only son as he had always been. His son, now beaming, never so happy to make his Dad proud.

Iliev awaited. But this moment, this was something for both men. Something more special than just pride. A continuation of their connection, a deepening of it.

Tony didn’t stay too long, he understood the dynamics; what was enough. A seat awaited ring-side.

But that dressing room. It was special. For both men.