INTERVIEW | A Conversation with Niall Kennedy

If Niall Kennedy (9-0) deserves credit for the way he has shaped his career, he is reluctant to take it.  The will to succeed is inherent; yet he spreads gratitude wide to those who have supported him on a slow but ultimately fruitful journey to success.

In March of this year he took on Jesse Barboza in Boston and took the USA Massachusetts State Heavyweight title back home to Gorey, Wexford.  Last month he stepped up a level again in the New England heavyweight title bout.  If he wasn’t favoured, it wasn’t going to faze him.

He had something more important waiting back home.  Something that has focused his mind more than ever.  A son.

Things are coming together for a boxer whose ambitions are as strong as they’ve ever been, if not stronger.  Because Niall knows how long a journey it is from the bleak depths of depression.  The biggest fight of his life may have been with his own demons.  But seeing what depression can do to those he loves, has made him highly aware, and a warm, open speaker on mental health.

Brian Strahan:  Have things settled down since the win over Alexis Santos?

Niall Kennedy:  Yeah, everything’s has settled down, but it has taken me a bit by surprise the interest I’ve had from this fight.  I don’t think I fully appreciated how big a fight it was.  {Since the fight} I took a week off going to Dublin to train and only done my runs at home but back training full steam ahead now this week. Most importantly I’ve got my son home from hospital and his Mam and I are over the moon; it’s amazing. The stars are aligning for me at the minute thank God.

BS:  Is this your first born?

NK:  Yeah; our first baby.  MJ is his name, he was 12 weeks premature so was in hospital for 55 days; so it was hard.  But Niamh – my wife –  was, and is, amazing, she is doing brilliant.  He wasn’t due ‘till the end of October.  But he is eight weeks old now, but still not supposed to be here for four weeks.  He is a better fighter than his Dad, and we are blessed with him.  He was born with five weeks to go in the camp, and it was Niamh’s decision that I didn’t pull out of the fight.  She told me to go and make him proud and thank god during the sixth-round break, when Santos was having his purple patch, I reminded myself that I promised him I’d give it everything, and I got a new lease of life.

BS:  Having a premature baby is stressful, the Santos fight couldn’t have happened without Niamh’s support?

NK:  Exactly, I’m very lucky she supports me and drives me on to do my best.

BS:  So was it after you returned then that MJ came home?

NK:  Yeah, I got home Monday 19th and MJ was discharged the following Monday.

BS:  You’re clearly highly disciplined in your training. Where does that come from do you think?

NK:  I haven’t always been as disciplined unfortunately.  I let myself down a lot as an amateur by not giving 100 percent, but I think the people in my life now help me.  I had dark days when I was younger; drank too much trying to mask depression, and didn’t always train as hard as boxing requires.  But I’m surrounded by positive people who drive me forward now, thank god.  Niamh is a fitness freak and would be onto me to train and Packie Collins {Niall’s boxing coach} trusts me to do my conditioning, so he can do the boxing and I have to repay that trust.  I’m just lucky with my work colleagues as well in Wicklow Garda station who support and help me when training is at the highest level –  like pre the Santos fight –  my unit were brilliant; I owe everybody so much for their help.

BS:  Was depression something you carried for a long time?

NK:  I don’t know.  Looking back on it, probably, but I lost my best friend to suicide at 19 and I struggled with the whole thing for a long time.  I’d a brilliant family and great people in my life, but I found it hard to deal with.  I know everybody has their own personal demons and I tried to hide mine and made silly choices.  I’m just very grateful now that I had people who believed in me and helped turn my life around and that I went and got a bit of help with it. My advice to anybody dealing with depression or any issues is to deal with it and not bottle it up, because I know the damage it can do.  I’ll always suffer with it, but now because of my wife and family and MJ, I am well able to deal with those dark days.  My family doctor, a close family friend – Brian O’Doherty – I am forever grateful too.  He helped me massively with my depression, and getting back on the road.

BS:  How important is exercise as a part of battling your demons?

NK:  Exercise is proven to release positive endorphins in all of us, so its brilliant.

BS:  Suicide is a painful thing. Did you struggle to accept your friend’s death?

NK:  It’s something I found hard, but I’m sure everybody in the country at this stage has been affected by suicide.  It’s a terrible thing and the Cycle for Suicide and Talk to Tom charities in Gorey, who are trying to help people who are in dark places, are brilliant.  But I’m in an amazing place in my life both physically and emotionally, and that’s down to the help I have and friendship from those close to me.  Surround yourself {with those} who see the good in you, when you struggle to see it in yourself at times.

BS:  Did you box from a young age?

NK:  Started in Gorey boxing club at seven; still go into the club as much as possible.

BS:  Was boxing in the family?

NK:  My older brother boxed but gave up young.  I just loved it; my best man at my wedding, and my best friend was my coach when I won the amateur intermediates in 2007.   I met in there {Gorey boxing club} Darren O’ Toole; and John Hagler Murray and Aidan Daly – both coached me since I was a baby.  The club is like one big family.  I love calling in; it’s brilliant, I love the place.  Ed Sheeran’s Nan and Grandfather were founding members of the club and I’m still extremely close to Anne {Sheeran}, she is such a lady. Unfortunately, Bill {Sheeran} passed away a few years ago; but he was a character, the most flamboyant man.  He was deadly, God rest him.  Anne is 93 years of age and fresh as a daisy and rings me at least once a week to check how the club is doing –  she is a wonderful lady; rings before every fight and watched the whole {Santos} fight with me.  I’d be lost without that club and that’s why they’re on all my gear.

BS:  Was it a busy house you grew up in?

NK:  Busy, but happy house.  I am a proud Willow Park man; that’s the estate I grew up in, in Gorey; the greatest people in Gorey!  Mam, Dad and a big sister Sabrina and brother Darrell we all get along deadly.  I was the spoilt youngest!  Sabrina and Darrell are both married with beautiful families and I’m the proud owner of five nephews and two nieces and I’m extremely proud of the lot of them.  I’m blessed with my family and now my own lil’ man; Niamh and I are so proud of him already.

BS:  Has anything changed since MJ was born? Not the practicalities, but how you look at life? 

NK:  Unbelievably; I’ve more drive than ever to make my son proud now and make sure him and his mam never want for anything.  Niamh has given me everything I could ever wish for; she is my best friend and we’re now raising this little hero.  It’s unreal so the least I can do is drain every drop of ability I have in me out for them, and hopefully make Gorey and Wicklow proud whilst I’m at it. BS:  Where did the interest in being a Garda come from?

NK:  Long story; you’d have to ask my mam!  But best decision of my life.  It gets so much negative press but 99% of people I’ve worked with have been great people whose sole intention is to make people’s lives safer.  That’s a nice thing to be able to try do and I get to go to the schools and try talk to the youngsters.  I think it’s a great job; a thankless one at times, but helping other people is enough reward for all the Gardaí I know.

BS:  Is it getting more difficult to balance the two?

NK:  It’s getting very hard to juggle work with boxing as training has got more intense.  But, I’m very lucky with my work unit, they let me take annual leave to train and go away sparring; I’m lucky they’re so understanding.

BS:  What age did you make your amateur debut?

NK:  Same as all young amateurs – 11 – but I started at seven.

BS:  Was there ever a point where you thought a stint as a professional wouldn’t happen?

NK:  Of course, and to be honest if it wasn’t for Packie, I never would.  We clicked and got on very well, even when I was an amateur.  I was sparring some of the lads and he would do pads with me, so after been beaten in the national in 2015 by Dean Gardiner, my chances for Olympics were gone.  I was in Prague with Niamh, and I said I’d send Pascal a message to see if he wanted to take me on.  If he didn’t see the point I’d hang up the gloves and go back hurling and football for the last few years.  But thankfully Packie said he would love to, which was a massive surprise to me.  Who wants to take on a 30-year-old heavyweight with a mediocre amateur pedigree; but Packie saw something in me I probably didn’t, and we’re enjoying this journey now, because it’s starting to get exciting.  I owe everything to Packie; he has changed my mindset and has made me believe in this journey.  I’m loving boxing at the minute.

BS:  What happened in the Gardiner fight?

NK:  Nothing controversial or that, I just got beat in a close fight.  Dean is a great lad, I just didn’t box to my potential.  As an amateur, they were great fights though to be fair.

BS:  So what did Paschal see in you do you think?

NK:  I think I’m a very honest lad and he likes that.  But after that, I may let u ask him.  I love the gym though, we have such good craic.  We’re all from different backgrounds, but it’s deadly.  There is some atmosphere; we all bounce off each other.

BS:  Is it a bit of a trek?

NK:  Yeah, 130-mile trip from my house and back every day; but it’s worth it.

BS:  What does Paschal add?

NK:  Just his boxing IQ is second-to-none.  He is very calculated in his fight plans; he has been there and done it before with Kevin McBride and his brother Steve {Collins}.  He has trained with the Petronelli brothers and Freddie Roche, so he has great knowledge.  He is also my manager, and it’s great having somebody I trust with my life taking care of everything.  We have a great relationship.

BS:  So your debut as a professional was against Moses Matovu; how did that compare to preparing and the build-up for amateur fights?

NK:  Preparation went really well and the build-up was low-key to be honest.  I’ve managed to get into top 60 of the world – under the radar.  I’m not one for the limelight, if you heard me interviewed after the last fight you’ll see why!  But training hadn’t changed dramatically for that, as Packie and I had only worked together about three months, so I was still very amateur in that fight.  I think my American fights are a better indication to my progress.

BS:  Right up to Barboza, did you feel yourself getting stronger?

NK:  Yeah, I’ve done a lot of strength work and even though aesthetically I may not look impressive, I do feel my power has come on, and for Santos fight I’ve started working with Ivan Lynch in Gorey solely on strength, and its exciting.  So I hope that we will see more gains in this area for the next couple of fights; we’re working really hard.

BS:  What Is the technique behind learning; to increase strength and power in your punch?

NK:  Ivan has a scientific approach, but to be honest i don’t know, it’s just hard work! I am like a good dog I just do what I’m told.

BS:  You’ve always been quite candid about nerves before a fight. Was Barboza the most nervous you’ve been?

NK:  No, Santos was tough enough and Willie Palms was a 21 stone monster!

BS:  Is it intimidating facing a guy like that?

NK:  It can be, but look, this is my choice and, it’s great for me personally, to keep pushing my boundaries.  Nothing fancy just hard work.

BS:  So the Santos fight. Had you a game-plan?

NK:  Yeah, and bar rounds five and six, it worked perfect.  We hadn’t expected it to start at such a hot pace, but we were plenty fit, so it didn’t matter.  I really enjoyed the fight, I probably went back to my amateur form a bit in the last round.  I was never hurt, but I was leaning back instead of rolling, which made it look bad.  But it’s great, because they’re lessons learned and you can’t buy that experience of the ten rounds because I’ve done only one eight-rounder prior to that fight so the ten rounds is brilliant.

BS:  You felt comfortable in there?

NK:  Yeah, it was comfortable enough to be honest.  Mentally draining and into the unknown a bit, but enjoyable, a good fight to be in.

BS:  What’s up next?

NK:  Next up, I hope to be out in a ten-rounder in late November/early December and then a very surprising, very calculated move into the world rankings.  I hope that by this time next year I’ll be in the top 20 of the world, and improving all the time.  It’s been a long road, and my life is no different than anyone else’s.  We all have our struggles, but I am very lucky to have great people around me; and getting help for my illness instead of hiding it was best thing I ever done.  Suicide, like you said, can destroy so many families and people.  I lost Bull {his best friend Colm Bolger} on November 13th, 2003, and exactly two years to the day later, a close friend done the same, it’s horrible.

 Niall is supported by Fun Palace Casino, Conal’s Tree Services, Amber Springs Hotel and Proteinie


Brian Strahan