IT’S all quiet on the southern front.
Cork boxing, for the first time in over 100 years, is at a complete standstill as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ringside bells, the percussive sound of gloves hitting pads, and refs calling unanimous and split decisions have fallen silent.
Boxers, clubs, and coaches are anxious to get back between the ropes. But, as is the case with all other sports, the coronavirus restrictions will remain in place until further notice from health authorities while boxing reflects on the triumphs of its recent past.
The golden years have seen Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan become the first Corkman to bring home a WBO International belt following his unanimous decision over Matthew Hall at London’s Upton Park in 2012.
O’Sullivan’s fans were forever blowing bubbles at the home of West Ham United. His official entourage included his sponsor and lifelong friend, Conal Thomas, managing director of Conal Tree Services.
Cork celebrated Spike’s victory at its inaugural Boxing Breakfast at the Silver Key in August of that year.
The Breakfast was the beginning of Thomas’ influence as a significant sponsor and benefactor of the sport, while O’Sullivan went on to trade leather with some of the greats in the middleweight division. Millions viewed his fights via Sky Sports.
Summoned to Áras an Uachtaráin for acclamation by Michael D Higgins, O’Sullivan also returned to Leeside from Boston with an inter-continental belt adorning his waist.
Elsewhere, Donegal native Thomas was making waves courtesy of his intensive involvement in amateur boxing. As a young man, he enjoyed a successful boxing career in Ulster.
In 1981, he travelled south and was “colonised” in Cork. Amongst his first employers in the city was the president of the Cork Boxing Board, Dan O’Connell, who at that time was MD of a security firm.
Thomas met his wife-to-be, Majella, and they set up home in a southside suburb.
His interest in boxing continued, and on one occasion he provided the aspiring O’Sullivan with a bowl of his mother’s special broth before Spike travelled to the National Stadium for a national junior final.
Thomas ensured O’Sullivan the dish was inspirational and would stand him in good stead in the ring.
Later that evening, there was a knock on Thomas’ door, and Spike was standing outside with an All-Ireland medal around his neck. Thus began a lifelong friendship.
A couple of years later. Thomas was elected president of the Loughmahon Boxing Club which won the Cork Club of the Year Award in 2016.
He set up the Cork Boxing Fraternity Association and became a mentor to many athletes seeking advice and assistance in the US.
Meanwhile, his daughter Shelley won four All-Ireland titles in a row, complemented by the same number of County and Munster belts. The Boxing Breakfasts continued.
“Conal’s sponsorship of these events was both timely and invaluable, and his work is a milestone in the development of the sport,” said Mick O’Brien, president of the Cork Board.
Cork boxing, meantime, claimed more than 30 All-Ireland titles per annum in four successive years, coupled with World silver medals for Eamer Coughlan (Riverstown BC) and Christina Desmond (Macroom BC, Fr Horgan’s BC, Garda BC).
In 2014, the board celebrated its centenary in style, while the Cork Ex-Boxers organised a tribute to Leeside’s Olympians.
European gold medals returned to the southern capital courtesy of Callum Walsh (Riverstown BC), Michael Faulkner (Northside BC), and Oliver McCarthy (Brian Dillons BC).
In 2016, the Glen BC celebrated their centenary as the oldest club in the country, while the following year Cork collected their biggest ever haul of 33 Irish titles. Tim O’Sullivan was also inducted into the IABA Hall of Fame.
Other outstanding memories include the IABA National Convention coming to Cork for the first time in its history and the first boxing memorabilia exhibition which attracted more than 23,000 visitors to the City Library.
Referring to the sport’s current status in light of the Covid-19 restrictions, Mick O’Brien said. “Our sporting world is now stilled. Our Cork Boxing Centre, which we proudly opened in 2015 in conjunction with the City Council, lies silenced.
“There is warmth and sunshine in those memories from the past, but the beat of the drum continues. The ringside bell will toll again, and a new generation of Leeside boxers will emerge and bring further honour to a county steeped in a proud boxing tradition and culture.”