The big interview with Cork boxer Spike O'Sullivan: You've to take the blame yourself in the fight game, no one else can step inside the ropes

The big interview with Cork boxer Spike O'Sullivan: You've to take the blame yourself in the fight game, no one else can step inside the ropes
Gary O'Sullivan lands the knock out blow to Melvin Betancourt in 2015 at Agganis Arena in Boston. Picture: AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

THE choice was a simple one: stick or twist.

Sitting in a plush room in front of some of the main movers from boxing powerbrokers Golden Boy, Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan could easily have accepted what was a decent offer of a four-fight deal. It would have given him stability and a good platform to show his quality.

Instead, on the eve of a clash with Nick Quigley which was broadcast live on ESPN from Boston last September, he decided to take on chance on himself and roll the dice. His promotor Ken Casey – better known as the frontman for the band Dropkick Murphy’s – had shown him the contract but he went his gut instinct and the belief of his long-time trainer Pascal Collins.

Pascal Collins advises Spike during a fight. Picture: Damien Quirke
Pascal Collins advises Spike during a fight. Picture: Damien Quirke

“I looked at the contract and thought 'nah, I'm worth more than that'. Myself and Pascal know what I'm capable of and what I've done to get to that level. I decided to put on a show, to batter him and they'd come back to me with a better contract.

“I rolled two sixes on the dice because they came back with a contract where my first fight on the new deal was worth more than my penultimate one on the original deal. I was starting better than I ever would have got to.” 

That first fight was a typically exhilarating joust with Antoine Douglas staged in Canada before Christmas with his TKO putting the Mahon man on a collision course with the highly-rated Danny Jacobs in April. Provided a deal can be struck in the coming weeks.

“I think the best left-handed boxer out there is Billy Joe Saunders and the best right-handed boxer is Danny Jacobs. I’ve huge respect for him and it’s going to be a serious battle if it comes off. Jacobs knocked Kid Chocolate (a former target of Spike’s) out in one round. And Kid Chocolate is good, a world champion with Cuban roots.

“I remember when I said I wanted to fight Kid Chocolate people looked him up and thought I was mad, 'you can't fight him'. Sure Antoine Douglas looked more fierce again.

“Golden Boy would love to have me fight in Ireland, something like Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but the problem is the time zone, it just doesn’t work for pay-per-view in America.

“You never know though. It’d be pretty cool! We all watch matches during the middle of the night in the World Cup.” 

These are heady times indeed for the 33-year-old in what is 10 years – January 26th – since his first professional bout. When we meet in the Silver Key for a lengthy chat over breakfast and a steady supply of black coffee, he’s inundated with well-wishers.

Training with Dave O'Connell in the Mardyke. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Training with Dave O'Connell in the Mardyke. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

O’Sullivan has only been defeated twice in that period, to Saunders and Chris Eubank junior, but the ferocity of his punching means he’s always a thrill to watch. He’s currently on a high but there have been plenty of lows as well, including length spells of inactivity following those losses.

“I'm into big-time money now and that was what was hanging on the fight against Douglas. My kids will be set up now after all this. That's what I always wanted. It was a good kick in the bollocks too for my begrudgers and doubters, and Cork has plenty of them as well, even if for the most part it's positive.

“Over the years I've been told to switch trainers but you've to take the blame yourself, no one can get in the ring with you.” 

The Dropkick Murphy’s connection has been a profitable one though. He ended up with Mickey Ward – who Mark Wahlberg portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie The Fighter – in his corner for a fight. His contests in Boston can be wild, even if a proposed fight at one of Huge Hefner’s Playboy Mansion parties never came to pass.

“That was probably as well off. I doubt the missus would have been too happy.” 

His partner Selena must be thrilled with the huge opportunities on the horizon this year though. They have two children – Thomas (1) and Ashley (6) – while he also has two daughters Jacinta and Katie from a previous relationship.

“Ashley loves doing an impression of Michael Buffer, the ring announcer. I came into the kitchen one morning and she starts doing it – ‘he is the middleweight fighting pride of Cork…’ It’s gas.

“She was so excited seeing me on RTÉ news when they did a segment on the last fight. That was incredible. I remember when we were small in Mahon and my mother was so excited because we were on telly one night just walking in the background on some news clip.” 

Spike with his daughter Ashley when she was eight months old. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Spike with his daughter Ashley when she was eight months old. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

With five brothers and one sister, he’s not short of backing here. And his parents Denis and Jacinta are the reason he got a grá for boxing in the first place, pulling on gloves from the age of five.

“The true me is that I’m a lover not a fighter, unless you draw the wrong side out of me. In my heart family is the most important thing in the world.

“The first couple of nights up in training in Dublin are great but you really start missing the kids and Selena then and can’t wait to get home. The next fight though I’m going to sacrifice five weeks with the family to train somewhere decent. That’ll get me in the right mindset before I step in the ring.

“In 2017 I’d four fights, four knockouts but I got tested in all of them, they were all good. The first one since Eubank was against Chauncey Field, he felt he could beat me and it backfired, but the bodyshots in it were unreal.

“They sounded like gunshots. I punch ferociously hard – I recorded the hardest punch ever on PBC, which is Al Haymon’s promotion – but I can take a hit. I’ve never been knocked out. I don’t have a glass chin.”

If it sounds like Spike is all bravado, give him a chance to explain. Whatever about the fire and fury of the act of boxing itself, self-belief and an iron will are just as important to step in the ring time and again.

“A lot of boxers are decent guys really because you can get humbled at any time. In three quick-fire sparring rounds against anyone you can get caught out. It keeps you honest.”

With the belt after knocking out Antoine Douglas. Picture: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP
With the belt after knocking out Antoine Douglas. Picture: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP

Though Spike explains he doesn’t deal with a specific sports psychologist, he is indebted to Corkonian Patricia Magnier for the influence she had in helping through some dark days in 2013 after his loss to Saunders, and Alan Heary, who prepped him for his surprise victory over Matthew Hall at Upton Park the previous year.

“Alan got me in the right frame of mind for that fight with Matthew Hall because I had very short notice and I know I could not have won without him. He was incredible.

“Patricia is a great woman. She knew there was something up with me that time and I was really, really low. She could see it and she gave me a technique to deal with negative thoughts.”

Good times have followed, but it hasn’t been straightforward.

“Ken Casey is a gentleman. He got into boxing through a guy called Danny O’Connor, who was from Boston. Danny had a young baby at the time and was travelling hours away from his family to fight and Ken wanted to help him out. He’s a heart of gold so he said ‘I’ll promote you Danny and you can stay here in Boston then’.

“He promoted a few fights and a friend over in Boston asked Ken to have a look at some videos of my fights.”

Spike flew over Stateside on a Monday and fought on a Thursday night, for a Golden Boy show in the House of Blues against a Mexican Jose Medina.

“Ken loved it. It was a war of a fight. I thought I was going to die after the fight to tell the truth. It was June (2014) and 34 degrees.

“I’d been struggling to make weight, jet-lagged.

“I remember myself and Stephen Irwin were out for a run on the Wednesday and I didn’t have many fluids on board and I was hallucinating.

“I saw a swimming pool and I actually jumped over a fence into some random back garden and dived straight into the pool. We were lost in Boston and kept seeing the same place. I needed water so I scaled the fence and just went for it. I was lucky I wasn’t killed!”

Spike steadily build his reputation in the US and he needed to, as he struggled to open doors this side of the Atlantic.

Spike O'Sullivan in training at gym in The Mardyke Arena. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Spike O'Sullivan in training at gym in The Mardyke Arena. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I’ve had plenty of fights where I was paid **** all, pittance. It cost me more to train for some of those fights than what I was paid but you have to take and make opportunities.

“I fought (Dubliner) Anthony Fitzgerald and put on a great show.

“Luke Keeler and John O’Carroll out of the gym fought as well and Eddie Hearn signed the two lads. I’d the best performance, there was animosity in the build-up and I delivered in the ring. Eddie said to Pascal ‘I’d love to have Spike on board but I can’t sign him because none of the British middleweights will fight him’. I’d been with Frank Warren for four years before that so I was wondering where to go.”

His most high-profile showdown was against Chris Eubank junior, who Spike taunted mercilessly on social media before eventually getting his shot in 2015 at the O2 Arena in London. Eubank forced him to withdraw after seven gruelling rounds and a burst ear drum.

“There was a point I was worried about my ear drums. It happened three times in the same ear, once in sparring.

“It’s very disorientating. If affects your visions which is why Pascal pulled me out after seven rounds against Eubank. I’d never have quit but Pascal made the right decision. Nick Blackwell, a friend of mine, has never been the same since a fight he had with Eubank. He’s in a care home now and has never fully recovered.

“I’d love to fight Eubank again. He won fair and square but I’d the burst ear drum and I feel I’ve unfinished business with him.

“No one can ever accuse me of not having guts or balls. I believe I’d stop Eubank now in a rematch similar to my last fight. 100%.”

Chris Eubank, Eddie Hearn and Spike. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Chris Eubank, Eddie Hearn and Spike. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

The Eubank experience set O’Sullivan back in terms of the injury, and a nine-month layoff before he’d return to the ring in 2016, and reinforced his feeling that America was where he’d thrive.

Though extremely warm in person, Spike embraces the madness of twitter. He has an incredible 200,000 followers, many of whom direct message him.

He often spends the Aircoach journey up to Dublin when he’s in training at the Celtic Warrior Gym replying to fans’ questions and requests. He entertains them with his caustic humour and irreverence. And the occasional video clip in a mankini.

“I wreck fellas’ heads because it’s not put on. If I have a feeling I’ll just go with it. Even if that’s wearing a mankini.

“I love the craic on social media. I enjoy it, I’d be skitting laughing a lot of the time and it works as a promotional tool. My twitter has led me into situations I wouldn’t have had otherwise. My manager and the rest of the lads in the gym would just be saying, ‘Spike, what are you doing!’

“People said I’d never get the Eubank fight but I did and twitter was a part of that. I made more money out of that fight than world champions I know personally.”

No one could accuse Spike of being politically correct, which brings an obvious comparison to the antics of Conor McGregor.

“I think MMA is a good thing for boxing. Some hate it and see boxing as a purist sport compared to it and getting behind boxing more. No matter, even if a few swing over to MMA, it’s got people talking. It generates interest.

“I don’t think it’s taken from boxing because McGregor’s is UFC’s biggest star and he need to move to boxing for the ultimate payday.

“Boxing draws more fans too. Only one UFC event ever had been in Madison Square Garden. My next fight could be in the Barclay Card Centre in New York which is actually bigger than the Garden, about 20,000.”

O’Sullivan grew up with Steve Collins as his idol – which is why the tie-up with the Collins’ clan through Steve’s brother Pascal means so much – and sees a parallel with Chris Eubank Senior and the pantomime aspect of MMA.

“Eubank was a great entertainer. He played the villain alright but you’d have to respect him. It’s boring otherwise.

“I love that side of boxing. Not everyone does but I do. It’s the most fun part of it.

“You can see McGregor loves it too. He’s a natural. A lot of Irish people are witty like that. I’ve been watching Mayweather for years but McGregor destroyed him at press conferences with the Irish wit.”

It’s taken more than his humour and Cork cockiness to get Spike’s career back on track.

“I’ve always been resilient. I’ve a genuine confidence. If I didn’t I’d have quit a long time away. Now I’m involved in fights with 775,000 pay-per-views on HBO. That’s over $30 million. It’s incredible.

“I sparred with the best in the world and held my own. Jermaine Taylor was one that stands out. He was the undisputed middleweight champion. I sparred with him in 2015 and almost knocked him out. I asked him was he alright in the last round and he just looked at me and said: ‘don’t gimme that shit white boy’.

“I tried to take him out after that. I didn’t manage it but he was just covered up in the last 20 seconds. I sparred with Martin Murray who had three world title attempts and one against Felix Sturm in Germany he should have won, which was given as a draw. He ended up going 11 rounds with Golovkin.”

While his primary boxing work is in Dublin under Collins’ tutelage, Spike puts his career revival down to the backing and advice of Dave O’Connell, strength and conditioning expert at the Mardyke Arena.

Spike chatting with Dave O'Connell, strength and conditioning coach at the Mardyke. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Spike chatting with Dave O'Connell, strength and conditioning coach at the Mardyke. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“Dave has been good psychologically as much physically for me. He’s pushed me, making sure I’m not going to retire with regrets. It’s easy to slip off for a few pints and eat burgers when I’m in Cork. The difference now is improving my fitness when I’m not in camp.”

Matthew Hill on the southside has been Spike’s version of Rocky’s run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The first time I sprinted up Matthew Hill I felt like my lungs were going to burst by the third sprint. The aim was to get to six. Eventually I worked my way up to 10 but I was wrecked after it, taxed my body completely and I just felt like going back to bed. I got to the point where I could do 10 in the morning and go about my day.

“There were times when I felt like going to bed. I looked at the bed but instead put on my shorts, in the cold, dark and the wet, Cork like, and headed off to Matthew Hill. I’d sprint another 10 times that night and there was a pole at the bottom and I’d do leg raises as I hung off it. Good for absorbing punches.

“I always think ‘there’s no way my opponent is doing this’. That way you’re ready for whatever is thrown at you.

“Douglas was eight years younger than me. I’m proud of the fact that a lot of guys at 33 are on the way down that hill and I’m going up it. I’m getting better. I reckon last month I was the fittest man in Ireland.

“I threw more punches in six rounds than Billy Joe Saunders did in 12. That comes from fitness. I’m training like an animal. I was given the opportunity to get these great things and I’m doing that for my four kids. I don’t want to make them soft but I always wanted to be able to buy them a house each, set them up.”

He explains his late father-in-law Thomas has been inspiring him.

“I loved his determination. Even when he was diagnosed with lung cancer they said he’d last months and he lived for two years. He walked up hills to strengthen his lungs. He was a great guy and he’s missed. That’s why we called our youngest fella Thomas.”

Spike is still tight with childhood friends and those who have backed him since his early days. When he headed to Dublin at the start of the month to appear on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio, JJ Murphy accompanied him on the train.

Spike and Conal Thomas. Picture: Doug Minihane
Spike and Conal Thomas. Picture: Doug Minihane

Conal Thomas, a Mahon native now domiciled in Mallow who runs Conal’s Tree Services, has been a rock.

“He’s done things for people that he’d never want credit for, wouldn’t want me to talk about. He’s someone for me to look up to.

“I get offered suits left, right and centre across the country but I’d never take one because Dave O’Connor and Suits Distributors have always been in my corner. He’s genuine.

“RedFM, 96FM and the Echo have always been there giving me coverage and support. I’ll never forget that.

“There are great Cork people involved. Ruairí O’Hagan on The Big, Red Bench loves boxing and MMA, you can’t beat than interest. John McHale in the Echo has done a huge amount for Cork boxing in general.”

He can only chuckle when he recalls getting a steak cooked for him by the Collins’ mother, Collette, which had been in the fridge for Steve.

“Steve Collins was my idol so I still get a kick out of being coached by his brother. I remember walking out to the ring against Anthony Fitzgerald and the Collins’ mother, such an elegant lady, was sitting by the ring and she gave me the fist bump she used to give Steve.”

O’Sullivan’s Mahon roots mean everything to him. He even togged for Ballinure in a junior C football game against Glenlara a couple of years ago for exactly that reason.

“One of the selectors Stephen O’Donovan bumped into me in Mahon Point and he just asked me what I was up to. I said I was free so I met them and hopped onto the bus with my gearbag. I didn’t even know where we were going!

“Sunny, summer night, down into west Cork, it was brilliant. The craic on the bus after. I loved it.”

In action for Ballinure score against Glenlara. Picture: John Tarrant
In action for Ballinure score against Glenlara. Picture: John Tarrant

Though he went to Críost Rí and was a dual player with St Finbarr’s in his teens until a hand injury on the hurling field ruled him out of a boxing fight, soccer — he’s a Man United fanatic — was more of passion. He sometimes pops up on an astro-pitch for a five-a-side but he shone with Tramore Athletic in his teens and played Munster Senior League with Ringmahon Rangers.

His secret sporting love? Snooker and Pool.

“I’m very competitive. My mother always said it it was a game of marbles I had to win. I’m the same today with a game of pool in the bar. I’d have butterflies in my stomach. It’s a crazy competitiveness.

“Pool is possibly my best sport. They say it means you’d a misspent youth but not in my case. I’d a table in my bedroom, same as pub size, and I used to have to stand on my bed to play it. All I wanted for my communion was a waist jacket, from watching snooker on TV.

Online he’s been in touch with Ronnie O’Sullivan and has played Ken Doherty, Denis Taylor and Steve Davis.

“I remember at 18 going into the pub against the lads who were playing for Ireland and beating them. I played a season with Red Cove and never got beat.

“They’re a guy called John Mahon from Fermoy, who is dead now and he wanted me to go to England to play for money.

“I did go to Newcastle when I was 18 and won 33 games in a row. In the 34th game I got whitewashed for the first and only time in my life because I missed and he cleared the table.

“I used to play for hours. Obsessed. I’d 13 hours of snooker on my own one day, fingers were just coloured chalk by the end of the day. Boxing and family life doesn’t leave a lot of room for snooker or soccer. I’m looking forward to the time I can. Obviously my career has never been better but when I’m finished with boxing I can do more.”

Boxing has always been there though. As a youngster he trained in the Glen, Sunnyside and Belgooly – with and against the Dwyer brothers, Dan, Ruairí and Barry, now better known as Ballymartle hurlers. That was before the O’Sullivan clan helped established the Loughmahon club, which has produced 13 national champions.

Friendships were formed that still last. Like Douglas’ Luke McGrath who Spike trained in Loughmahon and has flown to watch him in the US, and Eoin Dineen a noted climber through the UCC club, a link to Críost Rí.

No doubt they’ll all be eagerly awaiting Spike’s next move.

“I’ve equal power in both hands. Every opponent, even the ones I’ve been beaten by, are always surprised by how hard I hit them with the left. I’ve knocked out people with every punch in the boxing book, apart from a left uppercut. Right hooks, uppercuts, straight lefts. You name it.

“My mother and father are very strong as well so it’s in my genes. Dave O’Connell has said that to me. From when my 15-month-old was only a few days old he was rock solid. You just have it.

“This might be my last year. Boxing owes me nothing now. I’m not going to let someone wipe me out. I will not let that happen.

“The likes of Eubank and Saunders have a few years on me but that experience as well. I’m still back myself against anyone.

“I’ve never had the best facilities. I spent so much time when I was younger boxing in Bessborough on my own, but only makes you hungrier.”

And he’s not satisfied yet.

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