Wexford boxer Niall Kennedy has spoken out about how a neurologist's assessment led to his unexpected retirement from the sport, after a professional career that saw him reach the top 30 in the world.
Kennedy, who also works as a full-time garda in Co Wicklow, has had an eventful career since turning professional at the age of 31.
Fighting under the Murphys Boxing promotion, Kennedy, 37, made a big name for himself Stateside and won state titles in Massachusetts and New England in 2017.
He was preparing for a bout in the National Stadium in Dublin on November 17th, which would have been his first fight on Irish soil in a number of years, when he was told a brain scan was showing early signs of CTE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive brain condition that's thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head and repeated episodes of concussion. It's particularly associated with contact sports, such as boxing, rugby or American football.
Kennedy told BreakingNews.ie: "I’d never heard of this until about two weeks before I went to see the neurologist. Then there was an issue with the brain scan, it showed up for CTE. This white matter showed up in the brain, it’s linked to CTE basically, so that’s where I am now.
"He drew a picture with a circle and said once you go to this side you can’t come back… he said you’re not on that side thank God, but you’re not too far from it, dangerously close.
"He’s the main neurologist in Ireland dealing with CTE, he said I don’t want to upset you but anyone who has this illness arrives on their own, leave on their own, it can bring addiction, aggression, all sorts."
Sitting beside Kennedy for the interview was his five-year-old son MJ, and he explained that he was hoping to get a picture in the ring with his son in Dublin, as he has never seen him fight live before.
"I said that to him [neurologist] and he more or less said ‘I’d rather you would be able to have a conversation with your son in 20 years’. He left the taste in my mouth, he more or less said if it was a title fight he might consider it, but it wasn’t, and I explained it was a fight to get me back to bigger fights… he said it wasn’t worth the risk. He said ‘I don’t deal in sentimentality’.
"The decision was made for me. It’s all I’ve done for 31 years [boxing], and it’s been pulled from under me when I’m fit, training very well, so it’s strange... but my priority is sitting beside me."
While Kennedy has plenty of plans for the future, including setting up a mental health charity for young people, and maybe coaching one day, at the moment he's still coming to terms with hanging up his boxing gloves.
"It probably will [help to look back]. I’ve had so many really positive experiences out of boxing, boxing saved my life. Right now it’s hard. Even down to wanting to get back involved in training and training kids... I can’t see that yet.
"It’s been unreal the people I’ve had contacting me, Wayne McCullough, an idol of mine, contacted me and Seamus McDonagh, who boxed Evander Holyfield, these people it’s unbelievable. Boxing is a small pool and I haven’t annoyed too many people in it."
In an interview with Off The Ball in 2020, Kennedy spoke about suffering with bipolar disorder.
His own struggles with mental health, and losing his best friend to suicide as a young man, inspired him to get involved in helping others.
He does a lot of work with a local mental health charity in his native Gorey, Co Wexford, and he hopes to set up his own charity now.
"My best friend died in 2003, it was a massive taboo subject. It will be a youth survival training course. I’m not a trained counsellor, so I can only talk about how I’ve got through and my own experiences. I would have pressed the fast-forward button, but I need to get myself back in check at the minute, but it is in the pipeline.
"I'm hoping to get people in lots of different fields involved to speak about how they've struggled with their own mental health, and to share their stories with younger people."
Struggling to come to terms with the end of his boxing career, Kennedy was "conscious that I don't want to let myself go into a hole", so he is running 100km this month for Movember.
While it's currently hard for him to look back, he has fond memories of winning the Massachusetts and New England state titles in 2017.
Kennedy's trainer Paschal Collins, of the Celtic Warriors gym, set up a number of fights for Kennedy in the United States, and he soon made a big impact Stateside.
He shocked the boxing world to beat Jesse Barboza in the House of Blues in Boston, and he said this was his favourite venue.
American Celtic punk rock band Dropkick Murphys play sets at the venue before fights, and Kennedy got to know band members Al Barr and Ken Casey.
"If I was to pick a venue you would imagine TD Garden but the House of Blues for my Massachusetts state title fight was insane.
"The Dropkick Murphys play a live set when we’re fighting in that show. I remember coming out to the Boys of Wexford and walking into the ring and 3,500 people were in there, it felt like everyone was cheering for us. Nothing tops the House of Blues for atmosphere."
Next up was the New England state title fight, which Kennedy was the underdog for again, and he again upset the odds with a split decision win over Alexis Santos.
It was this fight that put him in the top 30 in the heavyweight world rankings.
It also got the attention of the trainers of then-world champion Anthony Joshua, who asked Kennedy to spar with the WBA, IBF, WBO, and IBO title title-holder.
Kennedy's son was in hospital after being born prematurely, so he agreed on the condition he was flown over and back to Sheffield when required.
Joshua's team accepted, and Kennedy got the opportunity to train with the world champion.
Another big Wexford sporting hero, hurler Conor McDonald, is a friend of Kennedy's, and he worked the corner for one sparring session, gifting Joshua a Wexford top.
Along with his trainer Collins and family, Kennedy is full of praise for An Garda Síochána, who helped him compete professionally along with work and family commitments.
"That came about after beating Santos, MJ was born on August 8th, I beat Santos on September 15th, then I got contacted the following week to see would I help out with Joshua. MJ was 55 days in hospital after he was born, and I said I’d go but would have to be flown back and forth.
"They did, Anthony himself was a really nice man. Conor McDonald came down to do the corner with me in Sheffield the second day, Joshua kept the Wexford top we gave him.
"Down to when he was born I was in full camp for the Santos fight, he was in Holles Street, my wife was on maternity leave, I was working full time, training full time, and didn’t miss a day in Holles Street. I don’t know how I did it, but it all worked out.
"When I was in the top 30 in the world maybe I should have taken a career break and focused more on boxing, but it’s hard to know, and I wouldn’t change anything, I’ve no regrets about the journey."
Another career highlight was fighting on a card headlined by Katie Taylor at TD Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics, in 2019.
With family and friends watching on at the famous arena, Kennedy earned a comprehensive victory over Brendan Barrett.
"Being on the card with her, and fighting in TD Garden, was amazing.
"Knowing Katie and seeing how well she’s done is just brilliant, she’s such a genuine kind, decent person. I'm quite a religious person... I’d imagine meeting an angel is similar to being in Katie’s presence, she’s such a kind person and has a lovely aura about her."
Kennedy was hoping for a chance to fight on a Taylor card if her much-discussed Croke Park event ever comes to pass.
While he believes this may be beyond him now, he still dreams of one last Irish title fight on the card.
"I was hoping if Katie’s fight happens in Croke Park, Thomas Carty and myself in an Irish title fight would be immense. We’re both out of Paschal’s stable. That may be passed me, but you never know.
"I’m keeping myself fit for myself, not with the plan of fighting again, as it stands I’m retired, the only thing the neurologist saying he might consider it if it was a title fight.
"I’ve sparred hundreds of rounds with Thomas since I saw him coming through the gym as a 22-year-old… I’ve no wish to fight him at all, but it’s probably the only fight that would make sense profile wise."
While debate is ongoing on how head injuries can be avoided in other sports, Kennedy doesn't feel this is possible with boxing.
However, he has no regrets about his career, adding that the friendships and memories he has made from the sport outstretch the negatives.
"Unfortunately that’s boxing, you’re going to get hit on the head. One of the questions the neurologist asked me was how many times had I been concussed, I’ve no way of knowing. I’m very lucky I’ve never been knocked out, I’ve been wobbled once in maybe 200 fights. I’d imagine any damage done to me was from sparring, there would have been weeks I’d do 24 rounds a week.
"I had a lot of fights as an amateur, but I’ve only had 17 fights as a pro. It appears to be 2015 scans to the recent one where the change has been so that would make me believe it’s been caused during my professional boxing. When you sign up for boxing you know you’re going to get hit, there’s no way to make that safer.
"The thing with soccer, hurling, rugby, football is that you play those sports, you don’t ‘play’ boxing, it’s a fight. Like with martial arts, you don’t play these sports, you fight.
"Boxing wouldn’t have been financially rewarding for me overall, I’ve made friends for life, made ties with people, such great memories and getting to share the ring with the likes of Anthony Joshua, Joe Joyce, Mick Campbell, Thomas Carty.
"When he said there’s no coming back after this point it really made sense, there’s nothing that can match up to MJ and Niamh for me. Family and being safe and being able to have a conversation with him in 20 years is what’s important."