Still up for a scrap

Belfast boxer Martin Rogan describes his own battle for recognition as well as the spats he’s had en route to becoming Commonwealth champion.

The black cab is gone these days. Martin Rogan had to get rid of it because even the takings combined with the occasional fight wasn’t paying the bills, so off he went and got a lorry instead. But just the mention of it reminds you of a story from his finest half-hours. It was 2008 when the Belfast man got the better of Audley Harrison, yet in the build-up to that bout the Olympic gold medallist had thrown plenty of jibes at his opponent over his profession. Rogan bided his time with a retort and as he made his way back to the bowels of the ExCeL Arena in victory, he couldn’t resist sticking his head into the Englishman’s dressing room.

“Silence,” he recalls. “There were five or six of these black guys, massive men, staring at me stunned. The entourage! I just let out this huge roar, ‘Taxi for Harrison’ and ran out of there.”

Different times for sure, but while you can take the driver out of the taxi, you can’t take the taxi out of the driver. The stories still flow like a gushing torrent of fresh water that hits you hard and is both shocking and exhilarating all at once.

He’s the boxer. The fighter. The politician. The joker. The actor. The activist. The father. The lunatic. The husband. And today, sitting in a café, he’s surprisingly touchy feely.

A warning though, as the cogs of the Dictaphone roll and roll and you dare not interrupt for fear you’ll miss a yarn, you realise this isn’t one for innocent eyes and gentle minds.

He takes your hand and rubs it over the lump on his forehead that’s still there from a clash of heads the last time he was on Prizefighter close to a full five years ago — a competition he won then and returns to tonight in the hope of giving his career a jump start as he chases down his 43rd birthday. “Feel that?” he bellows. “Felt like a car crash at the time.”

Then there’s the top missing off his finger. Bitten off to be precise, after he was glassed in a nightclub for wearing a cross. “Would you believe they tried to bite a lump off my face as they held me down and called me a Fenian bastard? Drug dealers from Tiger’s Bay — real charmers.”

Next up is the titanium rod that runs up his neck and was inserted after a bone landed on top of the nerve during his second fight with Sam Sexton in late 2009. And that’s before we get to the tongue which has been split in two since the first loss to Sexton that cost him his Commonwealth heavyweight title and most likely a shot at a world crown as well.

But as he takes you on the tour of his injuries, all you can do is look on at a storied face that obviously owes its existence to the go-forward bravery of a slugger as opposed to the tactical nous of a boxer.

“I’ll tell you a good one,” he laughs. “I remember fighting and saying, ‘What is that taste, it’s like rust’. John Breen in the corner told me to stick it out. ‘Nah, you’re all right,’ he told me. My tongue was bit in half sure. I went into the hospital with my wife the next day. ‘What happened that?’ says the doctor. ‘I got hit an uppercut’. ‘Why would somebody have done that?’ ‘Because I’m a boxer.’ ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that there before. That’s very, very bad. We can stitch it but you won’t be able to eat’. My wife said just do it. ‘Fiona, I’ve trained hard, I’ve been dying for a Kentucky burger’. I drove straight to KFC at York Gate and got two. It was the right decision.”

“Why didn’t you go and get it fixed since?” you ask, grimacing at the entire spectacle? “Haven’t had time. Sure after that fight, the doctor went around the back of the head to see if there was bleeding. ‘Martin, we’ve good news, we’ve found a small brain’. ‘No way, get it removed’, I told him.

“People look at me, at this face and they won’t say boo to me, though. I’m an easy guy to get on with but I have this mad look about me. Nose bent, scars on my forehead, but what can I do?”

He leaps from one story to the next, ever more animated, and the nurture-or-nature argument crosses your mind. But as Rogan gives you a rundown of his early years, you can’t help but feel he’s defied both. Consider this. When he was 15 he was playing handball against a wall as he waited to go to Mass. The ball ran loose though, went under a yellow Avenger parked nearby, and when he went to get it he saw a silver gun gleaming between the seats. Minutes later there were shots in a nearby house, a wife screaming and a body. “There was steam coming out of the holes in that guy. The strangest thing is, I saw a book the other day on the Troubles and there was a guy in it that looked exactly the same as the shooter, brought it all back.”

A year on and he and some friends were scaling a wall in West Belfast to get into a green field. As he sat on top, he caught site of a man looking at him, a weapon in his hand and he opened fire. The bricks were shattered behind Rogan as he made a break for the other side. “There was a cop sitting looking in a jeep. He did nothing. We were only kids. You have no idea what it was like to be from here.”

By 20, he left an ex-girlfriend’s house late one night and saw a car parked down the road and a man standing outside the door of a house. Rogan was spotted and the man in an army uniform approached, pretending to be a taxi driver looking for an address. “He went for a gun, but this ex-girlfriend opened the door to see why I hadn’t gone. They didn’t have targets. Their target was you or me.”

With that he points down and brings up the petrol station incident where he intervened in a row and ended up being handcuffed so tightly that lasting damage was done. “They’d severed the nerves in my wrist by kneeling on the cuffs to close them. I said it to a solicitor and he said if you want you can get a couple of thousand but they will make your life hell. They would have hounded me.”

Not that he was a saint either or that he’d ever claim to be. One night, as he came home drunk with a Chinese meal, a British solider started demanding to know if Gerry Adams was his leader. He was repeatedly telling him no when suddenly a friend drove by, rolled down a window and told Rogan to deck him. The soldier reacted first but Rogan swung his giant fist and covered his opponent in rice and black bean sauce. A few days later he met the same solider. “Good fight, Martin. Well done.”

“I never minded if they wanted to go at it as long as they put the guns down. But we didn’t ask to be under British rule. I didn’t grow up wanting to see people murdered, but this life was left out for us. For a kid to see that?

“Normality was walking down the street seeing a gunman and a half-hour later the army coming in their droves kicking doors down. Normality to me isn’t what we’ve had for 15 years since the ceasefire. It is growing up with explosions and UVF murder gangs saying that’s part of a war. When I was with my mates, we’d hear automatic gunfire and start guessing where it was. Then that night on the news we’d see who had the closest guess. That was normal. To me the ceasefire is abnormal.”

Perhaps he was destined to be a fighter given his environment. Even his team-mates in O’Donovan Rossa used to tell him as much as he hurled away at full-forward and got a reputation for using his fists to more effect than his stick. But it wasn’t until he was 29 that he pulled on a glove in the back garden of a friend’s. Fooling around, they took one each, started swinging and Rogan was the one left standing. It was a beginning, not that his career took off like a firework or anything like that.

In the Clonard club they didn’t take him seriously so he tried Immaculata. They couldn’t see past the age there either so he stumbled upon Holy Trinity. He jabbed around the gym, worked a few bags, until one day in 2003 he was walking down the road and bumped into Gerry ‘Nugget’ Nugent who asked was he heading to the Irish intermediate championships that weekend. Rogan hadn’t even known about them so Nugent took pity on a no-hoper and said he’d bring him, but he needed his medical card.

“So I went back to Holy Trinity and I’d never seen people move as quick. Like Flash Gordon. Mad to get rid of me. Sure off I went to Dublin and knocked a few lads out and won the super-heavyweights.”

By the end of 2003, he had won the Ulster championship and the Irish senior title too, all within four years of lacing a glove. He even found himself in an Olympic qualifier, although having lost out in Plovdiv, Kenneth Egan recalled in his book how Rogan was sent home for urinating in the fireplace of a hotel lobby in the wee hours.

“If I pissed in the fire in Bulgaria, I don’t remember. So I can’t say yes or no. Worse still, I missed out on the Batman film because of it all. The one Michael Keaton was in. I went to Irishtown to do some auditions in between training in the stadium and they kept asking me to come back. I made the mistake of going down in my Irish tracksuit though, and while I got on really well, the woman said you are going to fight for your country, possibly in an Olympics, that’s a big thing, we don’t want to impinge. I said I wanted to do that as well but I only got down to the last two to be Ra’s al Ghul’s henchman. Would have been a big part and all.”

The acting, you say? That’s another tangent to explore in a weird and wonderful life. Back in the early days of his amateur career, Belfast writer Pearse Elliot penned the TV series Pulling Moves and created the character Conal the Barbarian with boxer Conall Carmichael in mind. He refused but suggested Rogan. “I’d never acted but he gave me a wee bit of a script, and I was told I looked the part. That’s where it started. Then Pearse wrote Man About Dog , then I did Mickybo and Me .” But while the acting continued past his 2004 Olympic dream and into thepresent, his amateur days didn’t. Once beaten in Bulgaria, he went and wrote his wife a note on a small piece of paper she still has in her bag.

Martin Rogan – Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion 2008.

In 2009, Martin Rogan became Commonwealth heavyweight champion after one of the fights of the year against Matt Skelton. That he was two months’ out on his prediction doesn’t detract from what he’s achieved with so little. That he’s limped along ever since, losing three of his last six fights, doesn’t detract from the story of a man who made his pro debut at 33.

“In the 2000 Olympics, Audley Harrison beat the Cuban and I was watching it thinking, ‘I wonder if I’d started boxing earlier would I have made it’. Then in 2008 I beat the Olympic champion that I had been watching. People thought I was mad but I still did it. When I was leaving the arena that night, I was walking up the corridor, Harrison’s brother had died and I said, ‘Listen, I just heard, I’m sorry’. He tried to get smart. ‘It looks like you were in a bit of a fight mate, you are pretty marked up’. ‘Ah, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,’ I said back. ‘You want to see the wanker I was fighting’.

“And all that came off the back of winning Prizefighter, that’s why it’s great to be back on it. The last time, Derek Chisora was a stand-in and I remember doing a promo for it. I was shadow boxing for the camera and I had a thing in my chest and was wheezing and he was saying, ‘Look at him, he can’t even breathe and he’s getting onto this show’. I went straight at him and guys stepped in. I was so driven to win it. The other boxers were all sitting in the lobby and I came down, ‘You are wasting your time here lads, I’ll be winning and that’s the end of it’. Same story this time. People say it’s too late, but they said that when I started boxing. I’ve unfinished business.”

Unlikely you think, but then again everything he’s achieved has been unlikely.

Consider Rogan out of the ring. He called his son Ruben after Hurricane Carter because he feels there’s a link between the 20 years he spent in prison and the oppression of the Irish. But that doesn’t mean he has a problem with the other side.

He won’t let any of his three kids watch the news and when his nine-year-old daughter asked last summer to watch an Orange parade that passed the end of his road, he let her.

“I wasn’t going to stop her. I want them to choose their paths and I want them to live in a better place than I did growing up. But I get on with English people, Protestants are my friends. As I say, people get me all wrong because I’m honest,” he smiles, before taking a deep breath.

“I’ll tell you one more before I go,” he continues. “Two or three years ago there was rioting and they were blocking all the roads. I’d to go onto television and I was driving down Donegall Pass and they all ran out onto the road. ‘Back away, back away’. It was to do with the Drumcree. I roared, ‘Get the fuck off the road’ and this lad looks in, thinking he was going to get some trouble. But he looked at my face and lit up. ‘A boy Rogie, where you going, UTV Live? Let him through,’ he roared at the rest of them.

‘Quickly, it’s Big Rogie. He’s sound as a pound’.”

Picture: INPHO

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