Tomorrow Waterford take on Cork in the Allianz Hurling League, a heavily underlined date for years in Niall McCarthy’s calendar, writes Michael Moynihan.
The man from Carrigtwohill was a central figure on Cork’s All-Ireland-winning teams of 2004-5, when his clashes with Waterford’s Ken McGrath were a highlight of the counties’ rivalry.
McCarthy is otherwise occupied this weekend, though.
Now a PE and history student in UCC, he takes on Finbarr McGuire of Cork Institute of Technology for the cruiserweight title at the Irish Athletic Third-Level Boxing Association (IATBA) in the National Stadium this afternoon.
“Starting off, the boxing was more of a fitness thing,” says McCarthy. “I couldn’t give it much time because I was hurling, but when I retired from hurling last year, I needed a new challenge, a new goal. When I don’t have that, I can drift, the diet can be bad, so the boxing fits perfectly.”
McCarthy moved from pad work to bag work, then to sparring, then UCC Boxing Club invited him to participate in a tournament...
“I enjoy it immensely. I can’t wait for the fight today.
“There’s a different excitement to hurling. It can be a dangerous sport if you’re not prepared, which is why you have to train so hard for it.
“You have to have your preparation right, but everything I go for I get competitive at it. I’m fighting at 86kg: when I was hurling I was around 90kg, so once I clean up the diet and get training, I get to 86 pretty quickly.”
For all the loneliness of being in the square ring, McCarthy has found a team ethos in boxing.
“My perception would have been different before starting, but there’s a huge involvement with other people in boxing.
“In UCC, the coaches Eoin Buckley and Ken Anthony are great, and you get friendly with the other fighters as well — you’re throwing every punch with the other lads from your club as well, you’re supporting each other, and if one of them wins, it’s a great lift to every other boxer.
“The more you get into it the more of a team environment you find, which wasn’t what I expected. As a sport generally the discipline it instils in people, the confidence it can give a person, it’s fantastic to conquer anxiety.”
That interest in boxing has led him to other places, and more support.
Characteristically, McCarthy is keen to share the limelight with those who’ve helped him in boxing.
“St Colman’s in Shanagarry have been great to train with — Maurice Walsh has been running that club for years with his brothers, Kevin, Pa, and Billy — they’ve 22 All-Ireland medals between them — and that’s been great, really enjoyable.
“Barry Mulcahy in Mul’s Gym in Midleton have helped me with strength and conditioning, they’re so positive and welcoming.”
“Boxing’s different to hurling, obviously — you don’t know who your next opponent is going to be, every fight’s different, all of that. I’m only an apprentice at this, but I’m enjoying it and when you enjoy something, you’ll stay at it.”
He’s a fan of all sports (“Munster and Ireland in the rugby, MMA, hurling with Carrigtwohill and Cork,”) and last year, he fell in with the UCC and Cork camogie teams as a coach.
“They’re doing the Cork jersey proud, it was great to help them out. They’re fantastic to train, they have a great attitude and they don’t get half enough credit for the work they put in. I loved my own time playing with Cork, obviously. I have unbelievable memories from that time.
“With Carrig… winning the intermediate county in 2007, and the senior county in 2011 in particular because there was so little expected from us. At the start of that year, we were trying to hold onto our senior status, but we clicked.
“It’s a lovely memory, but eventually the body slows down. You have to move on. This is what I’ve moved onto, and it’s great.
“At the top level boxing is an elite sport and unbelievably competitive, but it’s also just a great way to get fit if people don’t want to compete in organised bouts, it’s very good for discipline, it’s great for people who might be struggling with mental health issues and confidence, it’s just a great sport.”
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.