From plotting the downfall of Mike Tyson to training alongside Hollywood superstars, boxing coach Packie Collins has enjoyed a colourful life inside and outside the ring. He spoke to Ronan Mullen.
We may be approaching an Olympic year, but amateur boxing’s 2020 vision could use some sharper focus.
It’s a reality as true at home as abroad, inherent uncertainty atop the sport’s global governance having filtered through to member states.
Ireland is no different.
This past year began with little guarantee boxing would even make it to Tokyo, the devolution of AIBA’s seven-decade reign representing a tectonic shift.
Temporary taskforces are now bidding to paper over the cracks left behind by that nefarious regime, springtime qualifiers set to serve as the final frontier for this crop of aspiring Olympians.
Exactly who will don our green vest, however, remains a point of contention.
November’s sparsely-contested National Elite Championships were notably shorn many of the country’s headier hitters, some marquee talents having foregone theiramateur ambitions entirelyin favour of pursuits in the paid ranks.
Although itself a well-worn path, the transition to professional boxing is hardly plain sailing.
Leading professional coach Packie Collins can attest better than most, the Dubliner long since tasked withassisting boxers across those troubled waters.
“I see it all the time, people getting frustrated with the amateur scene and making the move, but these kids need to understand that professional boxing is a different animal,” warns Collins.
“It’s a tough, hard, cut-throat business with a lot of disappointment.
“Very, very few get to a point where they can make a living from their career.
“Even champions around nowadays haven’t all earned the money to buy their own homes.
“I would say to anyone who wants to get out of theamateur world, that’s all well and good, but education is the way forward. Don’t become one of these full-time guys or girls where training is everything, you can’t do that.
“The money’s just not there. You need something to fall back on.
“Even those who make serious money have to retire in their thirties. Then what? If you love the sport of boxing, stay amateur. If you think you’re good enough to win titles as a pro, that’s fine. But don’t do it for the money. 99% never get anywhere near it.”
Collins, for his part, has seen the 1% first hand, older brother Steve’s ascension a notable exception to the rule.
The latter’s status as one of just three Irish multi-weight world champions ensures legendary status: Blockbuster wins versus legends like Chris Eubank and Nigel Bennmaking him a household name through the 1990s.
“Steve was a standout, but boxing came with theterritory in our family,” quips Packie.
“My father boxed, all my uncles boxed. My dad did really well, won a couple of titles. His brother Terry was a very handy prizefighter as well. His claim to fame was beating one of the Kray twins!
"He was middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight!
“It’s funny, I sat one day and watched an old video of George Foreman winning the Olympic Games. The guys Foreman faced in the semi final and final were both guys Jack had beaten!”
It was that heritage which shaped Packie’s own athletic endeavours.
A la brother Roddy, however, his were not restricted solely to the ring.
“Sport was there from the start. My father died when I was young, so I was reared not only by mother, but by my brothers, who were already well into their own journeys at that time.
"They were father figures to me. Steve wasboxing and had me in America for a while, until he got sick of me! Then Roddy was pursuing football and had me in England for a bit, until he got sick of me too!
“But I was like a sponge, watching everything. Of course boxing was the first port of call, but I was playing with Stella Maris as well. I was a good centre-forward.
“At about 15, I went over to Mansfield because Roddy was over there. It was a greatset-up, pretty tough even at that young age. I was enjoying it, but I was missing my boxing at the same time. With the football, I felt that, while I was putting the work in, I could see other lads not pulling their weight. So I basically quit football then. I was done at 16.
“At that stage, I had already been over and back toAmerica… I was there most of my life really. Steve was in Brockton, he had been fighting under [legendary trainer] Goody Petronelli, so I was around Hall of Fame fighters like Marvin Hagler. I probably wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate who Hagler was, but I could sense he was someone. Someone special.”
Packie’s career would never scale any Hagler-esquesummits but yet there were some apex moments.
“One highlight came right at the start,’’ he notes. “Steve was to defend his world title at the famous old Boston Garden, it was to be the last event in the venue because it was being pulled down a month later. Steve ended up withdrawing a week prior because of a virus he picked up in training camp, so the whole show changed. It was my debut so I just got messed about really. I was supposed to be the first fight, but in the end I didn’t know if I was coming or going!
“A big Irish crowd had bought tickets, Irish media had travelled over, so they ended up finding a slot for me after the main event. Michael Buffer (the famous announcer) stayed in the ring and announced my name. It was surreal. It was the last fight ever in that building, and probably the quickestknockout too! About 13seconds! I trained for three months for that fight, and basically hit the guy with one shot and it was all over. I wanted to go over and pick him up!
“I enjoyed my time competing. I probably wish I’d had a manager like me coming through. I had no guidance in that respect, I just went out and fought. But I always say, what I didn’t ultimately get out of being a fighter myself, I get out of being a trainer.”
The switch from hitting to holding the pads was notentirely by the book, anerrant cut having somewhatexpedited the process in 2005. It was then that Collins was coaxed into the land of coaching by Monaghan heavyweight Kevin McBride. As it turned out, the pair’s maiden assignment could hardly have been more high-profile.
“Myself, and Kevin wereliving together in Boston, good friends, boxed on a few shows together. Then one week, I was getting ready for a fight in Foxwoods but had to pull out because of that cutinjury. At the time, Kevin was lined up to fight Mike Tyson, and asked me to stay on with him.
“No one was giving him a chance. Even then I relished that kind of challenge. We were sitting in Greenhill’s Bakery, a sort of hub for Irish people in Boston, and I told him: ‘Kevin, I really think you can beat this guy.
"But you’ve got to give me absolutely everything. I don’t even need money, you beating Tyson would be payment enough’!
“Instead, we end up chatting things through with his son, Carl. To this day, I reckon Don was sitting in the next room watching us through two-way glass! We still had a fight to focus on, though. I booked myself and Kevin into a hotel for a training camp.
“I kept him under lock and key to make sure he didn’t sneak out to the bar! I was absolutely drained from it. I was learning on the job, micromanaging everything, picking his food, the running routes.
"The first run we did we actually got lost! We tried to recreate Rocky Marciano’s route around Brockton and ended up running about 11 miles! Poor old Kevin was in bits! It worked out, though. We nailed down a gameplan to frustrate Tyson. To drain his legs, and that’s what we did. In the end, Tyson wanted a way out of there.”
The rest, of course, washistory. McBride’s defeat of Tyson was one of the sport’s most seismic shocks. It would serve as a springboard forCollins’ career too, Dublin’s Celtic Warriors Gym now the central reference point for all within Ireland’s pro boxing scene.
His inclination to teach had long been fostered, tutelage under the likes of Petronelli and Freddie Roach paving the way, the experience with King its own baptism of fire.
Collins was no stranger to dealing with people of record, even if they were occasionally strangers to him.
“You might know that Steve had the upstairs part of the Olympus Gym on Capel Street,” smiles Packie. “Whenever I would come home from America I would use it, get down there and hit the bag or whatever.
“I came down one day and there were two skin-headed guys working out. They said they were over filming.
“At that time, I didn’t watch movies, I knew absolutely nobody. So for weeks, we were just training together. Then, one night, there was a show on in Smithfield, I think it was a jazz band from Cuba. It turned out the two lads had the whole place booked out and invited me down.
“It was only when we got down there that my wife clocked who the two lads were. ‘Is that Matthew McConaughey?!’, she said, ‘Is thatChristian Bale?!’ She couldn’t believe they were there!
“It’s funny, I had just bought a house that time with two acres. I was so proud. I remember chatting to Matthew that night and he was going on about his 10,000-acre ranch in Texas.
“Talk about perspective! But I was glad I didn’t know them, to be honest, I was able to get to know them as people.
“Tommy, the man who owned the gym, would bring them around the nearby pubs and play pool, talk to the locals. When Tommy died years later, Matthew actually came back for the funeral.
“He was a good guy, a nice guy. Just an ordinary bloke who happened to like acting!”
In that vein, Collins is an ordinary bloke who happens to like coaching. Unlike McConaughey, he remains rather more realisticregarding the rewards.
“Most of my boxers have to fight abroad to earn decent money, I don’t mind that. I’ve got loads of airmile points with Aer Lingus! I can use the lounges now!
“Of course, it’s disappointing that there are no big, big shows in Ireland, but I know the way it is. Pro boxing in Ireland never really took off.
"We had the times with Bernard Dunne, where people went to the 3Arena two or three times a year. But the sport generally never really gets the backing it should. It is our best sport, after all.
“The reality is though that the money’s not there, from sponsors, from advertisers. People bitch that there’s so much rugby on TV, for example, but the fact of the matter is that there are companies out there willing to pay to put it on.
"It’s not as if RTÉ hate boxing, they don’t. If boxing sold well to advertisers, they’d put it on.
“That’ll probably happen. I wish it could, of course, but as I said, I’m realistic.”
That same realism has seen Collins broaden his boundaries beyond the ropes.
He recently completed his diploma in high-performance coaching, encompassing not just the athletic arena but likewise the corporate and business sectors.
“Sport is just one side of things now,” he affirms. “You’ve got to get your diet correct, your mindset, your sleep, your family life, your work life, your finances, everything has to work. I sit down with my fighters, try and notice if things are changing, to see if I can help.
“Training is easy, fighting is easy. It’s the other stuff that goes with it that’s hard.
“[Gary] Spike O’Sullivan has a huge fight now thisweekend. He’s tunnel-visioned. But Spike is pretty well-set compared to most in the gym, he has boxed on big pay-per-view shows in the past, London and Las Vegas. He is a rare case.
“One of my other guys, Niall Kennedy, is a full-time garda. Ray Moylette, a former international medalist as an amateur, recently qualified as a carer. He’s really happy in himself now, the pressure of financial burden is lifted.
“He’s got a career ahead of him after he hangs up his gloves. That’s my advice to all boxers, especially the younger ones coming through. I just hope we can get the amateur scene sorted out first and foremost, we need to ensure that everything that’s going on is transparent. Sport is for the athletes, not the people sitting in the background.”