Cork boxer Gary 'Spike' O’Sullivan in reflective mood as film traces bid to become world champion

Cork boxer Gary 'Spike' O’Sullivan in reflective mood as film traces bid to become world champion
Gary "Spike" O'Sullivan, Irish professional boxer training at the Celtic Warriors Boxing Club in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan.

New documentary ‘The Prizefighter’ charts the journey of boxer Gary O’Sullivan as he follows his dream of trying to become world champion. Michael Clifford met the man they call ‘Spike’.

Spike is just getting warmed up. He’s 35 years young. Long way yet before the tide rolls out on his youth and vigour and speed. Plenty of opportunity to be boxing champion of the world.

“If you put me in against myself when I was 23, starting out, I know now I’d absolutely destroy myself. Experience is everything,” Spike says.

Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan is sitting down in the Celtic Warrior gym in Corduff, west Dublin. He’s here to talk about the new film based on a heady nine months he spent last year, grasping at his dream of being middleweight champion of the world.

The Prizefighter debuted at the Kerry Film Festival last week and has been backed by Virgin Media. It’s coming to a TV screen near you in the next few months.

Filmmaker Terry McMahon has woven a tale from the Cork boxer’s journey that illustrates why the “boxing movie” is a subgenre ofthe medium that will always holdout a major attraction.

And, in this case, it wasn’t a “movie” with a protagonist created in a writer’s imagination, but a real flesh and blood man whom the camera loved.

Spike has a head-on him that could have been lifted from high fashion in 19th century London, with his bald pate, handlebar moustache and chump for a goatee.

It works a treat, presenting him as an individual in a time of automated images.

There isn’t much boxing in The Prizefighter, but there is plenty about the life of a fighter and the boxing business that is a game coated in glamour and glitz and populated by characters and chancers.

Beyond all that, the film is a study of one’s man’s attempt to use his fists to provide for his family while chasing a dream. The subplot is Spike’s ambition to buy a house in Cork to attain real security for his partner and kids.

And then there is the spectre of how, when the game is stripped back to essentials, the fighter stands alone, just him and the dream, often boiled down to just one instant, one punch.

McMahon’s previous work, Patrick’s Day, was hailed as an accessible and entertaining examination of society’s attitude to mental health. If the initial reaction is anything to go by, The Prizefighter will further enhance his reputation.

Spike is thrilled with the finished product.

“It was emotional watching it,” he says.

Terry stayed in my house the other night and we were talking about it. Every time I see my daughter up there on the screen it really gets me.

The film follows Spike from a victorious bout in Canada in 2017 which was witnessed by promoter and former multiple world champion, Oscar Dela Hoya. He spotted something in Spike and offered to set him up with a three-fight deal. Win the first fight and you’re through to an eliminator for a crack at the world title.

Win the eliminator and you have your bout for the title. If you make it that far, the financial reward will be such that life changes dramatically even if you fall at that final fence.

No spoilers here about the outcome, but what did Spike think of having McMahon along to track the dream?

“Terry was cool. It was exciting, good fun,” he says.

“It added to the whole journey and when the camera’s on you, you punch much harder and faster.”

His confederate on-screen was Paschal ‘Packy’ Collins, the trainer who runs the Celtic Warrior gym, named after his brother, former world champion Steve.

“The journey with Spike has been going for 12 years,” Packy says. “But the last two years have been absolutely brilliant.”

Collins’ gym is an appropriate harbour from which to launch an assault on the boxing world. The gym is located above a convenience store and has about it the feel of a local amenity way beyond its use as a repository of dreams to be the champion of the world.

People drop in. Packy helps out where he can. He knows that in this socially disadvantaged area, the gym has a social function. One man is in looking to see if Packy can give him a hand getting on a recovery programme.

Gary 'Spike' O'Sullivan, Irish professional boxer with his coach Packie Collins at the Celtic Warriors Boxing Club in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan.
Gary "Spike" O'Sullivan, Irish professional boxer with his coach Packie Collins at the Celtic Warriors Boxing Club in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan.

Packy tells a story about another local guy. He approached Packy in the car park outside the gym, told the trainer that he was off the booze and fags for two weeks.

Packy said: “Really, fair play to you.”

In the man’s right hand he wielded a can of beer. A cigarette burned between the fingers of his left. That’s life. Some people need habitual delusion just to get by. And then there are others, young lads, who see the gym as a signpost to a better life.

They come in and train and look at Spike and tell themselves that one day they too might be Spike.

The connection between Collins and O’Sullivan goes way beyond trainer-fighter.

Spike first encountered the Collins family in 1995 when he was brought as an 11-year-old from his home in Mahon down the road to Pairc Uí Chaoimh to watch the Steven Collins v Christ Eubank bout.

“It was amazing,” he says.

The fact that an Irishman was doing that, was the champion, that’s when it started for me. As a young kid I used to get up and watch the fights from America and I always dreamed of being champion of the world.

He reveals that his second Collins encounter came when he went down to Cobh as a teenager to watch a match against Dublin League of Ireland side Bohemians, managed by Roddy Collins.

“He offered to give us a lift back to Cork on the team bus,” Spike recalls. “That was very unusual and I remember thinking this fella must be alright. It was all part of the destiny.”

Then came Collins Number Three when Spike was turning professional at 23. Spike and Packy ran into each other at another fight, had a discussion and realised that they would be well suited setting out together for distant peaks.

Since then, Spike has commuted between Cork and Dublin to train in Packy’s gym, a regime that includes the sacrifice of being away from his family during the week.

By late 2017, Spike had won more than 20 bouts and been defeated in just two. But by that stage, his grasp on the dream of a title was loosening.

He went to Canada to fight Antoine Douglas who was expected to brush the Corkman aside. It didn’t work out like that and De la Hoya made his pitch.

Gary 'Spike' O'Sullivan, Irish professional boxer with his coach Packie Collins at the Celtic Warriors Boxing Club in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan.
Gary "Spike" O'Sullivan, Irish professional boxer with his coach Packie Collins at the Celtic Warriors Boxing Club in Dublin. Photograph Moya Nolan.

One of the attractions that the promoter saw in Spike was his popularity among Mexican fight fans. They simply took to him and he to them.

“I’ve always admired Mexican fighters,” he says.

For his first fight in Los Angeles the Corkman entered the ring wearing a big sombrero to the delight of the local Mexicans.

“They’re very friendly people and it was their national holiday so I did it as a mark of respect,” he says.

The Prizefigher excels when it homes in on the fighter as the figure in the eye of the storm that is the fight business. In one scene, after a victory, Spike is recovering in a jacuzzi, his mobile phone pinging with positive messages from around the world.

He recalls a story he heard about another fighter Sergio Martinez, who told of when he won a fight once he received 6,000 messages. When he lost the following fight there was just four missed calls, three of them from his mother.

“Yeah, that’s the nature of it,” Spike says. “The amount of messages you get around the time of a fight is crazy, especially when you win.”

For Collins winning is the aim also, but there’s more to a boxing life as far as he’s concerned.

“I try to teach my fighters about life,” he says.

I give my all to a fighter, I’m loyal to them to a detriment. The fighters I have around me now realise that this is something money can’t buy.

The connection between the two men is evident in The Prizefighter. They head to Las Vagas, get immersed in the razzmatazz, but always keep feet on the ground.

Back in Dublin, Spike has become one of the famous family.

"He’d be up in my mother’s house more than I am when he’s in Dublin,” Packy says. “Eating stew, which I don’t know anything about. I call up there and say where’s my food and my mother says Spike ate it."

The future is as yet unwritten in the career of Spike O’Sullivan. A general perception that his ship has sailed by the age of 35 is something he disputes.

“I got another 15 years anyway,” he says. “I googled it recently that the oldest boxing champion was 52. I’m a long way off that.”

Collins also wants to keep eyes on that peak.

Cork boxer Gary 'Spike' O’Sullivan in reflective mood as film traces bid to become world champion

“I dread the day Spike retired because I love him coming to Dublin,” he says.

“He’s part of the furniture, he adds to this gym. You see it when people come in and see Spike, their eyes light up.”

But when the dreaded day does arrive, what then?

Spike shrugs. “I might go into the movies,” he says, half in jest, fully in earnest.

“And I’ve an idea I wouldn’t mind opening up a coffee shop in Cork.”

What would he call it?

“The Hard Knocks Café,” he says.

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