Leonard Gunning on the business of sports promotion ahead of Ireland's biggest pro boxing event

Leonard Gunning is promoting an event that, in terms of the number of fights, is the biggest professional boxing show in Irish history. He tells Pádraig Hoare about the business of sports promotion

Sligo native Leonard Gunning with former world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. Photo: Kevin Finn
Sligo native Leonard Gunning with former world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. Photo: Kevin Finn

If passion and love for the game was all it took for a professional boxing event to be a commercial success, Sligo native Leonard Gunning would be a millionaire many times over.

Mr Gunning, a chartered surveyor based in London, has tried to walk away from his obsession but, to paraphrase The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, just when he thought he was out, it pulled him back in.

He has been a boxing fan, one of Irish boxing’s most respected journalists, a manager of professional fighters, and now a promoter. He is, in his own words, an addict.

“To me, it is the greatest sport in the world. It is the hardest, most thankless, gruelling sport for the brave men and women who enter the ring. Yet the attention professional fighters get from the media and public is vastly inferior to the likes of football or rugby. I’ve probably lost out in my professional career as a chartered surveyor because I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country and around the world to support our fighters. My young family has sacrificed for my passion, which I’ll eternally appreciate. I’ve tried to leave it, but once in you, it’s there forever,” he said.

During the barren years of Irish professional boxing following the end of Bernard Dunne’s reign as world champion, Mr Gunning and other Irish-based scribes such as Steve Wellings, Kevin Byrne, Jonny Stapleton and Stephen Sharpe kept the sport alive by consistent coverage of the small hall shows.

Mr Gunning then felt compelled to manage fighters to make sure they got the paydays they deserved. Now that the professional scene has exploded with young professional fighters, he teamed up with veteran boxing insider Tony Davitt to co-promote Celtic Clash 2: The Rising at the National Stadium in Dublin on Saturday, May 27.

It will have 17 fights — to showcase the best of Irish talent coming through and perhaps provide a springboard for some of them to follow in the footsteps of Bernard Dunne and Carl Frampton.

Leonard Gunning, pictured here with legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer, is co-promoter of the 17-fight Celtic Clash 2: The Rising at the National Stadium in Dublin on Saturday, May 27. Photo: Kevin Finn

“We had a gap after Bernard Dunne that was filled by fine fighters like Paul McCloskey but it was mostly up North. I realised to open commercial doors for our fighters in the Republic, that we had to have something as prestigious as the British title, for which northern fighters qualified. We created the Celtic Title so Irish fighters had more opportunities, they could build local rivalries, generate excitement for local supporters, before moving on to European level. That would give more commercial opportunities which they deserved,” he said.

Such commercial opportunities remain scarce in Ireland, even for the headliner of Celtic Clash 2, Kildare featherweight Eric Donovan. A man with a stellar amateur career, littered with Irish and European glory, deserves financial reward, said Mr Gunning.

“You can be a mediocre footballer or rugby player and get sponsorship and commercial endorsements, yet boxers don’t receive a fraction of such opportunities. The demographic market, advertisers feel, is too limited. Plus, let’s face it, there have been murky aspects to it in the past. Yet professional boxing is thriving at present because of the likes of heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. I want our fighters to capitalise on the public interest, build some momentum and reputations, and receive their commercial rewards,” he said.

While fighters on the night are professionals, none are full-time boxers. All must supplement their income with second and third jobs. That is something Leonard Gunning wants to change and sees his role as guiding them to be in a position where they can concentrate on it full-time.

“Eric Donovan is a manager’s dream, an athlete I would love to see earn as much as he can as a pro. I’d love to say Tony Davitt and I will turn a huge profit on the show, but that’s not what we’re in it for. We’re doing it for our sport. Even if we sold out 100%, there will be no profit. What shows like this will do is build records for our pros, build up local rivalries that fans love, and maybe be a launching pad for world glory. Eric Donovan is 31 now so he doesn’t have the window that younger fighters may have. I want him to earn now. He can easily be a European champion and after that, who knows? There is no athlete in Ireland who deserves it as much. The man has been an impeccable ambassador for his country, a man of outstanding character and pedigree. He deserves sporting and financial rewards,” Mr Gunning said.

The old guard of online Irish boxing forums re-emerged to help out when Celtic Clash 2, was being arranged. which Mr Gunning said was invaluable.“If we fail in the long-term, then at least we have failed while daring greatly, as President Teddy Roosevelt famously said. We will continue to strive to have our athletes receive the professional and commercial recognition of their sporting peers,” he said.

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