Hardwick living the Broadway boxing dream

I WON’T dwell on Simon Zebo here.

There are plenty of better placed writers who have been extolling his virtues in this neck of the woods. He’s made my Blackrock people proud. It’s no surprise.

Hours after he dismantled Northampton and gave Munster and Ireland something new to talk about, I headed to the Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd Street for a night of “Broadway Boxing” promoted by Lou DiBella — the same force of nature behind Micky Ward and March 17’s Sergio Martinez v Matthew Macklin showdown in Madison Square Garden.

Nestled in the middle of the card was Tommy Hardwick, a former St Vincent’s senior footballer from Coolock who, like Zebo, took the decision to leave behind his GAA teenage sweetheart and opt for a life in professional sport.

He lives in New York now, pursuing his dream of a full-time boxing career in the heavyweight division.

I first saw Hardwick fight last spring at the same venue. That was his pro debut after only a handful of amateur fights.

In spite of his relative inexperience, he had stepped up to the professional ranks after he managed to win a New York Golden Gloves title in 2010, making him the first Irish-born boxer to win a Golden Gloves championship — a prestigious competition for amateur fighters.

On Saturday night, he dispensed with Richard Mason from Long Island, a unanimous decision over four rounds that now has him 4-0 inside his first year as a pro.

When he bounded up the steps with a wide smile to the makeshift press overflow area (which was placed on what is normally the Roseland stage, an irony I’ll shimmy past), I grabbed him for a few words and blocked him from his real mission. His mother had travelled over from Dublin the day before and was sitting beside 15 or so of his friends and supporters at the front of the stage. But he stopped to chat nonetheless, the glow of victory still evident. The only other sign that he had been in a fight was the slight reddening of his cheeks. His opponent had failed to give him any trouble, unless you count the recurrence of an ankle injury in the second round, an injury he first sustained in Gaelic Park in the Bronx almost a year ago in the days before he opted to focus on the Sweet Science.

“I love football, I played senior for five years, but it’s all boxing now,” the 27-year-old told me.

“I actually stopped playing for Vincent’s the year they won the All-Ireland [2007-08]. I love Mickey Whelan to bits. His training methods were top notch, way ahead. I’ve moved to a new gym here in Manhattan and we’re using all the same techniques; biometrics, all that.”

Tall and well-built, Hardwick has developed his technique enormously since that first victory over Georgia’s Derek Walker last May. His opponent this weekend started quicker than he did but as Hardwick settled into a groove, he eventually reduced Mason to flailing around in a stupor.

“I was trying to gauge his tactics. I’m using a different style as well. In my first few fights, I tended to rush in so I’m trying to change my habits. I seemed a little stuck-in-the-mud there for a while, I wasn’t getting my jab off. I was trying to close the distance on him a little. He’s very elusive and hard to hit. Then I got a few good shots but he wouldn’t go down.

“I really tried to push for a knockdown, I lunged in a few times, but after the ankle twisted a little bit I was a bit more cautious going forward. With the big crowd here I was a little bit over eager for a knockout but I think overall, he didn’t catch me with too many punches. My defence has improved and my counter-punching but overall I’m happy enough.”

The crowd of 1500 were predominantly Irish, there to see Hardwick and also Seanie Monaghan, a light-heavyweight professional of almost two years fighting out of Long Island, who also chips in with sparring duties for his less experienced compatriot. (Both will fight in the Garden on March 17) The partisan support really raised their voices for the exciting Monaghan, who took care of a strange boxer from California. Billy Bailey, like Mason, seemed occasionally unaware that he was still on his feet and then when he did remember, he would bait the crowd with a raised arm between rounds. It was Monaghan whose arm was raised in the end.

Hardwick hurried by me again, still smiling, more so because of the Californian clown in the ring. Then he sat down next to his mother and hugged her, finally able to enjoy a quiet moment. The long trip over, the sacrifices they’ve both made... it’s nights like this that make it all worthwhile.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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