Putting the Big Bang theory into practice

THE crowd that packed the UL Arena in Limerick last Saturday night came for high-class, high-energy boxing. They got just that and, as a bonus, they left with an inspirational story to cherish in these gloomy times.

The bare facts of that evening in UL tell us that local man Willie Casey out-thought and out-fought Dubliner Paul Hyland to become the new super bantamweight champion of Europe.

However, at a time when we, as a nation, are being knocked almost senseless by a succession of blows, blind-sided by those we thought were the brightest and best, the story behind Casey’s rise to the European summit is a light in the dark.

Having been, in his own words, an “on-and-off, in-and-out” amateur boxer, an Irish champion at junior level who “lacked that bit of technique” for senior, 28-year-old Willie was a man in a hurry. He had contested his first pro fight only two years earlier and now, in just his 11th contest, was European champion.

But Willie’s story is not just about his boxing, uplifting a tale as that is. Many times before, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks has used his fists, or his feet, or a combination of both, to rise from the ghetto. But long before the prospect of becoming a professional boxer – let alone a champion – was on the horizon, Willie Casey was already taking care of himself and his family, was already working his way upwards.

The Traveller community is just that; a real community – proud, family-based. They are the most Irish of the Irish and yet, paradoxically, they are also almost a race apart, separated from the mainstream by mutual suspicion, distrust and ignorance.

For many years before he became a champion, Willie Casey was breaking down those barriers. Education is a way forward, perhaps the way forward. But at a time when it was still rare within the Traveller community, Willie did his Junior Cert and went on to do a trade, all the while bettering himself.

But look, he’s an intelligent man, is Willie; an eloquent man. He could talk for Ireland just as impressively as he boxes so let’s step back and let him tell his own story.

“I’m a member of the Traveller community. There’s a big family of us there; 21 now but 23 originally. My brother Paddy died in the last year-and-a-half, he’s the one I have tattooed on my chest. Drugs. My sister died when she was only a baby, before my time, around 39 years ago. Pneumonia. I’m in around the middle.

“Times were good growing up. I went to school, played a lot of sports – loved hurling. I completed my Junior Cert, left school in fifth year to go to work. I did my trade as a welder (he used to run to work and home again) and I did that for eight or nine years.

“I got married young and settled down – I was only 17 or 18 when we had our first child. I was involved in amateur boxing all the time but I was in and out of it, wasn’t putting in much effort, wasn’t going anywhere.

“But once I left school and started working full-time, I got the urge to box again. As I got older work went quieter and I got let go and I was able to put more time into boxing.”

If it hadn’t been for his manager, Phil Sutcliffe, Willie might have remained an enthusiastic amateur.

“I might just have boxed senior for a few years then packed it in and become a coach or something. But Phil saw me in the amateurs one night and told me I was better suited to the pros. He went through things with me, told me how it works and I said I’d give it a go.

“At the time I wasn’t doing it for myself. I said I’d give it a go for the younger generation, those coming up behind me. Even if I didn’t make it, they might. I definitely didn’t think I’d be European champion in two years, that’s for sure.”

Sutcliffe, though, saw the potential. “After just a few weeks’ training, Phil had said to me; ‘I’m going to need three years with you, because in three years I can make you European champion’. Those were his exact words. He was a good boxer in his day, twice in the Olympics and just short of winning a medal. He knows his stuff.”

Soon the wins began to come. Then came Prizefighter; a high-profile, made-for-TV event in England, three fights in short order, three quality opponents beaten in short order and suddenly he was a name. Willie ‘Big Bang’ Casey, a fighter to be reckoned with. All action, a killer punch.

IT led to that European title fight, originally fixed against the reigning champion, the strutting Kiko Martinez from Spain, conqueror of Bernard Dunne. Kiko pulled out which opened the way for the showdown between the two Irish boxers.

Willie has his own theory on Kiko’s withdrawal. “He knew nothing about me. He had seen Prizefighter on YouTube but that didn’t show him a lot. It was only three rounds per fight and you had to do a lot in those three rounds. I think he wanted to see both of us fighting first, because if beat me he’d have had to go on and fight Paulie anyway, because Paulie was ranked number one. But we’ll have Kiko now, probably March next year.”

That’s not the royal ‘we’. It includes Sutcliffe, Casey’s promoter Don O’Leary and, most of all, his strength and conditioning coach Joe Clifford.

“He’s doing a great job with me. He doesn’t settle for ‘alright’. It’s got to be right. I’ll say to him; ‘Is that alright Joe?’ ‘No!’, he’ll say, ‘that’s not alright, because it’s not right yet.’ He won’t settle for second-best. He’s my physio, my strength and conditioning coach, my psychologist, my nutritionist, a bit of everything. I hope to God I’ll always have him, to be honest.”

He has arrived in the big-time now but Willie hasn’t changed. He’s a role model now, high-profile. But it’s nothing new to him – he always was.

“After finishing my Junior Cert in school, all my younger brothers and sisters went on and did their Junior Certs. Some of them did the Leaving and they were looking for work along the line as well. On the sporting side, I have a younger brother Mylie who won the U16 championships. He was beaten in the U18 final, beaten also in the U21 final, all this year.

“He boxed two internationals against Italy and won the two of them. He’s more dedicated now than I was at that age. Even going down to the club now, Our Lady of Lourdes St Saviours, you have 101 lads in there all wanting to make it.

“I grew up in a deprived area with an awful lot of drugs, bad things happening. I could name ten people I grew up with who are dead now, from drugs, from doing the wrong thing. If I can get the message out to people that this is not the way to go – when you’re gone, you’re leaving your family heartbroken, falling apart. Even when you’re alive, you’re still breaking their hearts with worry.

“Hopefully the younger generation will cop on to all this and I’m going to be telling them. If you want people to be proud of you, don’t be complaining about who you are or where you’re from, get out there and do it.

“You mightn’t see much reward now but in a few years’ time you’ll see the results. Hopefully, I will see people from the neighbourhood coming up and improving themselves, that would be my goal. And if they ever say ‘I was following Willie Casey’, that will be my achievement.”

An enthusiastic Munster rugby fan, Willie hasn’t yet been to Thomond Park, and only once met any of the players. “I was out driving my horses one day on the Cork bypass and I pulled up at a red light before you get onto the road, alongside Donncha O’Callaghan and another boy coming back from Munster training. As long as the lights stayed red we had a chat. It was just before the Lions tour.”

Next Tuesday that’s about to change. At the sold-out Munster-Australia game in Thomond, Willie is a special guest of the Munster Branch.

For those lucky people who will be at this game, give him the acclaim he so richly deserves, because this guy is a hero in the Munster rugby mould.

Family man Willie hails the heroes behind his European rise

“REGARDLESS of how I get on in this game from now on, I want to say a big thanks to everyone for all their support, all their remembrances in their prayers, their good-luck cards, all the candles they lit for me.

“To my wife Mary especially and to my four kids – Myles is nine, the oldest, he loves the boxing himself; big Willie is five, little Terry is four, and my daughter, Ellie May, the boss, she’s one and a half.

“For showing so much patience, which makes all this so much easier for me; all of that is a great boost to me, and I’m very grateful for it.”

– Willie Casey

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