In an extract from ‘Fighter,’ boxer Andy Lee charts the early days of his relationship with wife Maud — and a hard-hitting welcome to the world-famous Kronk Gym
I know we’re from different worlds, that this isn’t how it works. I know that bright, brilliant, educated young women from South County Dublin who have the world at their feet don’t end up with a gypsy boxer from Limerick via London who left school at 13. She must know it too, but she doesn’t care. I tell her everything honestly, about my life, my heritage, my family, anything that she would want to know.
Nothing shocks her. She tells me that she doesn’t care about what I am or what I’ve done. She accepts me for me, and it makes me fall even more in love with her.
She plans our first proper date. A concert. Of sorts. She has two tickets to the National Concert Hall, a recital by Maxim Vengerov. He’s a violinist, she explains, and not just any violinist, one of the best in the world. I might think I know a little bit about culture because I’m not obsessed with cars and clothes and money like a lot of gypsy boys, because I read books and rent a few films with subtitles, but this is a whole new league.
We arrive at the National Concert Hall; all the men are dressed in tuxedos, dickie bows, the women in beautiful gowns. I wear what I always wear: A hoody, tracksuit bottoms and trainers. I don’t belong here.
But the performance starts and I’m completely blown away, transfixed by this man on stage, the way that he’s communicating with the violin, the energy he brings to the performance.
It’s not dull or boring. It’s incredible. There’s something very special about music which has existed for hundreds of years on a piece of paper, brought to life to exist in a moment, and then it’s gone again.
He receives standing ovation after standing ovation. My hand is still bandaged up, so I can’t even clap to properly show my appreciation. Maud asks if I enjoyed it, and gets her answer with a cheeky grin that betrays my fascination.
“He’s not bad that fella, is he?”
She invites me in to be a part of that world, full of colour and art and creativity. We go to the theatre, but I don’t quite get it at first. I don’t know how to believe in it, how I’m supposed to see anything other than people standing on a stage pretending to be someone they’re not. I fall asleep during a few plays at the start. I don’t really know how to say it to Maud, that I’m not really sure that this kind of thing is for me. She doesn’t go out of her way to force it on me either.
Her dad buys us tickets for a play, The Bull, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life. It’s based on the old story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, but it’s more than just a straightforward script with actors and dialogue. It’s a powerful, immersive experience that really draws me in, and there’s a lightbulb moment where I suddenly understand where the art is in all of this. And I love it.
Every time we go out, we seem to meet somebody that Maud knows. I keep getting introduced to new people, her friends — male, female, friends that she’s known since she was four or five, friends she went to school with, friends from college. I don’t have any of that. Pa was my only friend and we lost touch when I left London and drifted away from that life. I see how close Maud is with some of her male friends, and I think they’re taking liberties. A kiss on the cheek. A hug that lingers a little too long. I get jealous, angry.
My gypsy roots have shaped me, left me with their rigid, conservative view of the world, but that imprint changes and evolves with time. I find my own place in life, a place that won’t bind me to any narrow-minded traditionalism.
In the beginning, when I introduce Maud to someone I know, to a gypsy, I worry. I’ve always worried about what people think of me, and now I’m worried about what people will think of her. If they’ll know she’s not a gypsy. Gypsies don’t marry outside the community, don’t even openly have relationships with non-gypsies. Gorgeys, we call them. If they do, they’re disowned, cut off by their friends and families. I shouldn’t care but, when we start going out at first, I do.
Just as I have to learn how to live in Maud’s world, she has to learn how to live in mine. She loves hearing stories about my family, learning about our history, our culture. When Christmas comes, we’ve been going out for a few months, and I decide it’s time to bring her home to meet my parents. I tell my dad.
“I’m bringing a girl back, Dad. I’m going out with a girl from Dublin. Her name’s Maud.” I have to tell him. He’ll find out anyway.
“She’s a gorgey girl, Dad. I want to bring her back here for Christmas to meet you and my mam.”
I know what he’ll say, so it doesn’t come as any surprise. “You won’t bring any girl into this house.”
“Wait until you see her, Dad. Wait until you meet her.”
“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been up there all the time? Well, she won’t be coming into this house.”
I understand where he’s coming from. Maybe if I was in his position, I’d react in the same way too.
But it doesn’t change how I feel about Maud, and I know once he meets her, he’ll see things differently.
I bring her down anyway, the day after St Stephen’s Day, to meet the whole family. My dad comes in for a minute to say hello, and then goes back into the living room to sit down again. I know he’s listening in to the conversation as Maud chats to my mam and my sister Dawn in the kitchen, trying to see for himself what she’s like. By the end of the visit, he’s sitting down with her on the couch, going through the family photo album, answering all of Maud’s questions.
It doesn’t take long for her to win him over. He can’t help but like her.
He -Emanuel Steward- goes into a side room, and leaves me and Tony for a few minutes to take it all in. It doesn’t take much imagination to drift back 20 or 30 years and see Hearns or Kenty or the McCrory brothers in that ring. It might be that long since the walls were painted, and with the exception of a few minor upgrades around the place, not much else has changed.
The pipes above our heads let out a low hiss as fighters pair off and rotate in and out of the sparring ring, the centrepiece of this one-room operation, set low to the ground in the middle of the floor. Others skip or shadow box or punch the bag, oblivious, but every other eye in the room is on the ring, dozens more of the greats watching down from the pictures as they wilt on the wall. Three men, maybe four, too old to be fighters, sit on wooden benches underneath, their commentary loud enough only to be heard by themselves.
Painted high on the wall are the messages that I would come to read several times a day, every day, over the next seven years of my life.
TURN UP THE HEAT.
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET GOING.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF.
THE BIGGER THE REWARD, THE BIGGER THE SACRIFICE.
Emanuel returns. ”How would you feel about getting in there for a few rounds?” I’m only here for a look, not to get thrown into a sparring session with someone who is looking to chew the new kid up and spit him back out just as quickly. I’ve no gear with me.
But they’re only excuses, and I’ve already seen enough to know that excuses don’t fly in this room.
“Now? Sure, let’s go.”
He shouts over to a fighter on the other side of the room, roughly the same shape and size as me but a few years older.
“Hey, Ronald, can this kid borrow your boots for a few minutes?”
Ronald is Ronald Hearns, son of Tommy and a fighter already starting to collect names on his own pro record. I pull on his boots and his headgear and wash out my gumshield.
Emanuel tosses me a pair of gloves. I start to loosen out, get my feet moving, throw a few punches, and I feel everything around me stop: no more skipping rope, no more punchbag.
Silence, except for Emanuel’s shout.
“Hey, K9. You’re up.”
At this, a huge man standing at the side of the ring, dressed in civvies, lets out a roar. “Oooooh, fresh meat, fresh meat, here we go, here we go.”
If the rest of the gym hadn’t already stopped, we’ve their undivided attention now. Emanuel might have hoped that I’d feel at home but, as a short, stocky fighter bounces through the ropes and into the ring that is clearly his domain, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m behind enemy lines. Cornelius Bundrage, ‘K9’ to his team-mates and friends, a man with the swagger that you might expect from the most dangerous fighter in the Kronk Gym.
This is nothing out of the ordinary for him; young kids who think they can fight come through that gym door and go out again just as quickly, rethinking their place in the boxing world after just a few rounds up against him.
This is as routine as a Monday afternoon comes: He’s an undefeated 20-win pro on his way to the top, a light-middleweight with a vicious edge, and if Emanuel asks, he has no problem putting manners on me like he has done to so many wannabes before.
He’s not hanging around either. He comes straight for me, ready to put me on my back there and then. I switch into autopilot and get my feet moving. It will buy me a few seconds to figure him out, if nothing else. He tags me once or twice, but I’m leaving a little bit on him too, and outside the ring, the volume is turned up again.
“Woooo, come on, K9. Get that white boy. That’s it, get that white boy.”
The bell goes. I go back to my corner, expecting Emanuel or maybe Tony, but Tommy Hearns is leaning over the ropes instead. He’s enjoying this — everyone is, by the sounds of things.
He gives me a few tips, a few punches he has spotted that might give Bundrage something to think about, and sends me back in.
I’m not used to fighting three-minute rounds, and I can hardly breathe in the heat, the sweat already running off my forehead and into my eyes.
I focus on Tommy’s instructions, and I catch Bundrage a few times.
He’s muttering away to himself, and I can sense that this isn’t how these initiation sessions usually go. The hostile edge hasn’t put me off; I am relishing it, and changing it.
“He’s good, he’s good. This white boy can box, K9. Don’t let him whoop you.”
We spar three rounds, maybe four, before Emanuel signals that that’s enough. It is. There are no referees, no scorecards, but we have a room full of judges and it’s clear who has won their decision.
People who hadn’t even noticed me come in half an hour earlier are coming over to fist bump, touch my glove, and find out how the hell I had ended up in the Kronk in the first place.
You can fight, boy, you can fight, one guy tells me. The adrenaline is still surging. In any gym, there’s no commodity more valuable than respect. I know that I have earned that much at least.
Someone once told me that whenever you experience déjà vu, it means that you’re following the path in life that is meant for you. As everyone else goes back about their business, and Emanuel pulls on the pads to do a bit of work with me, I get the strangest feeling that I have been here before.
- Fighter by Andy Lee with Niall Kelly (Gill Books, €12.99) is available from booksellers nationwide. It is published by gillbooks.ie — an Irish publisher which has been in operation since 1968 and which carries a wide range of books catering to the Irish market, from biography to cookbooks, history and children’s books, true crime, nature, and sport.