JOHN RIORDAN: On top of the world

Springtime has arrived early in New York City. The winter hasn’t been its usual vicious self but that doesn’t diminish the feelgood factor that comes with emerging out of the low months.

Everything is suddenly possible. For example, a fighter can put behind him a career full of ups and teachable downs and challenge for a world title at Madison Square Garden. And he can take advantage of the good weather, preparing for the biggest fight of his life in part with evening sprint training as the sun sets over a glorious Central Park.

Deli owners and restaurateurs can linger longer on the street, busying themselves with tiny tasks, any excuse to people-watch and breathe in the warm air, heavy with opportunity.

Outside Portobello’s, a Sicilian pizzeria on Murray St just around the corner from Matthew Macklin’s Lower Manhattan training base, the owner discusses an upcoming boxing contest loudly with an acquaintance.

It’s not tonight’s middleweight showdown way up in Midtown. They’re lauding some other fighter but it’s as you’d imagine it. Thick Brooklyn accents, the type of conversation where eye contact is eschewed so that the entire street can listen in if needs be.

All these millions of lives criss-crossing each other, does boxing still have its place in the New York psyche? Macklin, who fights world number three Sergio Martinez (48-2-2, 27 KOs) tonight, believes yes. Win or lose, he sees his immediate future here.

Looking relaxed and fresh, smiling widely, Macklin arrives with an entourage of one, his younger brother Seamus, who has been his constant companion throughout this gruelling build-up.

The Birmingham-born first generation Irish pair had been held up at the New York State Athletic Commission on William Street, a few blocks away from Wall Street. The brothers say their hellos to the Portobello’s staff and we carry on through to the back.

“I don’t come in here often, it doesn’t exactly go with the dieting regime but they’re good to us in here, really friendly,” Macklin tells me.

As we talk, he occasionally adjusts his Gatsby-style hat with ear-flaps, animates the conversation with his large hands and often brings Seamus in as they discuss all those summers spent in Holy Cross and Ballingarry, the Tipperary he so badly wanted to call home as he grew up.

“I used to sulk a lot when we got back to Birmingham. It got to the point where I did interviews at St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny to become a boarder.”

His underage hurling career is well documented, how Ballingarry flew him over for a minor championship game when he was just 15. Most people know about his friendship with Eoin Kelly and subsequently many Tipp hurlers. But maybe it’s hard to do justice to what a world champ would do for Premier pride.

“There are about 50 or 60 people coming over from Ballingarry. Lar Corbett will be back over. Alan Quinlan [Tipp town’s former Munster and Ireland flanker] is coming over. the support has been incredible.”

There was a period of about a year during which the entire Macklin family almost upped sticks and moved permanently to the sticks. A deal to buy land had even been set up.

“We’d still be there now if all that had gone through. But then [older sister] Theresa’s A-levels came around and I started to take boxing more seriously.”

While he doesn’t seem superstitious, Macklin is aware of how certain dates follow him around. As an 11-year-old, he fought his first ever fight on St Patrick’s Day. It took place at the Small Heath Boxing Club. His Mayo-born trainer made his young hopefuls wear green and red. Macklin opened the card and won.

Then there was his second meeting with Frank Warren as he contemplated turning professional in 2001. After an Italian lunch, he and his father went back to Warren’s office where the walls adorned with pictures of ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn and Joe Calzaghe served as the backdrop to his passionate pitch — and the pound signs that went with it.

They were interrupted by Sky News. A second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“It’s mad to think you’re back here 11 years later, just a couple of blocks away.

“Frank’s a charming man, very persuasive. I wanted to go to the Olympics. ‘Nah trust me, you have the style’. He twisted my arm at that stage. The money was too good to turn down as well, let’s be honest.”

The intense buzz that greeted Macklin’s arrival on the professional scene didn’t faze him as much as it should a 19-year-old. Finding himself featured prominently on Sky Sports and as a cover star on the popular lads mag FHM was just the next logical step at the time.

He had good practice taking the attention all in his stride, he had been the golden boy of the English amateur scene around the turn of the millennium. In the midst of it all, he gave law a go for a year at Coventry University but he was already eyeing up an athlete’s life away from the books.

“I did the first year, kept boxing and won the ABAs [England’s amateur boxing body]. I turned professional and it became too difficult. I only had a couple of hours of classes but there was a lot of reading. My head wasn’t in it and I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to half do it’ so I went for the boxing.

“It made me more savvy with paperwork. For a lot of fighters, you get stuff thrown in front of you, ‘sign this’. I’ve always kept a close eye on it, ‘What am I getting? What’s the signing-on bonus?’. I’ve always been aware of the bigger picture, the outcomes of certain scenarios.”

He could never have foreseen the sudden jarring halt that was to follow, however, an alarming blip that was as deep as his rise was high.

“I had about seven fights in 10 months that first year, beating everyone. Then I broke my left hand three times and I only fought three times in two years. That killed the momentum a bit.”

It went from bad to worse when he accepted his first 10-rounder against Andrew Facey and lost controversially on points. A foreshadowing of another more famous night almost a decade later.

“Looking back on it, it was a bad fight to take. I wasn’t very experienced, I was only 21 with nine wins under my belt. He was very experienced, a Brendan Ingle fighter, very scrappy. But I thought I’d be good enough.”

Macklin was training with Billy Graham at this stage and when the legendary corner man had a dispute with Warren about his young charge, the fighter got caught in the middle.

“I sided with Billy and Frank left me on the shelf for a while to show me who’s boss. We patched things up but then I broke my right hand and I was out for another while.

“By the time I was fit again, the deal was up and I hadn’t fought in 10 months. So what he offered me didn’t reflect what I felt I was worthy of. But I knew I wasn’t in a strong bargaining position either.”

Eventually he crossed paths with promoter Brian Peters and the path to redemption began, starting with a resounding win on the undercard of a Bernard Dunne fight which forced Warren to rethink his earlier offer.

“Things had changed now. Ricky Hatton had left Frank. I had built up a little bit of my own momentum with Brian so I signed a managerial contract with him.”

He might have taken to the good times like a natural but he wasn’t ready for that fall. It did build character though.

“I remember being at a Ricky Hatton press conference. One of the next-big-thing kids was there. Pundits and journalists who had been up my hole six months before were knocking past me, not even seeing me. I remember it hitting home: ‘You’re only as good as your last fight. None of this bullshit is real’.

“I’ve never let any of it go to my head, I’m not sure I would have anyway, I’m not that type of person. But if there was ever any danger of that happening, that episode made sure it never would.”

So all the setbacks proved necessary to develop?

“Oh yeah, I’d definitely say so. When you’re going that length of time undefeated, you think it’s never going to be any different. It’s not that I never trained hard but it made me a bit more willing to listen to Billy, he was the guy seeing me every day in the gym.

“I decided too I was going to value his input a lot more. To an extent, I overdid that as well later in my career when Frank was trying to get me back and Billy probably had too much influence.

“Over time I’ve developed a happy medium. I’ve realised I shouldn’t ever let anyone run my whole career. I’m the one in there getting punched. Whatever decisions are made, I’m the one being made accountable. Whether it’s Brian Peters or Billy Graham or [current trainer] Buddy McGirt, I’ll listen to their opinion and take it on board. But it’s ultimately my decision. They can get on with their career, I can’t.”

Last summer’s cruel points-decision defeat against Felix Sturm is as career-defining as Macklin’s other famous loss: Jamie Moore in 2006.

Taking on Moore in a British Light Middleweight title fight was a mistake, he acknowledges now. Going down to 154lbs is an error he won’t make again.

“The writing was on the wall that I was full middleweight. But I dragged myself down. I was weight drained and ran out of steam but it was named domestic fight of the decade.

“The courage I showed that night won so many people over. It was a loss and it was a setback but in another way, my stock rose.”

Almost five years later, he would be forced to draw the same conclusion after he sifted through the ruins of the debacle in Germany.

“The Sturm fight was a similar thing. 99.9% of the people who saw it had me winning clearly. It was on a world stage, televised here in the States. There was outrage here.

“On the back of it, I have this title shot in the Garden on St Patrick’s Day. It’s geared around me. He’s the champion, I’m the challenger but the date and the setting are geared around me. It must be odd for him.”

Martinez, who recently turned 37 and is just over seven years Macklin’s senior, was a late bloomer on the professional scene and is a fast-punching southpaw whose late 2010 left hook knockout of Paul Williams still sends a shiver down the spine.

“Look, everyone would rather fight an orthodox fighter but I don’t struggle with them as many as others do.

“He’s awkward, his hands are low, his movement is sharp. You can’t be heavy set, you have to be ready to move all the time. He’s constantly moving on quick feet. You have to be ready to punch all the time. With some fighters you have time to get set and then punch but with him you have to be lighter on your feet.

“Tactically it’s a difficult fight. I don’t think it’s difficult in terms of attrition. It could end up that way in the later rounds but early on it’s about being smart, plenty of head movement, of feigning.

“This is not a Mayweather-level marquee fight for him but it’s the biggest fight in the division outside of Chávez [Julio César Chávez, Jr, the WBC Middleweight champion].

“Mayweather is talking about going up to 160. He’s fighting Cotto at 154. I think he could be tempted up.

“He’s flirted with the idea of fighting Martinez. I think he’d come up to 160 to fight me or Chávez.”

He stops suddenly, smiling with all the wisdom of fighter who has dragged himself out of manholes before. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves.”


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