GARY ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan is WhatsApping me details of Tuesday’s Altipeak endurance session, as if I don’t believe the Cork man when he says he is going above and beyond human thresholds to land a first world boxing title at the grand young age of 37.
“It’s special high-altitude training, done in the equivalent of 40-degree heat. Today’s session brought my heart rate to 101% of its capacity,” he explains.
When Spike O’Sullivan insists he’s never trained as hard in his life ahead of the WBA world middleweight title fight on Saturday in New York, he is saying it less as a boxing trope and more as a cold matter of fact.
There are somewhat good reasons for pushing the boundaries of what is safe and practical for the bout at the Brooklyn Centre against reigning world champion Erislandy Lara of Cuba. Firstly, O’Sullivan has only had five weeks to prepare for the biggest fight of his career. Second, he is stepping into the ring with a boxer he believes to be one of the trade’s greatest craftsmen, a Cuban-American surgeon with ten-ounce gloves.
And it’s for the WBA middleweight title of the world, the fabled division Spike’s dad would wake him for at 4am to share a sofa and marvel at Hagler, Duran, Monzon and hear of lords of the rings like Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and before them, Alan Minter.
“I met Steve Collins last week in Paschal’s gym in Dublin and he said ‘you beat Lara, you’ve one up on me. I never got that belt’. He fought for it twice but got beat by Mike McCallum and Reggie Johnson.
“This particular WBA belt, it’s the oldest belt in world boxing. I may be biased, but 160lbs (middleweight) is the best weight division in the sport, the sweetest cocktail of brilliant speed and awesome power.
“I was down at ‘Airtastic’ in Little Island, sitting up in the viewing area, at a party with the kids when Paschal rang and said ‘would I fight for the middleweight title of the world?. Yeah. I didn’t even wait for the opponent or the details. But when I heard it was Lara, I was live ‘shit, a leftie and a southpaw, the worst possible combination’. I have always had problems with them, even in my amateur days.
"Then I started studying him properly, we have brought sparring partners in from Manchester to replicate his style but now I know why people who know boxing mention him as one of THE greatest boxers of all time. They called Ali the greatest, but this fella is a great boxer. The ultimate artist. He lost a suspect split decision to Canelo Alvarez.
"He’s had three defeats in his career all of which are widely disputed. He wouldn’t be the most marketable proposition in the world and sometimes that can work against him. He got beaten by a fella called Paul Williams. It might just go down as one of the worst verdicts in the history of boxing. A proper disgrace.
“It’s a tall task. But I have been working my b*llocks off. I am going in to win, but I am not a fool either. It will be very tough.”
O’Sullivan isn’t trying to kill Lara with kindness. He doesn’t do the trash-talking (though his Twitter account is a riot) and he realises that Lara, at 39, is unlikely to be pooping in his silks at Spike’s Cork wit. What the champion doesn’t have, O’Sullivan believes, is the challenger’s hunger. The raw want.
“He couldn’t have. It’s impossible for Lara to be hungrier than me on Saturday. He’s after making a good few million now. He might be a better pure boxer than me, but I doubt he’s physically stronger than me and I have to use my advantages in there too. Take him to places he doesn’t want to go. I’ve been studying him and he is hard to knock out of his comfort zone.
"I’ve never seen him breathing heavy. He’s one cool customer but I can’t remember being in a ring with someone I felt was physically stronger than I am. Some were bigger, but not stronger. It’s a bit like the bull and the matador. It’s not always the matador who survives.”
O’Sullivan admits he’s been cramming this past month to get the ring rustiness out of his hands and feet. His last fight was a year ago this weekend, a facile UD win over Georgian Nodar Robakidze in Liege, and a low wattage affair at best. It got the spectre of the 2020 Jaime Munguia loss out of his eyeline and as his mother tells him, things happen for a reason – without that routine win in Belgium he wouldn’t have been eligible for a title shot.
“I’ve been sparring three days a week to compensate, which is a lot for a guy my age. After the first day’s work, I met an old friend of mine for Cork for dinner and he couldn’t believe the cut of me, marked about both eyes and my nose was all bent up. He thought I was f*cked.
“You are grateful for good sparring partners. Maybe not right there in the moment, but they are all trying to help me be as sharp as I can be. I could do without being smashed up by a hard puncher though or I mightn’t even make the weigh-in. It’s all about balance.”
Not that he ever would, but O’Sullivan can’t use the age or experience card Saturday night. The champion is two years older than the Cork man and hasn’t fought in a year either – though the Cuban claims it’s because no one would climb through the ropes with him.
“I’ve had to train intensely,” O’Sullivan says. “The sharpness wasn’t there. I have that bit of ring craft and sneakiness, if you want to call it that. I’m more 'crabid' and cute these days, like a veteran squash player manoeuvring the other fella around the court.
"Most of the opponents are younger but a lot of this is upstairs. I’m very strong mentally. Things in my past didn’t break me and I’ve dealt with personal stuff that left me devastated. I’d rather train six times a day than go through some of the stuff I have.”
How he maintains his drive is a wonder. Spike O’Sullivan’s 31-4 journey to the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn for the co-main event of the Davis-Romero pay-per-view card has been more red light than green. Long before the pandemic put a halt to his gallop, his progress was frustrated by politics, the right word in the wrong ear, and retarded by ill-timed losses. He’s only had four, all to world champions.
“A lot of my career has been stop-start, a few promoters signed me up early to use me, and I went month after month without a fight. Because of that, I would take a fight at short notice. Once I drove to Dublin on a Sunday to begin training, flew to Boston on Monday and fought Thursday night, dropping 6kgs to make the bell. It was in Boston in June, and I was hallucinating after the runs.
"I fought a Mexican, was paid fuck all, had to dig deep, really deep. In the dressing room after, I got a cramp in my chest and thought I was getting a banger. I said there and then, this is it, I’m done, and I headed back to my family with empty pockets.
“Then I got a call to fight Anthony Fitzgerald in 2014, probably the only fight that could have turned around the idea of retirement. He was talking shit, that I was a coward. Whatever else I am, I am not a coward, I think I’ve proved that. I ended up beating him with the knockout of the year. I still have great punching power.”
Ironic then that a gesture from his longtime promoters, Golden Boy, greased the wheels for this shot, Oscar de la Hoya’s crew releasing him from contract to make the fight via the rival Mayweather Promotions.
“That was mental shit. De La Hoya’s company has been so good to me, and they were lining up a fight with (former light-middleweight world champion Patrick) Teixeira but when this opportunity came about from Mayweather and PBC, Golden Boy let me out of contract. This is a two-fight deal, so if I win Saturday night, I will give Lara a rematch.”
If that doesn’t park retirement talk, O’Sullivan doesn’t delay in nailing it. “If I win Saturday, it sets the family up. But If I get beaten, I would still continue as a light middleweight, and fight for that world title. 154lbs is my true weight. Either way, it’s definitely not my last fight as long as I don’t get too badly injured. I wouldn’t like to go out on a loss.”
During lockdown, he spent many evenings walking with his 10-year-old girl Ashley and thinking of the future. He bought her pads but doesn’t want her to box. He wants his partner and kids to have the start he didn’t. Occasionally he wanders back to Quebec in 2017, and a driver designated to him in the build-up to fighting Antoine Douglas on the Billy Joe Saunders-David Lemieux card.
“He was a former associate of Lemieux’s but they’d fallen out. He warned us that the Canadian punched like a mule, harder than Canelo or Golovkin. Christ, he was right. A year later I was fighting him in Las Vegas and found out to my cost that yer man was right.”
Lemieux took O’Sullivan out in 164 seconds, the dull thud of a blown moment still ringing in his ears five years after.
“I was too relaxed. Forty-five minutes before the fight, I signed a waiver form that gave all the money to my partner if anything happened to me - and it was a decent chunk of money too. We’d been living with my mother-in-law in a box room and with this security for the future, I felt a weight off my shoulders.
"I knew they were guaranteed the money and cash for a house. It was total relief and getting into the ring I was relaxed. Three minutes later I was out of it.”
There is no such fear for the early hours of Sunday in New York. But family will still walk him to the ring. The last thing he will do before the appointed hour is fish out a picture from his gearbag of Ashley and himself. His younger son is five and mightn’t grasp the scale of the news from Stateside, but his older sister will.
“I am going to be thinking how she will wake up in the small hours like I did with my dad. And I want Ashley to hear that her dad is middleweight champion of the world. That’s motivating me more than anything. I know there’ll be a point when I have to dig deep and rely on willpower to get me through. I just want to do it for her. I am nearly there now. It’s taken me 33 years as a boxer, but I’m almost there at the pinnacle. I want it more now than ever for my mam, my dad, brothers and a lot of friends who were there with me.
"Loads of people offer me suits nowadays. I look good in a suit. But Dave O’Connor of Suit Distributors in Cork gave me suits when no-one else did. I always go back to Dave. I think they will all be crying if I win. I love my mother, Jacinta and my two older daughters that I don’t see at all, that has nearly killed me.
“But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”