There is no dread like it. The feeling in your stomach when a close friend steps into the ring to put it all on the line.
George Plimpton, the boxing writer, said the most difficult thing about his work was the terrible sadness he always felt for the vanquished fighter.
They come into the ring like a colossus, rippling with muscle and energy. When they are beaten, especially badly, they depart anonymously. As George put it, they “shrink to the size of a pea.”
Paul McCloskey’s first defence of his British title against Dean Harrison was a good example. ‘Deano’ bounced into the ring as chiselled as Bruce Lee. His supporters, mostly squaddies, outnumbered the Dungiven contingent by at least 10 to 1.
When the champion was called into the ring by the announcer, the English chanted in unison “You murdering Irish b..........s!” A lone tricolour in our group quickly disappeared inside a coat.
Within 90 seconds of the opening bell, ‘Deano’ was prostrate on the canvas, after shipping a left to the chin thrown from one of those unique angles favoured by Paul. The referee quickly called a halt as punches swooped in on the young Englishman from all angles. ‘Deano’ must have felt like Gadaffi’s tank crews as the U.S. jets blitz them.
As I embraced the beaming champ, I noticed out of the corner of my eye Dean walking groggily towards the dressing room, his trainer guiding him by the arm. He might have been one of the doormen, for all anyone cared.
His massive support had already disappeared. It is this gladiatorial essence that makes boxing so frightening and compelling. Life or death without a safety net. When Floyd Patterson was the heavyweight champion, he travelled to his fights with a wig, false moustache and dark glasses in his suitcase. He always arranged for a fire door at the venue to be left open. If he lost, he could disappear quickly, lessening the terrible shame.
The bookies may have Amir Khan at 6/1 on for this one, but Paul McCloskey won’t be bringing a disguise to Manchester. When he was 19, he played corner-back on the Dungiven team that won the county title. He cruised through games with the minimum of fuss.
After that county final, we lost him forever when the Irish Boxing team came calling. Shortly afterwards, he won his first (of many) Ulster light welterweight belts. Jim Neilly interviewed him at ringside for the BBC and asked him to compare his victory to winning his county title with Dungiven.
“The football was great sir,” he replied, “but this is all my own work. Nobody helps me out there.”
As Pete Sampras famously remarked when he was the game’s pre-eminent tennis player, “I don’t have anybody to pass the ball to.”
Paul is happiest when he travels on his own steam. A friendly and charismatic loner, since turning pro, he is unbeaten. The longer the fights, the better his stoppage ratio. He is a slow starter, driving us mad during his amateur days. He is not a heavy hitter, but as the great amateur boxer, Paddy Barnes said to me last week, he punches with pinpoint accuracy.
In his last six fights, he has finished his opponent with deft punches thrown short distances, usually coming out of a crouched position. Against Barry Morrison in his last European defence in Letterkenny, the hapless Scott didn’t realise he had been hit until his legs suddenly left him and he slumped like a cow stunned in the abattoir.
Guiseppe Lauri was knocked out so spectacularly by Paul that it made it onto number three in SKY’s top ten knockouts of the year.
I spent a bit of time with him this week and his confidence is absolute. It is a lonely, lonely existence. For almost three months, he has lived on his own in Belfast, away from his family. Training takes around four hours a day. His knuckles are sore and reddened from the relentless sparring, a bucket of ice sitting beside his sofa in the apartment.
After nine weeks in Jordanstown university’s high performance conditioning unit, he has the look of a panther, skin and muscle stretched tightly over bone. But as he said himself, referring to Khan’s magnificent first round body punch that almost stopped Maidana, “A thousand sit ups a day won’t protect you from that, Brolly.”
Always, he moves as he talks, weaving left and right, throwing jabs and uppercuts at an imaginary opponent.
“I’ve been watching Amir and he makes mistakes because he gets excited. He walks forward as he throws the right hand, squaring himself up.”
“Explain it to me,” I say, at which point he stands me up and demonstrates. When he shows me, the penny drops and I see exactly what he means.
“I’ll wear him down Joe. He likes throwing volleys of punches and wants an early knock-out. What will he do when he keeps missing?”
Potentially, the fight could be a classic. Paul is a thinker, a counter-puncher, and a southpaw switch-hitter, notoriously hard to hit. So far, that is.
Amir, meanwhile, is a natural attacker with superb fast hands, who is uncomfortable on the retreat and loses his zip as the fight continues. Yet while Paul has been fighting in Letterkenny’s Aura Leisure Centre, Amir has been strutting his stuff in Vegas.
While Paul beats up good, local sparring partners in Breen’s gym, Amir hones his trade against the pick of the Roach crop, including the greatest of them all, Mr Pacquaio, who just happens to be a southpaw.
The first round on Saturday night will tell us all we need to know, since it is immediately apparent when a boxer is out of his depth. If Paul can cope with the early shellaking, it will become an absorbing war.
Me? I will sit there, hands over my eyes, feeling sick. Praying it isn’t Paul who shrinks to the size of a pea . . . .