WE walk down the narrow corridor in a hushed line, the silence broken only by the squeaking of our shoes on the blue vinyl floor and the low hum of the fight crowd inside the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Andy Lee, the former world champion middleweight turned boxing trainer, leads the way. Paddy Donovan, his 20-year-old welterweight who is only minutes away from stepping into the ring for his professional debut, is next in line. Wearing a dazzling white robe and a serious expression, Donovan was recently called “the best-looking fighter since Muhammad Ali” by his American promoter Bob Arum. It’s a snappy quote but Donovan knows these words won’t matter if he is exposed during his first encounter in the paid ranks.
Eamonn Magee, another former world champion who has battled brutal demons for so long, is just behind Donovan. Magee looks better than I’ve seen him for years. He’s calm and sober, his hands steady and his eyes clear. Lee has brought him in as Donovan’s cut man because he offers vast experience and a gentle wit now that he is off the drink. Ten minutes earlier, when Lee complimented Magee on his sparkling white trousers, the Belfast hardman made a dry little quip. “I’ll be okay as long as we have no blood flying around.”
Martin Donovan, Paddy’s father and the third man in the corner, is ahead of me. His face is taut with tension as we approach the heavy wooden door which separates us from the moment when Donovan will make his walk to the ring. I bring up the rear, feeling fortunate again to be have been invited into a fighter’s inner circle.