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.
The wait at the end of the corridor drags. Lee fiddles with Dovovan’s robe while talking quietly. I can hear Lee telling Donovan to soak it all up. An official strolls past and compliments the 35-year-old trainer on his short white jacket and burgundy trousers: “You look like a doctor.”
“I’m a fight doctor,” Lee replies in a flash.
Silence returns. The deadly seriousness of boxing seeps into our heads. This is no game. This is dangerous. This is the very weekend when Patrick Day will be hurt so badly in an American ring that he slips into a coma and then death just four days later.
I have seen too many fighters get maimed or die over all the decades that I’ve loved boxing. It is impossible to forget the extreme risk they face when they walk out under the hot lights. Boxing is like nothing else and its compelling drama is felt all over again – even on a night when a richly promising prospect feels like the world is about to open up to him once he gets through his first fight.
Lee could become one of boxing’s great trainers. It helps that he lived for years with Emanuel Steward, his trainer at the Kronk gym in Detroit, before he sharpened his craft as a fighter under Adam Booth in London. But, with this fight marking his own debut as a trainer, the nerves are surging through Lee. He jumps up and down to release all his nervous energy. After five seconds, and as many jumps, Lee is back on the ground. He looks solid and ready.
Once the bell rings it will be all right. It’s the waiting that wears away at a fighter and his corner. Lee takes a few steps into the arena to survey the scene. He turns back to us with a nod. Not long now.
I remember the walk Lee, Donovan, his dad and I had taken through Belfast eight hours earlier. As a way of passing time, and avoiding any chance Donovan might get sluggish while hanging around the hotel, we had gone for a stroll through the watery Belfast sunshine. We had ducked into the Ulster Hall to watch them building the ring and then, as we headed deeper into the city on an otherwise ordinary Friday morning, I suggested to Lee that it must be hard for him as a former fighter. Before, when stepping into the ring, he felt in control.
Tonight, after he slips the gumshield into Donovan’s mouth and offers his last instructions, he has to watch and hope his fighter does well. Between rounds, in the minute he has to help Donovan, his work will be of great significance. But, during the fighting, he is just an observer.
After our walk we had spoken properly. Lee said: “You’re the first person to point it out because I couldn’t really identify the feeling. But I now know there’s a little apprehension because it’s out of my control. As a fighter you feel you in control. But now I have to trust in him, trust in the training, and in my ability to coach him. It’ll be nice to be back in the ring. But in some ways it’s a completely new experience so I don’t know what to expect. I’ve praised Paddy a lot in the build-up, because I believe it him. Hopefully that gets validated.”
Now, just before eight pm on a fevered night in Belfast, with Donovan’s debut being televised live on ESPN in America, the call finally comes. The door swings open. Music and cheering echo around the venerable Ulster Hall.
Andy Lee looks at Paddy Donovan and, with an encouraging nod, says, “Let’s go….”
As an amateur boxer, based in Limerick but fighting all across Ireland and Europe, Paddy Donovan’s record stood at an imposing 161-5. He won 13 junior national titles and silver in the world junior championships. Yet he lost one of the fights that mattered most to him when, last February, the decision went in favour of Kieran Molloy in the welterweight final at Ireland’s national championships. “I thought I won it,” Donovan says in his hotel room on the morning of his pro debut. “A lot of people thought I won. That’s amateur boxing. It happens all the time. But in the end the promoters were calling me. So I turned pro and Molloy, who is very good, is still with the amateurs.”
Martin Donovan turned to Andy Lee, another Limerick man, for advice. Lee, until then, had no interest in becoming a trainer or a manager. But the more he and Donovan Snr spoke, the more compelled he felt. Paddy was the best prospect he had seen in years. With power in his fists, slick technique and an engaging personality, the kid looked a near certain bet for stardom. It also helped that they had known each since Paddy was 11. Lee agreed to become his trainer and manager.
“The first professional fight I saw live was when Andy came back to Limerick [in November 2009],” Donovan remembers. “I was 10 and even got on TV for a few seconds because the camera stopped on me. I was buzzing because Andy’s our idol. He’s a star and we all looked up to him. His brother Roger was my coach for a couple of years, and helped me and my brother Edward win a couple of Irish titles.
“When I heard about Andy being interested in training me I thought how great it would be. Andy’s a legend in Ireland. Everything was falling into place and Andy told a lot of people that fighters like me don’t come around often. We have a lot in common because he was also a southpaw, tall, awkward. We both come from Limerick. He’s a gypsy, I’m a gypsy.”
With Lee’s guidance and Top Rank’s backing, momentum has been building ever since Arum started hyping him as the best-looking fighter since Muhammad Ali. “Well, my grandad don’t think so,” Donovan says. “He’s about to turn 70 and he still thinks he’s better-looking than Ali. Muhammad is an idol in our family because we’re big into boxing. My granddad even has the Mike Tyson tattoo on his face. I thought it was crazy. But when Tyson came to Limerick he spotted my grandad Paddy in the crowd. He called him ‘White Mike’.”
Donovan is very young but he is already married and a father. What did his wife, Ellie, think of Arum’s comparison with Ali? “She was a bit jealous,” he says with a grin. “But, really, she was grand. I always get a crack out of her about it – telling how lucky she is to be married to someone like me.”
How old is Ellie? “She’s 17. She’ll be 18 soon. She’s from Galway City and I knew her dad. He’s a boxing coach. We’re both from boxing families. I texted her on Facebook but she never replied. A few months later I went over there and her dad and the family were watching my fight on a big screen in their living room. She was just sitting there. Things only really happened when I boxed a Russian who I beat hands down. But they gave the decision to him and everyone was devastated. She just texted me to say hard luck. It went from there. We now we have a baby, Una, who is nearly six months. Ellie is nervous but excited about tonight.”
How does Donovan feel with his pro debut just hours away? “I’m very excited because I always wanted to fight without vests and small gloves. Hearing the pros talking about how small and good the gloves are got me really interested as a kid. The cuts and the blood make it so much more real.”
Kevin Sheehy, one of Donovan’s closest friends in boxing and another prospect on his way to becoming a pro, was murdered in July. Shortly before his death he gave Donovan his fight nickname. “When I turned pro,” Donovan remembers, “Kevin sent me three messages telling me that I must call myself The Real Deal. He said: ‘Paddy, you have to pick this name.’ A couple of days later he was murdered. This guy got into an argument with Kevin and he used his car to knock him down and run over him three times. I was devastated because we were very close. We travelled a lot with the national team. It was absolutely tragic. There was a big dark cloud over the city when this happened. So I had to use the Real Deal and of course tonight’s fight is dedicated to him.”
The sadness lifts as Donovan’s anticipation of his big night intensifies. He talks about the best welterweights in the world – Terence Crawford and Errol Spence – and praises his favourite fighter. “[Vasiliy] Lomachenko is the man. He’s the best. I like to imitate the things that he does in the ring. He’s unbelievable. But I’m going to try and do some of it tonight.”
Andy Lee sits in his hotel room later that day and nods when I say that nothing in ordinary life carries the intensity of boxing. “Or the glory,” Lee says quietly. “But I wasn’t thinking about coming back to boxing until I saw Paddy’s fight [against Molloy]. I thought he won but they gave it to Molloy. I saw straightway that Paddy has something – that X-factor for want of a better word – you can’t teach. He’s quick, he’s got great instincts. He can punch. There were moments where he would throw a punch at the last split-second, and that would turn the exchange in his favour. Those small things were really impressive. I could see he was a special talent.”
Having forged his career in America, Lee also turned to the US when finding Donovan his promoter. “I approached Top Rank and they did their research and said, ‘Yeah, we really like the look of him.’ I think some of it was me vouching for him because they trusted my opinion. Paddy can box and he can fight. He’s an aggressive counterpuncher and he’s very tricky. I’ve seen him put people in their box without throwing a punch. The way he can feint means he can impose himself and be threatening without having to punch. That’s a big skill. He can box on the back foot and he can walk you down too. And of course he’s a big puncher. He’s hurt many of his sparring partners.”
Has working with Donovan made him remember all his years in Detroit living with Steward? “It really has. A few weeks back [Lee’s wife] Maud was in France with Julia, our daughter. Paddy and me were living in my family house in Dublin. I said to Paddy: ‘As a kid you would never have imagined living with me and I’d be cooking a meal.’ It’s similar to me and Emanuel. Since I started training Paddy I’ve been watching old videos of me and Emanuel together. Trying to recall things he said to me, and how he would do things.
“I was very fortunate to be trained for so long at the Kronk by Emmanuel and then to work with Adam Booth. The biggest difference was that Emanuel taught you to stay tall. Don’t get low. Adam was the complete opposite. He would say sit low into your legs and, after you’ve punched, always roll low. I’ve worked both ways with Paddy but his technique is more along the lines of Adam. But in terms of attitude it’s definitely more like Emanuel. Be aggressive, beat the kid straightaway and get a knockout if you can. That will be Paddy’s attitude tonight.”
Lee had been hoping to match Donovan against a decent first opponent in Eduardo Valverde who has a 2-2 record. When Valverde pulled out of the fight another opponent was found but he also withdrew. “We had to find another replacement. Arturo Lopez is a Mexican based in Spain. His record is not the best. Five wins, 13 losses and three draws. But he’s fought good prospects. His last opponent was five and 0. Before that 11 and 0. Before that 12 and 0. Before that 20 and 2. He doesn’t get stopped a lot. So it would be good to start with a stoppage tonight because Top Rank have been messaging me to say they’re all watching Paddy tonight – live on ESPN. I’m sure we’ll get some kind of grading from them.”
Does Lee have any concerns about Donovan? “The biggest challenge for him is that he never had to work hard to be successful as an amateur. It’s come so naturally to him. Now he has to be dedicated. He has to live the life. But so far he’s been great. He’s made the weight fine. He never misses a day’s training. He’s always punctual, which is a big thing for me. I was like that and Manny appreciated it. Manny was never late. Well…except for flights.”
Lee laughs as he remembers his mentor. “I have my own challenges. Paddy’s young, immensely talented and guiding his career in the right way is so important. And then as coach, because he is so talented, I have to keep challenging and stimulating him. Do the same things over and over but do them in a different way so that he can perfect the art. He listens and, when I tell him to do something and then he sees it work, he has those lightbulb moments.
“He’s obviously still the unfinished article but when he’s switched on in sparring – when he’s focussed and present in the moment – nobody can touch him. I know he’ll have lapses in concentration when it goes past three rounds and he’ll get tagged. So we have to work on that.”
The real potential of a fighter is established once his chin has been tested. Did Donovan get hit much in the amateurs? “I don’t think so. But he has a big neck, a strong neck. That’s a good sign but with these smaller gloves he’ll probably want to feel somebody punch him. Just to feel what it’s like. But I don’t want him to get hit too often tonight.”
Lee becomes even more thoughtful when I ask him about Donovan’s 17-year-old wife. “The first time we met her she came to my daughter’s birthday party in June. There was a mix of people – actors, musicians, artists, corporate people – and she talked and held her own with all of them. That would be very unusual for any young girl, but a young travelling girl would normally be intimidated. So that was impressive. My wife really thinks a lot of her.
“Paddy has the potential to be a huge star – more so than I would’ve been – because of his personality, the way he fights and how he looks. He’d only be human if it went to his head so having a child and a wife could be a very good thing. It’s an anchor to keep him grounded. We have a long journey ahead and there’re so many pitfalls. He could get fed up with me. I could get fed up with him. I’ve seen it a million times so it’s hard to see the finish line. We just have to take one fight at a time – starting tonight.”
We all meet at five in the afternoon and make the short walk to the Ulster Hall. The next three hours pass in a slow blur of boxing ritual. I love watching Lee wrap Donovan’s hands, while the Notorious B.I.G. raps softly in the background, using the exact technique Steward chose to protect his fighter’s fists. The soundtrack switches and there are some surreal moments when Donovan, wearing his white gloves, plays air drums to Rod Stewart. There is also a poignant reminder of the damage boxing can do when one of the night’s officials, a former fighter who suffers from dementia, keeps wandering in and out of the dressing room to ask the same question and tell us the same stories over and over again.
When Lee rubs cocoa butter over Donovan’s face and back, the singular smell makes him smile. “What a trigger,” he says. “All the dressing-room memories come rushing back.”
Steward believed that cocoa butter helped protect his fighter’s skin and so Lee follows the same ritual. He is even happier when the door opens and Adam Booth walks in. They remain close and Booth shares a few encouraging words with Lee and Donovan. On his way out Booth stops to say hello and, quietly, he tells me that Donovan is a serious prospect – after the 20-year-old held his own in a sparring session with Josh Kelly, Booth’s far more experienced fighter.
Magee shows Donovan a few moves before Lee takes over. Holding the pads he moves and feints and encourages Donovan to smack his fists into the echoing leather. The punches fly harder and faster as the minutes crawl past.
Then, at last, we get the knock on the door summoning Donovan to the ring.
We head down the corridor towards the door which separates the fighters and their trainers and cutmen from the increasingly loud fight crowd. There is more waiting, and just a little dread, and then we’re on our way. We’re though the doorway and into the arena, the music blaring and Lee, the former world champion, leading a novice to the ring.
I peel away to find my seat just below Donovan’s corner. Magee has a bucket of ice at his feet while Lee ducks into the ring with Donovan for the final instructions.
Lopez, in the opposite corner, has the look of tired journeyman in hostile territory. But, for Donovan, it’s also not easy.
When the bell rings he looks nervous. Donovan rushes and misses a few times. But, after that frantic start, he settles and it does not take him long. After just a minute he begins to move with fluidity and menace. From his southpaw stance he measures his combinations and then sinks a shot to the body which makes Lopez step back. Donovan moves in and, after a few more jabs with the right, he pauses and then, suddenly, throws a fast left which Lopez doesn’t even see. The Mexican falls to the floor heavily, banging his head against the blue canvas. His arms are stretched out in surrender. It’s a brutal knock out.
The referee stops counting and waves the fight over. Donovan is restrained in his celebrations because Lopez has been hurt. Lee climbs through the ropes and says a few quiet words as they absorb the worrying sight of the stricken opponent. A doctor joins them in the ring and there is a long wait while Lopez is examined.
Eventually, a stretcher arrives and the poor Mexican is lifted onto it. An oxygen mask is strapped to his face. His eyes are open as he is carried past my seat. Lopez is on his way to hospital and it’s noticeable how, as we return to the dressing room, Lee seeks out the Mexican’s trainer. Lopez will spend the night in hospital but he will be all right in the morning – and probably able to earn another payday in a different ring in a few months.
Now that serious damage has been averted it’s time to watch the fight on Lee’s phone in the dressing room. The trainer expresses quiet satisfaction as he watches the 80 seconds of action. “You were nervous at the start,” he reminds Donovan, “but you did well.”
We know that Top Rank and ESPN will be happy with the knockout. Donovan is polite and full of apologies that I won’t get to meet his grandad, the white Mike Tyson, as he is back in Limerick. He is also keen to get changed – so much so that he doesn’t even take a shower as he’s hardly broken sweat in the ring. His wife and family, friends and new fans are all clamouring for him outside.
“Enjoy it,” Lee says with a little smile which also works as a reminder to his fighter that this is just the start. There is no need to get too excited.
We watch Donovan slip out of the dressing room. Lee and I look at each other and agree. It’s been a good start. But we know there will be many more nights, and many hard fights, in the years to come. At least the first one is over and, with Andy Lee in his corner, Paddy Donovan is on his way.