AFTER it had all gone wrong, Nathan Farrell spent the best part of 18 months asking his brother if he was all right. Twenty times a day, by his reckoning, and if the answer was yes, he would ask again because he suspected his brother was fibbing or playing down the concern. He would ask if he was sure.
Given their closeness, asking his brother if he was all right was as good as asking himself the same question. “We are identical in how we think and feel,” Nathan told Boxing News. “We didn’t grow up as two people, we grew up as one person. We were inseparable. We lived the same life.”
The first time Nathan asked Kieran if he was all right and really meant it was on the night of December 7, 2012. They were at Bowlers Exhibition Centre, both inside a boxing ring, and Nathan’s hands were on the shoulders of Kieran, who had just completed a 10-round fight against Anthony Crolla.
Before three scorecards confirmed his brother’s defeat, Nathan asked the question. He asked it not because he feared Kieran would be despondent about losing the first fight of his professional career but because he knew his brother’s mannerisms better than most and that night correlated them with those of boxers in trouble.
His instinct was correct. Far from all right, Kieran, when asked how he was doing, told Nathan he felt dizzy, which was as close as he would ever come to conceding he wasn’t all right, and then collapsed, falling into the arms of his brother but feeling no heavier than he did when they used to wrestle and playfight in the living room of their Bury home as children.
“That’s the picture I saw for basically 18 months every time I went to bed at night,” Nathan recalled, not so much fighting back tears as powering through them. “That’s all I saw, a picture of my brother clinging on to me in the boxing ring.
“Living with all this, I don’t think it will ever go away but I just needed a chance to put things right, not only for me but my family.”
There are three years separating Kieran and Nathan Farrell and three distinct ways of telling them apart. The first: Kieran, the older of the two, was an aggressive orthodox lightweight known as ‘Vicious’ who felt no way about receiving a punch to give one, whereas Nathan, a southpaw welterweight, is more inclined to hit and not get hit. The second: Kieran has loved boxing since the age of seven, whereas Nathan’s relationship with the sport started later and is one of the love-hate-love variety. The third: Nathan is 26 and about to embark on his professional career, whereas Kieran, 29, was forced to retire from his seven years ago following a bleed on the brain.
“It’s been a long journey,” Kieran told BN. “I’ve stayed in the boxing game, but it has always felt like there has been something missing all this time. Now my brother is in the gym and he’s about to make his pro debut, I feel complete. His journey started when mine ended. Now we’re here.”
For Kieran, it feels like the end, the closing of a chapter, yet for Nathan it’s the beginning. The beginning of his pro career, certainly, but the beginning of a new chapter in life, too. And forget belts, it’s life that matters.
Kieran, a case in point, realised there was more to life than boxing when bedbound and unable to walk for eight weeks following his career-ending injury. He realised this when told his mother had been informed by doctors that she needed to sign a consent form to allow them to drill into his brain if necessary (thankfully, it wasn’t). He realised this when a 10-round fight for an English title changed both his and his brother’s life irrevocably.
It changed Nathan’s life in small ways at first. The daily inquisition, fuelled by a fear Kieran might again fall into his arms, and that his eyes might again roll back in his head, and that he might again be unable to answer him, was a tell-tale sign. Then there were the pillows he positioned around the radiator, placed there in case Kieran tumbled out of his bed and cracked a head now as fragile as sugar glass, thus sending him back to square one – or worse. Then there were the regular breathing checks he made during the 20 hours a day Kieran spent sleeping, as well as all the times he helped him put his socks on.
It all combined to convince Nathan, now cognisant of boxing’s dangers, he would never fight again. Worse, he grew to hate it.
“Nathan couldn’t watch boxing for a couple of years. He didn’t like it,” Kieran said. “I’d be on the bed with my iPad watching fights, not able to walk because of boxing, and he wouldn’t have any of it. I’d watch people get knocked out and say, ‘Look at this, Nay. It’s a proper good knockout.’ But he wouldn’t want to look at it.”
Nathan couldn’t understand how his brother still befriended something that had caused them both so much agony. To Nathan’s dismay, Kieran was making masterpieces of his own nightmares, able to do so because boxing was still something he associated with happier times. Though unable to walk, he was blissfully ignorant, aware his pain would soften and subside in a way the images left on the minds of loved ones never would.
“With boxing, I’ve got no resentment or anything. I love it,” said Kieran, whose pro record was curtailed at 14-1 (3). “I loved it even more when that injury happened to me. That sounds stupid but it’s true.
“I’ve learnt so much about the business side of the sport since then and have become more involved as a manager, promoter and trainer. I see more now. I know so much about it. I’m so experienced even though I’m still only 29 years old. I don’t know anything else to do and I love what I do.”
“I looked after Kieran in his bed when he was recovering and ended up depressed and had bouts of anxiety,” said Nathan. “I used to have nightmares for about a year after his injury. It affected me badly.
“Growing up my idol was no famous person. My idol was my brother. To see firsthand that happen to him knocked me. It knocked me quite bad.
“Once he got out of hospital, he wanted to open a gym, but I said I’d never fight again. I was pretty stern on that. I fell out with boxing for a while.”
As kids, Kieran and Nathan, along with Brian, their older brother, mostly concentrated on becoming footballers, a far safer game, before boxing seduced Kieran at the age of seven. He went to the gym and it was both fun and benign at first. He enjoyed punching things and getting fit and not once did he consider what could go wrong or the possibility that his love for boxing might one day be questioned.
If anything, back then football provided the damage and heartache. A knee injury, for example, suffered by Nathan at nine years of age left him with torn ligaments – a “total write-off,” said Kieran – and in a wheelchair for six months, leading to weight gain and a loss of confidence.
There was, in the end, only one remedy for it: the boxing gym. So, at 13, following a period playing darts to county level, Nathan also enrolled.
“He actually got really good,” said Kieran. “I used to do pad-work for him at home and we would go running together. I said, ‘If you’re going to box, Nay, this is what you’ve got to do.’ I learnt that at 15 and started being successful. I was beating people I shouldn’t have been beating, like Michael Conlan and Tommy Stubbs, who was a three-time ABA champion.
“When Nathan started boxing, he had 10 fights in the space of a couple of years and won them all. He beat Darren Tetley and some other good lads.”
Though he boxed for England at 18, Kieran decided he would focus more on training like a professional with a view to becoming one. This plan took him to Bobby Rimmer’s gym where he trained with his own coach, Pat Ward, and also Nathan, who tagged along and showed no aversion to sparring grown men. He was 15 years old.
“He knocked out an unbeaten guy and sent his legs bandy, all over the place,” remembered Kieran. “That was when he was 16 or 17. I thought, ‘Wow, give it another year and he’ll be turning pro.’
“Anyway, I ended up training in Belfast and set off on my own journey. Nathan didn’t come with me. He was still ticking over at home doing his training.
“Then I had the injury.”
Rather than turn pro at 18, Nathan instead found himself holding on to his brother in the middle of a boxing ring and praying they would again have the chance to talk. With no forewarning, he transitioned from future pro boxer to his sibling’s carer, an about-turn he describes as his “world tipping upside down” but one spared a sulk. Conversely, he was happy to be close to Kieran during his time of need. He felt obligated to ask him the same question 20 times a day and to protect his head from the sharp edges of his bedroom. Just like on the streets growing up, there was danger at every turn, and they were brothers.
“On Christmas Eve one side of my face dropped and went limp,” said Kieran. “They took me to hospital and explained that was part of what I had just been through. It was a symptom of it. I thought, ‘F**king hell, is this what my life is going to be like now?’ I thought I was having a stroke.”
Key to the dual Farrell rehabilitation was the opening of the People’s Gym in Heywood in June 2013. This was a project with which both brothers were involved and Nathan, dedicated to the cause if still unsure about the virtues of boxing, would spend his days working on the gym and his nights sleeping inside the premises. The labour often stretched from five o’clock in the morning until midnight but did him good. It first gave him a purpose, then it set him on his way to finding himself.
Alas, what he found in July 2014, some 18 months after his brother’s brain injury, was an injury of his own: a grade three ACL ligament tear in his problematic right knee. It wasn’t exactly what Nathan was looking for.
“The hospital strung me along for four years,” he said. “They did a keyhole operation but the result of that was I wasn’t in great shape. I was told to go and live my life and do what I could, but I couldn’t really do anything. I couldn’t walk upstairs or to the corner shop without my knee seizing up. I also ballooned to fourteen and a half stone. That’s when my depression kicked in.”
“I’ve tried to be supportive as a brother but also hard with him,” said Kieran. “I think everybody needs that person who can tell them things straight and I’ve always been that person. We’ve had our little fallouts, as brothers do, but I feel like I’ve always been the one who has told him straight.
“I don’t really want to mollycoddle him. My mum does that for him. My mum’s like his best mate and sticks up for him no matter what. If he killed someone, she would still say it weren’t his fault. That’s just their relationship.
“My relationship with him is different. My dad wasn’t hard on me, but he was tough, and that’s probably where I get it from. If I wasn’t like this with Nathan, we’d all be walking on eggshells and get nowhere.”
After his injury, Nathan was back at the People’s Gym, this time to help train some of the amateur boxers and guide them to titles. He then got his professional trainer’s licence, long before applying for one to box himself, and returned to tarmacking work.
It was during this increased period of activity parts of his body – the knee, the mind – he assumed were wrecked for good started to strengthen and then 12 months ago, buoyed by this breakthrough, he told Kieran he was thinking about boxing again.
‘I’ll finally be walking out into that great arena and I couldn’t think of anyone else better to do it with than my brother’Kieran Farrell
“To be honest,” Nathan said, “nobody took me seriously. Kieran was very doubtful because of what we had gone through and because of what I’d seen and my knee problems. I wouldn’t say I got laughed at, but it was only me who thought it was possible.
“Being a competitive person, once everybody said I couldn’t do it, that’s when I knew I was going to do it. So off I went, training on my own.”
First came a trip to a gym in Bolton, the Premier Boxing Club, which was where Nathan lost weight, sparred some rounds, and discovered he had lost none of what had helped him win 10 amateur fights in a row. Next, he returned to the People’s Gym with the sole intention of telling his brother he was serious and that he wanted to show him he still had what it takes. Kieran agreed to give him a chance.
“I had to convince myself I could do it. I had my doubts and demons to take care of,” Nathan said. “But I just decided I had nothing else to lose. Nobody expected me to come back from where I’d been, so if I just came back and made it into a boxing ring it would be a success. Week by week, I kept getting better and better.”
All the while Nathan has been preparing for both a new beginning and a comeback, his brother, Kieran, has been going about his business as a trainer, manager, matchmaker and promoter. He has a British Empire Medal (BEM) now, received for all his fine work in the community, and his younger brother is no longer the only person who uses him as a source of inspiration.
“God must have a bigger plan for me, I reckon. Being a boxer wasn’t it,” Kieran said. “I now get my satisfaction from seeing people I met at 14, who were going down a bad road and came to the gym to sort their lives out, working jobs and doing good in life. That’s a better feeling than I had from any fight I ever won.
“Boxing is a very selfish sport and I’m not really a selfish person. If I’ve got six packets of crisps, I’ll share them out and won’t keep one for myself.
“I can’t say I enjoy getting up at five in the morning and coming home at 11 at night. It does take its toll on me. But there will come a time when it’s all worth it.”
Despite a career cut short, Kieran Farrell is a survivor, a title far worthier than that of champion. He is also one of the lucky few.
“Seven years later I do slur words from time to time and forget things, but nothing too serious,” he said. “I can’t do too much because it will burn me out and I still get bad headaches, which feel like I’ve been kicked in the head. I just have to be prepared and always carry paracetamol. I’m all right in general. People have had it worse.”
In a mark of his selflessness, Kieran says he was affected more by what his injury did to his brother than what it did to his own brain, physical capabilities and career. He was, after all, in some ways oblivious to his own plight, at least in the beginning, and says the trauma he suffered wasn’t a patch on what his family had to go through. “They watched it and lived it,” is how he explains the difference, stressing that he was able to maintain the kind of positive outlook they had yet to find. At 22, for instance, he figured early retirement was sad but ultimately liberating. He told himself he could win an Olympic gold medal as a swimmer if he put his mind to it. He didn’t, of course, but that’s not the point.
As for Nathan, his recovery was aided both by his brother’s zest for life and, curiously, by his own decision to return to the sport that has brought so much joy, hope and then misery to the Farrell family.
“The last four years were a huge struggle for me,” he said. “When you’re going through a struggle it feels like everyone has disappeared and left you alone. It might not be the truth but that’s how it feels. You don’t have anyone to talk to because they are all getting on with their own lives. You’re just on the couch watching Sky Sports News every day. You think, ‘Is this it for me?’
“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t party. I have never done any of that, even during my struggles. Alcohol has never touched my lips.
“Sport is my life. That’s all I have in my life apart from family and friends. Without sport, I don’t believe my life has much meaning to it. So, for me to get it all taken away from me turned my world upside down.
“When I look back now, I don’t know how I got through it. I had some really dark moments.”
Today, Nathan has absolved himself of all the ill will he once had for boxing. He responded emotionally at first, lashing out, before finding much-needed solace in understanding. He understood the nature of the injury and saw that Kieran, the recipient, placed no blame at boxing’s door. He then came to believe total forgiveness would lie not only in his ability to make peace with boxing but to somehow turn its negative, damaging energies into positive, healing ones.
“I’ve rehabbed myself physically and mentally and wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I never came back,” he said. “My friends are buzzing that I’m fighting but, for me, there’s a bigger and much deeper reason why I’m doing it. I need to do it for a bit of self-peace.
“With time I understood it wasn’t boxing’s fault, it was just life. It happens. Boxing is actually more of a savior than anything. I feel like boxing saved my own life with what’s happening now.”
Here’s what happens on July 6 at the Manchester Arena: Nathan Farrell finds peace and proves a point when making his professional boxing debut seven years after vowing to never again set foot inside a ring. Alongside him, meanwhile, will be Kieran, his brother, someone cruelly robbed of the chance to fulfill his own dream of boxing at the Manchester Arena and someone for whom any potential envy or bitterness is soothed by the long-held belief that he and his brother have always come as one. Because of this, nothing ever stopped, let alone ended. Things were merely put on hold. Fights. Dreams.
And now both are all right, they resume.
“I’ll finally be walking out into that great arena,” said Kieran, “and I couldn’t think of anyone else better to do it with than my brother.”