'An inch-and-a half lower and it wouldn't have been a hospital where people were coming to see me, it would've been a wake': Caoimhin Hynes on the long road back to the ring
From lying on a blood-stained hospital bed after being stabbed on a night out to preparing for his return to the ring, the road to recovery - physically and mentally - has been a long one for Caoimhin Hynes, as he tells Neil Loughran...
ALMOST five months on from the city centre stabbing that could have ended his life, never mind a promising boxing career just starting to gather pace, Caoimhin Hynes will make his return to the ring next week.
The last time he stepped between the ropes, Hynes was nine minutes away from the biggest win of his senior career to date.
Victory at the prestigious Montana Belts competition in Paris came on the back of two eye-catching knock-outs within a matter of months. Like his opponents’ chins, Hynes’s power was catching the attention.
Social media took note of the 20-year-old too as the views poured in. He happily conducted media interviews and featured on TV news bulletins celebrating his success. A small reception was held at his club, Holy Trinity.
Returning from the French capital, everything was taking shape. This was supposed to be the beginning of the journey.
That was on April 23.
Eight days later he was lying unconscious on a blood-splattered hospital bed, tubes coming out of each nostril and stuck into his arm, gauze wrapped around his neck with a pressure pad holding tight to the left hand side of his face.
Concealed underneath is a five-inch long wound running from ear to neck, the 14 stitches sown upon arrival to stem the flow threatening to open as the swelling grows.
Getting back in the ring was always going to be the last stop somewhere in the distance but finally reaching this point, overcoming the physical and mental scars incurred along the way, marks the end of a long, hard road.
‘Just to let everyone know... bro got knifed/sliced, he’s sleeping now and will have surgery this morning. All I know is a group in tracksuits started on him and his girlfriend at McDonald's. His phone and wallet are missing so if anyone who was with him knows anything please get in contact. God is great. Love you bro, warrior’
Facebook post from Eoghan Junior
May 1, 7.48am
FAMILY members hold a bedside vigil as night turns to day, still struggling to comprehend what has happened. Just hours earlier, Caoimhin Hynes had been on a night out with girlfriend Caoife, attending a charity boxing event at the Devenish before heading to Thompson’s nightclub at the side of City Hall.
Early morning munchies led them to a typically lengthy queue outside McDonald’s on Royal Avenue, and it’s from here that things start to go wrong.
First a stray cup thrown from behind splashed the pair.
“Who threw that? WHO THREW THAT?”
Hynes shakes his head when he thinks back now, wishing – in hindsight - that he had just said nothing.
But a bit of macho pride kicked in and, all of a sudden, he was being pushed and shoved by a gathering crowd as verbal exchanges increased in volume.
A punch was thrown in his direction, one came back, and then the thud of a glass bottle to the temple achieved what no foe has managed thus far, sending him to the floor, his head bouncing off the concrete.
After gathering his senses, back he went, against his own better judgement.
From that point on though, any memories he has are a loosely pieced together amalgam of hazy real life recollections and grainy mobile phone footage.
The images appear to show the green t-shirted Hynes being spun around by the shoulder before a single slash with a knife is coldly administered, the hooded assailant slipping straight back off into the crowd.
“After I got hit with the bottle I can’t remember much.
“My girlfriend grabbed me and led me away. She obviously saw my face when I turned around and straightaway pulled me in and gave me a hug so I wouldn’t see the blood.”
“Your face is in a bad way...”
Caoife’s words, whispered into his ear amid the madness that surrounded them, suddenly brought home the severity of the situation.
“I didn’t think much of it afterwards, to be honest.
“It just feels like there’s something missing. I can remember how it started, I remember being told I was stabbed, and then a wee bit of the police being there, but other than that I can’t remember fighting, anything.
“I thought the bit of blood I’d seen must’ve come from a cut after being punched or something, but when I saw the blood on her top and then on my t-shirt I thought ‘this must be bad’.”
The conversation with police and ensuing ambulance journey to Dundonald remain a blur, but for Caoife and the family members worrying in the wings it is a period in time that will live with them forever.
Doctors frantically stitched up Hynes’s face. He vaguely remembers talk of a blood transfusion at one stage, such was the scale of his loss.
Micro-surgery was scheduled for the morning and passed off successfully. When the anaesthetic began to wear off that afternoon he woke, groggy and disorientated, to find himself in a strange, unfamiliar place.
Instinctively, Hynes gripped the nearest thing to him, his brother Eoghan’s hand, in sheer panic as he tried to process what was going on.
Also in the room, fresh off a flight from London, was long-time friend Sonny Upton.
“All my family, girlfriend and friends were all in the room, but as soon as Sonny came in I just started crying…”
“That morning I was woken up by my phone just going beep, beep, beep, beep, loads of WhatsApp messages,” recalls Upton, a 12-3 pro boxer.
“I had a missed call off Eoghan and then saw the pictures of CJ in the group chat - I didn’t know whether he was dead or not because he was asleep in the pictures. I was going round the house, smashing doors, just so angry.
“I knew I couldn’t be here while he was over there like that, and seeing him laying there on the bed… it was heart-wrenching, but I was just so relieved to see him. We take life for granted but he could’ve been gone.
“I’m a 28-year-old man and I burst into tears – that’s my little brother. That’s how I see him.”
Hundreds of messages of support poured in over the following days. When he eventually got his phone back, Hynes found that legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer and former heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury were among those to send well wishes.
It might not have felt like it, but he was a lucky man. Doctors told him afterwards that, had the blade sliced through skin and tissue for another inch-and-a-half, he wouldn’t have been here to tell the tale.
“It would have hit my main artery and I’d have bled out in 13 seconds. That’s what they told me... I would’ve had no chance.
“An inch-and-a half lower and it wouldn’t have been a hospital where people were coming to see me, it would’ve been a wake.
“You can’t help but think of how close you came to dying... somebody was definitely watching over me that night.”
NEVER had he felt so out of control as in the early stages after returning home from hospital. Confidence sapped, unable to do take out his frustration on a punchbag, Hynes found himself sitting around the house stewing.
When he did cross the door, the after-effects of what happened in the early hours of May 1 were never far away.
“No matter where I am, even if I’m on my own street, I can’t go out without looking over my shoulder.
“The first time I was in town afterwards, meeting a friend, I was walking on the other side of the street from McDonald’s... I wouldn’t be an emotional person, I never really have been, but I just froze.
“I went down a wee side street and phoned my sister. I was in an awful state, I don’t know what came over me, but she was able to calm me down thankfully.”
Before the incident he had a job working for Belfast City Sightseeing Tours, and could be regularly spotted around the city centre in his red coat, trying to get punters to board buses.
But not any more.
“I had to quit my job... it was no more than 100 metres from where it happened. I just didn’t want to be back in town if I could avoid it. I’ve maybe been in four or five times since.
“The fact is I still don’t know who did it. I could be walking past him for all I know. He knows me because it was all over the news and in the papers, but I don’t know him.
“That’s pretty unnerving.”
And then there’s boxing – the thing he missed more than any other. Not one to ever skip a session unless there was no other choice, being away from the gym ate away at him day after day. Watching fights on TV only made his feet itch more.
So, despite doctors advising him not to undertake any kind of physical exertion for three months, Hynes walked back through the doors of Holy Trinity’s Turf Lodge home just six weeks later.
It was a big mistake.
“As soon as I came out of hospital I wanted to train but Mickey [Hawkins] wanted me to take my time... he knows me though, he knows I don’t like taking breaks.
“Boxing’s everything to me, so not being able to do something you love takes a toll and the longer you’re out of it, the harder it is to get back into it.
“I soon realised that when I went back because I felt like I’d never boxed before, I was so, so bad. I felt like a novice.
“My footwork was crap, my fitness was poor... it was bad. I went back too early because I wanted to see if I could train but I couldn’t.
“Even just shadow boxing, I was getting really bad headaches, felt like I was going to faint... I just wasn’t myself so I took my bandages off and told Mickey I couldn’t do it.
“That was tough because I realised then what a long road I was on.”
Back in June, the day he would eventually feel ready to lace up gloves and trade leather couldn’t have seemed any further away, and it is a testament to his fighting spirit that he now stands on the cusp of a return.
There are nerves. There are always nerves, but this feels different. Hynes has only done bits and pieces of sparring, a combination of the boxing off-season making willing opponents difficult to find and not wanting to push himself too hard, too soon.
Several times a day he still gets shooting pains due to nerve damage on the left side of his face. Sleeping continues to be nightmare. Catching occasional right hands from Sean Duffy and Nathan Watson during sparring showed that, even wearing headguards, the area marked out by a curved scar remains tender.
If he’s honest, he doesn’t know whether he’s ready just yet – but he needs to find out one way or the other. And only when he steps between those ropes in Barcelona later next week, wearing the yellow vest of County Antrim, will he find the answers he is looking for.
“I’ve never really been a nervous boxer leading up to a fight, but I’ve only had a couple of spars and obviously I haven’t fought since the incident, so I’m a wee bit nervous.
“It’s more anxiety to get in and see if I’m still where I left off in Paris. I don’t think I’ll be at that level, but I need to see where I am. No matter how long it takes for me to get back to normal though, I’ll get there.
“What happened will push me on. It’s a life lesson I can learn from. If I was in that situation again, I’d just walk away. Not only for my sake, I wouldn’t want to put my friends, family and girlfriend through all that again.
“It happened, and it’s something I have to move on from. I’ve always been a positive guy, no matter what situation I’ve found myself in. God’s put me on this path and I’ve crossed it now.
“Obviously there will be times where it gets the better of me and brings me down, but that’s life. It’s something I have to overcome, nobody else can do it for me.
“At the end of the day, I’m still here. That’s the most important thing.”