A man who mixed it with the best - Irish boxing says farewell to 'Sugar Ray' Heaney

'Sugar Ray' Heaney boxing for Ireland during a tour of America in 1973
Neil Loughran

HE shared the ring with some of the greats and brought the boxing public out in force any time he laced up gloves, but sadly Ray Heaney lost his biggest fight last week after a long battle with dementia.

Ulster senior lightweight champion for three years running, from 1972 to 1975, his all-action style made him a major force to be reckoned with when he stepped between the ropes.

‘Sugar Ray’, who died aged 67, was part of the Northern Ireland team that travelled to Christchurch in New Zealand for the 1974 Commonwealth Games, and was unlucky not to make it to the podium after losing out to eventual gold medallist Ayub Kalule at the quarter-final stage.

The Ugandan would go on to claim world titles as both an amateur and a professional, taking on the great ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard in 1981.

And the year before the Commonwealths Heaney captained an Irish team that travelled to America for a three-fight tour that took them to Chicago, New York and New Jersey.

The fearless Lurgan man was thrust into action against one of the rising stars of US boxing at the time, Howard Davis jr, with the pair going toe-to-toe at the world famous Madison Square Garden.

Davis jr later took featherweight gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, winning the coveted Val Barker trophy for best boxer ahead of greats like Leonard, Michael Spinks and Leon Spinks.

You don’t mix in that kind of company unless you are something special.

Belfast boxing legend Davy Larmour got to know Heaney well during those years, and has only fond memories of his former team-mate.

“Ray was a gentleman, a real good lad who could have mixed with anybody,” said Larmour, who returned from the 1974 Commonwealth Games with a gold medal.

“I boxed in a load of Irish teams with him and, I tell you what, he fought some really top men.

“People loved to watch Ray. Any fight in the amateurs, you were always assured of a full house when Ray Heaney was on the bill. He loved to fight – his right hand was only a feeler to get in and start throwing punches.

“He was always on the bill any time I was fighting and I got to know him very well.

I felt a real loss when I heard Ray had died, and he’ll be sadly missed.”

Heaney came into boxing with the Clann Eireann club, training under the watchful eye of the late Jim Brady, after his mother Teresa grew sick of him getting into fights.

He proved his versatility as a sportsman by playing Gaelic football for Armagh minors in the late 1960s, helping them to an Ulster title in 1968.

After a distinguished amateur career he switched over to the paid ranks before his final bout in May 1981.

Unfortunately, though, his health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with Korsakoff’s Syndrome – a chronic memory disorder - in 1998.

Daughter Alana believes it was largely caused by boxing, and feels it could, and should, have been diagnosed much sooner.

“Boxing was his first love, it was his passion. That was his life basically,” she said.

“My daddy trained hard and fast, he was known to come into work wearing a fully zipped up boiler suit with a big parka coat over it so he could lose weight in preparation for Commonwealth Games.

“He would run the whole way from Portadown to Clann Eireann boxing club and home again. He could skip faster than most, even criss-crossing, he used skip so fast you could not see the skipping rope hit the floor.

“He would never have wanted go out that way but my God he fought it for 20 years, longer even considering his last fight was in 1981.”

Alana also made a plea to recover some lost memories of her father’s fighting days.

She continued: “I’ve seen photos from his tour of America in 1973 but if any boxing fanatics out there had the recordings of his fights out there, or knew someone who might, I would really appreciate them getting in touch.

“A lot of the different trophies he won, even his gloves, we don’t have any more so if anybody reading this had them, the family would love to have them back.”

Ray Heaney won a hat-trick of Ulster senior lightweight titles between 1972 and 1974


Jon McConnell, Diarmuid Bradley and Daniel Owens with Holy Trinity coach Michael Hawkins


HOLY Trinity pocket rocket Jon McConnell took the flyweight crown at the weekend’s Irish Cadet Championships in Dublin – one of five Ulster winners at the National Stadium.

McConnell defeated James McDonagh of St Paul’s, Waterford in the 52kg decider, although first he edged past Derry’s Eoghan Quinn in their all-Ulster semi-final.

Quinn, from the St John’s club, had taken a split decision win over McConnell when they met in the Junior 1 final back in March.

But McConnell got the nod this time, taking a 4-1 split in another close encounter before going on to finish the job in the final.

“I’m delighted for Jon,” said coach Michael Hawkins.

“He had a great championship, winning three contests, and hopefully that puts him in the frame for the Europeans in October.”

Holy Trinity also took the 33kg and 36kg titles after walkover wins for Daniel Owens and Diarmuid Bradley, while Raphoe’s Leah Gallen stopped Sophia Hopkova (Ballyhaunis) in the third round of their 66kg decider.

Dylan Eagleson, of the St Paul’s club, also showcased his considerable talent when he swept to a unanimous decision win over Cian O’Toole (St David’s) to take the 44kg title.

Ireland are now scheduled to meet England in a senior Cadet double at St Michael’s, Athy and St Brigid’s, in Edenderry on September 14/15.

The Irish Athletic Boxing Association is using the tournament as part of their selection process from October’s European Junior Men’s and Women’s Championships in Anapa, Russia.

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