Fighting for his life. Boxing coach Tony Dunlop looks ahead to James Tennyson's world title challenge in Boston
THE New Lodge. That’s where he’s from.
The concrete jungle of tower blocks and terraces that skirts along Belfast’s Westlink is where Tony Dunlop learned to slip, slide and jab and throw his right hook.
It’s where young fighters learn the ropes at his Belfast Kronk Gym these days and where hammer-handed James Tennyson comes to train.
Like Tony, Tennyson has come through the hard way and on Saturday night in Boston the pair of them go after the IBF super-featherweight championship of the world.
Long before Tennyson first laced up a pair of gloves, Tony (54) was a five-time Irish amateur champion and long before he marched confidently through the doors of Holy Family ABC he knew he was born to be a fighter.
His dad Billy had shown him the moves so when he joined the club as an eight year-old he felt right at home.
“I knew I had it before I walked in,” he says.
“Seriously, I did. My father had taught me really well so I had a head start.
“When I went into the gym, the atmosphere, the smell… I loved it. I was born to be a boxer and when I went in and started, boxing was my life.”
Carl Frampton, Paddy Barnes and Michaela Walsh are all recent graduates of ‘The Family’ but when Tony boxed there the club, run by Gerry Storey and Bobby McAllister, had justifiable claims to being the best in Ireland.
Throw up a glove back then and chances are it would have landed on a world class fighter and there weren't many who landed anything on the likes of Hugh Russell, Gerry Hamill, Sam Storey, Gerry Storey junior or Martin Storey.
So if you could make it in there, you could make it anywhere.
“There was a lot of great fighters and a lot of great kids who never came through who had beat guys who ended up doing the business,” Tony recalls.
He progressed quickly and his first contest was arranged for a winter’s night in 1972.
He'd skipped down flights of stairs of his block and out into the darkness when the deafening sound of gunfire ripped through the air.
“The soldiers were firing and a couple of local people were firing back,” he recalls.
“I ran back up to the flat and just sat looking out the window with my mother. It all quietened down and after a period of time she says ‘ok son, you can go’.
“I went out but they opened fire again and I ran back up. After a longer period of time it settled down and I tried again and it was ‘bang, bang, bang’ again.
“My mother says: ‘Son, you may forget about boxing tonight’.
My amateur debut, which was very important to me as a kid, had to be postponed but sure I lived to see my ninth birthday anyway, so it wasn’t too bad.”
That was life back then and Tony and other New Lodge ‘refugees’ were packed off to Dublin when the Troubles “got really heavy”.
He saw the violence at first hand and he knew men whose lives were lost to it but, as he said, boxing was his life.
“I saw the Troubles but I always stayed in the background because I was in the gym,” he says.
“I had no interest in it. I lived in the middle of the New Lodge Road completely free of it and the friends I picked out would have had no interest either.
“I knew people around the district who were involved in the situation and some of them were killed very young but boxing took us out of it.”
Boxing took him away to the States, to Canada and to Italy where he represented Holy Family and Ireland and he beat the best fighters those countries could produce.
Back home he won his first Irish title aged 12 and was champion again at 14, 15 and 17.
As a 19-year-old in 1983 he beat Paul Larkin to become Irish senior champion at 60 kilos and the title got him a place on the panel for Olympic Games in 1984.
He wasn’t selected but that was fine with him because by then his ambition to be a successful professional fighter was within touching distance.
Well schooled and with a big-punching, aggressive southpaw style, he had all the tools for a successful run as a pro and his debut came at The King's Hall on the undercard of Barry McGuigan versus Paul De Vorce in June 1984.
He won that night but that was as good as it got.
There was a draw in Brighton and a loss in Finland and he was finished, aged 20, with a record of 1-1-1. A huge talent wasted.
Disillusioned with many aspects of the professional game, the young Dunlop made the decision to retire.
“So I just walked away, I made a decision and walked away.
“If I had continued I could have become a journeyman but I was too good to be a journeyman.
“At one time I would have talked about this continuously and I could go on about it, but I don’t really want to because it gets deeper and deeper and it’s just a hard-luck story which I’m not into because it makes me bitter.
“It’s all forgot about, it’s gone…”
Is it gone? Like everything that really impacts on our lives it’s never really gone.
Tony has learned to live with it but that took time, a long time.
He hung up his gloves and filled the void with a high-octane party that went on and on and on.
For seven-years it was wine, women and song and if you got into a row with him you’d better be a fast runner or a hell of a scrapper because Tony was a fearsome street-fighter too.
“Believe me, Geordie Best and Alex Higgins wouldn’t have counted,” he says and you know it’s no billy-big-balls boast.
Night after night he had it large around Belfast and then London and Amsterdam and on Jersey island too until one day he realized there was an empty place inside him that no amount of booze could ever fill.
At 27 he called 'time' and his party finally came to an end.
“I think I had lost my soul,” he says.
“I was born with a quietness inside me and I tried to fill the spiritual part of my being with alcohol – it was a chemical solution to a spiritual problem.
“In reality things weren’t adding up and I ended up going up the other road.”
One night he went to a meeting: ‘My name’s Tony and I’m an alcoholic…’
Through the AA he began to leave the man he was behind and started to become the man he is.
“I have learned this and this is what I believe,” he says, crouching forward and talking more quietly.
“I was born poor in spirit and that (makes a drinking gesture) gave me the power to be larger than life.
“I ended up off the gargle but that emptiness was still there so I started to live differently, quietly and a wee bit of that (he blesses himself) and going to these AA meetings.
“I started to do things simple and I ended up able to see what I had, not what I wanted.
“When I saw what I had I became grateful, the fear of the future left me and the obsession with drink and the loneliness left me.
“For the first time in my life I felt complete and the man above said: ‘You come with me and you’ll get a deep inner joy’ and deep down within from then I have felt (he chooses the word carefully)… sound.”
He laughs because he knows it’s not what you expect to come out of his mouth but every word is sincere.
There’s who he was and the man you think you see but this is who he is and the new path he found led him back to boxing.
Aged 29, Tony went back to the Holy Family club for a year or two but it didn't last.
It wasn't the same. He felt he wasn't wanted there, so along with McAllister – “a legendary trainer who never got a break” - he began Belfast ABC up the road a little and kids like Ryan Burnett piled through the doors.
His first taste of training the pros came when Cork-based fight manager Gary Hyde brought him three Cubans to train and a couple of years later he got talking with a Belfast businessman called Mark Dunlop (no relation) who was interested in getting into the boxing game.
Tony introduced him to a teenage featherweight from Poleglass in west Belfast called James Tennyson, a triple Irish underage champion, who he’d admired for several years.
“Tennyson was always up there with the best, he was as good as anybody,” says Tony.
“He wanted to go pro so Mark signed him and I got the opportunity to be the coach.
“Mark has done something with boxers that nobody has done since Barney Eastwood.
“Inactivity has always been a problem here but Mark kept James active and got him the right opponents.”
With Mark giving Tennyson tip-top management, Tony coached the fighters.
Tennyson and other young hopefuls like Paul Hyland junior, James Fryers and Daniel McShane began to make their way on Belfast shows at the Holiday Inn, St Kevin’s Hall, the Devenish and the Europa Hotel.
“James was well looked after, he was matched well and he could always really fight,” says Tony.
“He’s the biggest Irish puncher since Darren Corbett – Corbett was an unbelievable puncher and he was the biggest Irish puncher since Jack Dempsey. Dempsey-Corbett-Tennyson… Take your pick.”
Tennyson can punch but early on he got hit too often himself.
An unknown journeyman left him in a heap in a neutral corner one night at the Odyssey and Ryan Walsh stopped him in a British featherweight title fight in London in 2016.
When he was down, Tony got him back up and Tennyson took his licks and came back stronger.
Maturing by the fight, he knocked out four opponents in-a-row before he travelled to London in May to take on defending Commonwealth, EBU and WBA international super-featherweight champion Martin J Ward.
Ward, the favourite, stood over him smiling when Tennyson went down in the second but he couldn’t finish him off and when Tony got his man back to the corner he decided to switch to ‘Plan B’.
“James stood off and was still clearly getting out-pointed so after the two rounds I said: ‘We have to move on to Plan B, cut this guy off and go in with your two hands’. Basically go for the throat.”
Before the end of the fifth Ward was on the canvas and Tennyson, the underdog, took his titles and the team began to plan for a world title shot.
“No matter who he fights, James knows he’s got dynamite in either hand,” says Tony.
“His hands are well taped-up and the pro gloves suit him, so no matter who he fights he has the feeling: ‘If I land a shot on his chin it’s: ‘Goodnight sweet prince’.”
Slick boxer Tevin Farmer, from the fighting city of Philadelphia, awaits on Saturday night.
Farmer has had to battle all the way to the top and Tennyson will need to rip the belt out of his hands. If he does that, he’ll have a win on his record that will rank alongside the best in Irish boxing history.
“It’s great to get to this level and it’s great to get a bit of luck because, with my track record, if I’d bought a duck it would have drowned,” says Tony.
“This has been a long time coming. James has been boxing since he was seven, I’ve been in this game all my life and Mark Dunlop’s heart and soul is in boxing.
“But we always felt we belonged in this department. Mark is as good as anyone as a manager, I don’t put myself second to anyone as a coach, with all due respect, and I think the sky is the limit for James.
“I believe James will become champion of the world. This is the pinnacle of my career at this stage but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s only the start of part two.”
A long and winding road, a life’s journey, has taken him to this point.
Picture the scene when the referee raises Tennyson’s hand next Saturday night: ‘AND THE NEW…’
Deep inner joy.