Boxing

From the earliest of days, Ryan Burnett was destined for the top: Andy Lee

They may have become gym-mates four years ago, roaring each other on to world title glory, but Andy Lee and Ryan Burnett go back much further than 2014. And, as the former WBO middleweight champion told Neil Loughran, the career trajectory of the Belfast boy is only going to go one way – starting against Nonito Donaire tomorrow night…

Ryan Burnett looked sharp during yesterday's public workout in Glasgow, ahead of tomorrow night's showdown with Nonito Donaire. Picture by Jennifer Charlton

DURING his days in Detroit, Andy Lee ate, slept and breathed boxing. When you were in Emmanuel Steward’s world, and in his house, you had no other choice.

Having left Limerick behind for 'Motor City' not long after the 2004 Olympics, Lee hooked up with the legendary trainer who told anybody who would listen that Ireland had a world champion in the making.

True to form, he turned out to be right.

Steward created a home from home for young men like Lee, cooking a lot of the meals himself and taking as much interest in their mental wellbeing as their physical. It was a unique environment.

Away from the world famous Kronk Gym, Steward would watch boxing constantly. And when he wasn’t watching it, he was talking about it. Lee remembers the phone ringing off the hook at times.

It could be promoters from different corners of the world, or a journalist looking for a quote. It could be Lennox Lewis or Wladimir Klitschko, maybe Tommy ‘Hitman’ Hearns checking in.

Sometimes though, amid calls from superstars and legends of the fight game, a small voice from Belfast would be on the other end of the line.

Lee had met a 10-year-old Ryan Burnett while up at the Belfast Kronk training for the 2002 Irish senior championships, and an immediate bond was established.

Twelve years later they would end up as gym-mates under the studious eye of trainer Adam Booth, but Lee well remembers those early encounters – and a kid who only ever had his sights set on the top.

Andy Lee training with Emmanuel Steward at the Belfast Kronk Gym, ahead of his 2007 meeting with Jason McKay

“I trained up at the Belfast Kronk with Tony Dunlop and I was doing a bit of sparring there, at Breen’s gym and a few others, so I knew of Ryan from there,” says Lee, who would eventually capture the WBO world middleweight title in 2014 after stopping Russia’s Matt Korobov in Las Vegas.

“When I was in Detroit, he would often call me. He was only a kid but he’d be like ‘I won the All-Irelands, I’m entering this next but I want to come over there and I want to turn pro…’ – he was only probably 11 or 12 years old!

“So he always had that ambition. I kept an eye on him and he had some tough times, but he stuck at it – a lot of people would’ve walked away or maybe found some other thing to do. But he’s just such a dedicated and determined individual.”

Those tough times include a bulging disc in his lower back that kept him out of action for all of 2011, a year after he signalled his huge potential by taking home gold from the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

Things didn’t get much better in 2012 when, after signing professional forms with Ricky Hatton, he failed a brain scan before a punch had been thrown in anger.

After parting ways with Hatton in 2014, Burnett and his father Brian found themselves homeless for a six week period, during which time they slept in a jeep that had been lent to them by the former world champion.

Like Lee when he hooked up with Booth following Steward’s passing in 2012, Burnett arrived in London at a low ebb. Typically, though, it wasn’t long until the fire and the drive that has become his trademark shone through.

“When he joined the gym, he mightn’t have been up to scratch with his fitness but you could see he was a pusher – he just pushed himself, pushed himself,” says Lee, who hung up his gloves earlier this year and whose book 'Fighter' is released this week.

“When he came, I would’ve definitely been performing the best in the runs, on the track, in the gym. But as he slowly got fitter he started to pass me and eventually I accepted it – slowly! – that I wasn’t going to be able to hang in with this young animal.

“Him and Adam are probably the perfect match. Adam sets a high bar in terms of fitness and training, technique as well, but fitness and conditioning is a big part of Adam’s coaching. Whatever Adam sets, Ryan pushes it a bit further.

“He’s probably the hardest working boxer I’ve trained with. Like, he pushes himself to the point of exhaustion, to the point where he’s throwing up on the track. I’ve seen that so many times with him, that he runs so hard. I don’t know where he gets that drive from.

“Maybe you could ask him...”

A young Ryan Burnett had his sights set on reaching the top of the fight game from the earliest of days. Picture by Brendan Murphy

“I want to provide a good life,” replied Burnett when asked at the press conference for tomorrow night’s showdown with former four-weight world champion Nonito Donaire in Glasgow.

“I want a secure life and that is what drives me to want to smash every single thing I do. Plain and simple.

“I always knew there was potential for me to have a great life if I dedicate myself to this sport, and thank God that’s exactly what has happened.”

Hard work alone cannot take a fighter to the top, however, and Lee places Burnett among an elite group of extraordinary operators who have strutted their stuff on the world stage, leading the Belfast boy to land both the IBF and WBA bantamweight belts in a glorious 2017.

“Physically he’s gifted. There are certain fighters who are athletically blessed and he is.

“When you look at guys like [Vasyl] Lomachenko, [Guillermo] Rigondeaux, their fast twitch fibres are so quick to react that they can step back and move, turn and twist.

“It might only be a split second faster than the next man but that makes a huge difference, and I remember seeing that during one of Ryan’s earlier fights in Manchester and thinking ‘this kid could be really special’.

“Everyone recognised it straight away, but that talent matched with hard work, he has all the ingredients for success in boxing.

“This tournament will sort it out but, even before this, he was in with a shout for being in the top 10 fighters in the world. He beat two world champions in his division back to back and unified two belts, there’s not many fighters doing that at all – across boxing.

“You can see why he is world champion.”

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