Steve Collins: 'I'm glad to have been part of the story at the National Stadium'
Both sides of his family have a long and distinguished history at the National Stadium, so Steve Collins was following a well-worn path by the time he made his bow on South Circular Road. And, as Neil Loughran finds out, the ‘Celtic Warrior' would soon find himself making history at a place he called home…
STEVE Collins’s connections with the National Stadium travel far and deep. Quite apart from boxing there “maybe 40 or 50 times” himself, his father Paschal took part in the first-ever fight televised by RTE from the famous old venue.
Uncle Terry Collins, who achieved retrospective fame by claiming the scalp of infamous London gangster Reggie Kray as an amateur, was a stalwart on South Circular Road. Steve’s brothers Roddy and Paschal would also box there, so too his son – Steve jr – as a professional in 2017.
On his mother’s side, her brother Jack O’Rourke was a star of the stadium in the swinging Sixties, winning Irish middleweight and heavyweight titles. Roddy O’Rourke featured there too, while a host of extended family connections have laced up gloves and made the long walk to the ring.
These were big boots to fill by the time he followed suit, and what transpired on his first visit remains as clear today as it was 44 years ago.
“I was 11 years old, fighting in the Dublin leagues at five stone,” he recalls.
“I was a half pound over the weight so I put a Dunne’s Stores bag on me - that’s how small I was - and ran around the block a few times and came back in and made the weight.
“My dad used to bring me all the time when I was a kid, and we used to go to the same spot every time. I remember it like it was yesterday. He used to stand up beside the commentary box, up against the wall there.
“An individual my dad knew, a great amateur heavyweight called Gerry Coleman, a Gaelic scholar and a European silver medallist, he used to be at the same spot. My uncle Terry would sit down three rows from ringside, he had seats there with his two friends and we’d be waving down to him and him waving up to us…
“One thing about the stadium I remember, there was nights when it would go quiet during certain fights, and no matter where you sat, your voice could be heard if you raised it high enough.
“One fight between two fellas was so boring and the place was so quiet, somebody shouted ‘turn the lights down so we can all go asleep’, and someone else said ‘no, leave them on I’m enjoying this book here’.
“There have been some real characters through the years.”
And for ‘Celtic Warrior’ Steve, who became a two-weight world champion during a dazzling spell in the 1990s, the National Stadium will always be a special place.
It is where he won the first of many national titles, where he first pulled on a green vest. And when he fought Danny Morgan there at the end of 1991, it was the first professional fight allowed to take place at the stadium.
Having been based in America for the first five years of his pro career, Collins also hoped it would provide a springboard for him to gatecrash the buzzing super-middleweight scene across the Irish Sea, where the likes of Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Nigel Benn were among the leading names in the division.
It didn’t happen straight away, but eventually Collins got to where he needed to be.
“The titles were no longer in America; the best middleweights in the world were in Britain.
“We weren’t getting a look-in in America, and I wasn’t going to wait another five years, so I returned to Ireland in the hope that I’d get the backing of sponsorship there to get the fights in Ireland.
“It didn’t happen; I didn’t have the British media behind me unfortunately. To this day, as far as I know, I’m still the only Irish licensed world professional boxing champion.
“Unfortunately, because I was Irish licensed, I didn’t get the tax breaks in the UK and I actually paid a lot of tax because I was classed as a foreign fighter, but whatever I did, I wanted to do it for Ireland and for Irish boxing.”
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of his iconic St Patrick’s Day showdown with Eubank at Millstreet, an unforgettable night when the rough, tough Dubliner won the mental and physical battle to end his opponent’s 43-fight unbeaten run.
That was the high point of a stellar pro career but when Collins thinks back to those amateur days, there is one night that stands out above all others.
“My biggest success [as an amateur] was when Ireland fought Hungary.
“Hungary then was part of the Soviet Union. Ireland had never beaten Hungary, and it was four fights all - I was the last fight of the night against a European silver medallist, a guy called Zoltan Fuzesy, a big tall southpaw.
“I beat him, and it was the first time Ireland had ever beaten a Soviet team. I got a special award from the IABA afterwards… it was a very proud moment for me, and I’m just glad to have been part of the story at such a wonderful venue.”