Boxing

I always knew Ryan Burnett would be a world champion says Tony Dunlop after injury forces former bantamweight king to hang up his gloves

Ryan Burnett in pain after he suffers a back injury against Nonito Donaire during their WBA World Championship bout in Glasgow in November
Andy Watters

AFTER taking him through his first session at the Belfast Kronk Gym almost 20 years ago, Tony Dunlop says he knew Ryan Burnett would go on to become a world champion.

And the canny coach wasn’t wrong. Injury-plagued Burnett retired last week having held the WBA and IBF bantamweight world titles before a back injury sustained against Nonito Donaire in November last year meant he lost his belts and his fitness.

He battled to get back in shape but fought just once after Donaire, a relatively low-key points win over Jelbirt Goma in the Ulster Hall in May, and, last Friday, the north Belfast fighter decided to call it a day at just 27.

“As soon as he came into my gym I took him aside and looked after him and decided to make him into a superstar,” said Dunlop.

“To be honest, the first time I saw him he genuinely looked the part, he had great balance, and I said: ‘I’ll have to look after this kid’. I actually told him the first night: ‘You’re going to be champion of the world’.

“I trained him 100 per cent and he couldn’t fail. Me and him got on great, he was a character and we were slagging each other from the first time we met – we got on like a house on fire.”

Burnett was a multiple Irish title winner at the Kronk and left the gym, much to Dunlop’s disappointment, with a 47-0 amateur record. After a spell at Holy Family ABC, Burnett called time on an amateur career that included a gold medal in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games and began a new chapter as a pro in 2013 with Ricky Hatton as his coach.

He progressed to 4-0 with Hatton Promotions before relocating to London in 2014 and teaming up with Adam Booth, the man who mapped out his path to world dominance.

With Booth in his corner, Burnett made rapid progress. In November 2015 he scored a unanimous points win over vastly-experienced Jason Booth to clinch the British bantamweight title. Early the following year – on the undercard of Carl Frampton versus Scott Quigg - he added the WBC international title and finished 2016 with a 15-0 record looking primed for a challenge for global honours.

A world title shot came in June 2017 when Burnett met seasoned Englishman Lee Haskins for the IBF bantamweight strap. Roared on by his Belfast fans, he gave an exhibition of boxing and outclassed his opponent to take the title. Just four months later, he added the WBA belt in an attritional 12-round, head-to-head war against teak tough Kazakhstani Zhanat Zhakiyanov. Again Burnett won on unanimous decision at the SSE Arena.

Those back-to-back victories should have been the launching pad for super-stardom as the worthy successor to Carl Frampton but Burnett – unfailingly courteous and friendly but publicity shy despite seeming perfectly marketable and handling himself very well in interviews – did not establish the profile he could, and perhaps should, have done.

He defended his WBA title in March last year before squaring up to veteran Donaire in November. After three rounds, Burnett was ahead on all three judges’ scorecards when disaster struck.

In obvious pain, he took a knee during the fourth and the back injury he had sustained - he tore muscle fibres in his right internal oblique – forced him to retire at the end of the round. He was carried from the ring on a stretcher.

Burnett resurfaced in April this year with good news, telling The Irish News that he was fit again, determined to win back his titles and secure a rematch with Donaire.

“The injury is 100 per cent now,” he said.

“I've got no pain and I've been training now for a couple of months and getting myself back into it properly. I've had no pain whatsoever so, on that side of things, everything is really, really good.”

He beat Gomera on his comeback but, sadly, it was soon apparent that all was not well. In August, Burnett was ringside for stablemate Michael Conlan’s Falls Park spectacular looking in good shape but dodging questions on his own future.

It emerged that he had no immediate plans for fights and then, on Friday, the news came through that he had been forced to hang up his gloves.

"Although my retirement is forced through injuries, I carry a heart full of satisfaction and gratitude,” he said in a statement.

“I have achieved my childhood dream and secured my future heath, which is something no amount of money or titles can provide.”

At 27, Burnett has bowed out before he reached his physical peak and that is a pity. But at the same time he can be proud of what he did achieve in the ring. Financially he is “pretty sound” and he walks away a young man with his life ahead of him.

“That injury was very unfortunate for him against Donaire because he was winning the fight,” said Dunlop.

“He would have won that fight but when he got the injury, to be carried out on a stretcher like that… I knew it was a severe injury and it has ended his career.”

Dunlop added: “He was champion of the world but he never got much publicity.

“He was a great fighter but he never fulfilled his potential. They turned him into a boxer and that’s why he didn’t sell to the public but he was a unified world champion and I’d say he’s one of the greatest Irish fighters in history.

“What he achieved was brilliant and, even though it ended prematurely, that’s better than him ending up getting hurt. I think it’s a happy ending more than a sad one – you’re better off getting out of this game early.”

A fighting man to his core with the heart to match his ability, Burnett never quite received the acclaim he might have had he not operated in an era when Irish boxing was captivated by Frampton.

“He was like a firework, he went up quick and then came down quick,” Dunlop observed.

Yes, Burnett did touch the sky and although injury denied him the explosive ending he deserved; with 20 wins and the retirement against Donaire he retired unbeaten and proud.

JAMES Tennyson will take on England’s Craig Evans in a British lightweight title eliminator at Liverpool’s Echo Arena on November 23.

Evans (20-2-2) is the WBO European champion and his two losses came against good opposition. The first was a British title challenge against Scott Cardle in 2015, the other in Russia against local favourite Roman Andreev last year.

Meanwhile, with 21 stoppage wins in 28 fights, Tennyson is the biggest-punching Irish fighter on the scene and he won the WBA International Lightweight belt in London back in August. This one is the boxer against the puncher and both camps will be well aware that if Tennyson lands clean he’ll be on the way to another title shot.

 

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