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The rapid rise of west Belfast strongman Michael Downey

It wasn't so long ago that Michael Downey was being touted for a big future on the football field. However, as Neil Loughran finds out, the west Belfast strongman has his sights set on achieving world domination elsewhere...

Joe Downey keeps an eye on his strongman brother Michael as they look ahead to tomorrow's Britain Strongest Man competition in Sheffield. Picture by Hugh Russell

AROUND the middle of the last decade, Michael Downey was a young man on a mission.

A free-scoring centre-forward with Corpus Christi College, the goals continued to flow at the weekends for Immaculata’s youth teams, his reputation growing almost as quickly as he was.

Always big for his age, Downey was fit for any centre-half who fancied their chances, and by the age of 16 he was pushing six foot and weighing in at a solid 14 stone.

His physical power and gift for goals didn’t go unnoticed as Donegal Celtic brought him up to Suffolk Road, leading to a handful of appearances for Northern Ireland schoolboys.

Perhaps the greatest indication of the regard in which he was held came when he was invited to a trial where Eddie Coulter, Manchester United’s long-serving scout on these shores, ran the rule over the top talent on Belfast’s buzzing underage soccer scene.

It didn’t work out, but Liverpool fan Downey wasn’t shedding any tears.

“I was always into my sports, football and Gaelic.

“I went to those trials out at the Maze prison and nothing came of it but I still just carried on playing. The Gaelic was going well too – I played for an Antrim team against Dublin at Casement Park, I was captain of the Davitt’s for three years...

“But then when I started working I just sort of fell away from both. Once I was out making my own money, I fell out of love with sport a bit.”

Downey had finished up at Corpus Christi by the start of fourth year and was collecting glasses at city centre nightclub Thompson’s within weeks. He kept the soccer up for another while before the boots were hung up not long after his 16th birthday.

Fast forward 10 years and Michael Downey is a man on a mission once more.

Tomorrow he will be at the FlyDSA Arena in Sheffield taking part in Britain’s Strongest Man for the first time, a rank outsider in a hugely experienced 14-man field where a place at the prestigious World's Strongest Man event is the ultimate prize.

The scale of the task at hand doesn’t faze him. He is one of only five entrants who haven’t yet graced the world stage; in strongman terms, the 26-year-old is still a baby - but he knows where he is going.

Unlike in his previous sporting endeavours, Downey doesn’t need to attend trials for someone else to judge whether he has what it takes to succeed because this... this is what he was born to do.

A young Michael Downey (back row, second from left) during his days of leading the line for Immaculata's underage teams

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ANY worries about turning up at the wrong place are put to an end once the door swings open at Joe Downey’s gym, located in the busy Blackstaff Complex off the Springfield Road.

“’Mon ahead mate,” says Michael - whose moniker is 'The Bull' - stretching out an enormous paw and clasping mine as though taking a child to the park.

Standing around 6”1 and just shy of 24 stone, he sports the classic strongman build, recalled from lazy Boxing Day afternoons watching a procession of Scandinavian supermen dragging trucks and hoisting Atlas stones on top of walls.

Joe - Michael’s older brother and coach – is some lump too, 6”4 and built like the proverbial brick s***house. A personal trainer by trade, the 32-year-old followed his lifelong love of boxing by entering last year’s Ulster Elite Championships at super-heavyweight.

He lost, but insists he’ll be back for another crack.

There is no room for self-doubt inside these four walls, you see – a ‘can do’ attitude is the dream Joe sells to his clients and, having dabbled in a bit of strongman himself back in the day, his belief in his younger sibling is unwavering.

That said, the Downey brothers didn’t lick it off the ground. Dad Robbie was always into weights, the clatter of dumbbells on concrete one of the sounds of their childhood in Divis.

But it was watching Joe that inspired a teenage Michael to have a go too.

“You know what it’s like, you see your older brother doing something and you want to do it too.

“I started doing the power-lifting as well then; I ended up becoming Irish champion, European champion, European and world record holder. That was from the age of probably 17 to 20, then I went back when I was about 23 but it started to bore me - just doing squat, bench and dead lifts. That’s all it really was.”

Yet when he spotted a flyer for a strongman competition in Conway Mill at the end of 2015, Downey was unknowingly about to walk into a world that had been awaiting his arrival - even if his early performances didn’t quite hit the heights.

“I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing to be honest.

“You think you’ve prepared properly but you haven’t. I entered it and I came last, then the second one was a bigger show, part of the world qualifying tour. That was the real elite lads in Ireland, and I came second last in that.

“But, even though I was coming last, I was enjoying it. I felt like it could go somewhere, know what I mean?”

Joe, though, took a bit more convincing in the early days.

“I said to him at the time ‘what the f**k are you doing lifting weights?’ Michael was a really good footballer; I didn’t want him to lift weights. There’s no money lifting weights.

“But then see when he started, he was doing things no man in Ireland has ever done. Even though he wasn’t doing certain things right, he was constantly progressing.

“That’s not normal.”

Considering he only dipped his feet in the water for the first time three years ago, the strides made have been nothing short of incredible.

By the summer of 2017 Downey had smashed the Irish log press record of 181 kilos, previously held by Sean O’Hagan, lifting 182 above his head. He has since increased that record, while also claiming top spot in Ireland at the Apollon’s axle, pressing 181 (the previous record was 175).

Last summer he attended an expo in Scotland where four-time world’s strongest man

Zydrunas Savickas was the star turn. The Lithuanian was attempting to break his own world record of 228 kilos and, despite falling short, still finished top of the pile.

For the first time though, and in front of a huge Glasgow crowd, Downey made his mark among the big boys, finishing third with a press of 192.5.

Joe was there, roaring from the sidelines, but he knew this was the moment their whole approach had to change. Now it was time to get serious.

“Savickas is the best of all time. Luke Stoltman, who finished second with 200, has been at the world’s strongest man four times; he’s a world-level competitor.

“So, without actually doing everything right, Michael is already at world level. He’s still only a beginner.

“But here’s the big thing; in the next 18 months to two years, Michael will hold those two world records [log press and Apollon’s axle]. I know he will.

“It’s mad that we’re talking about a guy from the Falls Road. Like, see if I brought every man in west Belfast round here and said ‘lift that 220 kilo log off the floor and I’ll give you a hundred grand’, they couldn’t do it. Some day soon, Michael’s going to lift that above his head. It’s insane.

“Those records have been set by ‘Big Z’ [Savickas] - ‘Big Z’ gets paid 20 grand, 30 grand to enter competitions, for exhibitions, guest appearances. That’s where Michael wants to be, but he hasn’t even scraped the surface yet...”

Not satisfied that he is getting his message across properly, Joe Downey rises from the weights bench he is sat upon to deliver an analogy that encompasses where his brother was compared to whether his brother could be.

“Like, it’s only really in the last five months that he’s starting to actually train properly.

“Before that... okay, imagine you’re a soccer player and you turn up to training twice a week. You go onto the pitch, stretch and play a match, do some drills. Do you know what Michael’s training was? Put some football boots on, set the ball down, take one shot at the net, lift his bag and go home. Swear to f**k mate.

“He didn’t eat properly, he didn’t train properly, he just came in and f**ked about. Now he’s starting to do a wee bit more – even then he’s still only at 50 per cent.”

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'Michael has the potential to wipe all these boys out': Joe Downey has total faith in his brother to go to the very top of the strongman world. Picture by Hugh Russell

STANDING on the door from 9pm six nights a week, Michael Downey eventually lands back into the house at around 3.30am. Coming straight from a pumping nightclub to early morning silence, it can take a while for the mind to adjust. His eyes might not shut until 5.30am, sometimes later.

The aim is always to get a minimum of eight hours sleep but, with two young daughters – Faidh (6) and Miley (2) - that isn’t always possible.

Once awake, it is time to eat the first massive plate of food of the day. On occasions he can’t even face it and heads to the gym, to lift huge weights, on an empty stomach.

It is in these areas where the extra percentage points lie. Nobody knows that better than him, but providing for his family is - and always will be - the number one priority.

“I’ve been on the door when a friend of mine’s been stabbed in the neck with a bottle, I’ve been on the door when you’re attacked, but it is what it is. As much as I love strongman, doing the door is my bread and butter. That’s what feeds my family.

“The gains I’ve got aren’t normal when you consider my lifestyle. If I haven’t had a good sleep, I’m like a zombie. Warm-up weights feel heavy… you just feel sluggish. “I’m not going to sit and tell lies to you, everything’s still not 100 per cent regarding my sleep pattern or nutrition at the minute but I’m getting there.

“Before the last six months or so, I was probably eating one meal a day at the wrong time, standing on the door, beating something into me. Now there’s a food company sponsoring me, supplying me with three meals a day.

“It can be hard to get the meals into you but for this sport you need to be eating, living and sleeping properly. It’s tough like. Joe could go out now and eat three burritos; I’d struggle to eat one...”

“Michael doesn’t have a big appetite the way I do,” says Joe, “I’d eat 16,000 calories a day, no problem.

“The last time I checked his BMR [Basal Metabolic Rate], just lying in bed sleeping, his body burns 4,800 calories - doing nothing. So Michael should be on a minimum of 10,000 calories a day. That’s five meals, 2,000 calories each.

“At the minute, he would probably have a maximum of 4,500 over one meal and maybe a bit of shit food.

“He needs to be fit, strong and he has to eat right for what needs to be done. He needs to make sure his body fat is higher than for any other athlete because if it’s any lower, the chance of him getting injured is serious.

“You’re doing things that aren’t normal; you’re lifting 450 kilo on your back, so he needs to keep his body fat high and consume loads and loads of calories.

“He’s started to train more, but his sleeping needs fixed. His body is under so much stress, it needs recovery.

“His nutrition has been addressed to an extent, but he needs to be able to sit down and say ‘I need to eat this meal – don’t talk to me here. Even though I don’t want to eat this, I have to eat this’.”

It is only in recent times that Michael Downey has started to really believe in his own potential within the sport, but he has also learned that strongman is not a game to be messed with.

Attempts to secure sports insurance, or even life insurance, were met with quotes so prohibitively high they couldn’t even be considered, and he laughs while sharing a story of an overheard conversation at a fast food establishment a few weeks back.

“It was somebody Joe knows actually who heard these two girls sitting in KFC, wearing gym gear, calling us the Mitchell brothers and saying ‘sure all the weights yer man Michael lifts are fake...’”

His mind casts back to the sessions when he has had blood running from his eyes, from his nose during lifts. To the times when he felt light-headed while holding a 200 kilo weight, and his life, in his hands.

“See what he’s doing, you’re only ever one second away from death. It’s an extreme sport,” says Joe.

“Strongman is a sport for human beings who have been put on this planet who are genetically gifted. This Britain’s Strongest Man is a stepping stone for him, and after that we’ll look at the plan again and see where we go.

“I want one world record this year, and I want that other world record inside the next 18 months-two years. That’s our goal. But looking down the line, Michael has the potential to wipe all these boys out because they’ve all been there, trained hard, trained smart, dedicated their lives to it. He hasn’t.

“People don’t understand what this guy is capable of. Some people are put here for other things, some people are put here for snooker. He was put here for this.”

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