Cardinal O’Donnell’s GAA club turn out in support as underdog Pody McCrory faces fight of his life in USA

“He’s the pride of our community,” says O’D’s clubman Dee Walsh ahead of Berlanga rumble

Padraig McCrory and Edgar Berlanga face-off for the first time for their February 24 fight at Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando. Picture: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom. (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom./Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.)

CARDINAL O’Donnell’s GAC, a city club with a community vibe on the Whiterock Road in the heart of West Belfast, was packed a couple of Saturday nights ago.

I timed my arrival well and luckily met the man of the moment, the local hero the night was in support of – super-middleweight challenger Padraig McCrory.

He was a little nervous about what was waiting for him. Not that he was ungrateful, that’s the last thing he’d ever be, but he’d rather come home to a heroes’ welcome after beating Edgar Berlanga and shocking the world on Saturday night in Orlando than leave to a heroes’ send off before he’s thrown a punch in anger.

The bar in the O’D’s social club is doing good business and a two-piece band belts out crowd-pleasing classics but they changed their tune when Pody walked in.

“Ohhhhhhh Pody McCrorrrrry… Ohhhhhhh Pody McCrorrrrry…” sang the crowd in unison.

They love the big man here and, when he saw the crowd that had gathered to wish him well and the good will there was for him in his club, he soon relaxed.

“It’s a night I didn’t expect - no-one has a pre-fight celebration,” said the smiling ‘Hammer’.

“I don’t know how to explain it. At the start I was a wee bit: ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t feel like it, but then I spoke to people and there are people who can’t make it to the fight for different reasons and they wanted to show their support, so it’s great to see that.

“I’m a bit shy and I’m not that sort of, I dunno… a big personality but I’ve got a lot of friends and family and they’re all in there now and they’re all here for me.

“The people that are here tonight where there for me in 2017 when I made my debut.

“This is where I’m from, this is my club. I played for the O’Ds from I was a young lad and we won championships and leagues and I’ll probably play again after boxing. These are my people.

“I’ve a lot of tickets ordered for the fight and they’re all accounted for and other ones are coming down from Philadelphia and Canada as well. To think that I’m bringing these people to Florida… It’s amazing.”

Unbeaten in 18 pro fights, McCrory is ranked number three in the world by the WBA, three spots above Berlanga. Despite that the big-hitting American is expected to knock McCrory out on Saturday night.

As we speak in the hallway, one of the McCrory fans who’ll be there on Saturday night at the Caribe Royale Resort passes by.

“I towl yer da,” he says.

“When you win, I’m getting into that ring and I’m gonna lift ye up over my head.”

McCrory smiles. Beating Berlanga will rank among the greatest away wins for any Irish boxer but, make no mistake, this is a real fight and he’s already proved his quality on the road – in late 2022 he travelled to Germany and blitzed Leon Bunn to win the IBO light-heavyweight title.

“People take me for who I am,” he said.

“I don’t change and I don’t think I’ll ever change – even if I go on and win this fight and go on to do bigger and better things, I’ll always be the same person.”

Pody McCrory (back row, fourth from right) with the Cardinal O'Donnell's championship-winning side

SOME boxers played a bit of GAA here and there but concentrated on boxing after their underage days. Few, if any, went on to adult level and have the medals McCrory has.

His team-mates from the 2010 championship-winning side were there to give him a send-off he won’t forget and Dee McComb was the chief organiser.

“I remember a match up in Ballycastle,” Dee recalled.

“It was the only fight Pody ever lost and the only fight I ever won. He was playing left half-forward and I was left half-back and one of their boys came in and dirty Joe-d him. You have to back your team-mates up and we got stuck in for him.

“That’s the only fight I ever won and the only fight he ever lost.”

Let’s hope it stays that way this weekend.

With no direct flights from Ireland, McCrory fans are making their way to Orlando via London, or Philadelphia, or Boston. His opponent Berlanga expects to have the entire arena on his side on Saturday night so seeing the support there for his Belfast opponent will be the first shock for him.

“Some of us can’t make it out so we thought: ‘What can we do for Pody? How can we motivate and inspire him and drive him on?’” Dee explained.

“We know the last couple of weeks of camp for a big fight are hard, boxing is a lonely sport at times. We wanted to give him a good send-off so he knows we’re all behind him.

“He’s the pride of our community. He’s so humble and he doesn’t understand how well got he is in the community, how much he is appreciated. If you asked him to do anything for you he’d do it. He’s taken us all, this whole community, along with him on his journey, his journey has been our journey.”

Billy Joe Burns (right) has been the mainstay of the Crusaders defence
Billy Joe Burns (right) is the mainstay of the Crusaders defence

McCRORY’S long-time mate Billy Joe Burns pops his head around the corner. Burns played his GAA for St Paul’s before branching off into a brilliant soccer career. One of the most decorated players in the Irish League, he won three Premiership titles with Linfield and three more with current club Crusaders where he is now captain. He’s won the Irish Cup six times too.

“Me and Pody have been friends for a long time so I came down to celebrate him and wish him well,” he says.

“We’re all from this small area of West Belfast and having someone on the world stage it’s brilliant.

“He’s a local boy, an O’D’s man. He’s very popular around the local area and he always generates the support from all the boys, we’ll always support him.

“It’s a wee bit of an underdog story, a Cinderella story and everybody likes that so the whole community is behind him and wishing him the best.

“He’s always got a puncher’s chance and if he lands that one punch that we’ve seen he’s capable of then you never know.

“That’s the whole magic around this, landing that punch, winning the fight…”

He clenches his fist and smiles as he goes back in to join the party.

It’ll be some night in the O’D’s if Pody comes home with the belt.