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Andytown Apache refuses to go to bed before his watershed - The Irish News
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Andytown Apache refuses to go to bed before his watershed

Anto Cacace takes on Ronnie Clark on Friday night 
Paul Gibson

FRIDAY night in Edinburgh could be a watershed moment in the life of 26-year-old Anto Cacace.

Having burst onto the domestic scene in 2012 with six victories and an Irish title, big things were expected of the west Belfast super featherweight. What followed, however, was a couple of frustrating years treading water and wondering where exactly his career was headed.

Amidst the uncertainty, an offer from Barry McGuigan appeared and, this time last year, Cacace duly signed with Cyclone Promotions. Now, he’s days away from fighting Ronnie Clark for the vacant Celtic title as the joint headliner, alongside the great Scottish hope Josh Taylor, in a packed Meadowbank Arena.

Part of the Cyclone package includes decamping to south-west London for eight weeks training under the watchful eye of Shane McGuigan before each fight. It is there I catch up with Cacace and, as the sweat gradually evaporates, we chat about the benefits of such an arrangement.

“The quality of sparring is different here. Back home, I could have coasted through rounds and it doesn’t do you any good. Out here, you’re sparring good, hard men who will all push you and take their shots,” he says.

“If I was at home, I wouldn’t be doing as much in the gym,” he goes on to divulge with trademark Cacace honesty.

“Here, the work ethic is a little different and they push you that wee bit more.”

It’s a nudge the affable Cacace admits he definitely needs. He is so laid back he’s almost horizontal. Throughout our conversation in the Battersea gym, he appears to keep reclining in a chair that isn’t even a recliner. It’s a mien totally at odds with the hustle and bustle London is renowned for and I wonder how life in the English capital suits the Andersonstown native.

“It’s dead on,” is his succinctly Belfast assessment before instantly adding with a telling grin, “but I love home.”

“I love Andytown. I just love the area and the people. It’s the best place in the world.”

He only laughs when I suggest he’ll soon change his tune with a few million in the bank and regular top-of-the-bill slots in Las Vegas.

“I’ll maybe buy a wee bit of it then,” he allows, “but I’ll never leave. I’m not ashamed to say I struggle being away, especially from my daughter Cadhla, but it makes the wins at the end that much sweeter.”

Cacace’s insouciant character is typical of those blessed with an innate talent for their craft and I have just listened to McGuigan spend 20 minutes waxing lyrical about the Apache’s natural capabilities.

“Cacace is a tremendous fighter, he could put a hole in the wall with his power," McGuigan claims. 

"He spars welters and light middleweights and I’ve seen him put them on the floor in the gym. As far as punching-power and ability is concerned, he’s the best kid in the gym bar none, including Carl Frampton. Ability wise, he’s better than every one of them.”

The brutal truth, however, is that Anto has only shown the world flashes of this brilliance in his unbeaten 12-fight career to date. The issue does not appear to be anything physical, so I wonder if there is something psychological stopping him reaching his true potential. Yet, even the fighter himself can’t explain it.

“It’s hard to put my finger on the reason why,” he tells me with an uncomfortable shift in his seat.

Could it be down to a lack of confidence?

“Maybe, but the longer I’m here with Shane and the guys, the more my confidence is building.”

“Being out of the sport for five years didn’t help,” he concedes.

“I was a decorated amateur, but then drifted away from boxing when I was 18 and didn’t return until I was 23. That was five years I didn’t really care about the sport.”

A lengthy hiatus at such a key point of a young boxer’s development must certainly leave its scars, but it is possible the problematic seeds were sown even earlier.

Cacace’s supreme natural talent may have, in a perverse way, worked against him. So easy did it all come, he never really needed to extend himself in training. Throw in a youthful smoking habit and the inevitable result was a reduction in stamina levels. This chink in the armour was evident in amateur tournaments in which he’d breeze through the early rounds before slowing notably in day four or five. The good news is the flaw can be and, as McGuigan explains, is being rectified.

“Every boxer in the world has strengths and weaknesses," he says. 

"That’s the thing about the sport, you can have 99 qualities, but the one that is missing could shut down the whole thing. Nature is a great thing. It hands you out gifts, but always takes something away from you. And it’s up to you to fill in that gap.

“With Cacace, we’ve been having him spar eight rounds with two bigger guys to show him if he can beat up on guys that are a stone and half heavier than him, how’s a genuine super featherweight going to be able to last with him?”

Anto is also fortunate to have Shane in his corner, among the best in the business when it comes to diet, nutrition, and strength and conditioning. It is clear the whole team is pushing Cacace hard to rid his body of any lingering hangover from the five year boxing lacuna.

It is fascinating watching Shane in action in his gym. His movement in the ring, constantly educating his charges on the pads, suggests he could still make a decent living as a pro himself, but it’s the tailored subtleties of his approach to individual fighters that indicates he is a coach destined for greatness.

While middleweight Conrad Cummings batters the pads with a ferocity that causes Shane’s shoulders to demand he pay full attention to the Coalisland bull, Cacace is ringside putting in the rounds on the heavy bag. When the three minute buzzer sounds to indicate a breather for all concerned, Shane checks in on the Apache.

“I didn’t notice hearing too much there,” he calls over. “Are you shadow boxing that heavy bag?”

It is said in jest with a smile and causes Anto to grin over in my direction as well. But the message has been delivered. For the next three minutes, Cacace knocked the stuffing out of that bag until the sweat was visibly dripping onto the gym floor.

It will be dripping onto the ring floor in the Meadowbank Arena on Friday against Dundee’s Ronnie Clark. With a 13-2-2 record, Clark is certainly no mug. He once drew with Ryan Walsh and recently took Craig Evans the distance.

This is the Scotsman’s big moment as well and his preparation, including training and sparring with the likes of Jamie Conlan and Tom Stalker out in Matthew Macklin’s Marbella gym, reflects that. Regardless, Cacace is bristling with confidence.

“I know he can’t outbox me, so all he can do is try and overwhelm me. But that’s what I’ve been training for, so I know I can cope with it. He is tough and durable but all it takes is for him to walk into one, that’s what I really believe,” he says.

Old boxing adages tend to be the truest and neither Anto nor his team are overlooking anyone. Nevertheless, there is a real sense that Cacace is destined for bigger challenges in the very near future.

“I just want to mix with the top guys because all the rest, I’ll just blow them away,” says Cacace matter-of-factly.

Top guys means the likes of Mitchell Smith, Liam Walsh and Martin Ward and Barry McGuigan insists that Anto is just a win away from taking any of them on. Cacace himself is ready and willing and appears to have a particular desire to take on the Londoner Smith.

“He may be a lovely guy, but he just seems a bit too big for his boots, so I’d love to smash him up. But I’m confident of beating all those guys. I know what I can do. I know what I’m capable of.”

If that final statement is true, the next two or three years could see Anto Cacace become a force on the world stage. My feeling is he is an on-the-day man, the guy who steps up to the plate when it really matters. With all due respect to the names on his record thus far, none have been in the same league as Anto in terms of ability: none have forced him out of second or third gear.

That all changes from here on in and that fact alone could be enough to draw the hardest pound-for-pound puncher in Irish boxing out of his shell. And if that happens, there are destined to be a few sore heads and bruised ribs in the upper echelons of the super featherweight division over the coming years.


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