'The coaches worked very closely with him, and one day he told us he felt at home there... I'd never heard him say that anywhere else'
Being autistic needn't mean living life with a label, and boxing is helping open doors to a world of sporting opportunity. Neil Loughran finds out how the lives of two young men, and their families, have been transformed since first picking up a pair of gloves…
WHEN a County Antrim team took on a talented Basque outfit last month, a lone voice would occasionally stand out above the crowd as the combatants went toe-to-toe between the ropes.
“Come on Ben”
The function room in the Balmoral Hotel was packed to the rafters, and the noise levels reached an evening-high peak during the showdown between Clonard’s Ben Ferran and the visiting Asier Larrinaga.
It was, without question, the fight of the night – some going on an action-packed show.
Hid around the side of the exit door, peaking through fingers when courage allowed, was Alison Ferran. Ben Ferran is autistic, and lacing up boxing gloves wouldn’t have been Alison’s choice for her son.
Yet, when 19-year-old Ben had his hand raised, applause ringing around the room, Alison couldn’t help but think of the journey her son had been on in the five years since first walking through the doors at Clonard.
“At the start, I didn’t want him to go. His brother used to box and I just don’t like to watch it,” she said.
“I was scared of him getting hurt… I didn’t think he was able. That might sound terrible - I should’ve trusted his instincts but I didn’t.
“When Ben started it was more an effort to get him to be socially active, because he didn’t cross the door – he just stayed in his room and played PlayStation. He had no contact with other ones his own age. He never played team sports, there was no interest.
“But from the day and hour his daddy took him round to the club, he just loved it. I think because it was one on one, he was able to get that energy out of himself.”
Alison Ferran remembers when, during his earliest days at school, Ben’s homework would often focus on improving his motor skills - something as simple as catching a ball over and over again.
“He had no co-ordination at all, but he has come on so well, it’s unbelievable.
“Boxing totally relies on hand-eye co-ordination and footwork, so that shows just how far he has come.”
'He’s become much more confident in himself, he’s got friends round there… he actually feels as if he fits in'
Earlier this year Ben boxed in the semi-final of the Ulster Elite Championships, acquitting himself well in defeat to the experienced Dylan Duffy.
His coaches at Clonard speak only in glowing terms of the progress he has made both inside and outside the ring, while Alison couldn’t speak highly enough of the role the club has played in helping him reach this point.
“He’s become much more confident in himself, he’s got friends round there… he actually feels as if he fits in. Now he has a group of friends that he can call friends – he sees them as family more or less.
“As long as he’s prepared for everything beforehand, everything’s explained, he’s okay. The coaches at the club know that and they’ve been brilliant with him.
“Everything’s down to Ben’s choice. There’s been a couple of times he’s felt a bit awkward and I’ve phoned Peter, explained the situation, and it’s been totally fine. They’ll never force him into doing anything.
“Ben gets very anxious before a fight, but now he’s able to just put the blinkers on and get it done. That’s how far he has come. As Ben says, it’s okay to have autism, yet he feels he needs to do this so he’s not just seen as autistic.
“Like all kids, he just wants to fit in, and boxing has helped him do that.”
Odhran Magennis - 'one day he told us he felt at home there'
The same is true for 12-year-old Odhran Magennis.
Boxing out of the Gleann club in west Belfast, he has landed a clutch of Antrim and Ulster titles already. Of course, Odhran’s ambitions don’t end there.
One day he wants to be a world champion and, when he is, he wants to be seen as a champion for autism and all that can be achieved.
Like the Ferrans, Odhran’s family had found themselves at a loss. Then dad Stephen introduced Odhran to John McGuinness, chairman of Gleann boxing club, and everything changed.
“We had him everywhere - football, Gaelic, everything,” recalls Stephen Magennis.
“Then one night John, who’s a good friend of mine, was in our house and he said ‘what about boxing?’
“At that stage Odhran had never tried it, never been around it. The rest of the coaches were briefed about Odhran… see if our Odhran walked into your building tomorrow, the first thing he would want to know is: how do you get out of here? Where’s the emergency doors?
“So they put an extra bit of work into making him feel comfortable there, and he took to it like a duck to water. The coaches worked very closely with him, and one day he told us he felt at home there.
“I’d never heard him say that anywhere else.”
Indeed, the Gleann coaches went the extra mile when Odhran qualified for the All-Irelands.
Immediately wary of entering a new environment in the weekend ahead, the renowned National Stadium in Dublin, a plan was devised.
“He was fixated on the building, and worried about it being loud.
“So the club drove him down to Dublin three days before the fight and took him all around the stadium, just so he could familiarise himself with it. I mean, who would do that?
““The strength and support he has got from the club, as well as the County Antrim board, the IABA, Ulster boxing, has been really brilliant.”
Stephen’s wife Patricia is now one of those Gleann coaches, having immersed herself in the club and the sport since Odhran first got involved three years ago.
For the Magennis's, boxing has become a family business – and the difference it has made cannot be understated.
“It was seriously impacting on our family life,” added Stephen.
“Odhran wouldn’t have wanted to go out for a meal, he didn’t want to go on holiday - wouldn’t go on a plane, a boat, a train, wouldn’t go anywhere, didn’t want to do anything. He wasn’t sleeping because he was worrying about the next day; it was really impacting badly on him.
“But after a few weeks boxing, we could see a massive change in him. He has just found something that he lives and breathes. I go in every morning to him and he’s up doing a wee spar in front of the mirror, practising his moves, talking about boxing, watching boxing on YouTube.
“The sport has really done wonders for Odhran, and for a lot of other kids as well. Compared to where he was then, and where he is now, it’s like two different kids.”