Ulster champion Daryl Clarke helping in the fight against coronavirus
JUST over a month ago, Daryl Clarke was in dreamland. Entering the Ulster Elite Championships, few would have picked the 22-year-old to be the last man standing in a hugely competitive light-welterweight division.
But the Carrickfergus man stepped up to the plate in hugely impressive style, first beating Holy Family’s highly-rated Ryan Lavery, then 2018 finalist Caoimhin Ferguson to set-up a final showdown with Jack McGivern at the famous Ulster Hall.
With McGivern’s big brother James having claimed the 63 kilo title 12 months earlier, the stories were already written, ready for filing. Again, though, Clarke made light of the odds to deliver the performance of the night, picking his punches perfectly in an exhilarating contest to take home the title and the coveted Best Boxer belt.
“I wasn’t even there to receive that,” laughs Clarke, who boxes out of the Monkstown club.
“I was on my way to the hospital to get my eye glued when my coach, Paul Johnston, phoned to tell me. I couldn’t believe it, I really couldn’t.
“The next day Carl Frampton presented me with the belt at the club, which was a really special moment. Winning Best Boxer meant so much because I’m on that belt now alongside people like Carl himself, Paddy Barnes, Eamonn Magee, Wayne McCullough… legends, massive names I would look up to.
“For a few weeks there, I was just on such a high… it all feels like a lifetime ago now.”
That’s because Clarke’s focus had to swiftly realign once the coronavirus crisis escalated to the point where the country finds itself in lockdown.
As a youth support worker at Monkstown Boxing Club, Clarke’s nine-to-five typically involves delivering projects for young men alongside providing alternative education for those struggling to attain five or more GCSEs in school.
In recent weeks, though, he has been helping provide a frontline service in the fight to protect the most vulnerable in the community, working alongside Johnston at the club’s soup kitchen and delivering groceries among the tasks undertaken.
“It has been a very busy, very challenging time for everybody,” said Clarke, who is in the final year of a business studies degree.
“We weren’t prepared for the schools shutting down because we would work with 200 young people every week; it was a wee bit of a change for us and it’s a wee bit strange not having the kids in all the time.
“We looked at what we could do to make a positive impact on the community at this vital time. We realised that the pensioners wouldn’t be able to get out as normal, so we could put out for donations and do up food parcels. We packed a lot of essentials for them, as well as a lot of families in the area who might be struggling financially.
“Me and Paul made over 350 soups and delivered a lot of them out yesterday and this morning.
It’s very physically and mentally demanding, I’ve been coming home from work shattered every night because of how intense it is, but you always are glad to be involved in the good we’re doing in the community.
“The people around me are all inspired to make a positive impact.”
Whatever has been required of him, Clarke has done – the spirit displayed in the ring on February 25 evident in everyday life, regardless of the personal toll taken in these most trying of times.
“I had to make a lot of sacrifices because my mum has COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], and my girlfriend’s mum only has one lung, so there was a big decision for me about where I was to isolate.
“Technically I could have worked from home, but I wanted to do more so I moved into my girlfriend’s brother’s house, just until this all calms down.
“It’s tough. Over the weekend there was the first time I really got to process it because that’s when I moved out. I can’t see my friends either because I am going out to so many houses and, although we’re not in contact with people, we’re still opening gates, knocking doors to leave the parcels there.
“It’s good we can provide that wee bit of security for people. We just want to help in any way we can, and hopefully people are seeing the value of that.”
Clarke can’t wait for the day and hour when he walks into the club to pull on boxing gloves rather than protective gloves, to get back to what he does best and try to carry on the momentum of a great year in the ring.
Looking at the big picture, the dream is to follow in the footsteps of club-mates Michaela and Aidan Walsh by competing at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 – provided the sporting schedule has recovered by then.
Those Games will be in Birmingham and, after his showing last month, Clarke has put himself in pole position - but that was only the first step on the road and there are plenty more obstacles, both in and out of the ring, before reaching that stage.
“I’ve learned so much sparring with the likes of Aidan and, after winning the Ulster elites, you just want to be in that gym every night; I just feel so motivated now.
“But there’s a much bigger picture to look at so, for now, boxing will just have to wait.”