Delhi Confidential: The inside story of Paddy Gallagher's gold rush 10 years ago
From out in the cold to Delhi delight, Paddy Gallagher pulled off the ultimate against-all-odds success when he stormed to Commonwealth Games gold 10 years ago. Neil Loughran hears the inside story of the journey that brought him to the top of the podium…
“ARE you outside now? Okay, two seconds…” Paddy Gallagher runs out towards the front gate and jumps into the passenger seat after finishing off a session with the under 10 squad at Gleann Boxing Club.
Over 20 years since lacing up gloves for the first time, here he is putting the next generation through their paces, the circle of life that has sustained the sport for decades still turning out talent across the city and beyond.
On this Thursday night – March 5, 2020 – we’re bound for Newry having been invited to a seminar hosted by boxer-turned-coach Adrian Patterson.
A three-time Irish champion in his pomp and now an accountant and tax advisor, Patterson wants to help ensure fighters, amateur and pro, have a career to fall back upon once the game is gone.
It is something Gallagher knows a fair bit about. Although still an active part of the welterweight mix, the 31-year-old is also a Belfast Boxing Strategy coaching officer, while the finishing touches are currently being applied to a new gym in the same industrial park as Gleann.
His future is taking shape but, as we head down the M1 then back again, conversation rarely strays from the past.
This coming Tuesday marks a decade since Paddy Gallagher won Commonwealth Games gold, an against the odds triumph that still leaves him shaking his head. One story leads into another, then another as motorway miles disappear off into the distance.
“You’re definitely not recording this, sure you’re not?” he says with that familiar wide grin, nodding to the phone beside the gearstick.
The truth is I wished I had been. Landing back in Belfast later than night, we agreed to meet up some time and pull it all together properly.
Eight days later the Covid-19 nightmare was realised on these shores, Michael Jordan and Joe Exotic becoming unlikely company for the masses as the country was plunged into full lockdown within weeks.
It’s early October now and here we are again, face to face in a Belfast coffee shop. Sat contentedly on his lap for the entire duration is five-week old pup Rolo, wrapped in a blanket, drawing admiring looks from each masked face walking through the door.
It’s a bit weird, I won’t lie, but then it’s been that kind of year.
With 2020 tales of woe soon off the table, it’s back to where we were and where he was 10 years ago; a Delhi dream about to unfold.
IT was a sickening feeling, walking out of the Andersonstown Leisure Centre and into the cold February night. Beaten convincingly by Steven Donnelly in the light-welterweight final at the Ulster Elites, Paddy Gallagher was out of options.
The 2010 Commonwealths he had targeted ever since a schoolteacher planted the seed in the middle of the Melbourne Games four years earlier couldn’t have felt further from reach.
His mates had booked a holiday to Mexico in June and, after initially holding off, there was no longer any reason not to join them.
“That was me done, gone,” he says, “totally out of the picture.”
As their Mexican departure date neared, though, talk started to swirl around about possible box-offs being held at the end of July as Ulster officials weighed up what size of a team they would send to India that October. Maybe, just maybe.
Gallagher packed his best intentions and set off for the sun, though it didn’t quite work out how he’d hoped.
“I trained like a demon leading up to the holiday. I was the lightest I’ve ever been that far away from a competition, 64.6kg [light-welter is 64kg] with a month to go. I brought my gutties, I was going to run every day - I ran one day.
“This was Mexico in June, I got about half a mile down the road before it was like ‘get me home, I’m gonna pass out here’. I couldn’t breathe, the air was that thick. I went for a few swims, found a gym and did a bit in there.
“I’d been flat out with the boys, all inclusive, eating away, drinking like a skinhead, but I kept checking my weight and I was around 66 kilos. Happy days, I thought. Then when I came back and got weighed I was 72 kilos… obviously their scales were from Poundland.”
With the box-offs weeks away, boiling down to 64kg wasn’t going to be viable as he found himself back at square one. Gleann coach Desi Hill suggested moving up to the 69 kilo welterweight division; his young charge wasn’t easily sold.
“F**k sake Desi, I’m barely a 64.
"But he thought 69 was wide open. Paulie Upton was in, Michael Bustard, Fredo Meli was going… I used to spar Fredo loads and it was a nightmare - the guy’s a beast.
“But eventually he convinced me. I had nothing to lose.”
Gallagher and trainer Gerard McManus got to work, only for the draw to pair him with the one man he wanted to avoid.
“Fredo f**king Meli,” he smiles.
“Like, very rarely would I have even won a round against him when we sparred. But me and Gerard got our plan together and it worked a treat.
“Fredo loved to work inside, he’s a southpaw too, but I was just dipping in, moving in under his right hand, moving round, then moving back in again. On the night I produced an unreal performance.”
With confidence sky high, Gallagher went on and beat Upton in the box-off final at Donegal Celtic social club to put himself right back in the frame, his fate now firmly in the hands of the Ulster Council.
Yet the same night the big decisions were being made, Gallagher and most of the other Commonwealth hopefuls found themselves en route to Cookstown. After a serious sweat, pandemonium unfolded on the bus before mayhem took over off it.
“While we were on the way down to Sense, phone calls were coming back and forward from ones who were at the Ulster Council meeting to decide what was happening with the team. At one stage they were talking about only sending a team of four, then it was six… this was all within the space of an hour.
“We were all beating the WKD into us, acting the big lads, but you were nervous waiting to hear. Then, a few minutes before we got there, big Tommy McCarthy gets off the phone – ‘lads, they’re sending a full team. Paddy, you’re picked’. Boom!
“We went in and went insane, in a good way. But then when we got outside later somebody started a scrap – not one of us, one of those country boys. Anyway, it was madness after that.
“I was inside the bus, blocked, trying to get out. Paddy Barnes was lying sleeping, hands in his pockets, out like a light. My mate’s brother stripped naked and went out ready to go like something out of Bronson – it was just all out war everywhere you looked.
“All these culchies, absolute rockets, they ripped out the spare tyre and put it underneath the wheel so the bus couldn’t get away. Windows were getting smashed in, only the driver’s window was left by the end of it. Somehow we ended up getting away, heading down the road in a bus with no windows, f**king freezing.
“What a night.”
A 10-strong team was picked initially – Barnes, Conlan, Tyrone McCullagh, Mark O’Hara, Donnelly, Gallagher, Eamonn O’Kane, McCarthy, Steven Ward and super-heavy Cathal McMonagle.
However, with a six week training camp scheduled down at the High Performance unit in Dublin, work commitments forced McMonagle out of the reckoning.
Gallagher was doing shifts at Marks & Spencer on the Boucher Road when the call came but, after getting the green light, found himself improving day by day in the lead-up to Delhi.
“As well as Mickey Hawkins and Stephen Friel, Zaur [Antia] and Billy [Walsh] were taking us, you were working with Gerry Hussey, the sports psychologist to the Olympic team. That whole period really brought me on.
“There were a lot of things to do with feinting and timing that I worked on down there and they came off brilliant. It was drilled in, every day, every session.”
When the time came to leave for India, Gallagher couldn’t have felt more ready. Putting on the gear, arriving at the athletes’ village, he embraced every bit of the buzz that the Commonwealths had to offer.
“I collected all the different wee things out there, I still have them in the house. Then coming out for the opening ceremony in our blazers and all… you were the man, you’d made it.
“We decided beforehand we were going to paint our faces, Braveheart-style. We got the green paint and all the Northern Ireland Commonwealth staff were saying ‘no, you can’t do that, you can’t do that’.
“We went ahead and did it on the fly and ended up all over the papers, on the TV… all of a sudden the ones who had been cracking up at us were all patting us on the back.”
Once the serious stuff started, though, shock defeats for medal hopefuls Conlan and Donnelly served as an early wake-up call.
“Mick was only 18 but he was still class. Donnelly was the king of Ulster. After they lost you were thinking ‘who the hell are we fighting here?’”
But, shutting everything else out - just as Gerry Hussey had instructed him - Gallagher surged to whitewash victories over Cameroon’s Joseph Mulema (3-0) and Suruz Bangali of Bangladesh (9-0) to set up a quarter-final showdown with Mujandjae Kasuto.
The Namibian caused plenty of headaches before Gallagher edged to a 7-5 win. Now home favourite Dilbag Singh was the only thing standing between him and a place in the final.
The experienced Singh had coasted into the last four – “this guy was winning by cricket scores” – but again Gallagher upset the formbook.
“He was the home boy but I went in and cuffed him up.
“The scoring system was points, so it was great for my style. For me it was perfect timing that it came in then, not so much for others – including Smith.”
EVEN though he was only 20, Callum Smith was already a name by the time he arrived in Delhi. The Scouser’s siblings Paul, Stephen and Liam were making noise in the pro ranks at the time, but all three readily spoke of the youngest brother as the best of the bunch.
Gallagher remembers first catching sight of the lanky Liverpudlian during a walk through the village, a sneaking suspicion growing that their paths were destined to cross.
“I was over in Liverpool for a four nations tournament in 2006 and Billy Joe Saunders was one of the ones there… just the way he looked at us, he was growling… he was just the same obnoxious dick he still is now.
“The English can try and intimidate you, so this day we were outside our apartments in Delhi, they were walking near us and I remember Smith looking over. I was like ‘what are you looking at? I’m gonna batter you 11-6 soon, yeoooooo…’”
And while extra motivation wasn’t required, it would come in the form of an unexpected visit as D-day neared.
Weeks before the Commonwealths began, Gerard McManus and another friend, Kieran Shanahan, promised they would be there if Gallagher reached the final. No sooner had his hand been raised against Singh than they set about fulfilling their end of the bargain.
“Gerard’s like a big brother to me – I couldn’t believe it. It took them over a day to get here, and then they left the day after the final. It was nuts.
“They didn’t even have tickets. They were on to [then Ulster Council president] Pat McCrory and other people, ringing about, checking online. Outside the touts were looking serious money.
“Eventually they got in and I was running about the stadium in my kit when I saw them… unreal.”
Nine months after the devastation of defeat to Donnelly, and all the water that gushed beneath the bridge in between, Paddy Gallagher’s time had come.
Once the first bell sounded, Gallagher couldn’t believe his luck as his opponent played right into his hands, the 6'2" Smith staying on the inside instead of maximising his physical advantages.
Smith battled back in the second round but Gallagher came on strong in the third to seal the deal 11-6, cartwheeling across the ring when his name was called before charging straight into the crowd to embrace McManus and Shanahan. Footage of that celebration was included in a montage of the Games highlights at the closing ceremony, with a glorious picture flater eatured in the pages of Ring magazine.
Microphones were thrust into his face in those delirious moments afterwards as he tried to make sense of it all. Sporting an enormous leprechaun hat and speaking at “300 mile an hour”, those interviews have become the stuff of legend.
“Full on westie smick," he smiles.
“People thought Paddy Barnes was bad until they heard me. I still get slegged about it. The adrenaline was just flying through and whatever came out, came out. You know what though? There’s plenty of things I’d regret or cringe at, but I don’t regret that at all.
“It was unbelievable. Sure even now, here we are talking about it. It actually came up on my Facebook memories a few years ago, a post from the time.
“This was 2010, social media wasn’t as big as it is now, and I wrote something like ‘won gold at the Commonwealth Games today’. It got about 20 likes and four comments. F**k me you’d get more than that for putting up a picture of your dinner now… ungrateful bastards.”
As for his opponent that day, he hasn’t done too badly since.
Where Gallagher struggled to find the right team to get behind him in those crucial early years, Smith has been brought along at the perfect pace by Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom.
Now 30, and with an unbeaten 27-0 record, he is on the cusp of a multi-million pound showdown against the biggest draw in the sport – Mexican superstar Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. Gallagher, meanwhile, is still pondering his next move after a pro career beset by bad luck and bad decisions.
“I haven’t seen Smith since… apart from on TV, making millions and being a world superstar.
"He went his way and I went my way. Maybe one day I might fight ‘Canelo’… f**k 'at. For £50 million I might, him and his da.
“After the Comnonwealths I slipped a lot. I got complacent. After we got the medals you were thinking ‘when we get off this plane they’ll be throwing money at us’, but there was no real scene here then.
“Smith was well guided where I was clutching at straws. I tried Hearn through a third party, Frank Warren, Frank Maloney, and no-one was biting. Sure I didn’t even end up making my debut until 2012.
“But that’s just the way things panned out, you can’t change it. Sometimes I think I haven’t done anything with my life, then I realise I was Commonwealth Games gold medallist at 21. From not even going at all I came away with the best experience I’ve ever had.
“That’s not too bad.”