After boxing ends... Ryan Burnett coming to terms with having to hang up his gloves

Able to look himself in the mirror... Boxer Ryan Burnett talks to the Irish News after his career in the ring. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Able to look himself in the mirror... Boxer Ryan Burnett talks to the Irish News after his career in the ring. Picture by Hugh Russell. Able to look himself in the mirror... Boxer Ryan Burnett talks to the Irish News after his career in the ring. Picture by Hugh Russell.

RYAN Burnett runs his own busy gym in Antrim town these days. He’s happily married and looking forward to the future but there was a time, not long ago, when the former WBA and IBF champion found himself in a “very dark place” after injury had cruelly cut him down in his prime.

Rewind back to two years ago and the north Belfast bantam locked horns with Nonito Donaire in a glitz and glamour World Series of Boxing crossroads fight between the young up-and-comer (19-0) and the veteran warrior who had more knockouts (24) than he’d had fights.

By the fourth round Burnett (then 27) was showing signs of getting on top. Blessed with fast hands, quick feet and a heart the size of a house, he looked strong and had sharpened his excellent technique under Adam Booth’s watchful eye.

The gameplan was working, Burnett was beating ‘the Filipino Flash’ to the punch with increasing regularity, but even Booth, the most meticulous coach of them all, couldn’t have planned for what would happen next.

Burnett twisted his body to throw a right hand and suddenly: "It just felt like someone had pulled my insides out."

With 51 seconds left in the round, he sank to the canvas in agony, clutching his back with his glove. Referee Howard Foster began the count and Burnett bravely got back on his feet. But it was like shooting fish in a barrel for Donaire and he teed off as Burnett desperately survived until the end of the round and when the bell finally sounded he limped back to his corner.

In obvious pain, he couldn’t make it out for the fifth and was carried from the ring in a stretcher. Although he couldn’t have known it then, a career that looked certain to lead him to fame and fortune and the very summit of the sport, was all but over.

There was a comeback a year ago at the Ulster Hall and Burnett signed off with a stoppage win but the magic was gone and, with a heavy, heavy heart, he walked away.

“I wasn’t 100 per cent,” he says.

“I thought everything would have been fine but it obviously wasn’t so that’s why I decided to make the decision to retire.

“For a period of time I was in a really bad place, I went into a really dark place.”

Understandably, he’s reluctant to discuss that period of his life.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says but the good news is that he was able to move on relatively quickly by concentrating on the positives his career brought him.

“It is tough,” he says.

“I could sit here and tell you all the things that make me feel shit about that situation but I prefer to look at all the good things that have come out of it: I’ve started my own business, I spend more time with my wife and I’m creating a more stable life for myself which I would have had to do anyway once boxing ended.

“When push comes to shove, I had an unbelievable career, I set myself up (financially) and I’m healthy so, to be honest, I don’t feel as bitter about it as an outsider might think.

“If I looked at it in a certain way I could tell you that I could have been a three or four-time world champion, I could have beat the best in the world, I could have made myself more millions…

“But what I am saying is: I’ve set myself up, I spend more time with my family, I own my own business which is bringing me in a great wage and I feel really comfortable with my life and I’m only 28. If you heard that, you would say: ‘Well that kid’s doing alright!’ So two different outlooks will give you two completely different stories regarding the same situation.”

It’s a good lesson isn’t it? Be grateful for what you have and Burnett retired having achieved so much. He out-boxed Lee Haskins to win the IBF belt and unified the title when he added the WBA belt in a contrasting, head-to-head battle against teak-tough Kazak Zhanat Zhakiyanov in Belfast.

That night at the SSE was the culmination of a career that had started getting on for 20 years previously when he walked into Tony Dunlop’s Belfast Kronk gym as a wise-cracking nine year-old.

“Tony taught me the basics of the game and then I moved on to Gerry Storey,” he explained.

“I felt like I really came into my own when I moved onto the Irish team and I started getting coached by Jimmy Kane. He’s the man who made me number one in the world as an amateur.

“When I turned pro with Ricky Hatton, he brought me up another level and then I went to Adam Booth in London. Adam is extremely, extremely astute when it comes to the technical side of boxing.

“He’s a great guy and a great coach. When I met him I was in a rough stage in my life and not only was he a great trainer he was a great mentor outside of the ring – teaching me how to face problems and deal with them and what kind of an attitude and mindset to have.

“Adam wasn’t just a good coach, he was a good life coach as well.”

It would be a shame if all that experience and knowhow he’s accumulated throughout those amateur and professional careers went to waste and, encouragingly, there are indications that it won’t. Burnett has put his toe back into the water while working with Belfast fighters Caoimhin Agyarko and Tyrone McKenna. Joe Fitzpatrick and Callum Bradley are also keen to train with him.

“Everything is good,” he says.

“I had to move gym because the place I was in wasn’t big enough so, within five days, I packed up my old gym, found a new premises and I’ve started back at it in Antrim town centre. I’m doing more than I originally expected to do but business is good so I can’t complain.”

He adds: “Getting back into boxing training is something for the future maybe.

“I’ve learned from the best in the game and I was like a sponge growing up. I took everything on board, I remembered every little detail when it comes to the technical side of boxing.

“It was only when I started teaching boxers and showing them the simple knowledge that I’ve picked up over the years… even high-level fighters like Caoimhin were saying to me: ‘I’ve never thought about it that way, I’ve never moved this way’.

“It was only recently that I thought to myself: ‘I could give this a good go’ but it’s down the line at the moment because my number one priority is to get my gym up-and-going and then, maybe, I might dip my toes into the water.”

With Carl Frampton chasing a third world title and one-time Adam Booth stablemate Mick Conlan and James Tennyson (trained by former coach Dunlop) both chasing world honours, the Belfast fight scene remains very vibrant despite the huge loss of Burnett.

He says there are a couple more who can also challenge at the highest level.

“Tommy McCarthy (EBU cruiserweight champ) has really jumped up and he’s put himself in an unbelievable position so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with it,” said Burnett.

“I’d love to see him get a world title shot.

“As far as prospects go, I’ve always thought Caoimhin was a great fighter but since I’ve been working with him I’ve seen how quickly he can learn. If he’s with the correct trainer and he gets managed correctly he could have a good career in the boxing game.”