'If you're honest you have nothing to worry about': Eugene Duffy looks back on life in and out of the ring

Eugene Duffy has given so much of his life to boxing and now, as the sport slowly re-emerges from a largely lost 14 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Derry official is looking forward to getting back to the world he knows best. He talks to Neil Loughran…

Eugene Duffy back where it all began, at the Guild Hall in Derry where he used to sell boxing programmes before his own career within the sport. Picture by Hugh Russell

THERE are familiar faces no matter where you go to watch amateur boxing in Ireland. Some you know, some you don’t but they’re there – they’re always there. Maybe judging, helping set up, sometimes just lending a guiding hand to get a show on the road.

Eugene Duffy has played all those parts across a lifetime dedicated to the fight game, and is a man you meet wherever you go.

Through the decades the Derry man has garnered a reputation as one the country’s most respected officials. Considering how often he has been the man in the middle at Ulster and Irish senior finals nights - and the rest - to still be held in such regard is no mean feat.

At 73 Duffy is the longest serving official in Ulster, quite possibly the whole island, and has represented Ireland on more than 60 occasions at international and multi-nation events including major European championships, Commonwealths, the World Golden Gloves tournament in Minnesota in 2007 and the 2003 World Elite Championships in Thailand.

Duffy – whose son Kevin is the current Ulster Council president - has also been a referee/judge at Olympic qualifiers in Europe, America and Trinidad and Tobago, and was appointed referee/judge with the Irish team on three separate tours of the USA and Canada.

Three years ago he was honoured at the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) awards in Dublin - but he is not done yet.

Still president of St Joseph’s Boxing Club in his home city, chairman of the County Derry boxing board, an Ulster Council member and registrar of the Ulster referee and judges’ committee, Duffy is ready and raring to go as the sport emerges from the wilderness of a largely lost 14 months.

Covid-19 continues to take a personal toll, but it is the wider impact on the boxing community – and especially the loss of friend and Saints BC stalwart Harry Cunningham last October – that is foremost in his mind as things gradually get back up and running.

“I went to Wales with an Irish team at the end of February in 2020 and I’d this terrible cough. I got antibiotics but then all this talk of Covid started.

“Everybody else who was away with us was okay but I think I might have that long Covid now - I just seem to be tired all the time, there’s a shortness of breath. But I do be grateful because there’s a lot of people were much worse off than me.

“We lost the likes of Harry Cunningham… I was with Harry and his two sons, Liam and Harry junior, down at the IABA awards a few years back. He was a good friend of mine and we couldn’t even go and pay our respects.

“It has been a really difficult year for everyone, and everybody missed the boxing. It probably got a sore touch because it’s an indoor sport, but it couldn’t have gone on.

“We were in the middle of a pandemic and people just have to understand that… there are thousands of people dead and people are talking about boxing and sport. Sometimes you just have to wait until the time is right.”

Always the voice of reason and perspective, but don’t misunderstand the message – he was as delighted as anybody, probably moreso, to see clubs finally open their doors last month once the green light was given.

This is a man whose fondness for the fight game runs deep and has done from the earliest of days thanks to the combination of a Derry hero on the doorstep, and a star of the silver screen.

“There was no boxing in the family or anything like that but my idol Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly, who won the British and Empire titles in the 1950s, lived a few streets away from me in the old Bogside. Billy and his son Jimmy are the only father and son to win the British featherweight title, a feat that has never been repeated.

“So I joined the Kelly club in Lorne Street, and then around that time there was a film out called Somebody Up There Likes Me with Paul Newman - it was the story of Rocky Graziano and his rise to the world title.

“My father took me to see that picture and from then on I was completely hooked.”

When the Kelly club closed in the ’60s, its boxers moved on elsewhere, with a young Duffy joining St Eugene’s. If he wasn’t in the thick of the action himself, he would be down selling programmes at the Guild Hall for whatever show was coming to town.

Unfortunately, though, an eye injury would curtail his own boxing career before it really got going.

“The great Patsy Havern was the trainer at St Eugene’s and he was the man who pushed me on then.

“I made it to the National Stadium in ’62 and ’63 with an Ulster boxing team, Harry Enright was manager those times. But my career was cut short at 17 due to an eye injury that I got playing hurling – in 1965 a doctor advised my parents to get me to stop boxing due to the injury, then after two years they gave me the all clear but by then I had work commitments and I’d lost a bit of interest.

“Patsy had become a good friend and he asked me to consider doing a bit of coaching and to start looking into the seminars for judging and refereeing, so I did.”

After qualifying as a referee and judge in 1978, he quickly progressed from the schoolboys up to the senior ranks before a career that took him across the globe until he eventually retired as an AIBA world official in 2008.

And Duffy looks back with fondness as he recalls some of the great fighters he was “privileged” to share a ring with.

“Ah I had the pleasure of officiating some great boxers. Honestly, there are that many, you’d be scared of leaving anybody out.

“Belfast at that particular time was full of great boxers. Wayne McCullough was starting off his career, Eamonn Magee, Michael Carruth, Joe Lowe, Paul Griffin, Sam Storey, Gerry Storey jr, Ray Close, Tommy Corr, Roy Nash, John Lowey, Hugh Russell, Neil Sinclair, Kenny Beattie, Billy Walsh, Katie Taylor, Danny Ryan, John Duddy… you could go on all day.

“On the international stage I refereed people like Carl Froch and David Haye. I was lucky enough to get a to travel a right bit because there was a lot of people at that time who, while good at their job, might not have been as available as I was.

“I had a job that I could get time away from, they allowed me off,” he says, before laughing, “and my wife was only too delighted too to get rid of me.”

Despite seeing some of the world’s best emerging boxers at close quarters, though, there is one man who stands above all others when Duffy is asked to pick his favourite – and few of that generation would argue with his selection of Jim McCourt.

The brilliant Belfast southpaw returned from the last Tokyo Olympics, back in 1964, with a bronze medal around his neck and is widely regarded as one of the greatest technicians Ireland has ever produced.

Duffy couldn’t agree more.

“I had great affection for Jim McCourt.

“He had great defence, was very hard to hit… he boxed behind the Iron Curtain and got medals, whenever you really had to be special to get medals. To go and beat people from those countries behind the Iron Curtain, you had to be something else - and McCourt was really special.

“Being from Derry, I have to mention a few of our own boxers as well, such as my best friend from my old club, Neil McLaughlin, who is sadly no longer with us. Neil was an Irish champion, he was like the matchstick man but he had a punch like a mule.

“Charlie Nash was also something else too. Both of those boys went to the Munich Olympics in 1972 and were a credit to boxing in Ireland for years.”

And Duffy was in his own right, particularly on the international stage.

The reputation of judges in amateur boxing has always been under the most intense of scrutiny, and never moreso than on the Olympic stage.

Duffy watched on in horror when Roy Jones jr was robbed of a deserved gold medal at Seoul ’88, and in Rio five years ago when Michael Conlan came out on the wrong end of a horrible decision against Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin.

Those are just two of the more high profile cases, but issues with judging - and the different scoring systems used through the years – remain at all levels of the sport.

“Like most officials I always tried to be honest and fair for both athletes as they always deserved my full attention as a referee or judge. That was important.

“The judges at ringside have to give the boxers 100 per cent attention, because sometimes I’ll see officials at ringside and they’re not even watching the contest. That’s how you end up with these stupid 4-1 decisions and you have people shouting and roaring. If they’d be a wee bit more attentive that wouldn’t happen.

“People need refreshers every year to bring them up to date on new rules, new skills. Before every competition, we do it at all Ulster championships at all levels, maybe a 20 minute talk with officials where we’re just reminding them that they are 100 per cent there for the boxers.

“I don’t want them to be careless, I don’t want to see stupid 4-1 decisions that have the crowd shouting about Specsavers or whatever.

“It’s the boxers who put in the time to get to where they are to try and win medals at these major championships, and then that can lead them on into the professional world.

“Now there are so many referees who think it’s all about themselves, they want to be in the limelight and I believe that’s a problem. That’s in the amateur and professional ranks. A good referee is supposed to not be seen in the ring - just let the boxers get on with it.

“Some referees now want to qualify to go to all these major events as well. AIBA was suspended from the Olympic Games after Rio… that wasn’t by chance when you see what happened the likes of young Conlan.”

And Duffy admits that, through his own time on the international scene, there were things he witnessed that left a sour taste.

“At that level of competition there is a lot of stuff goes on that shouldn’t go on… some countries would have approached me at Olympic qualifiers, offering you anything, bribes, to get their boxer a medal if they thought you were going to be on their contest.

“That sort of thing happened all the time. But you can’t compromise your own integrity. You’d be nervous at those big championships but it’s really the same as being in Belfast or the Guild Hall in Derry.

“If you’re honest you have nothing to worry about. Thankfully I didn’t get into too many arguments and I made a lot of friends.”

Now, as the wheels begin to turn again, he is looking forward to getting back to ringside and watching the next generation of young hopefuls make up for lost time.

And the internal wranglings of the IABA, the question marks over Bernard Dunne and the workings of his High Performance Unit, those are issues he would love to see successfully resolved so Irish boxing can thrive once more.

“Honestly, I’m dying to get back again. If they asked me to judge an odd contest or do the bell, I’d do whatever I’m asked to do.

“I’d love to see all the units, from the directors to the High Performance, to the central council and members, that they would all work together as closely as they could to enhance the quality Ireland has at all levels.

“Because of a lost year in amateur boxing, we need a big effort from everybody to get back up and running. There was a disaster down in Rio and hopefully lessons were learnt, but that has to be put aside for the good of the sport.

“Now we’re all looking forward to Tokyo and hoping to see some Irish boxers get up onto the podium and show what we’re all about.”

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