Boxing

Seconds Out: Mac on track as Caitlin Fryers crowned Irish champ

Irish Elite 50 kilo champ Caitlin Fryers with Immaculata coaches Martin Lindsay and Gerry Nugent
Neil Loughran

THERE was footage floating about social media in the hour or two after the dust settled on the Irish Elite finals that summed up why it matters so much to have your hand raised on the calendar’s biggest night.

Unable to travel down to the National Stadium on Saturday due to Covid restrictions, the entire youth wing of the Immaculata Boxing Club were crammed into one of their coaches’ sheds back in west Belfast, eyes glued to the TV screen, eagerly awaiting the result of the 50kg final between Nicole Clyde and their own Caitlin Fryers.

In the TG4 studio, Olympians Michaela Walsh and Ken Egan reckoned the Mac woman had done enough – and the anxiety on their young faces turned to glee as Fryers deservedly got the nod after an all-action display.

It mattered plenty to her, but the trickle-down effect such victories can have is immeasurable. Each one of those young supporters will box at some level over the coming months as the delayed Antrim and Ulster season gets under way, some entering competitions for the first time.

Immaculata has never been short of fights to aspire to – in 21-year-old Fryers, they now have another.

Martin Lindsay remembers going to watch the likes of Frankie Slane when he was coming through the ranks and, having landed two Irish senior titles with the Mac, would go on claim the British featherweight strap as a pro.

Alongside the legendary Gerry ‘Nugget’ Nugent, Lindsay was in Fryers’s corner as she claimed a maiden Irish title at elite level, leaving behind the frustration of the past few years,

“You could see what it meant to them all, and to Caitlin, and to ourselves,” said the 39-year-old, who has helped establish the successful Belfast Met Boxing Academy since hanging up the gloves seven years ago.

“It was tough, a frustrating time for everybody, but now we’re all going to be flat out for the next three months with boxing back up and running – there’s targets and dates to get all the wee ones ready for, you see them coming back into the gym because there’s something to work towards.

“Even the other night, I was getting nervous like I did when I was fighting – it’s actually worse because when you’re fighting, you start to warm up and the butterflies go away, but when you’re a coach they stay there!

“I was over the moon with the performance, and for her. It was a tough couple of years there with no fights. She had won pretty much everything at underage but as soon as you step up to elite level, it’s nice to get that title.

“She lost on a split to Carly [McNaul] in the Ulster final a few years ago in a fight that could’ve gone either way, and she’s improved a lot since then. To be honest, there’s a lot more to Caitlin than we saw the other night.”

It remains to be seen what McNaul’s intentions are, with December’s Ulster Elite Championships edging ever closer. All eyes will be on earning a spot at next year’s Commonwealth Games, with McNaul having picked up a silver medal in the Gold Coast three years ago.

They look like the two leading contenders for the 51kg spot, and Lindsay admits they know each other “extremely well”.

“They’ve sparred loads of rounds together, Carly’s got that victory over her from a few years back, but boxing’s all about timing.

“I just feel now Caitlin’s getting near her best. She’s going to be a handful for anyone.”

And Lindsay was delighted to have Nugent back by his side at the Stadium as another name was added to the Mac’s long list of Irish champions.

“He’s back and he’s full of beans.

“He took a step away because of Covid, he was cautious, understandably being over 70. He was very wary.

“But Nugget’s starting to relax and get the buzz for it again. Even down in Dublin, all the oul faces were coming up and chatting to him - he loved it.”

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Irish Elite 60kg champion JP Hale with star coaches Barry McMahon (left) and Liam Corr

HALE VICTORY A LESSON IN PERSEVERANCE

JOHN Paul Hale wasn’t even born when his uncle, James Rooney, claimed Star Boxing Club’s last Irish senior title – and coach Liam Corr will be urging the new breed to make sure there isn’t such a long wait next time.

Rooney claimed three consecutive titles from 1996-’98, but it was 23 years before the north Belfast club would welcome another through its doors following Hale’s success on Saturday night.

The two-time Ulster elite champion did the business in Saturday’s 60kg final, producing a measured performance to get the better of Emerald rival Dominic Bradley.

But while Hale might have been straight back down to the High Performance unit in Abbotstown yesterday morning, his trophy and medal were brought into the Star club last night to show the hordes of up-and-coming young boxers what can be achieved.

“I have them to show them all, and all the other coaches, because you were only two at the stadium due to Covid restrictions,” says Corr, who was still boxing when Hale first walked through the doors 13 years ago.

“Honestly, I’m still buzzing a couple of days on. He boxed perfect, he boxed to instruction. I watched it back and Kurt [Walker] and Michaela [Walsh] were talking about the boxer versus the brawler, and probably anybody who saw him in the Ulster Hall against Colm Murphy, that’s probably what they would have expected.

“But JP can box too. It was good for him to show people it’s not just all about having a war, and for us to see what we see in the gym – that he can box, that he can be patient and pick his punches.”

And Hale’s is a lesson in perseverance too, having come out on the wrong side of the judges’ scorecards throughout his juvenile career. Since hitting senior though, there has been no stopping him.

“Over the years, we’d have gone up to the high performance and listened to John Conlan talking about maturing at different ages, getting physicality at different ages, and JP is probably the prime example of that,” says Corr.

“He didn’t win his first Ulster title until he was 17, he was beat in finals on split decisions by good boxers, and he’s always in a strong enough weight category.

“Plenty would’ve said ‘maybe this isn’t for me’, but he never let it get him down. He’s very quiet, very reserved, but I know this means a lot to him… that’s what he said when he came out of the ring - ‘that’s what all the hard work was for’.

“The blood, sweat and tears, the close calls, it was all worth it now.”

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Boxing