JIM Montague lost his first two contests as an amateur and he had his mind made up to quit when his elder brother Terry stepped in.
“He hit me a slap and told me to catch myself on,” says Jim.
And so he kept at it, but results didn’t improve and the future Irish Olympian was 0-4 when he boarded the De La Salle minibus as an 11-year-old for a trip to Ballymena and a club match against the local All Saints ABC in the early 1960s.
Who was in the opposite corner that night? A big lad with ‘a particular set of skills’ called Liam Neeson.
The future Hollywood movie star was introduced to boxing by Ballymena parish priest Fr Alex Darragh but Jim took a more unusual route to the sport. His brothers Terry and John (RIP) were residents in the De La Salle remand home for “bad boys” on the Glen Road in Belfast. Jim visited them every week and discovered a boxing club in the home that he says was the best in Ireland at the time.
“They had all kinds of equipment,” he recalled.
“It was like a jail only the lads got out at the weekend, but every weekend I went up and stayed in it. There was a big path up to it and every weekend I was walking up it and hundreds of lads were walking down to get out! I went up to train and I used to love it because you got well fed in it and it was a brilliant club - De La Salle was the club to box for then.”
Despite the surroundings and the training, Jim got off to an uncertain start as an amateur fighter and he’d lost four in-a-row by the time he faced Neeson.
“I remember that night in Ballymena so clearly because I didn’t know what it was like to win a fight, I thought I wasn’t going to win one,” he says.
“Liam Neeson was a big lad, awkward and I was afraid because Fr Darragh was one of the judges and he was the president of the All Saints club. I think he went for Neeson but I got a majority decision.
“I sat and had a chat to him after it and it was great going there because you got buns and sandwiches – I’d have fought Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston to get to Ballymena!”
Jim went on to represent Ireland at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and won Northern Ireland and Irish titles during a professional career that included a winning appearance alongside the late Marvelous Marvin Hagler in Boston.
Meanwhile, Neeson went on to win an Irish title but is obviously best known for starring in blockbuster movies including The Mission, Michael Collins, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Dark Night Rises, Schindler’s List and Taken.
The fighters never crossed paths again but Jim did hear that Neeson had (jokingly) discussed a rematch some years later in conversation with a local newsagent during a visit Ballymena to see his family.
“I used to deliver papers around Ballymena and I got friendly with a lot of the newsagents around the town,” Jim explained.
“Eugene Diamond had a shop on Broughshane Street and I was leaving in the papers at about 4am one Sunday morning. He said to me: ‘I was talking to a fella who’s looking to fight you…’
“I says: Who?’
“He says: ‘A big lad called Neeson’.”
Jim countered with his 24-carrat Belfast sense of humour: ‘Aye, ask him would he rather be in Schindler’s List or have boxed for Ireland at the Munich Olympics like me?”
Among the many highlights of Jim’s career was meeting his idol Muhammad Ali when he was in Dublin training for the 1972 Olympics and ‘The Greatest’ was in the city for his fight with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis.
“He wished me well in the Olympics as long as I didn’t fight an American,” he recalls.
After winning his first contest, Montague lost to Sugar Ray Seales (the only American boxer to win gold at those Games) who went on to three famous battles with Hagler as a pro.
“I went back to the dressingroom after it and I was lying there with a towel wrapped round my head,” he recalls.
“’Depressed’ wasn’t the word and then John Rogers, who helped Gerry Storey do my corner, comes over and says, as diplomatic as you can be: ‘Here Montague, the only time you hit him was when yiz touched gloves’.
“And you know what… he was right.”
PADDY Donovan returns to action after an injury-disrupted six months on Saturday night’s stacked Glasgow card which is headlined by Josh Taylor’s defence of his unified world lightweight title against 26-0 Jamie Moore-trained challenger Jack Catterall.
Donovan is one of four Irish fighters scheduled to appear on the SSE Hydro bill and Eric Donovan (no relation) is chief support to Taylor-Catterall. Donovan takes on former Cuban double Olympic gold medallist Robeisy Ramirez who reigned supreme at the 2012 and 2016 Games at flyweight and bantamweight respectively.
Conlan Boxing duo Kurt Walker and Kieran Molloy make their professional debuts on the undercard and coach Andy Lee says Paddy Donovan is “looking forward to putting on a show” in Glasgow.
“Paddy’s in great form and he’s eager to get back in the ring after a frustrating couple of months with a hand injury,” Lee told The Irish News.
“He’s looking forward to putting on a show on Saturday night, he’s in brilliant form and he’s a sensational talent. Of all the fighters I work with, he’s by far the most talented and I’m excited to see him fight.
“He’s got a tough opponent – Miloslav Serban (13-8) from the Czech Republican is a tough man and he’s a hard style to fight against but Paddy is more than capable of dealing with him and hopefully putting on a good show in the first of many good fights this year.”
Meanwhile, Athy native Eric Donovan (14-1) has bounced back with two wins after the first loss of his career against Zelfa Barrett in August 2020 but he’ll go in as underdog against the former Cuban goldenboy who defected to the USA in 2018.
However, it has taken Ramirez time to adjust to the professional game and his career began with a shock loss to unknown Adan Gonzales which he has avenged it on the way to 8-1. Top Rank chairman Bob Arum expects him to advance to 9-1 on Saturday night and Ramirez, who impressed on the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder III undercard last October, intends to put impress the Glasgow fight fans.
“Ever since I won my first Olympic gold medal in London, I've wanted to fight again in this part of the world,” he said.
“Scottish fans are incredibly passionate, and I can't wait to put on a great show for them in front of a sold-out arena. My opponent is a tough Irishman, and I will be at my very best to come out victorious."
Another tough Irishman – Kieran Molloy – gets his first taste of pro action on the card and the Galway native intends to make a memorable impression.
“This is a huge platform to make my debut on,” he said.
“These are the type of cards that will give me plenty of exposure. I’m buzzing to start my journey in Glasgow which will be an exciting night. I want to be active in my first year, hopefully, I’ll be out six times this year. Top Rank will be running plenty of shows in the UK and America so me and my management will be pushing to be involved on these big fight nights.”