'My granda's back in my corner': Eireann Nugent determined to make up for lost time at Commonwealth Games

After 11 years out of the ring, Eireann Nugent is determined to seize her second chance as the Commonwealth Games loom – and as Neil Loughran finds out, the Immaculata ace is delighted to have a familiar figure granda back in her corner…

Following a lengthy exile, Eireann Nugent returned to boxing less than a year ago under the watchful eye of grandfather Gerry 'Nugget Nugent at the famous Immaculata club in west Belfast. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

THROUGHOUT the darkest days of the pandemic, the Immaculata club fell silent. From the sound of young voices and familiar shouts of encouragement on both sides of the ropes to nothing, just like that.

Wary of the threat posed by Covid even when boxing clubs were eventually given a tentative nod to resume activities, Gerry ‘Nugget’ Nugent kept his distance.

He played a central role in the creation of the Mac, but the heavy lifting had now been assumed by protégés like Martin Lindsay and Frankie Slane as the conveyor belt of emerging talent was cranked up once more.

‘Nugget’ wasn’t done yet, though, and his return to the fold dovetailed with the re-emergence of granddaughter Eireann Nugent less than a year ago.

Having first laced up gloves at 13, she possessed all the tools to push on in Ireland and potentially at international level, her peek-a-boo style posing problems for most.

That her last competitive bout in February 2011 had been against future Olympic champion Kellie Harrington says everything about the company and the class in which she was mixing.

Yet, before Nugent’s potential had come even close to being realised, she was gone, another name for boxing’s long list of lost souls.

“Life just got in the way, work got in the way, relationships got in the way.

“I went out and literally lived a life, gave myself a bit of a life. Sometimes you beat yourself up thinking you’re missing out, so I went on and enjoyed myself, enjoyed those years, then beat myself up for walking away from something I loved.

“You’d be bumping into people and they’re saying ‘ah kid, you’re a wasted talent, get back into it’. I thought I was maybe a bit too old to get back into it… my granda fell out with me for walking away from boxing.

“But then Covid was an eye-opener for everybody. I think it left a lot of people saying ‘life’s too short here, you never know what’s around the corner’.”

Although frustrated at Eireann stepping away, ‘Nugget’ believes he may have played some part in her interest cooling.

Coming from “the old stock”, girls and boxing just didn’t go. You have to remember, this was before Katie Taylor had captured the imagination of a nation before landing gold at London 2012 – the first Olympic Games to allow female boxing.

Such scepticism certainly wasn’t exclusive to him, but ‘Nugget’ admits it is a regret that he hadn’t wholeheartedly thrown himself into Eireann’s development when she was coming through the ranks.

“I think it was partly me [why she left boxing] not taking a real interest in her. In hindsight, I wish I had.

“I didn’t like the girls’ boxing at the start, so I just worked away with the boys more or less. I thought girls’ boxing would’ve just flopped, which shows how much I know.

“Katie Taylor made me sit up and go ‘Jesus, that wee girl is something else’. Now, if you get a good girl you’re flying, and we’ve a few good’uns at the club at the minute…”

Eireann is one of them – and watching former foe Kellie Harrington standing on top of the podium in Tokyo last August was all the inspiration she needed.

“Seeing that, I just thought ‘right Eireann, come on, let’s go…’”

Out of shape but eager to give it one last go, she came back to the Mac a woman on a mission.

“A couple of times she sort of came back and then left again,” says coach Martin Lindsay, who competed at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, “but then when lockdown came she sustained a bit of training, ended up getting a wee bit fitter and started to believe she could fight again.

“And ‘Nugget’ was all bizz with her coming back and doing well… it’s actually given him a wee boost.”

“When she came back I had her eating, training, eating, training,” adds ‘Nugget’, “I was able to get her every day, and we got her down to 66 kilos. When she’s in the mood, there’s no stopping her.

“You can’t be telling her don’t do this or don’t do that, she’ll go behind your back and do it… she always gives her lot. She’s got that real boxer attitude.”

A walkover at the Ulster Elites left Nugent in limbo but when she was invited to attend assessments for the Commonwealth Games, albeit at the 70 kilo limit, the wheels of an unexpected comeback were already being greased.

After 11 years away from the fight game, this was a chance to show she meant business.

In the absence of any competition for the spot within Ulster, Lisa O’Rourke – a couple of months before the Roscommon woman would go all the way to World glory – was brought up to Jordanstown to test the 30-year-old’s mettle.

“Honestly,” says Team NI head coach Damien Kennedy, “coming in after so long, she was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.”

“Lisa’s an amazing boxer, head and shoulders above me too,” smiles Nugent.

“I’m small at the weight, but I’m a wee pocket rocket anyway. It was a serious challenge, but I obviously surprised everyone. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

Nugent has continued to make an impression as the Commonwealths near, first at a multi-nations training camp in Italy before making her return to the ring at last month’s Eindhoven Cup.

In the final, home favourite Kris Anne Mulder was forced to take a count as the explosive Irishwoman swept to a convincing victory. It was good to be back.

Now, with weeks passing by in the blink of an eye, the next stop is Birmingham and a chance to make up for lost time – and to make her granda even more proud.

“Och Eireann’s a great character, she really is, and she has a brilliant attitude to the sport,” says ‘Nugget’.

“If she hadn’t jacked it in when she did, who knows what she could’ve gone and done by now? We’ll never know, she’ll never know - but she has the chance to do something now.”

“I actually feel like it’s a bit of a blessing in disguise,” she adds.

“The fact I am at this age now, I know what it’s like to walk away from the sport, I know what it’s like to be without it and to think you’ve missed your chance.

“My granda’s my best mate again, he’s back in my corner… I couldn’t have done it without him. I’m just so determined to go for it and give it everything I have.

“Life’s far too short to let your dreams go to waste.”

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