'Mari keeps me on the straight and narrow... if it wasn't for her I'd probably be out drinking every weekend'
Belfast flyweight Paddy Barnes on love, laughs and finally tying the knot with his sweetheart, and his masterplan to become the world champion
Belfast boxing hero Paddy Barnes has spoken about the inspirational influence his wife-to-be Mari has on his life and his career. In a heart-rending, open and honest interview, the 29-year-old two-time Olympic bronze medallist has also told how the devastating death of Mari's sister, Jamie, shortly before Christmas will be with the family forever.
Barnes is one of Ireland's most popular sporting stars. A gifted technician in the ring, he turned professional last year after shining in the amateur ranks where he became Commonwealth Games champion twice and European champion, as well as making his mark at the greatest show on earth, the Olympics.
He is as well-known for his wit as he is for his wonderful footwork and dazzling hand speed. Spend an hour in his company and you will laugh louder than during an evening with Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre and other such comedians.
What is not so celebrated is that his fiancee, Mari Burns, is just as funny as he is... her followers on Twitter would testify to that. "I give her all her jokes, that's why," says Paddy with a chuckle, knowing full well Mari writes her own material. We are speaking before the tragedy of Jamie's death hit the family circle.
Paddy and Mari have two beautiful daughters, Eireann (2) and new arrival Fianna, and next July, after 13 years together, the couple are finally getting married.
I ask the two-time Commonwealth Games champion what he was waiting for. A smile crosses his face as he says: "I needed to make sure she was the right girl for me!"
So will he be getting involved in the wedding plans? The jokes keep coming.
"Well, I'm male, so no," he replies quick as a flash.
It's clear that love and laughter are the cornerstones of their relationship.
There is also a serious side to Paddy Barnes, though. When the wisecracks stop and he speaks about his sport, it is always worth listening.
He may be a tough man inside the ropes, but down the years I've noticed that he's a big softie outside them. His endless charity work is testament to that.
And then there's his family - his girls and Mari. A glow of pride brightens his face when he talks about the woman who will become his wife later this year.
"Mari is a massive influence in my life. She keeps me on the straight and narrow. If I wasn't with her and was on my own I would probably be out drinking every weekend and not taking boxing as seriously as I should," he says. "She keeps me right in terms of diet and making sure I'm not cutting corners.
"I'm very proud of her. We get on well and like a laugh. That's why we are so happy and have been together so long. She's a fantastic woman and we have two amazing daughters.
"The last year we have had some tough times but Mari has been brilliant and I try to be strong for her."
The toughest time came a week before Christmas when Mari's sister Jamie passed away. Speaking to Paddy again this week, following the tragedy, it's obvious the feelings are still raw.
"It was a difficult time and we struggled through it. It's still terrible, to be honest. It will be tough forever. You never get over it," he said, with sadness in his voice.
There is a sense that Barnes is glad 2017 has arrived after such an emotional and turbulent year.
In 2016 he was supposed to return from Rio as Olympic champion, but lost in his first round contest. Then Mari, due to complications, was in hospital for almost two months ahead of giving birth to Fianna in November as he prepared for his professional debut, which he admits turned into a farce.
"Prior to that fight Mari was in hospital for eight weeks so I had to look after Eireann," recalls the fighter.
"That meant I could only train once a day. I should really have been in England with a proper coach, training, but I was more or less just training by myself for my professional debut.
"It was hard because I was always a phone call away from having to rush to the hospital because Mari could have been having our second baby at any time. I was on standby 24/7. Even during training I had to have a phone beside me just in case I got the call. Thankfully Mari is on the mend now."
The fight itself saw the Belfast man's opponent, Stefan Slavchev from Bulgaria, disqualified for lifting Barnes off his feet, shoulder-high, in the type of move you might see on Strictly Come Dancing.
"It was terrible. He ran and hit and held and spoiled the fight and then he lifted me off the canvas. At least photographers got a good picture out of it. Our fight was really boring and awful to watch, but it still made news because he was disqualified for lifting me."
On the up side it was a win for Barnes, who will hope to build on that in his second professional fight at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on February 18, when Jamie Conlan will top the bill.
In the pro game now, Rio and his third Olympics is almost forgotten. "I was all set up to win Olympic gold after getting two bronze medals previously and it didn't happen for me. I was gutted," he states. "There were certain problems with the weight and the weigh-in which affected me.
"Making the weight, I usually had at least six hours of recovery before a fight. In Rio I only had three which was something I'd never been through in my career. That took its toll in my first fight. I genuinely thought I would be bringing back gold but it wasn't to be."
What was always on the cards was Barnes turning professional after the Olympics. Even that was clouded in controversy when he signed a contract with a gym associated with a Dublin crime family. Barnes agreed terms with MGM Marbella, founded by former professional Matt Macklin, who has no involvement in crime but is an associate of boxing promoter Daniel Kinahan and his father, Christy, a family at the heart of a bloody gangland feud.
Barnes admits he found the criticism of his choice hard to accept. "It was really tough. I normally don't care what people say about me but there are longer term effects to my career where sponsorships are concerned and people turning against me," he says.
"There was a lot written about me and, in my opinion, a lot of things got twisted. I felt it got to the stage where people were getting the impression that I was endorsing crime, which wasn't the case at all.
"People have said about connections to criminal gangs but to be honest I just want to be a boxer. Anything else is nothing to do with me. I have no involvement in anything other than sport.
"I'm in boxing to win world titles and make money for myself and my family and I'm working hard to do that."
Two of his best friends, Carl Frampton and Michael Conlan, would echo those sentiments. Like many from the fighting fraternity they will be at their pal's wedding in July. Before then they have business to take care of in America. Frampton is aiming to retain his World Featherweight title in Las Vegas against Leo Santa Cruz at the end of the month, while Conlan will make his much-anticipated professional debut at Madison Square Garden in New York on St Patrick's Day.
"Both Carl and Michael are good friends of mine. They are great guys with an incredible amount of boxing ability," says Paddy. "I think Carl will beat Santa Cruz more comfortably this time. I've heard Santa Cruz talk about different tactics but I don't see what he can bring new to the table at this stage of his career. Carl has a better range of skills and can out-box him and out-fight him.
"As for Michael, what an amazing place to start his professional career. Hopefully he will have a better debut than me! He will be brilliant because he is one of the best boxers Ireland's ever had. It'll be great for him to show the Americans and the rest of the world what he can do. He would have won Olympic gold in Rio but was denied by crazy judging."
While Frampton and Conlan have America on their minds, Barnes wants China in his hands in the future with a blockbuster world title contest against Zou Shiming, the man who defeated him at the semi-final stage of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and London 2012.
"I want to have five fights this year and am aiming for a European title shot as soon as possible. My plan is to fight the big names in the division. I don't want to avoid anyone," he emphasises.
"I have always maintained in my head that my plan is to have 10 fights and be world champion. Taking on Zou Shiming from China is the big money fight. That fight would have to be in China, but I don't mind that. He is a superstar over there, has two Olympic gold medals and is now a professional world champion. He defeated me in both Olympic semi-finals but I believe I could beat him now. That's the dream... for me and my family."