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Corbett rocked Belfast on a night to remember

 

By David Kelly

A bitter-sweet river of emotion flows through Darren Corbett when he speaks of his boxing career. Recalling June 2, 1997 at Belfast's Waterfront Hall when defeating Chris Okoh, he clearly savours it as the honey-glazed moment for one of Northern Ireland's most charismatic fighting men.

It was a sultry Monday evening and across town as Alban Magennis was being elected the first nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast, underdog Corbett was making his way to the ring to shake up the cruiserweight scene in one of the most raw, explosive performances seen in a Belfast ring against a man ranked at the time as the WBC's number one contender.

Indeed, 20 years on, fight fans still find a smile rolling across their faces when they remember the Raging Bull tearing into Commonwealth cruiserweight champion Okoh.

Inside three rounds Corbett smashed his way to victory, the Waterfront Hall's foundations shaking with the passion of the Belfast man's support.

Cue one of those famous Corbett celebrations, a leap in the air before crashing onto his knees and sliding across the ring in delight - but there was a price to pay even in this moment of elation.

"I damaged my knees so badly doing that celebration that I had to have an operation in New York to get one of them fixed, the cartilage was wrecked," said Corbett who was at that point managed by Barry Hearn though he almost ended up being promoted by none other than the current US president Donald Trump.

The Donald just happened to be ringside in Philadelphia when as an amateur Corbett knocked out the American number one Ike Green.

Trump - who at this point had staged numerous major shows in his hotels including many Mike Tyson fights - and former World heavyweight champion Joe Frazier liked what they saw and didn't want to let the Irish wrecking ball go.

"After that fight with Ike Green I was made a great offer. Trump said to me 'if you don't become world champion you'll still be a millionaire'. The deal was that a guy called Mike Doyle would manage me, he would give me a job in one of his bars, Joe Frazier would train me and Trump would promote me," said Corbett, who now works part-time as a barman in the Corner House pub.

"I would have loved America but I had found out that I had got a girl pregnant back home and I had to turn it down.

"I actually regret going into professional boxing… I love the sport but I never earned what I should have. People come up to me in the bar, 'you must have done well owning this bar' and I have to tell them I just work in the bar. I don't go to the pro shows now... I can't afford to go to the fights. My biggest regret was not going with Barney Eastwood and John Breen."

Defeating former Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion Noel Magee paved the way for the fight with Okoh who was at ringside to witness the latest stoppage victory.

"I didn't want to box Noel Magee, he was the senior champion in our gym, Sacred Heart - he was the guy we looked up to but then I remember leaflets coming through the doors in our area with the words 'Let's get it on Darren, there's nowhere to run now'. That got me mad and we did the fight and after I knocked him out I pointed to Okoh at ringside and told him he was next," he said.

"That night I went into the ring against Okoh I was prepared to lose my life. I was in the changing room singing, nerves didn't feature for me. And then I always switched on when I heard my ring music, Queen's 'We will rock you'. That put me in fight mode and my fans were chanting, 'we will, we will knock you!' I was in the zone but as usual the one voice I could hear at ringside was my sister Bronagh shouting 'C'mon Darren!'

"I remember coming back after the first round and I was thinking 'I'm getting the head punched off me'. The sides of my eyes were stinging with the punches," said Corbett.

"Then at the start of the second I banged him with a right hand and he went on the back foot and a left hook put him down at the end of the round. Everyone thought that referee Micky Vann had stopped it so people, including my dad, were trying to jump into the ring and Barry Hearn and the security guys had to jump up and get them out. Nobody heard the bell, including me - I thought I'd won.

"In the third round Okoh came out and he was hitting me with everything and that guy could bang. I hit him with a right hand and he wasn't getting up after that. He was in the hospital here for four days.

"When I won the Commonwealth title I thought the world was my oyster… I was to fight the winner of Carl Thompson and Chris Eubank for the WBO World title but they had a re-match and then Johnny Nelson, as the number one contender, beat Thompson and it never happened.

"I was nearly going to take another fight and I'm 45 soon, but I'm not. Mind you George Foreman was 45 when he won the world heavyweight title. He had his big-selling lean mean grilling machine - I could have Darren Corbett's deep fat fryer!"

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