Irish boxers are Cubans of Europe, says Stephen Kirk
IT started on the Crumlin Road and ended in Madison Square Garden. Now, Stephen Kirk's amateur career has been rightly honoured by a place in the Irish Amateur Boxing Association's Hall of Fame.
The 41-year-old gentle giant from Woodvale Avenue was one of the hardest punching Irish fighters around in the mid 1990s – second only to fellow Ulster senior champion Darren Corbett, he admits. While Corbett moved down the professional track, Kirk would go on to join a select band of World championship medallists when winning bronze in 1997.
To put that feat into context, in Budapest the former Cairn Lodge ABC boxer became only the fourth Irish boxer to win a World medal – and this at a time when the flourishing High Performance set-up in Dublin wasn't even a twinkle in the eyes of the IABA. Even since then there have only been four more World medallists – compounding the belief of many that it is harder to win a medal on the World stage than at the Olympics.
In addition to World success, Kirk bagged three Irish senior titles and five Ulster titles as well as a Commonwealth championships gold medal. It could have been so much more but his career was dramatically cut short after failing a brain scan when counting down to the 1998 Commonwealth Games, where he was favourite for light-heavyweight gold.
Kirk said: "I knew that I could have won another two or three senior titles and I could have gone to the Olympics. I was getting better and better and then came the scan and it was a surreal feeling. I didn't know what was happening, didn't know what to do. It was a nightmare.
"The thing about brain scans is that they are not mandatory in amateur boxing, it's a very safe sport. But I was getting headaches at the time and I don't know what was causing them. I was born with a cyst on my brain but that's what they failed me on.
"It took me a while to get my head around what had happened. But when I look back on my career I feel very privileged and it's nice when people still come up and tell you they enjoyed watching you box.
"I remember walking down the Crumlin Road with my kitbag over my shoulder, and back then as a 12-year-old I could never have believed that I would end up in the Hall of Fame.
"I would walk past an old dundering-in place where I had my first contest and then I had my last fight in the Goodwill Games at Madison Square Garden. It was quite a journey.
"Amateur boxing gave me a sense of purpose, a sense of self and it still does that for young lads – it gives them a goal in life and the Irish lads are doing great now.
"Confidence was an issue for me but boxing helped me and the more confident I became the better my results. I beat Courtney Fry, who was a top English boxer, at the Commonwealth championships and also knocked out the World number three Regan Foley of New Zealand, who had two wins over Jeff Lacey, who went on to win the World super-middleweight title.
"Knocking out Mark Delaney was a good night at the Ulster Hall to win the Ulster senior title but the big domestic highlight for me was the first Irish title, beating the defending champion Gordon Joyce."
Boxing still means a lot to big Kirky, who will go down as not only an Irish amateur boxing legend but also as a true role model for any young boxer.
"I'd like to have my own club some day if it were possible. I enjoy coaching... the Irish are now like the Cubans of Europe – everybody fears them. The way things are now with all the support they have at the High Performance set-up, it can only be good for the next generations.
"The training has changed a lot since my time. I would get up every morning and go for a run at 6am with Tommy Waite (former British and Commonwealth champion) and my friend Colin Beattie, who could do sub three hour marathons. Then I would get home, get some breakfast into me and cycle down to the Shipyard to work on the cranes and then home before training.
"It was a great time for me, I made some great friends from all communities and it's a real honour to be in the IABA Hall of Fame."