The big read: Oh boy, what a fighter Dave McAuley was
The man from Larne wasn't supposed to win, it wasn't even meant to be close. But midway through the first round and Dave 'Boy' McAuley looked beyond the creased up features of Duke McKenzie and into his heart. The script had just been changed.
It is 25 years tonight since that moment at Wembley Arena when McAuley's favourite hammer left hook made IBF World flyweight champion McKenzie realise the underdog had more bite than anyone he had ever faced before.
"I can see that left hook as if it was yesterday, he didn't go down but I heard the 'aaggh!' and saw his face and from then on I knew I had him," said McAuley, who would eventually end his career as the most successful British and Irish fighter in history, making six defences of the IBF title – and along the way he ended up with what he described as "a cauliflower backside" having hit the canvas so many times.
But the 53-year-old was made of the kind of rock that surrounds the Halfway House Hotel on the Antrim coast, run by the McAuleys and his father-in-law Omar Beggs, and so often he would scramble to his feet to carve out victory. On this particular evening he never looked like tasting the canvas but instead gave a masterclass of boxing to take a unanimous points decision.
His world had changed forever and yet, McAuley has revealed he had come to the conclusion that after 16 fights and two World title defeats at the hands of Colombian Fidel Bassa – the first arguably the greatest fight ever seen on Irish soil – his career was over. Then, after a year on the sidelines, manager Barney Eastwood secured a shot at McKenzie, who would ultimately end up as a three-weight world champion.
"After the second Bassa fight I had resigned myself to retiring. I fought twice for the World title and, back then, it was really almost unheard of that someone having fought twice and lost for the World title would have the chance to fight for the world title for a third time. It was only when the WBO title came along that things opened more and at the start it was like a British world title because so many of the champions were British," said McAuley, who was honoured by the Queen with an MBE for his services to the Noble Art.
"When Barney said to me you have a chance at McKenzie I was surprised, but I was up for it. By the time the fight came along I was 15 months out of the ring and for most people that would be a problem but we sparred so hard in the gym that any ring rust I had was knocked off me very easily.
"I had some real wars in the gym and we had the best sparring that money could buy. Also Barney was great at making you believe in yourself.
"Today you have a lot of sports psychologists but back then that's what Barney was for me – he had this way of making you believe in yourself. The way he went about things and the way he acted, he made you believe you could do things that others thought you had no chance of doing. Without Barney I would never have become World champion. To have him in my corner was crucial."
If Barney and the rest of the McAuley team had faith, McKenzie's promoter Mickey Duff viewed it as a handy defence for his rising star.
"Duff believed that I was coming over as a sacrificial lamb. He was having a voluntary defence, they thought I was just in it for a final pay-day so they took the fight expecting an easy night," added McAuley.
"I went to London about 10 days before for the various press things and I would be standing there with nobody talking to me and everybody was around McKenzie because he was the next big thing. I think I was about 7-1 in the bookies and McKenzie was the man of the moment."
Former bookmaker Eastwood revealed how he ultimately outfoxed counterpart Duff as they negotiated the deal.
"Mickey came on and offered the fight and I said 'you'll have to do better than that, he needs to get well paid because he's only there for the pay-day' and eventually he came back with the right offer. Dave was getting well paid and also I knew that although he hadn't fought in 15 months he was sparking in the gym," said Eastwood.
"He had lost to Bassa twice but those fights had brought him on so much and I knew that he was ready for McKenzie. We believed in him so much that we sent a guy to a few bookies and had plenty of money on him – we won a nice few quid.
"McAuley was a special guy, a great guy to work with and when he won against McKenzie it was one of my great nights in boxing."
For all the optimism, McAuley knew that it was his last chance to rule the world and as he waited for the call to arms there was tension in the air.
"In the dressing room I was nervous, I always got nervous. When I was defending my world title in Belfast. I would go into the dressing room where my gym-mates Victor Cordoba and Crisanto Espana where and they were so chilled out I couldn't believe it but it made me calm down and they would say 'McAuley what are you worried about, it's just another fight' Those two were real world class fighters and so chilled it was scary.
"Once my gloves went on I was in warrior mode. The home crowd for McKenzie never bothered me – I would have fought in Vietnam because it was just me and the opponent in the ring. After that left hook he knew that I could take him out with one punch, or at least I could hurt him, so that changed everything. Suddenly he realised he was in a fight.
"He got so desperate that he tried to butt me in one of the rounds and got a warning from the referee, Randy Neumann. I managed to get out of the way but that could have not only ruined the fight but my career because it would have just opened me up.
"Boxing is brutal and I remember when my mindset to the sport changed. It was the night Barry McGuigan won his World title at Loftus Road in 1985. I was fighting Bobby McDermott in a British title eliminator and I remember hearing from his corner 'Kill him, kill him Bobby, kill him Bobby and I could see the trainer out of the corner of my eye... that changed my mindset about boxing because to me it was just a boxing match. But it's more than that."
When the final bell sounded it seemed to everyone that McAuley's dream had become a reality but he wasn't convinced the decision would go his way.
"I knew I had won, but in boxing you are never sure and Mickey Duff was lifting McKenzie and walking around the ring with him. But if they had given it to McKenzie it would have been one of the worst decisions in history.
"When I heard 'and the new world champion' it gave me a feeling like I have never had before... when my hand was raised it was just indescribable, it didn't sink in for three or four days. I was the best in the world and I had done it against all the odds, out of the ring for 15 months and brought over as a big outsider.
"When I lost the World title – I got robbed in Spain – it was the worst feeling. I couldn't handle it for months and even went into a little depression."
As McAuley celebrated and his dressing room turned into a media scrum, he took time to walk down the corridor to McKenzie and into a very different atmosphere.
"I got up in the middle of the press conference in my dressing room where you could hardly move and went down to his dressing room and you could have played football in it.
"He was there with only his coach, Mickey Duff, and his brother. I thanked him for the chance and wished him well.
It just shows you the nature of boxing and many sports – when you're at the top people want to know you and the phone never stops but then in defeat it all changes. I went from the man nobody wanted to talk to in London to the one everyone wanted to speak to and McKenzie was on his own.
"You get the glory hunters, whether it's the public or the media – one minute they're all there and then the next they're not.
"When we got home I was given an open top bus ride in Larne, it made me realise just what it meant to the town and to the country and only years after do I hear stories about what people were doing, how much it meant for them to have a world champion from Northern Ireland.
"It makes you feel privileged and humbled. To me it was just boxing but it meant so much more than that."
McAuley would go on to co-promote his future World title fights with Eastwood and into the history books with his six defences, the glory days ending in 1992 in Bilbao when he suffered at the hands of the judges after 12 tough rounds with Colombian Rodolfo Blanco in a re-match of their epic King's Hall duel two years earlier.
"I'm very proud of what I achieved and it was nice to be honoured with the MBE and in the end I got rewarded in a way that I never thought was possible when starting out in my career."