Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Neil Sinclair's pride in striking gold for his country

Neil Sinclair
Neil Sinclair

Neil Sinclair's boxing career could comfortably be summed up as a bitter-sweet symphony and he certainly hit concert pitch at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 when becoming the sport's new golden boy.

At ringside in Victoria, Canada the late legendary BBC commentary Harry Carpenter said Sinclair had "star quality" as the Belfast man blitzed his way through the welterweight division, taking gold as part of arguably the finest boxing team (Colin Moffett, Tommy Waite, Damaen Kelly, Adrian Patterson, Marty Reneghan, Mark Winters, Neil Sinclair, Jim Webb, Danny Ryan, Stephen Kirk, Paul Douglas) to leave here in recent years.

As well as Sinclair, Jim Webb won light-middle gold, while Marty Reneghan and Mark Winters picked up lightweight and light-welter silver respectively. But Sinclair's charisma and electrifying power made him stand out from the rest and the professional sport beckoned, eventually going on to win a Lonsdale belt outright.

Sinclair and his team-mates had carried on the great tradition of boxing bringing home the spoils for Northern Ireland and this year's team, which includes Olympic stars Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes are expected to do likewise.

"I think Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan are on for gold, but then people expected Damaen Kelly to get a medal in 1994 and he got robbed in a fight with an Englishman so you never know. And then there's Steven Ward as well who got silver last time. He's experienced and he should do well again," said Sinclair.

For a 20-year-old Sinclair it was a dream come true as the golden Games glory came in his first year as a senior boxer and he had to defeat the reigning Ulster champion Eddie Fisher to secure his place on the plane to Victoria.

"Eddie Fisher beat Stephen Gibson in the final the year before. It had been a great final and a lot of people thought that Stephen won that fight," said Sinclair.

"Fisher went on to win gold in the Commonwealth championships that same year, so I knew that I was going to be up against it because 1994 was my first senior year.

"I beat Gibson in the semi-finals in the Dockers Club and then it was Fisher. Before the fight I was more nervous than usual because it was the Ulster Hall and such a big occasion, but I did the business and that was a special moment for me.

"I don't think I've ever been as fit before or since when I went to the Games. We were training three times a day, Nicholas Cruz the Cuban coach was working with us and we were very confident – all young and cocky and we fancied ourselves.

"I have some great memories of the Games, but the best was the opening ceremony. We were all suited and booted and looking smart and when we entered the stadium you could see the people with the Northern Ireland flags in the stadium – that was the proudest moment of my career, I'm so proud coming from Northern Ireland and that just amplified for me. Doing that lap around the stadium was amazing.

"The Village was great as well, you'd go for your lunch and the likes of Linford Christie or Sally Gunnell would be there, they were big stars in athletics. There was a real buzz and anticipation..."

Sinclair's first challenge was a meeting with Scotland's Alan Wolecki and he admits to receiving a rude awakening.

"He dropped me in the first round and that just seemed to wake me up. I got going and gave him three counts and stopped him in the second. Then the next guy was a Welshman, Carl Thomas and I stopped him in a round, I gave him a couple of counts.

"The semi-final was tough against another banger Richard Rowles, but that was when I peaked and I stopped him in the second.

"I always had a natural aptitude for punching hard, Cus D'Amato, Mike Tyson's coach, said that about Tyson – he had that natural aptitude to punch hard and you can see that with some amateur gyms who don't produce punchers, but maybe always produce good skillful boxers."

Come the day of the final, with his Holy Family Golden Gloves coach Gerry Storey in his corner, Sinclair could not have been more confident. It was a belief that had grown even from the moment the draw had been made.

"Gerry looked at the draw and pointed to the final space and said that's where I expect you to be. Gerry really believed in me and believed that I could win gold," said Sinclair.

"I was facing a really tough Nigerian, Albert Eromosele who had big long arms and was super fit. He just kept punching.

"He beat the Canadian Wlad Fleming very easily. It was a gruelling fight, I wasn't hurt, but physically it was so tough.

"I knew after the second round I was up by a lot of points, but I was very tired in the third round and I took a standing count.

"When the bell rang I knew I had won, it was a feeling of total relief at the end.

"I had given everything, the bell was music to my ears. He had given it all too and we hugged at the end. I felt really proud to win gold for Northern Ireland.

"The medal ceremony was great, Dr Sean Donnelly sang Danny Boy, but the mic wouldn't turn on! Then they got it sorted for Jim Webb who won light-middleweight gold."

Sinclair was now hot property and his childhood ambition of becoming a professional was inevitable.

"I spoke to Barney Eastwood about going pro and I remember he said to me that if I went with him he would make me a world champion or he would never manage another boxer again. I really admire Barney and I loved it when he helped me out in a few of my later fights, including my World title fight and British title defences.

"There's an aura about Barney, he knows boxing inside out. He made professional boxing what it is here, but I ended up going with Barry Hearn who's a guy I really respect too.

"I had my ups and downs, but I've no regrets."

And when the Games open on Wednesday, the memories will come flooding back of when he ruled the Commonwealth ring.

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