The thud directed at my left shoulder was born out of frustration, allied to the tears rolling down his cheeks. John Breen’s concern for his fighters is never more evident than when they have taken a beating.
On this particular April night in 1993 in Dublin, Paul Hodkinson had just lost his WBC featherweight title to Gregorio Vargas. The Mexican looked special and many of us believed he would reign for some time — except Breen and he was right.
He knew that Hodkinson’s time had come to an end, he had grown old overnight and there was nothing that could be done.
It hurt as if it was his own son Sean or BJ — and it is that passion and commitment to fighters which has been Breen’s trademark.
This Saturday night at the Balmoral Hotel he will scan the room and see past, present and maybe some future champions when the boxing fraternity from across the Emerald Isle comes together to honour the most successful professional Irish coach ever.
World, European, British and Commonwealth champions have passed through Breen’s hands over a period of 25 years, having answered a call from legendary promoter Barney Eastwood to join his Castle Street factory of champions.
There along with Bernardo Checa he honed such fighters as Hodkinson, Crisanto Espana, Victor Cordoba and Dave McAuley into World champions.
The success didn’t let up when he moved to his current base at Winecellar Entry where Eamonn Magee and Neil Sinclair rose to prominence and more recently Paul McCloskey, Martin Rogan and Kevin O’Hara.
But whether a man had the ability to go all the way to the summit or simply win an Irish title, they received the maximum attention.
Indeed, like all good coaches, he has always shown the ability to draw out from his men more than many think possible.
“I’ve always loved training boxers. It’s always a challenge to see how far you can take them. Being in the Eastwood gym was a dream, I would have worked there for nothing,” comments Breen, who says that Panamanian Cordoba was the best fighter he ever worked with.
“Victor was an incredible fighter. He eventually left for Panama and fought Michael Nunn who was pound for pound one of the best in the World and got a rough decision.
“I always said that he could have beaten Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank on the one night. I used to see him carry fighters around the ring in sparring, he was that good.
“And of course then there was Crisanto Espana, Hodkinson, McAuley, Crawford Ashley fought for the World light-heavyweight title — it was an amazing time in BJ’s gym.”
Working with charismatic father-in-law Mike Callahan they brought Eamonn Magee to the fore and both men knew they never saw the best of the former Commonwealth champion who dumped Ricky Hatton on his backside.
While Breen delighted in his elite boxers such as Magee and Sinclair, the joy he had in taking underdog Colin Moffatt to the Irish title and then a shot at the British bantamweight title was just as great. The champions have never stopped walking in and out of his gym and the 62-year-old hopes he can find a few more gems in the coming years.
“Colin Moffatt was one of my biggest achievements. He came to me with more losses than wins and I got him to the Irish title and then he went the distance with Ian Napa in a British title fight. If I had said that was possible, few would have believed it,” he says.
“I’ve had some great nights — Crisanto Espana beating Meldrick Taylor for the World welterweight title, Neil Sinclair winning the British welterweight title — working with Dave McAuley was great because he was such a professional and one of the best Irish fighters of all time but very underrated.
“Jamie Conlan can be my next champion — he can beat any British flyweight around.”
Conlan will be one of many on Saturday night who will be able to testify to the driving force that Breen is when it comes to making champions.