Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

The secret source of Paddy Barnes' power

Paddy Barnes works out at the SINI facility

There are, in fact, two Paddy Barnes. There's the Paddy Barnes you check in with on Twitter. 'Hey Paddy, just wondering, would like to spend a day with you, blah, blah blah...' He's the funny lad from north Belfast with the impenetrable accent and the cheeky placards at the Olympics.

You suggest you might try and match him for as long as you can in the gym and he says fine, yeah, sure. Come along. He wants to see you suffer. He'd like to see you vomit. You suspect he might follow you to the jacks to see that sight and instead of holding your hair back, he would do a lot of pointing and laughing.

But then you meet him in the flesh. Different man.

This Paddy Barnes trains at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland facilities, based in Jordanstown. Insurance issues rules out a practical sampling of his session, so we stand and observe instead.

You get there early and meet Ryan Whitley, the Strength and Conditioning coach who has responsibility for the two-time Olympic bronze medallist.

He explains the metabolic session, tells you they are going to torch a bit of fat from his body for half an hour before going down for an acclimatisation session.

He fights at light flyweight; 49kilos. That's around seven and a half stone to you and me.

Boxers' schedules being reactionary to what they need that particular week, Whitley will put him through a periodised session of conditioning.

Then he arrives and you notice that it's not the same Paddy.

Sure, this one looks like him, the accent thick as treacle, but his demeanour is entirely different. He is a "serious operator" Whitley confides. No messin' in the gym. He gives a cursory nod, a handshake, and gets a brief run-down of the programme.

The jacket. Ah man, only a boxer could wear it. Gold, with white, green and red piping down the sleeves.

Barnes rests the sartorial bling over some weights and makes his way up the stairs to the mezzanine level before beginning his warm-up, skipping about.

Upstairs, a number of treadmills and leg machines are stationed like a torture chamber.

The banisters feature picture boards of athletes that have used the premises, including Barnes himself, victorious after a bout in Olympic blue.

The supporting girders are daubed with the one-word rhetoric of the modern-day pursuit of excellence; Strength, Resilience, Sacrifice, Determination, Performance, Discipline, Integrity, Practise, Honesty.

Before the session, there is the warm-up. Paddy's shoulder is giving him a measure of bother so he does a shoulder prehab routine, pulling on a rubber band.

SINI staff buzz in and out of the gym, all radiating some level of health and well-being, the type of people who exist mainly on protein bars, mineral water and fruit.

Team mates Mick Conlan and Tommy McCarthy saunter in and take their time over getting started, but Barnes has launched straight into his work, beginning with the squat press overhead, horsing his own body weight up and down for explosive power.

He races over to two heavy ropes, shaking them to cause waves with his left arm, then right arm, then two arms together. It's on.

Over to a heavy ball that he picks up and hurls to the floor. It bounces as high as his head and he turns and repeats, turns and repeats, turns and repeats.

The cleanest tractor tyre you ever clapped eyes on lies on the floor beside him and he hops two-footed into the ring, and out the other side. A quick push-up and repeat. A quick push-up and repeat. And repeat ...

A medicine ball is being flung against a wall, Barnes bringing it back behind his shoulder and letting fly. His legs took a pounding in the last exercise and they are getting it again in this.

He catches the ball and throws again. Throws again. Throws again.

He runs up the stairs to the mezzanine like an eager groom on his wedding night and mounts a machine that forces him to drive one leg after the other. Pistons clang and bang like they might if he was powering a steam engine.

To finish, there is the resisted jumping machine where he lies on his back and pushes through his heels to shift an unseemly weight. This kind of work will stand to him in later rounds, allowing him to maintain intensity.

Then the circuit is over. He has a short break, and will go through it all again.

A quick loosen up on the treadmill and off he goes again. He squats with intense focus. He completely ignores the photographer taking snaps inches from his face while he pumps the ropes. He flings the ball to the ground like he hates it.

The training is meant to replicate the strains of what occurs in the ring, explains Whitley.

On February 7, he is fighting for the Italian team in the World Series of Boxing event in Germany.

The competition works off a draft system and so Paddy – who, if you asked a child in America to draw an Irishman would probably draw Paddy – will be fighting for the Azzurri.

That competition structure is five rounds, lasting three minutes each. Each of these four-minute training circuits push the boundaries of his lactate threshold, increasing his metabolic rate and speeding up his recovery.

"He has to be completely conditioned, exactly to the demands of what's going to happen when he is in the ring. If he can't meet those demands then he is not going to go the duration," explains Whitley, then adds, "The way Paddy fights, he's so combative, he throws so many punches and has such a high workrate. If I don't mimic that in training, well then ... "

He lets it hang as Paddy ploughs into circuit three, then four. His muscles grow as blood rushes into them, under the exertion.

On the last throw of the medicine ball against the wall, he lets it skip along to the other side of the gym. He groggily mounts the stairs for the leg machines one last time.

At the end, Whitley asks him how he is. Paddy flips the bird in silent response.

Five minutes later, Paddy is downstairs with the SINI Exercise Physiologist Damian Martin, getting bloods taken, prior to entering the Environmental Chamber.

Clad in his bling jacket again, he enters an area slightly smaller than your average garage. We can see him behind portals made of four double-glazing units. It's all very Ivan Drago in the Cold War comedy pastiche Rocky IV.

Inside, the heat is set at 30 degrees Celsius. The humidity sways between 60 and 70 per cent and the altitude is akin to being 1,000 metres above sea level. In time, that will be brought to 3,658 metres.

Think about that for a second, digest those numbers before reading on.

After a minute or two of catching his breath, Paddy is on a stationary bike, raising his cadence to a fair old lick. He climbs off and begins shadow-boxing, peppering jabs, crosses, uppercuts, hooks at an imaginary opponent, ducking and weaving away from the blows coming back.

Five minutes of that and he reaches for the skipping rope, striking up a hypnotic rhythm that steadily increases as he hops on two feet before alternately bouncing on his left and right.

He opens a hatch and sticks his finger out. Damian places a heart-rate monitor on it and takes his reading. A quick breather, then on the bike, again. Then shadow boxing, again. Then skipping, again.

The finger comes out. 148 beats per minute. Most people who regularly exercise are struggling at this but for Paddy, it's another day at the beach.

Another circuit. The repetition would drive most people crazy. The finger comes out again; 153 bpm. On the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion he is reading between six and seven; considered very, very light exertion.

The session is over and he leaves the chamber. The sweat is clinging to his skin and it rolls from his shoulders down his arms, along his fingers and drops off the tips.

He notices you noticing, and offers you a handshake. He knows the craic. Back to being the joker.

Later on, he will head down to the Holy Family Golden Gloves club where he will bang the life out of the pads.

A warm-up, five rounds of three minutes, a cool down, and then home to girlfriend Mari. They are expecting their first child on May 3.

That's his life. A life of approved violence and artistry. A lonely, austere life with only your thoughts for company, ducking and weaving against the inner demons.

Until you are thrust from the solitude to boxing venues teeming with crowds.

Your team is around you, taking measurements, monitoring and recording your strength diagnostics, your heart-rates. Yet it all comes down to your heart in another sense. Heart and soul.

A life less ordinary. That's boxing. That's Paddy.

An amateur always fights for grant aid

This week, Paddy Barnes was in Sheffield with the Irish High-Performance Unit, getting some sparring in ahead of his fight on February 7 in the World Series of Boxing event.

In the medium-term, he has the Commonwealth Games to prepare for in July, and somewhere way out yonder in the horizon is another shot at the Olympics.

That makes it sound like a boxer has some defined career path. They don't.

"I have no plans," says Barnes in that earnest way of his.

A professional career is something he would covet, but the offers are slow in coming, he reveals.

So how does he get by as an amateur?

He gets by on grants from the Irish Sports Council of €40,000 (£33,100). Let's be honest, it's a pittance for what he risks every time he climbs into a ring. No wonder he casts envious glances at his good friend Carl Frampton, who gets to fight in front of 9,000 people, while his bouts take place in gyms with as little as 100 spectators.

No wonder then that he had a cut off Minister Michael Ring last winter. It was Ring who indulged in parish-pump politics, climbing on the feel-good boxing bandwagon after the London Olympics to promise untold riches coming the way of the pugilists.

When the fuss dies down, €1million (£829,000) was pledged to boxing. Barnes complained about the "1970's training facilities" suffered by the Irish team, with crumbling ceilings and filthy sleeping areas.

When he took to Twitter to record his disgust, Ring hit back, stating: "I hope he does as well as a professional boxer as he did with the Irish Sports Council, because he has received a substantial amount of money from taxpayers."

It was a cheap shot, below the belt, but Paddy was to deliver the knockout riposte when he answered that line with: "You're right, I have received a lot of taxpayer's money for the sport I'm in. You have received more than me though and have nothing to show for it. I've two Olympic medals, all you have is a clean suit and a big bank balance."

With this distance from that spat, he puts it into context now.

"When people say I was complaining about the money, it's not the money for myself, I was talking about getting money for Irish boxing. Even the money that is being invested, I am not going to see the benefit of. It's the juniors and kids coming through that will see benefits."

As for the long-term future, he admits he struggles to place where he will be. At the suggestion that he might do courses and get a few qualifications, he shocks with his admission.

"I have spent £8,000 on wasted courses. It's too hard to mix the two. People say to me that sailors and athletes can manage to do it and why can't I? I just laugh at them because, yes, some can do it, and they are smart people, but where are their medals?

"You are either one thing or the other; either the best athlete in the world, or the smartest. You can't mix them."

He's right. Of course he is right. After the session he has just been through, and the fact that he is going for another bit of pad work later, there simply is no time for education. This strength and conditioning work, and Whitley's input, he glows over.

"Up until last year I didn't realise how important strength and conditioning was, until I started doing it properly."

The real surprise out of this was that before now, how come a two-time Olympian in the Irish High-Performance Unit, not scientifically measured for strength, stamina and other factors?

Over to you, Minister ...

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