Paddy Barnes ready to answer London's Olympic call
Take a walk around Belfast with Paddy Barnes for 20 minutes and the affection for him is clear.
The 24-year-old puts smiles on faces. People chat to him, he loves the craic, they enjoy a laugh and stride away with an extra spring in their step, no doubt wondering how such a slightly built guy can pack the type of punches that has led to such a successful amateur boxing career.
Light flyweight Barnes has won Ulster titles, Irish titles and last year beat all before him at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, the latter triumph coming just weeks after he had a hernia operation.
And of course he became an Ulster Olympic hero, winning a bronze medal three years ago in Beijing.
Not bad for a kid who lost his first 12 fights.
“I kept losing and losing. I so wanted to win and kept going until I did,” he says.
“Starting out I didn’t know how to win. The more I fought the more I learnt how to do it.”
Barnes began his boxing education in a club in Ardglass, sparring with his cousins, under the watchful eye of his uncle Jimmy Linden.
The Olympics was the last thing on his mind back then.
“I’d seen the Olympics on TV as a child but to be honest I didn’t really know what it was all about or how big it was.
“My friends and family were happier than me when I qualified for Beijing,” said the fast talking Barnes, his words flying out quicker than bullets from a machine gun.
On the experience of Beijing, he continued: “I remember being in the big village and this group of Mexicans whizzed past me doing a funny walk.
“I was laughing at them and they weren’t too happy. I didn’t have a clue that they were actually training for the walking event!
“Another time I was sitting in the canteen and this guy that I recognised sat beside me. I said to him ‘I know you don’t I?’ and it turned out to be Gianfranco Zola, the former Chelsea player.
“There were loads of famous people there but I’m terrible with names which can be a bit embarrassing when I forget them.”
Nobody forgets Paddy when they meet him. An engaging character, the people of Northern Ireland fell for the Belfast boy during the 2008 Olympics.
“I had no idea the impact the Games were having back home because we were cocooned out there,” he says.
“Looking back now competing at the Olympics was an incredible achievement. When you represent your country there's nothing higher. It gives you great belief and pride.”
Barnes wants to do it all over again next year. He missed out on qualifying for London when suffering a shock early defeat in the recent World Championships in Azerbaijan.
He expects, though, to cement his place at another qualifying event in April.
“I’m desperate to get to the Olympics again, especially with them being in London,” said the man who trains at the Holy Family gym and the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland.
“I was disappointed not to qualify in Azerbaijan because I thought I was in the shape of my life. The problem was down to a lack of fights. I was stale and had ring rust.
“I’m hoping for more competition before the qualifiers in April and have the Irish Championships in January.
“I believe I can win gold in London. I’ve won the Commonwealth Games and European Championships and would love to add the Olympic title.”
Barnes may be a joker in the pack, but he’s serious about his boxing and was so upset at the margin of his defeat to China’s Zou Shiming in the semi-finals in Beijing that he slammed the judges.
One year later after defeat at the World Championships in Milan he threw his gloves into the ring and had another pop at officials.
“I met the judges and had a laugh with them about things.
“I apologised and it’s over now,” says Paddy, who would be a colourful addition to the professional ranks.
“People say to me about turning pro after London but I haven’t really thought about that.
“My aim is to win in London and then make history by fighting in the 2016 Games — my third Olympics. I don’t think any boxer from Northern Ireland has done that. I’d love to be the first.”