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Having foresight to box clever with children's futures

On Saturday night, Washington hosted the Sixth Annual Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic (BBBC), an event that's inspired youths and adults in both cities, but also one borne from one of the many heartbreaking episodes of the Troubles.

In early 2004, north Belfast was experiencing a devastating spike in teen suicides.

In February, days after his friend Anthony O'Neill killed himself, Bernard Cairns climbed the scaffolding of Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne and hanged himself. Both youths were 18, and had been victims of past INLA punishment attacks.

Eanes Keenan was among those who witnessed the aftermath of Bernard Cairns' death. "I drove down the road and saw this young lad. And it was heartbreaking – a young guy, 18 years of age, hangs himself from the chapel scaffold," said Keenan.

"And his father had to climb the scaffold. The priest wouldn't let him. But his father said 'That's my son!' And he climbed the scaffold and removed his son, brought him down. That was the hardest thing I've ever seen in my life. And then we got together and said 'Look we have to do something here.'"

What Keenan did, along with Ardoyne's Charlie Quinn and others, was to resurrect the Ardoyne Boxing Club. After securing a training hall at Holy Cross, they dubbed the new club the Ardoyne Holy Cross Boxing Club (AHCBC).

Across the water in Washington, 2004 saw 190 murders in America's capital – mostly in the city's poorest areas. In fact, from 1969 until 1998 when the Troubles took nearly 3,600 lives, the same years saw over 8,400 killings in Washington DC.

Tony Johnson, a coach with Washington's Diamonds in the Rough Boxing Club, which has squared off with Northern Irish youth boxers since 2008, said that violence desensitises children.

"You've had 18-year-old kids planning their own funerals, like 'When I die, this is what I want to happen'. An 18-year-old!," said Johnson.

"They become numb to the violence. They hear the sirens and the gunshots so much that it becomes second nature to them. It's no big deal."

During their Washington visit the Belfast boxers visited some of the clubs where the predominantly black DC boxers hail from. Eanes Keenan said the blighted landscape was all too familiar.

"It's unbelievable," said Keenan. "The only difference I see – and I'm not trying to come across wrong here – but it's the colour of the skin.

"It's the same kind of background – broken homes, the drug-related issues, murders."

Given its positive impact on at-risk youth, it's no surprise that the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic has created a positive buzz in Washington's boxing scene.

And anyone hoping to catch BBBC fever in person won't have to wait long – the next slugfest is in Belfast on August 17.

Belfast Telegraph