Our Sporting Lives and Times with Patsy McAllister: How the legendary coach's boys defied the rules and all boxing logic to become kings of the ring
With a proud smile and sigh of exasperation, Patsy McAllister glances at the three men in front of him with glistening belts hanging over their shoulders and says: "David, you've no idea what I had to go through… but I'm very proud of them." Champions Tyrone McKenna, Anthony Cacace and Tommy McCarthy - Patsy's boys.
The Oliver Plunkett gym in west Belfast is where their boxing journey started with the 84-year-old legendary coach. Talent was never in question, but dedication? Well, it's fair to say the three loveable rogues played fast and loose with that concept.
Confirmation of that could be found with the owners of the old Bewley's Hotel, as WBC international cruiserweight champion McCarthy explained.
"We were down at the All-Irelands one time and a couple of hours before the finals the three of us were out the back smoking these big cigars and enjoying the sunshine. We all went on to win… we were kids just having fun. Those were the best of times," said McCarthy.
Cacace expressed a cackle of laughter and added: "We always stayed at Bewley's for the All-Irelands. There were times we'd be sitting with a carry-out and smoking fags before travelling across to box in the finals. We were so confident…"
Cacace, now the British super-featherweight champion and ranked No 9 by the WBA, is referred to as Patsy's "golden child" by McCarthy (29) and McKenna (29). They could be right as McCarthy even regards 30-year-old Cacace as "the most naturally talented fighter to come from Ireland".
Patsy, who formed the Plunkett in 1970 having been a key member of the coaching set-up in the old Dominic Savio club, can still be seen working on the pads with the young kids who lace up their gloves just as his three gifted stars once did.
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Nobody has ever stood out like Cacace - a three-time Four Nations gold medallist as well as bronze and silver during an incredible junior career.
Patsy said: "Anthony started hitting the bag one night and I went over to him and asked, 'Where did you box before son?' because he was so natural for a kid hitting a bag for a kid of his age. He had never boxed before, nor had anyone in his family. I couldn't believe it. Everything was perfect and I couldn't believe it…"
Indeed, within three months of starting he was Antrim and Ulster champion.
Patsy added: "Anthony was an Ulster champion in his third fight. He boxed an Ulster champion, James Ferrin, in his third fight and he was the big star at the time. He was called 'The Future' and people said to me, 'Are you sure about this?' and I just said, 'Look, he'll be okay' and he went and won it. That was after I'd kicked him out of the gym for not training.
"I knew he was special… during that time we used to go down to Dublin with these three along with Eamonn Finnegan, Ray Ginley and my grandson Danny McAllister and we counted the titles we were going to win… they all won Irish titles. It was a golden period."
Cacace and McKenna were through the door of the Plunkett a year before McCarthy but not with the best of motivations as the WBC international light-welterweight champion readily admits.
"We'd come to the gym to get off the streets. The youth club close by was 25p a night and the boxing club only cost 50p a week so it made sense!" said McKenna.
"We used to come in with our jeans on and Cacace would hide behind a bag and pretend to train. There were times when we'd say to Patsy we were off to do our run and head up to McDonald's, then stop at Cacace's house and spray some water over our faces to make it look like we had been sweating before getting back to the gym."
At this point Patsy felt the need to interject with an Ian Paisley-like force: "Tyrone was never fit, never fit, never."
McKenna, who would go on to represent Ireland at the World Junior Championships, continued: "The first time I entered the Antrim Championships I had the flu and lost and the next time I was out I was in a final against this guy who I didn't know and I couldn't understand why Patsy seemed so nervous. I went in and boxed the head off him. I beat him 9-1 and then Patsy told me I had just beaten the All-Ireland champion.
"When I was 17 I competed in the Irish Intermediate Championships and never had a point scored against me. I was really flying but then I started to get girlfriends and went out partying, messing about. I would come into the gym with love bites all over me and Patsy used to scream, 'Stay away from those vampires! Keep your head in the gym'. The problem was I kept winning."
McCarthy's rise up the amateur ranks was more moderate by comparison to Cacace and McKenna but he nevertheless made the quarter-finals of the World Senior Championships as well as landing a Commonwealth Games silver medal.
Patsy, though, insists he knew a young Tommy had the ability to handle himself and backed that up by taking him to the Irish Championships when he hadn't even had his first bout.
"When Tommy came in I could see he was good…" said Patsy, before McKenna quipped: "Nah Patsy, come on, he was rubbish! We used to laugh at him because he blew up after a round."
Patsy snapped back: "Shut up… I never brought walkover winners down to Dublin and Tommy had been given a walkover in the Antrim Championships but Anthony, Tyrone and Eamonn were going down to the All-Irelands so I thought I'd take Tommy with us.
"But because he had been given a walkover his amateur card was blank, he hadn't had any fights. So I wrote three fancy names in it to let on he had boxed, I didn't want to bring him down and people think, 'My goodness, look at the card, what have they brought him down for?' But he got into the final of the All-Irelands and got robbed in the final."
McCarthy recalls the Championships and his whole time at the Plunkett with real joy.
"I boxed a guy, Patrick Ward, and he had won the Irish Championships the year before. He asked how many fights I'd had and it was a bit intimidating so I told him 20 and that I'd won all 20 even though I'd never had a fight!" he said.
"Cacace and McKenna say I was rubbish but in my mind I was Muhammad Ali and I thought, 'I'm going to punch the head off him'. I did beat him, that was my first ever win in boxing. In the final I got beat 8-6 by Henry Kelly, I cried my eyes out… Anto and Tyrone both won Irish titles that time.
"I wanted to be at their level, I wanted that Irish title and eventually I got it, winning the Boy4 national title when I was about 14. That was more pleasing to me than winning the Irish senior title because I was now up with the elite in the club.
"After that my goal was just to make sure I wouldn't allow Patsy to slabber at me. He used to give some stick for being a lazy so and so, even when I won. There was one night in St Kevin's Hall I stopped this guy and a lot of young kids were coming up and asking me for my autograph and Patsy came over and shouted at me, 'Why are you signing those? You're one lazy…' and I said, 'But Patsy, I just won!' but it didn't matter. I suppose he just wanted me to fulfil my potential."
The three Plunkett Musketeers remain as close as ever and when Cacace finally fulfilled some of his potential as a professional when taking the British title from world-ranked Sam Bowen last month, both McCarthy and McKenna admitted they were more nervous than when boxing for their own titles earlier this year.
Cacace concurs and admits that the success of his friends only added to his motivation ahead of the clash with Bowen.
"When I see them win I'm buzzing more for them. Seeing Tyrone win his title and then Tommy, it just made me think, 'I've got to dig deep to get this British title'. I couldn't end up the loser out of the three of us. Even just a couple of days before the fight I was thinking, 'I have to join these two with a title'," said Cacace.
"The professional game is so different to our days in the Plunkett.
"It was just about boxing then, we loved it but now there is so much pressure - it's your life, your livelihood and we all have families to feed now."
Those golden, glory days may have gone but they remain in their hearts and the three men will forever be thankful to the man who honed their boxing fundamentals. So, what does Patsy McAllister mean to these champions?
McKenna: "Patsy has talked me out of retirement so many times. I used to say I'm done with boxing and he would have a yarn with me and go again. I wouldn't be boxing if it wasn't for him. When I started messing about he would rein me in. He was a mentor growing up. When he shouted, I listened."
McCarthy: "Patsy was like a father figure. I spent more time with Patsy than with my own dad. Coming into the club with him every day and going on trips, I would say that Patsy raised us. He nurtured our talent. No other coach would have put in the effort because we did mess about just because we felt we had that much talent we didn't have to train as hard."
Cacace: "Patsy was everything to me growing up. He was like a dad to me, he used to come over and drag me out of bed and off the sofa when I was meant to be in the club. Without Patsy, dear knows where I would have ended up."
Plunkett men always; Patsy's boys forever.