Echo Sport Replay: Egan on his rise in boxing and the realisation of an Olympic dream

By Stephen Leonard

KENNETH Egan fought and surmounted some of the best light heavyweights in the world throughout his long journey towards winning silver in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

But, for the former Neilstown Boxing Club star, conquering the self-doubt that often afflicted him at crucial moments in his career proved at times more daunting than the fists of the greatest opponents he faced in the ring.

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Kenneth Egan

Indeed, from his struggle to land that first All-Ireland title as a boy to five failed attempts at Olympic qualification, Egan suffered no shortage of disappointment and hurt and was consequently tempted to throw the towel in on his boxing career on more than one occasion.

But through the support of his coaches, who were never in any doubt about his great potential, combined with his own talent and resolve, Egan rose to become one of the most successful figures in Irish amateur boxing, winning no less than 10 National Senior Championship titles and finally fulfilling that Olympic dream in Beijing in 2008.

“I was introduced to boxing by my eldest brother Willie,” recalled Egan. “He brought me to Neilstown Boxing Club when I was about eight years of age.

“It was a different environment and when I was brought to the boxing club, I was very shy, I kept to myself. I was a little bit intimidated going to the club because I didn’t really fancy myself as a boxer.

“My standard was very basic. It didn’t show straight away that I had talent. I wasn’t someone that the coaches would say ‘Oh my God! Look at this fella!’

“But I just kept coming back, chipping away, learning how to throw correct punches, learning a bit of head movement, all the basics of boxing. I was getting better and better, sparring older lads and getting the better of them.

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Clondalkin’s Kenneth Egan (left) stands as one of the most successful competitors in Irish amateur boxing history, winning 10 National Senior titles and Olympic silver

“Then reaching the All-Ireland Final in my first attempt, I got beaten in the final. Doing that on three occasions, I got beaten in three finals, Boy One, Two and Three, which was heartbreaking.

“I was going to retire after the third one. I said ‘this is it, boxing’s not for me. I’m disgusted, I’m heartbroken.’

“That was really hard for me and I did contemplate calling it a day at 13 years of age. I just had had enough of it.

“But I got back into the gym. My late coach Noel Humpston was fantastic. He got me back into the club, back into the gym and said ‘Look we’ll go again. You have the talent, you’re good enough. You just need to keep working hard and your time will come.

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Kenneth Egan

“So the following year I went back and I won at the fourth attempt, at Boy Four.

“That was my first Irish title and I went on to win 15 Irish titles after that, ten of them being senior. It was crazy when you think about it.”

Even stepping into the senior ranks, Egan continued to wrestle with self-doubt in his own ability, especially after the death of the coach who had helped keep him in the sport.

“Noel had passed away,” he remembered. “I had always wanted him to be around when I was fighting at senior level, and in 1999/2000 I was getting ready for the seniors in 2001.

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Kenneth Egan

“I remember sparring Kevin Walsh. He was from Cork and he was senior champion from the year previous.

“So I sparred him in Athy in a good session and I got the better of him in the spar and I was thinking ‘God this fella is Senior champion here and I’m getting the better of him.’

“Even back then there was that element of self-doubt in my own head. I didn’t really believe I could mix it with these guys, but when I stepped in and sparred him and got the better of him, it reinforced with me, ‘you know what Kenneth, you are actually very good.’

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Former Neilstown boxer, Kenneth Egan after winning his silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing

“I went on to beat him and win the Senior [Middleweight] title. That was my first senior title and it was a fantastic achievement. It was the first one for Neilstown Boxing Club. I’m the only one who’s won senior titles for Neilstown.

“The club has been around for a long time, so to win the first senior title was fantastic and bring it back to Neilstown Boxing Club was fantastic.

“I won my first two Senior titles at middleweight and then I went up to light heavyweight after my second one and I stayed there for the next eight years.

“Some years were quite easy. Other years, lads were fancying their chances and there were fairly close fights. Darren O’Neill, who I fought in the Senior Championship was good, Marvin Lee was good and Conall Carmichael too.”

It was not long before Egan turned his attention to the Olympic Games, but qualification alone was going to prove an arduous path.

“I was Senior champion, which was great, but that meant nothing to me, because I just wanted to be an Olympian so much.

“Because I failed in 2004, not qualifying for Athens, I had a real sour taste in my mouth and I had another bout of looking at retirement. I was going to walk away again then.

“We had had three qualifiers and I had failed in all three. To be honest, I didn’t believe in myself enough. I didn’t genuinely truly believe I was good enough to be an Olympian.

“So the ass fell out of it and I didn’t qualify after having three attempts. Andy Lee went instead of me that time.

“I remember we went to a training camp together before he went out to Athens and I went over to train with him and keep him company. And we were packing our bags at the end of the camp. I was packing my sports bag and he was packing his Olympic bag.

“He was flying out to Athens and I was going back to Dublin and I was saying ‘this is not for me. Boxing’s not for me. I’m not good enough, I’m not fit enough, I’m not strong enough, I don’t have the talent.’ I was going to walk away again in 2004.

“But I was very lucky to have people around me like Billy Walsh, Zaur [Antia], Gerry Fleming and Gary Keegan to reinforce that idea ‘you know Kenneth, there is talent there, but you just need to prove it to yourself.’

“Everyone else believed in me. They all said I had talent coming out of me ears, but I just needed to perform at the right time.

“So I went back into the gym, got back into the High Performance and off we went again for another four-year cycle.

“It’s a big risk, not knowing the outcome of a four-year sacrifice. But that’s exactly what I did.

“So I won the senior title in February 2007 and I fought again in December just to reinforce the [decision on the] team that was going to get selected for the Olympic qualifiers in 2008.

“I went on to qualify at my third attempt in the next Olympic cycle. It was my last attempt, the last hurrah.

“I remember distinctly walking up and down Gary Keegan’s office two weeks before we were to fly out for the last qualifier [in Athens]. I’m pacing up and down, left to right, left to right at about half ten in the morning before a training session.

“And I’m saying to him ‘Gary this is the last qualifier. If I don’t qualify here Gary, what am I going to do? Will I retire? Is there a job here for me? What will I do?

“I was absolutely frantic. And he said ‘Kenneth, stop!’ And he stopped me in this mad episode I was having. He said ‘Kenneth, go down to the gym and focus on your next session.’

“And with that, the penny dropped then. I was thinking too far ahead. ‘What if I don’t do this? What if I don’t do that?’ I was taking my mind off the job at hand which was to get myself in the best physical and mental shape I could on that day.

“So I went back down to the gym floor, put me wraps on and got the bag session out of the way.

“And from that day I just focused on every session I had on the day, every day. I forgot about the qualifier, I forgot about who I had to box.

And all of a sudden, I’m at the qualifier in Athens, I’m after weighing in, I’m not looking at other opponents. I was just focused on the job at hand. One round at a time, one fight at a time, one punch at a time.

“I found myself fighting the German [Gottlieb Weiss] to qualify and I beat him and that was it. That was when I won my Olympic medal. I just went to Beijing to collect it.

“I remember in that fight against the German after the first round I sat on my stool. We were given the scores after every round back then. Billy looked at me and he said ‘it’s two all. You’re alright’.

“I went out for the second round and came back to my stool and it was four all. So it was neck and neck, really tight.

“Halfway through the third round, it was like time stood still and all these flashes went through my head. ‘What if I don’t qualify? What am I going to do? What job will I have?’ All these crazy thoughts, but they went just as quick.

“And I said ‘focus on the next score, just get the next point’. And I scored the next shot and I scored the next and then he started missing. I was scoring and counter punching. I got back on the stool after the third round and I was six points up.

“I went out for the last round and I dropped to my knees when the bell rang. I said ‘Thanks be to God. I’m going to the Olympics!’

“Trying to qualify was killing me year in, year out. And that was my sixth attempt don’t forget. I had three for Athens in 2004 and this was my third attempt for Beijing.

“As soon as I got to my knees in Athens, that was it. I was an Olympian. I went out to the Hilton in Malahide and I collected my tracksuit with the five rings on it.

“I went to a training camp before we went to Beijing. It was out in Russia, in Vladivostok and I sparred Artur Beterbiev, he’s world champion now as a professional. I sparred him on the last day of the camp and it was a fantastic spar.

“The two of us had a great run at each other. He was ranked Number One in the world at the time and he was primed for a gold medal in Beijing and the two of us had a cracking spar.

“And I looked over at Zaur. Zaur gave me the wink and he said ‘You’re ready now Kenneth. You’re ready.’

Stepping out on to the stage he had dreamt of for so long in Beijing, Egan recalled “I fought on the first day of the Olympics, so I didn’t go to the opening ceremony.

“I was captain of the team and I missed the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony, because I was getting drug-tested after the final.

“Everyone’s Olympics is different. I didn’t get to experience the big ceremonies, but I didn’t care. I had an Olympic medal in my pocket.

“When I got the draw and I was told I was fighting Julius Jackson [of the Virgin Islands] I said ‘that’s the perfect fight for me to get going in these Games, because I had boxed him the year previous in Chicago in the World Championships and I had beaten him by a really big score.

“He was a very big puncher, but very predictable. His father was a world champion, a massive hitter and had a rake of knockouts.

“But I got in with him and beat him fairly easily [22-2]. That was a great start.

“So back to the drawing board and I said ‘who do we have next?’

“This was my danger man, the Turk, Bahram Muzaffer. I knew he was very good. He had a couple of great wins over the years. I’d seen him operate. So this was my boogeyman if you like.

“But, again, I just stuck with the game plan – one round at a time, one punch at a time and I beat him 10-2. That was brilliant to get him off my back.

“And then I drew a Brazilian, Walshington Silva. He had been at the Olympics in Athens.

“Lucky enough we had been in a training camp in 2005 up in the mountains of the Philippines before the World Championships in 2005. So I sparred Washington in 2005 and I got the better of him.

“Now I knew I had improved from 2005 to 2008 and I just knew I had the beating of this guy. He just wasn’t at my level. So I went out and I beat him quite comfortably as well then [8-0] in the quarter finals.

“And once I beat him then I had a medal around my neck. I was an Olympic medallist.

“I was so happy. I was winning fights and I was winning them comfortably. I wasn’t getting hit at all. I was saying ‘this is crazy.’ I’ve been at smaller competitions where I’ve got bashed.

“It was just how I boxed. There was no pressure on me and I enjoyed everything that was happening. I could see shots coming before they were even launched. Everything was just effortless.

“Then I got the news I was fighting Tony Jeffries from Great Britain in the semi final.

“And when I heard I was getting him in the semi-finals I said ‘Oh my God! This is just ridiculous!’ because I knew he hadn’t got what it took to beat me. I had only beaten him a couple of months previous in Poland in the EU Tournament. The fight was stopped, but I was well ahead. He got stopped on a cut.

“There was no way he was beating me. He was a big puncher, but he was just that bit too slow. So I beat him and that was it, ‘Jesus, I’m in an Olympic Final here!’

“I was very confident going into the Final, because he [Xiaoping Zhang] was tall. It was him and the Kazakh [Yerkebulan Shynaliyev] in the other semi-final.

“I knew the Kazakh. I had sparred him and he was very good and I was hoping Zhang would win because he would have been an easier fight than the Kazakh.

“So when I got the news that he won I said ‘Lovely. Now I have a great chance of winning this Olympic gold.’

“But look, the first round did kill me. I was behind and it was the first time I had been behind in the whole Olympic Games. He was two up after the first round.

“And that’s not my game, to go forward and chase fights. I’m on the backfoot, counter-punching, but I still think I scored enough points in the second, third and fourth to win the fight.

“But look, that’s the way it was and if I had been offered a silver medal at the start of the Games, I would have taken it with both hands.

“When I came home it was like a different world. I came back to a country that was just totally off the wall.

“I’m a humble person really. I don’t go shouting from the rooftops that I’m an Olympic medallist. I wouldn’t bring it up in conversation, I’m not that type of person.

“But I’m sure in 50 years time, if I’m still alive please God, and I have great grandkids, I can sit them down and tell them that story about the Olympic medal that I have.

“But the medal is the end product really. People don’t know about the journey. It’s about what happens when you put those gloves on when you’re eight years of age till when that medal goes around your neck.

That’s the important part. It’s the losses, the doubt, the sacrifices. That’s all part of the journey, but it is a good one.”

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