Echo Sport Replay: Bernard Dunne on his road to the ultimate dream - A two-part story

By Stephen Leonard

BERNARD Dunne can appreciate more than most just how far off course life can steer you when chasing down a dream.

It has been some 11 years since the Neilstown man hung up his gloves and near to 12 since he brought the nation to its feet on that night of March 21, 2009 when he emerged victorious from a titanic battle against Ricardo Cordoba for the WBA World Super Bantamweight title at a packed O2 Arena.

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Bernard Dunne celebrates after recording another victory that served to propel him further up the rankings

On the very day that the Ireland rugby team had bridged a 61-year gap since last winning a Grand Slam, Dunne sent the Panamanian world champion crashing to the floor for the final time with just one second remaining in the 11th round.

The herculean effort made by both fighters on the night resulted in that epic contest being labelled 'ESPN's Fight of The Year'.

It marked the culmination of Dunne's 25-year-long boxing career, and the very nature of that fight, as it oscillated back and forth, was a perfect reflection of the long and arduous journey he had made in pursuit of the ultimate goal.

Indeed while it was the Clondalkin man who prevailed on the night, his huge following were made to hold their breath when he was rocked to the core by the defending champion in the fifth round and struggled to haul himself up off the canvas.

Recalling that very moment, Dunne told The Echo "He caught me with a big right hook and I actually didn't even know if I was in a boxing ring to be honest.

"And I had a whole experience then of talking to myself actually. It was like I came outside my body and had a conversation with myself that lasted, in my head, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, but it was all in the blink of an eye.

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Bernard Dunne on the way to the first defeat of his professsional boxing career when he faced Kiko Martinez in their European Super Bantamweight title clash at the Point Depot in 2007 Photo by David Maher / SPORTSFILE

"I was reflecting on all the choices and sacrifices I had made to get to this point, all the sacrifices my family had made."

That very moment, as he took stock of the long road he and his family had travelled and dragged himself back to his feet, probably even more so than his comeback from the dramatic loss he had suffered at the hands of Kiko Martinez less than two years beforehand, was to define Dunne not only as a boxer, but as a person.

Indeed the story of Bernard Dunne, from his early days as an amateur boxing out of CIE in Inchicore under the guidance of his father Brendan and fellow coach Peter Perry to the eventual  realisation of his world title dreams as a professional, is one packed in elation, but one that is also punctuated by severe setbacks that tested his resolve to the extreme.

“I never lost a fight in Ireland as an amateur. I won every title on the way up” said Dunne.

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Bernard Dunne

“For my first Elite title in January 1998, I beat Michael Burke in the Bantamweight Final.

“I was 17 and still in school, but we made the decision to step up into the senior [now elite] ranks because the 2000 Olympic Games were coming and I wanted to get the experience at elite level.

“I went to Collinstown Park Community College and a lot of the teachers and pupils had come down to watch me. It was a good night.

“I stepped up to 57kg the following year because I didn't think I'd make 54kg for the Olympic Games, so I decided to jump the weight early.

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Bernard Dunne

“I boxed Terry Carlyle from Tallaght in the final and I beat him. But Terry was probably the closest decision I've ever had. It was a rough bout. It was back and forth. Terry was very big and a very strong, aggressive fighter.

“I got a public warning for clashing heads in the third round which brought the fight back to level scores and I won on a countback. It was a lot closer than I would have liked.

“In my third Senior final I beat James 'Happy' Phillips and that was again at 57kg. That allowed me to go to the Olympic qualification tournaments.

“There were three qualification tournaments and you had to win gold or silver, but I won all bronze medals so I just missed out and I became the first reserve for the Sydney Games. If anybody was to drop out, I'd get their spot.

“I spent close to seven or eight weeks over in Australia. I was training in Jeff Fenech's Gym in Sydney, just sparring, and I ended up breaking my hand in three places and getting 15 stitches above my left eye. That was any chance I had of getting into the Olympic Games gone.

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Bernard Dunne

“At that point in time I was committed to going for 2004 [Olympics], but then a whole set of circumstances and things didn't go the way I wanted.

“Once I was made aware that I couldn’t compete in the [Sydney] Games I wasn't happy with the way I was treated.

“All of a sudden I was made aware that there was no spot for me in the Olympic Village, no accommodation arranged for me. When I asked to go home, they couldn't change the flights and I ended up having to actually stay with a family from Cork who put me up.

“I just became a wee bit disillusioned with the sport at that stage and I took a bit of a break when I came home and decided that I wasn't going to box again.

“But then an offer came in to go professional and that was it. Brian Peters was the one who got me a deal in the States with America Presents. It hadn’t been in my immediate plans.

“My plans were to hang around to 2004. I had a discussion with the powers that be and an offer was made to me to stay amateur, but I just felt it was time for me to do something different and so I went over to the US during the summer of 2001.

“The plan initially was to stay here and turn professional with Panos Eliades who was Lennox Lewis' promoter, but I did a routine medical and I actually failed the medical. I had a cyst on the brain.

“I got a phone call from the neurosurgeon saying 'Look, from these results you'll probably get a global ban' because the British Boxing Board of Control and the Irish Boxing Board of Control had a zero-tolerance policy on any abnormalities.

“Yet the neurosurgeon felt that it was probably something I was born with, but he didn't have clinical proof of that because he had no reference point for the scan.

“He just said 'Look, America will be more lenient. If you can go there and get a start we can use this scan as a reference for any future scan.'

“So that's what I did. I went looking then for a deal in America and accepted a deal basically for nothing just to get a chance to box.

“I wanted to follow my dreams. I wanted to become a champion of the world. That was the goal.

“I signed a deal with America Presents and I trained with Freddie Roach.

“It was brilliant. Myself and Manny Pacquiao and Israel Vazquez were weekly sparring partners. So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we worked together.

“I was lucky. I was very very lucky. None of this was meant to happen. I should have been signed to Panos Eliades, training up in Belfast and fighting out of Ireland, whereas circumstances dictated that I needed to go somewhere else and it was only by chance that I was recommended to train with Freddie Roach.

“I made my professional debut in December 2001 and I knocked out Rodrigo Ortiz.. I came home for the Christmas, but when I went back in the new year, America Presents went bankrupt.

“So they're gone out of business, I'm trying to get out of the contract with them and then trying to get a new promoter, so I'm out of the game again for another couple of months and all I'm doing is training away.

“But all that time I used really well, just kept developing and kept growing.

“Then a phone call came into the gym one day. Somebody was looking for an opponent for one of Sugar Ray Leonard's guys, a guy called Christian Cabrera, big guy from the Dominican Republic, a huge guy. He had muscle on muscle.

“So they phoned the gym and asked if there was anyone there who could fight this guy and Freddie said 'Yeah, Ben will fight him.' And that was it, that was how the fight was made.

“I was a skinny Irish kid, getting an opportunity to fight in Connecticut. I was brought in to fight one of Sugar Ray Leonard's fighters and I knocked him out.

“Sugar Ray Leonard jumps into the ring and says 'We gotta talk.' And that was it. Sugar Ray Leonard came to my home, put a contract on my table and that was the start really.

“That was the first break I was getting after nearly a year and half between medical problems and promoters going out of business. I got this chance.

“Sugar Ray Leonard had big TV deals, he was the big name. So I had a huge name as my promoter, I had a huge name as my coach. I had everything lined up nearly.

“My first fight under Sugar Ray Leonard was supposed to be in Buffalo, New York on an undercard. I was the chief support.

“It was on Showtime, but at the medical and the weigh-in there was a big fight going on in the corner. All I could hear was 'We want to see this kid when he's old and grey and has kids of his own.'

“I had an inkling that they were talking about myself, but I didn't let on. The issue of the cyst on the brain had popped up again on the medical that I did there and they wouldn't let me box.

“So I was put through a whole battery of tests over the next couple of months, but I was able to have a reference point at this stage from the medical that I had done nearly two years previous to this medical and they were actually able to show that there had been no progress in the development of the cyst. The cyst had stayed the same.

“I had to do a lot of cognitive tests and functional tests and all this kind of stuff and eventually that Christmas we got the all clear and I was allowed to go back to the States.

“So there were just major problems throughout the first two and half years of trying to become a professional athlete. But now the handbrake was taken off and I got an opportunity to really blast ahead.

“I was undefeated in the States and I was knocking out most of them.

“All my fights were televised. They were on ESPN and went on to HBO. I was starting to build and build and then I was to box a guy called Adrian Valdez.

“But Sugar Ray Leonard and Mark Burnett were starting a TV show called The Contender. This was their first season of it and they asked would I be interested in getting involved.

“After having several discussions with my wife, Pamela, and my dad, I decided that I didn't go there to the States to be a TV personality, I went there to be a boxer. I just felt it was moving me in the wrong direction.

“We just thought ‘We'll do this fight with Adrian Valdez, we'll get that done, and then we'll look to take a chance at going home.’

“That was my last fight in the States and it was a war, an absolute battle. I had to really dig it out in that one and thankfully we got the decision.

“So we'd made our mind up that we were going to go back home and give boxing a go back here.

“Really I was always coming home, I wanted to live back home and have kids here. I had been married a couple of years at this stage and I wanted to be back in Ireland.

“After the first fight it just took off. I was up against Jim Betts in the National Stadium and I knocked him out in five.

“The build up to the fight and the atmosphere was just incredible. I think a lot of it was down to people just trying to figure out what I'd been doing for the last couple of years. They were just curious to see how much I'd developed. Was I as good as what everyone was saying?

“My next fight with Yuriy Voronin was actually a big scare that we had, one that kind of woke me up a little bit.

“It was a ten-round fight and I'd literally dominated nine rounds, gave a boxing lesson technically and controlled the whole fight.

“But then I got tagged in the last round with a big left hand and that knocked me for six. I did well to come through it.

“I then fought Sean Hughes for the vacant IBC Super Bantamweight title. That belt was just a stepping stone just to get me into the ratings and I knocked Sean out with a left hook to the body.

“Two months later [in December 2005] I went to Germany to fight Marian Leondraliu in Leipzig.

“It was on a big undercard over there in Germany so there was a huge crowd and it was a chance for me to keep building my reputation. I had been travelling since the age of 14 so travelling to fight someone didn't bother me.

“I fought Noel Wilders back in the National Stadium the following January and I knocked him out as well.

“It was Sergio Carlos Santillan and then David Martinez after that. They were all just helping me build my profile, build a fan base.

“I was very fortunate that RTE took a big liking to it and fully supported it. We were very keen on getting free-to-air TV so everybody could watch.

“We were offered a couple of deals to go into the likes of Sky and that, but what was huge in terms of building my own profile was making sure that we stayed with our national broadcaster.

“I then faced Esham Pickering for the vacant EBU European Super Bantamweight title. Esham was an experienced wily old cat.

“He came here full of beans expecting to walk out with a belt around his waist and wasn't over complimentary prior to the fight and wasn't over complimentary after it either, but it didn't make a difference because I had the belt around my waist.

“It was a big win for me. He was a good name and I think that was the first fight in the Point Depot. It was a colossal venue. It was nearly like the Colosseum to be honest. The fans were so vocal and the atmosphere was incredible.

“I loved it. I was getting to perform in front of my own people and I really did love representing Neilstown and the greater Clondalkin area. It's my home and still is my home. I spend as much time there as I've ever done. I was just immensely proud to show what I could do for my own people.

“My following title defences against Yersin Zhailauov and Reidar Walstad were interesting.

“It was probably a time when the training process and the fights were starting to take a little bit of a toll on the body. Preparations were getting tougher, fights were getting tougher.

“The Walstad fight, about eight to ten weeks before Kiko [Martinez], was quite a taxing fight. It was a 12-rounder.

“I'd split him early with a left hook, but he was an aggressive little fighter. He had actually beaten me as an amateur at the 1998 European Championships so there was extra incentive there for me to win that one.

“But then there was a quick turnaround. My management wanted me out again to fight Kiko Martinez within two months.

“If I remember rightly, The Point at the time was getting rebuilt and they felt that there wouldn't be a venue to host any fights for a period of time at a later stage.

“So there was a big squeeze on, a big rush to make that happen and unfortunately it didn't go our way.

“Kiko came with a reputation and I came with a reputation and he won out. He executed his plan perfectly. Mine was to box and move, but I engaged very early and tried to trade, got caught on top of the head and really, from that moment on, my balance was gone.

“I was never hurt. He never hurt me, but I just couldn't do what I wanted to do. My balance was gone and the fight was over before I even got going to be honest.

“I felt I had trained as good as I could have. I felt I had prepared in the right way. I was as ready as I was for any fight I had prior to that.

“But it did make me reflect around actually how I was preparing and I realised that things needed to change in terms of my physical preparation.

“I was more focused on my technical ability and my boxing ability which had brought me through so much. It made me champion of Europe.

“But I needed to add that something else to myself after the Kiko fight and I thank Kiko for that because he made me review how I was getting myself ready, how I was preparing for battle, my training process.

“We had been talking about a World title fight. I wasn't ready for it, but in my mind I was. Kiko made me realise that there were other things that needed to be looked at.

“I trained the very next day after Kiko. Nothing changed, my belief didn't change.

“The media and maybe some of the general public would have probably lost faith. I know I was the greatest thing since sliced bread before Kiko and I was probably a waster the day after Kiko.

“Everyone has opinions and everyone's entitled to have opinions, but a lot of it was just noise to me, so I didn't pay attention to it. I didn't want outside noise getting in and influencing how I thought.

“Those who were in my inner circle, they were the voices I listened to, the people I spoke to around how I felt, what I felt needed to be worked on, what I felt I had done wrong and what I was doing correctly. And we made a plan to go forward.

“Nothing had changed. Nothing had changed in my mind in terms of the goal, the plan, in terms of what I was trying to achieve. Nothing had changed. It just wasn't a straight road, but no road is.”

Pick up next week’s edition to read Part Two of Bernard Dunne’s story.

Prev Kilgallon’s group in Tallaght hoping to make a return to major competition
Next Barry is ready to make dream a reality with UFC debut in Vegas

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