Echo Sport Replay: Bernard Dunne - Becoming a world champion - A two-part story

The second article in a two-part feature with Bernard Dunne. If you missed Part 1, click here...

By Stephen Leonard

BERNARD Dunne's path to the European Super Bantamweight title had been anything but smooth and there was every chance his journey from there to world success would prove the same.

Following two successful defences of the EBU belt he had captured at the expense of Esham Pickering at The Point Depot in November 2006, the Neilstown man's ascent in professional boxing was arrested in dramatic fashion when he came up against Kiko Martinez the following summer.

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Clondalkin man Bernard Dunne celebrates becoming a world champion after he beat Ricardo Cordoba in a titanic battle for the WBA Super Bantamweight title at a packed O2 Arena in 2009

As Dunne was left grappling with the shock of his loss to the Spanish challenger just 86 seconds into their fight, he vowed to return and duly set a course that would lead him to an unforgettable night in 2009 when he would conquer the world.

“Felix Machado was my first fight back after that defeat against Kiko. That was in Castlebar” recalled Dunne.

“When I got there, I remember just this strange atmosphere in the venue [Breaffy House Resort].

“I think people were more apprehensive than I was and their apprehension kind of rubbed off on me and I became, I suppose, a little bit wary.

“But once the first bell rang, and we engaged in the middle of the ring, you tend to forget things quickly and become focused.

“We actually got offered a world title fight shortly after that win- Celestino Caballero- we got offered that fight in around the [Damian David] Marchiano fight [in July 2008].

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Bernard Dunne sends Ricardo Cordoba crashing to the canvas for the final time to become WBA World Super Bantamweight champion in front of a packed O2 Arena on March 21, 2009 Photo by David Maher / SPORTSFILE

“I wasn't keen at that stage. I didn't think it was the right time. I didn't think the public were ready and I didn't think I was fully ready at that stage, so I knocked it back

“If I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it right. The process that you have to go through to fight to become champion of the world, you don't just take it on a whim.

“I was confident that if I kept applying myself and if I stuck to the process that I had in place, that the opportunities would arise. I had faith in that.

“So I beat Marchiano and then I fought Cristian Faccio back in Castlebar. That was a nasty fight. I think I had got a major cut in that one.

“I think that fight had got stopped in the seventh or eighth round. I won on points, but it got stopped because of the cut. We clashed heads and I had a major rip across the top of my skull. I was bleeding profusely.

“It was after that that I got a phone call saying 'Look, there's potential that Ricardo Cordoba, the WBA champ, will come here to fight you'.

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Bernard Dunne celebrates with family members (left to right) Brendan Dunne, wife Pamela Dunne, brother Edward Dunne, mother Angela Dunne, sister Deborah Dunne and promoter Brian Peters after winning the WBA World Super Bantamweight title at the O2 Arena in 2009

“I'm sure they were looking at me as easy money. I was selling out venues, big venues.

“He had previously beaten the first guy who had offered me the world title, Celestino Caballero, so he was a quality opponent.

“But I felt I was ready now. I felt we had done enough building. I'm in great shape, mentally I'm very strong. And, at that level, a lot of it is in the mind. You need to be strong and very clearly focused.

“And I felt 'Yeah, this is the time. Let's do it.'

“It [the training camp] was incredible. I remember pushing my body to places I had never been. I remember actually going through things and thinking 'I can't do any more. I literally can't.'

“Mikey McGurn was my S&C coach at that stage. To get what I got through with him, just the mental strength that I took from it was incredible.

“Boxing-wise I was working with Harry Hawkins. We'd a great relationship. We still do to this day. We had a really good bond, and between himself and my dad, they made really good plans.

“The night of the World title fight, the whole of town was in a state of celebration even before the bout had started because Ireland had won the Grand Slam that day.

“When I arrived at the O2, the place was just electric. It was magnificent. And to see all our people out to support me, it was incredible.

“I remember the fight vividly.

“The first thing I remember was standing behind the curtain and my silhouette goes up on the screen. The music is playing and I'm literally just ticking the boxes, telling myself what I've done and how I've prepared for this. All I’ve got to do is go out and perform.

“And then Cordoba came out at the end of the corridor and he started to say things up to me. We had one or two exchanges and it just finished on 'You know what, I'll see you inside.'

“And then the curtain dropped and, yeah, I've hairs on the back of my neck describing it now.

“But I needed to stay focused. I needed to remember the game plan and I needed to implement that plan. I was trying to just really block out a lot of it, but it was just so incredible. I'd never seen anything like it.

“I remember walking down by the ring and my dad was there. We touched gloves and I said 'We'll be alright.' On I went and I stood in the ring and put my hands in the air. It was like the whole of Ireland had just exploded.

“It was incredible and there was a fair few people from Neilstown cheering me on.

“I remember in the third round I threw probably the best punch I've ever thrown.

“I threw a left hook. We'd worked on it in the gym, you know, throwing the jab, getting down low and coming around with that left hook.

“And as the left hook landed, I thought 'That's it, it's over.' I'd never landed a left hook like it and I thought 'I'm champion of the world.'

“And I turned around and I started celebrating, but then I turned back and I see Cordoba sit up and I think 'holy s**t. How does he get up from that?'

“We came out in the fourth round and we clashed heads and I had double vision from that moment and in the fifth round he really put pressure on.

“It was more an accumulation of punches than any big shot, so I wasn't really hurt. I remember looking over to Harry in the corner and I just said 'I'm fine. I'm ok.'

“I stood up and we engaged again and then 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 the first time I realised where I was, it was when I looked up and I looked at my mam. She had her head buried in my dad's chest.

“I was like 'Jesus, what's wrong with my mam? Why isn't she looking at me?' And it was then I realised I’m on the floor. It was only then I realised where I was.

“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 in the blink of an eye.

“I spoke around my future, I spoke around what I was going to do, because, you know, if you don't get up here, people are going to say 'Well done, but hard luck'. Is that what you want to hear? All of this is happening in literally two seconds.

“I can even describe what I was talking to myself about. I was reflecting on all the choices and sacrifices I had made to get to this point.

“I was saying 'You know, you went away from your family, you moved to America, you and Pamela. What are you going to do? You've got kids now, you've a lot of responsibilities. Think about your dad and all the sacrifices your family has made for you.

“Is this it? Is this you done? Are you finished? These were all the questions I was asking myself, all in the blink of an eye.

“And I just heard a voice say 'Get up. Get f**king up on your feet'. And it was in a very strong Belfast accent. I realised it was my coach Harry Hawkins screaming at me.

“And I got up. I got up and Cordoba came after me. He trapped me in the corner and threw a barrage of punches. I was blocking, blocking, blocking.

“The bell rang and I threw my first punch back. I missed Cordoba and I hit the ref, Hubert Earle.

“And as I walked past the ref I tapped him on the arse with my glove and I said 'Woah I got you there.' And at that moment I was back.

“I had literally just cleared up and I sat in the corner and I remember Harry saying to me 'Ok, we've just lost that one.'

“We had broken the fight down into 12 separate fights. Each round represented a fight. He said 'Look, we've lost that fight. Let's win the next one.'

“He couldn't believe how clear I was in my eyes and that I was speaking back to him.

“And then I stood up at the start of the sixth. I think that round is probably what I take strength from.

“I know everyone thinks the 11th round is what defines me and that made me champion of the world, but getting through that round was huge.

“And when I stood up at the start of the sixth and put my hands in the air, I don't think anyone could believe I was coming back out.

“I don't think Cordoba could believe I was coming back out, but coming back out we were and we were coming back out fighting.

“And it was kind of back and forth during the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and then in the 11th I caught him with a big right hand, he stumbled back to the ropes, I chased him, I threw a volley of punches and he hit the deck.

“I didn't celebrate as much this time after seeing what he had done in the third.

“He got back up, I stepped out, I hit him with a left hook and dropped him again and went back to the corner.

“At this stage I'm thinking, 'Ok I've won this round, I've won that round.' I'm kind of doing the scorecard in my head at this stage.

“And I'm thinking 'All I've got to do is actually just stay on my feet and I'll become champion of the world. Do nothing stupid in this round, do nothing stupid in the next round and that's it. It's over.'

“But little did I know that I was actually losing on all three judges’ scorecards up to that round.

“Harry was screaming at me to jump on him and I started to throw a jab and a jab. He moved to his corner and Harry was getting frustrated.

“I can actually see the fight in my head. Harry's banging on the canvas telling me to get off him and actually let my hands go.

“And I backed him up to his corner and again threw a jab, got low and came up with a right hand, left hook. And that was it. He spun around me and hit the floor.

“With one second left in the 11th round we became champion of the world. It was incredible.

“The first thing I said when they put the microphone to me in the ring was that ‘this is ours, this was ours’ and I really meant that.

“From a team perspective, everybody sees me in the ring, but my coach Harry Hawkins, Mikey McGurn, my dad, my family, my wife Pamela, my kids, they had all helped me achieve all of this. And the fans, the fans were incredible.

“It would have been so easy for them to jump ship after the Kiko fight, but they didn't. They stuck with me and it was great to have that support.

“I was in quite a lot of pain coming out of that fight. I actually collapsed in the changing room after the fight. They wanted to put me in an ambulance and send me to hospital, because I started to drift off, I started to fall asleep.

“It was an adrenalin crash and the paramedics came in and I said 'Look, I don't want to go to hospital. Get my doc in and let's see what he says.'

“Dr Joe McKeever was my own doctor and he was the Boxing Union of Ireland doctor. So Dr Joe came in and he gave me an injection and I was put on a drip. And I was kept on the couch for nearly an hour.

“And it was only then that I got up and said I'd go and make a speech at the after party and then I'll slip straight out. I wanted to go over to see Ricardo in hospital, because I knew he went to hospital.

“So we went into the after party and we did that. Just to see so many people enjoy themselves, it was just incredible.

“But I went to see Cordoba in the hospital. He didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak a word of Spanish, but we still had a conversation.

“It was strange. When I got there, there was nobody in the hospital with him. There was a nurse there. But none of his team were there and he was on his own and I just thought it was so sad.

“I know if I was in that situation my coach would be with me, my wife would be with me, my dad would be with me and the people closest to me would make sure that they never left my side.

“I just found it very strange that he was on his own. And I sat with him and I thanked him for giving me the opportunity and for him to have been part of such an incredible battle.

“We sat there, and he spoke to me and I spoke to him and it was a strange thing that we understood each other.

“So I spent a bit of time with him and I went back to the hotel and applied ice packs to all parts of my body.

“It was strange, because I moved on quite quickly. It was like 'What's next?' And I probably didn't appreciate it for what it was, if I'm honest.

“It was a strange feeling, because the belt didn't really mean a whole lot to me. Like the belt right now is in the attic in a black bag.

“For me it was always about representing my people, showing I could represent Ireland in the right way, just testing myself against the best and that's what I wanted to do. And whether I was to win or lose, I wanted to be able to do it.

“I'm very fortunate. I now get to work with people [as IABA High Performance Director] who have amazing goals, who want to set and achieve very high targets, and that really excites me that I get to help other people do that.

“And the one thing I'd encourage them to do is to actually enjoy the victories, enjoy the success, enjoy the small moments where things are actually going really well because not everything goes the way you want.

“I had the Poonsawat [Kratingdaenggym] fight after that.

“I had achieved what I'd achieved against Cordoba and I just think it was such a high, my mind and my body had lost a lot from that fight. Physically and mentally, that fight took its toll.

“I was starting to become tired of the sport after that. I was dealing with some kind of contractual stuff and was like 'You know what, this is just too complicated. I've been involved with the sport for 25 years. Maybe it's time for me to do something different.'

“Poonsawat beating me, I felt so disappointed after that fight, because I'd felt I let people down more than I let myself down and I should never have been thinking like that, but it was how I was thinking.

“And very quickly after that fight I started to think 'You know what, I don't think I want this anymore.'

“And when you start to think that about sport, and especially about boxing, you've really got to take a look at whether you want to be involved in the sport anymore, because when you start to think like that, that's when you start to cut corners. You're not as committed as you used to be and that's when you can possibly get hurt.

“I was very fortunate that I had got to this point in time and not really suffered too much. Ok I had a couple of injuries and bumps and bruises, but that's par for the course.

“I had applied myself in training, but I don't think my heart or my soul was in it in any way. It was becoming something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do by that stage.

“Poonsawat was Number One on the list and I was offered a chance to side-step him, I was actually offered another World title fight at a different weight division, but I was like 'I'm not avoiding him.'

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to fight the best. I wanted to take the challenge on. He was the Number One contender and I said 'Why not?'

“So I took that fight on, won the first two rounds, knew I couldn't keep that pace up for 12, so I changed plan and engaged in the third round. I got caught with big heavy shots and the fight was over.

“I just think the body was tired. I had boxed for 25 years. I had started boxing at the age of five. I was just turning 30 at this stage and that's a major career for any person in any way of life. I just felt I needed something different at that point.

“That fight had been in September [2009] and I knew by the November myself because I'd been thinking about it quite quickly.

“I told my wife and I told my dad 'Look I'm thinking about retiring' and then I told the whole family. I just wanted to see how it felt saying it out loud.

“I didn't actually announce my retirement until the following February. I wanted to let it settle and see how I actually felt and see if I was sure, and I was sure. It was time to step away.

“My family were great. They were so supportive in everything I've done. And the people of Neilstown and Clondalkin were brilliant to me.

“Even when I was an amateur, they used to hold street parties when I'd come home from tournaments and when I won the European title and World title. There were big celebrations, and I'm forever thankful for that.

“Neilstown and Clondalkin is where my heart will always be and I'll always appreciate the support I got. It was incredible, an incredible journey.”

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