Sutcliffe – from the Olympic and European stage to coaching the stars of tomorrow
By Stephen Leonard
PHILIP Sutcliffe snr was no stranger to competing at the highest levels of boxing.
A four-time National Senior champion, he represented Ireland in both the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively and won European Championship bronze medals for his country on both sides of the Iron Curtain in 1977 and '79.
A combination of injury and the demands of trying to make a living, effectively brought about his retirement from boxing at the age of 26, but he continued on to exert a huge influence on the careers of so many up and coming fighters, firstly as a coach with Drimnagh Boxing Club and later with the neighbouring Crumlin BC.
Philip Sutcliffe snr of Crumlin Boxing Club is one of the most successful Irish coaches in the sport
Sutcliffe might not have been the most prolific of juvenile boxers, but his sheer tenacity kept him in the sport- a quality that was exemplified in his very first training session in Drimnagh Boxing Club.
“I had to wait until I was going on 10 to join Drimnagh Boxing Club” Sutcliffe told The Echo. “I was in school with another boy called Fergal Kavanagh who did a bit of boxing for Drimnagh. He said would I go down and join, so I went down.
“The very first night the coach hadn’t arrived, but the club was open and there were a few fellas in the ring and I got an unmerciful clattering off one of the fellas who was the league champion. He was 12.
“We were just young and you want to have a go. He gave me some clattering, but it didn’t turn me off. A few weeks later I was able to spar him again and I held me own with him.
“I didn’t win the juvenile titles. I was always being beaten by guys who were that little bit better than me, the likes of Hughie Russell who beat me in the semi finals of the National Boys Championship.
The Ireland boxing team that competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games (left to right) Sean Doyle, Martin Brereton, PJ Davitt, Barry McGuigan, Philip Sutcliffe, Hugh Russell and Gerry Hawkins
“He gave me a boxing lesson. It was a tough fight and he won on a 3-2 split, but I was learning all the time.
“My first national title was the National Junior title in 1977. It’s now the senior championships on the current scene.
“I was only 17. I was boxing at light flyweight and the same year I entered the National Seniors and the guy to beat was a guy called Jimmy Carson.
Philip Sutcliffe and his supporters celebrate his bronze medal win at the 1977 European Championships
“So I beat one or two guys before him and then I boxed Jimmy in the final. It was a good close fight, but I beat him and I went on to be National Senior and Junior champion in the same year in ’77.
“It was also the first year I went to the European Championships at senior level in a place called Halle in East Germany.
“I was the youngest competitor in the championships and I beat a guy called Paul Fletcher from England who was tipped to pick up a medal. He was ABA champion and they were looking forward to him picking up a medal. That was my first fight in the Europeans, a straight quarter final.
Philip Sutcliffe represented Ireland on both the European Championship and Olympic Games stage
“I got beaten by Henryk Średnicki in semi finals, a Polish guy. He was the only boxer to ever stop me, the only fight I was stopped in except for cuts. He was very very strong and I was only 17.
“Henryk went on to win the gold. He was world class. I think I could have beaten him if I was a little bit stronger and maybe got a little bit more preparation. Remember I had to work as well and train. It wasn’t like today.
“I just wasn’t physically as strong as some of the men I had to fight, but it was the toughness, skill and fast hands that got me through.
Philip Sutcliffe and Crumlin Boxing Club have enjoyed huge success over the past 28 years
“I boxed Hughie Russell [1980 Olympic bronze medallist] at flyweight in the final of the National Senior Championships the following year and I stopped Hughie in the first round.
“I had trained so hard to beat Hughie because he was an exceptional talent. His footwork and his hand speed were exceptional. But I knew from the first fight that I had with him in the youths that he wasn’t going to be as tough as me.
“I was very light stepping up to bantamweight. I was always a very light bantamweight for a good few of the years, but I still went as bantamweight to the European Championships in 1979 in Cologne.
Philip Sutcliffe (right) at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984
“For those championships I was a little bit stronger and I was in great nick physically. I trained very hard for it.
“I had to win two or three contests in order to get to the semi finals. The guy who beat me was a Russian, Nikolay Khraptsov, in the semi finals that year and he went on to win the gold.
“I broke me hand at the start of the second round in that fight and that was to plague me for the rest of my days.
“It was a good close fight. I didn’t know me hand was broke, but I had to go straight to the hospital.
“They got the glove off there and me hand was that badly swollen with the bandage on it, all me fingers were stuck together. It was bad.
“That was to plague me for the next [National] Championships in 1980, where Richie Foster beat me
“In ’79 I rested me hand and I was doing a bit of coaching in Drimnagh Boxing Club, helping out Mick Dowling and Joe Behan who were the main coaches there.
“There was a bit of controversy about me being picked for the 1980 Olympics [ahead of National champion Foster]. I was selected for experience. I had two bronze medals and I won all my fights when I was in America.
“The guys that had beaten me were all top class boys. Most were European or Olympic champions.
“The experience of going to the Moscow Olympic was fantastic, but you have to remember I was nursing a broken hand.
“My hand used to be red and orange when I woke up. I used to stick it into a bucket of water and ice to take down the swelling after training because I still had to spar.
“I still wanted to go to the Olympic Games. I always thought in the back of me head if I get a handy draw I’d still be able to punch. You had that never-give-up thing in your head.
“Hughie Russell went to the Olympics as a flyweight so at the time before I even got on the scales in Moscow I had to eat two bananas with loads of glucose and sugar and milk just to be up a little so I could weigh about 8 stone 3. I was even lighter than Hughie sometimes and he won the bronze medal.
“I got a bye and then the guy who I got picked to fight was one of the favourites for a medal, Daniel Zaragoza from Mexico.
“Daniel Zaragoza won or defended a number of world titles as a pro and beat Wayne McCullough. He was very smart, very tough, hit very hard. It was a good fight, but my hand was very sore.
“The type of fighter I was, was a go-forward fighter, two hands, quick attack and I was still trying to do that, but the pain of the hand was too much and I lost. I retired after that.
“I cried a lot. I had to give it up so young. I was 20 at that stage, going on 21.
“I took a coaching role in Drimnagh Boxing Club, helping Mick Dowling, which really I had already being doing since ’79 because my hand had broke, but I got into a more official role then.
“We had a great group of kids in the club. Paul Griffin was only 11 and he went on to win the European gold. We had Michael Carruth coming up, me own brothers Derek, Tommy, Joe and Mark were winning Irish titles as were Paul Cray, Glen Stephens and Brian Geraghty.
“We had a great bunch of juniors, a great bunch of seniors and a fantastic youth section. It was a great set-up and Drimnagh was fantastic and is still one of the most decorated clubs in Irish history.
“I kept going. Happy enough being a boxing coach, but missing the game.
“The Irish team came up to spar one Sunday morning and there was no one really to spar them so I said I’d do a bit with them. They were Under 18 or Under 19 and I was just getting in with them and giving them the rounds and me hands felt good.
“I was in the army at the time and I was stationed in the gymnasium. I was a Physical Training instructor so I was keeping myself fit and my weight was still only about nine stone 3/nine stone 4.
“So I got in a sparred and my hands felt good and I said ‘My God! Maybe I’ll come back’.
“I was looking at the boys winning titles and I knew I was better than them. I was holding my own with the young Under 18 team up to middleweight.
“So I gave Mick Dowling a ring to get the stamp of approval. He was still my mentor, Mick Dowling was one of the finest coaches that ever coached.
“He said ‘Ah do you not think you’ve done enough?’ I didn’t get the approval I needed, that reassurance.
“But I took it on the chin. I was doing so good as a coach. All the boys I was dealing with were winning title after title after title.
“I was still only 24 and I had an urge to get back in especially with the way I sparred the Irish team.
“At the time I never did the Leinster Championships because there was never any one really there for me.
“A guy called Tommy Thompson was going in and he was European Junior bronze medallist. So I got in with him and I stopped him.
“I boxed for the National Senior title in 1984. I boxed a guy called Roy Nash in the final. He was a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and he was one of the best little fighters you could get, north or south of the border.
“So I fought him and it was a tough fight, but I knew I had the beatings of him and I won that. I had to box a trial [for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles] with Roy again and I beat him again. I was on the crest of a wave then and I was still only getting fit.
“In the ’84 Olympics I was very unlucky. I was fit and my hands were good. I was sparring well in the camp in Lake Placid. Paddy Muldowney was our coach and we trained really hard.
“We had a great squad and I happened to get picked to fight the World Junior champion at the time, a guy called Maurizio Stecca. That was the first fight I had and it was a cracking fight.
“I’d say if I had a fight beforehand I could have knackered him out, but Stecca went on to beat them all and win the gold medal and he went on to become World professional champion.
“I was never lucky with the draws. Meeting World champions and European champions on your first fight, it’s very hard.
“I did win another National Bantamweight title. I beat Nash again in 1985.
“I went to the European Championships in Hungary, but trying to survive and train to compete like I did, it was hard. And my hand was giving me a bit of trouble again.
“I was a young married man trying to keep a family. It was very difficult, for the amount of time you had to train.
“I joined the army in 1981 and I did 25 years in the army. I found it easy enough to train, but the army pay wasn’t great. I retired from boxing when I was 26 years of age.
“I went back into the coaching with Drimnagh. I was in the army and I became a corporal. I wanted to go overseas to make a few bob and I went overseas for six months.
“I came back to the club, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t have the same hold on it as I did before I went overseas to the Lebanon.
“I wanted to run a different show, my own show. I wanted to do my own thing and I decided to look for another club in 1992 when Drimnagh was at its height. I wanted to make my own mark as a coach
“In 1992 Michael Carruth won his gold medal. I had been over there in Barcelona watching him. I cried me eyes out when Michael won it. A load of us went over, like when we went over to see Katie Taylor. We went over to support. It’s a boxing thing and boxing is in our genes.
“I went up to Crumlin. The place as was a bit derelict. There was a hole in the roof, there was holes in the floor, the ring was a bit rotten at one side. There were only a couple of bags hanging. It needed looking after.
“When I got the new gym in Crumlin, I opened it two weeks later, myself and Gary Griffin. Paddy Brady came on board then, I had me mother, me father, me sisters, all helping me. We were cleaning up the club for a few weeks.
“There have been many highlights with Crumlin. Gavin Brown was our first National champion and Glen Stephens was our first National Elite champion in 1994.
“My own son, Philip jnr won his first senior title in 2009 when he knocked out John Joe Joyce, a 2008 Olympian and a European bronze medallist.
“John Kinsella winning his third senior title at Super Heavyweight.
“Conor McGregor was in the club from when he was 10 until he was nearly 17 and he still looks after us well. He remembers his roots. He’s just one of the hardest grafters.
“We also have one of the most successful up and coming boxers in William Hayden who’s won national titles right the way through and a gold at the European Schoolboy Championships.
“Courtney Daly has nine Irish titles, Leona Houlihan who has an elite and senior title, we’ve Clodagh Greene who has a senior title.
“We won Irish titles every single year at all levels right up to this year when the COVID hit. We haven’t won one in 2020 because of the COVID, but the year’s not over yet.
“We have 26 coaches in the club and we’ve over a 100 members.
“Not everyone is going to be a champion, but they’ll belong to a championship winning club. They all feel proud to be involved in Crumlin Boxing Club.”
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