Ahead of Conor McGregor and UFC’s debut at Madison Square Garden, Peter Carroll spoke to three Irish boxers who have competed at the iconic venue
For fighters, getting the call to compete at Madison Square Garden can be a defining moment of their career. For the Irish especially, due to the abundant population of Gaels in the ‘Big Apple’, fighting at the iconic venue is far more significant than any other bout.
The legendary city embraces the Irish pugilists, perhaps more than any other nationality, as Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan found out last year when he made his debut at the arena against Milton Nunez on St Patrick’s weekend.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening, to be honest,” O’Sullivan said, remembering what it was like to find out he would compete at The Garden.
“I come from a place called Mahon in Cork. Not a lot of people from where I grew up ever get to see a place like New York, never mind Madison Square Garden. When I found out that I would fight there it was absolutely surreal.”
O’Sullivan made his way to New York by himself after coming off his knockout victory over Larry Smith in Boston. He pottered around the city waiting for his coach to join him, and decided he would go for something to eat when he discovered that the bus would be delayed by an hour.
Hailing from Cork, when ‘Spike’ saw a bar called Jack Doyle’s, named after the legendary boxer from his home county, he couldn’t resist. Shortly after entering the premises, he quickly found out how valuable being Irish is in the city that never sleeps.
“Is that you Spike, is it?” he heard a thick Cork accent inquire from behind the bar.
When he answered affirmatively, the bill for the food was waved off immediately, but there was still more to come.
“Next thing I knew, he was back in front of me asking me did I have any American sponsors for my fights.
“I told him I didn’t, and he told me to ‘hang on a minute there, boy’, and he went off and made a few phone calls. By the time I had finished my food he had two sponsors for me.
Image: Doug Minihane, courtesy of Spike O'Sullivan
“He even arranged for me to have a party in the pub after the fight, with free food and drink. Lou DiBella had organized another after party for the fighters, but I promised them that I would be back, and I stuck to my word.”
Because his head coach Paschal Collins couldn’t make it out to New York ahead of the fight, ‘Irish’ Micky Ward - the boxer immortalized in Hollywood blockbuster The Fighter - was drafted in to do O’Sullivan’s corner.
Everything began to gather momentum for O’Sullivan in the lead up to the fight, so he felt he needed to get some attire to match the momentous occasion.
“I ended up buying a tracksuit and pair of shoes for $1000,” he laughed. “Now, when I tell you this thing was out there, I mean even Floyd Mayweather wouldn’t have worn this thing.
“It was snow white and had this really shiny gold design on it. The shoes were a pair of gold Pumas – honestly, you’d have to look away if you had seen me and you weren’t wearing sunglasses.”
Unfortunately, when ‘Spike’ tried the gear on, he had a sudden change of heart. As he remembers it, he “completely bottled it”, but there was another twist left in the tale before he set off for the arena.
“I went down to the reception in some other gear that I had with me and the next thing I know Dermot O’Sullivan, the famous Cork hurler, is waiting there to wish me good luck.
“He said to me ‘Spike, walk into The Garden tonight like you f**king own it.’
“I went straight back into the lift and I put on my flash tracksuit again. There was a bus leaving from the hotel with all of the fighters, but I decided I would walk. There were people beeping at me in the street as I made my way down.
“There were a bunch of people waiting with security when we made it to the entrance. Everyone was waiting for the wristbands to get in but I just walked straight through them. When they saw that tracksuit, they knew I was meant to be there!”
Sitting in the bowels of the venue, O’Sullivan felt a mixture of apprehension and gratitude, as he listened to his opponent Milton Nunez warm up.
“The dressing rooms were like something you’d expect for a famous singer or something. There were lights all around the mirrors. I can remember sitting backstage in the dressing room and I could hear Nunez, my opponent, battering away on the pads.
“This guy had twenty-five knockouts, and when we got into the ring, neither of us had any intentions of hanging around. It nearly came down to who landed the big shot first, and I got him in the end.”
O’Sullivan remembers having his hand raised in The Garden as one of the greatest moments of his career. And he even got to meet one of his heroes shortly after securing the victory.
“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Having Micky Ward in my corner made it very special too, the movie The Fighter had only come out a short time before it.
Image: Lou DiBella (Spike's right) and Micky Ward (Spike's left) Doug Minihane, courtesy of Spike O'Sullivan
“Evander Hollyfield was there too. He’s an all-time hero of mine, and I got to do an interview with him after it. When I made my confirmation, that’s the name I chose – Evander. Everybody else was picking Peter or Paul, but I chose Evander. The teachers were looking at me like I had ten heads, you know, ‘what the f**k is an Evander?’”
O’Sullivan sparred Conor McGregor on a number of occasions when ‘The Notorious’ frequented Celtic Warrior gym in Blanchardstown in his earlier UFC days. Given his experiences with the man himself, New York and Madison Square Garden, ‘Spike’ is confident that the Dubliner will be a huge success when he lands in the city next month.
“I think it’s going to be like the resurrection of Our Lord,” he said. “Wherever Conor goes – London, Hong Kong, Boston, New York – the people love him. Particularly in Madison Square Garden, I think it could be like the Second Coming.”
After insisting that he would no longer fight in Vegas after he was handed a lofty fine by the NSAC earlier in the month, O’Sullivan believes the East Coast would he ideal for hosting the MMA star's fights in the future.
“I think it makes perfect sense for Conor to make New York his home after this one,” he agreed.
“He’s going to be blown away by the place, he really is. It’s going to be huge over there. I honestly think it’s going to be like nothing that we’ve ever seen before with him.
“I just hope he enjoys it. It’s one of the great honours you can achieve in the fight game.”
O’Sullivan plans on showing up in Birmingham this weekend to give Olympic bronze medalist Anthony Ogogo a piece of his mind. Despite the undefeated Brit dismissing the chances of fighting O’Sullivan in the past, the Corkman is still confident he can lure him into a contest if he sees him face to face.