This Saturday, Dublin middleweight Luke Keeler will participate, live on Sky Sports, in the thirty-fifth edition of Matchroom Boxing’s hugely popular Prizefighter series. Over the last few years many of the island’s boxers have participated in the three-round, one-night, knock-out tournament that sees eight boxers vie for the trophy and substantial cash prize. Here, irish-boxing.com takes a detailed luck at the successes and failures of these Irish boxers.
Any history of the Irish in Prizefighter must start with heavyweight Martin Rogan. As a novice professional, the Belfast cabbie bludgeoned his way to victory in the inaugural Prizefighter tournament back in August 2008. This catapulted ‘Big Rogie’ into further big fights in what was a real Cinderella story. He would go on to defeat 2000 Olympic champion Audley Harrison before knocking out Matt Skelton to win the Commonwealth title. This tournament also featured Colin Kenna, brother of Irish soccer international Jeff, who was less successful, being KO’d in the 2nd round of his quarter-final bout.
The fourth edition of the tournament, in November of the same year, featured middleweights with Joe Rea making an appearance. The Ballymena man, however, was defeated in the quarter-finals by eventual winner and future world title challenger, Martin Murray.
Prizefighter 7 in May 2009 featured popular Belfast cruiserweight Darren Corbett. While he did progress to the semi-finals, he suffered a freak shin injury en-route to the ring and was duly knocked-out in the 2nd round by eventual winner, Ovill McKenzie.
The following tournament saw some success for then-undefeated heavyweight Coleman Barrett. The Galweigan southpaw boxed his way to the final in October 2009, and was performing well against Audley Harrison, before being caught with a big shot and getting stopped.
Neil ‘Sinky’ Sinclair, tried his hand at the tournament in February 2010. However, despite a lot of pre-tournament excitement around the light middleweight, he suffered a disappointing split-decision defeat to Bradley Pryce in the quarter-finals of the tenth edition. This was especially disappointing considering that ‘Sinky’ had knocked out the same man in 2003.
Darren Corbett was given a chance to atone for his earlier Prizefighter defeat when he entered the eleventh tournament in April 2010. ‘The Raging Bull’ was again impressive in the quarter-finals before being defeated in the semis in a very tight fight against Nick Okoth. Corbett had reason to feel hard done by here as Okoth was a replacement (and therefore fresh and full of energy) for his original opponent, Herbie Hibe, who was injured in his own quarter-final win.
The following tournament, in May 2010, saw another Irish winner, Willie Casey. The Limerick super bantamweight was a late replacement for another Irishman, Wayne McCullough, who had to withdraw before the tournament. Despite his inexperience, ‘Big Bang’ blasted his way through the opposition to win the tournament in what was a huge upset. After this shock win, the Southill man continued his upward trajectory by defeating Paul Hyland in the first ever all Irish European title fight before being defeated in a world title challenge against Cuban maestro, Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Two Irishmen participated in Prizefighter 14 in October 2010, however it was a largely poor-quality tournament and neither were successful. Declan Timlin was knocked-out in the 2nd round of his quarter-final with Shane McPhilbin. Kevin McBride, the man who sent Mike Tyson into retirement, squeaked through his quarter-final before being outpointed by Matt Skelton in the semis. At this stage in his career the ‘Clones Colossus’ was evidently way past his best.
After the disappointment of Timlin and McBride, Ireland could claim a winner at the next Prizefighter heavyweight edition, an international tournament in May 2011. Cork-based Cuban, Mike Perez, blasted his way through his competition, knocking all three of his opponents down and stopping two in the 1st round. ‘The Rebel’ has since gone on to operate at fringe world level and a title shot seems likely to be in his future at some stage.
In June 2011, welterweight journeyman Peter McDonagh entered the nineteenth iteration of the tournament. ‘The Connemara Kid,’ however, fell at the first hurdle, losing to eventual winner Yassine El Maachi of Morroco.
On the back of a fervent Twitter campaign for his inclusion, Jeff Thomas was chosen for Prizefighter 20, at light middleweight, in September 2011. ‘The Brown Bomber,’ and his quarter-final opponent, Kris Agyei-Dua, made Prizefighter history by being involved in the first ever drawn fight in the format’s history. This led to the referee having to decide who would progress and, unfortunately, the former Irish title challenger, was eliminated.
The twenty-fourth edition of the tournament was one of great interest to the Irish boxing community. Held in May 2012, in the King’s Hall, Belfast, the competition was a uniquely all-Irish middleweight affair. The eight men involved were Anthony Fitzgerald, Ryan Green, Ciarán Healy, JJ McDonagh, Eamon O’Kane, Joe Rea, Simon O’Donnell and Darren Cruise. After edging out Fitzgerald via a split-decision in the quarters, former elite amateur O’Kane used his skills to win the tournament at a canter, beating Mullingar man McDonagh in the final. Now ranked highly by the IBF, O’Kane hopes to progress to world level in the near future.
Martin Rogan returned to Prizefighter for the twenty-ninth edition in February 2013. He spectacularly KO’d the Pole, Albert Sosnowski, in the quarters before coming up against old foe Audley Harrison in the semis. This time, Harrison kept Rogan at the end of his jab for the three rounds before going on to win the tournament outright.
The following tournament in May saw another Belfast man, Conall Carmichael, enter the tournament. Boasting an undefeated record, there were high hopes for the cruiserweight. It would all, however, end in disappointment as he suffered a quarter-final exit after being outpointed by Hari Miles.
April 2014 saw one of the most topsy-turvy, and ultimately disappointing, tournaments for Irish fighters. Two Irish welterweights entered, ‘Irish Lightning’ Dean Byrne and 2010 Commonwealth gold medallist, Paddy Gallagher. Gallagher was the pre-tournament favourite but was knocked down twice, while also flooring his opponent once, en-route to a quarter-final loss to Erik Ochieng. In an amazing turn of events, Ochieng withdrew after needing medical attention after the bout. ‘Pat-Man’ was therefore reinstated and faced Mark Douglas (who had outpointed Byrne in the quarters) in the semi-final. Gallagher scored a vicious 1st round knock-out to progress to the final and looked good to fulfil his favourites tag. Unfortunately it was not to be and the Belfast man was knocked down twice by novice Johnny Coyle before losing on the scorecards.
In the most recent Prizefighter, last December, Ireland had another winner in Finglas native Jono Carroll. Despite his 14/1 odds pre-tournament, ‘King Kong’ defeated the favourite, Steve Foster Jr, in the quarters and the second favourite, Gary Buckland, in the semis before beating Michael Devine in the final. In addition to the cash prize, the charismatic Carroll also earned himself a lucrative contract with Matchroom. While the tournament was at lightweight, Carroll has stated his intention of fighting at super featherweight going forward and he looks to have a prosperous career ahead of him.
As one can see, Prizefighter has been a mixed bag for the Irish with some fantastic victories and some crushing disappointments. The tournament has the potential to ignite a boxer’s career and Luke Keeler will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his Celtic Warrior Gym-buddy, Jono Carroll, when he climbs between the ropes in Blackpool this Saturday.