By Paul Gibson follow Paul on Twitter @BallsOfWrath
When I talk to Dublin’s Luke Keeler, he is just three days away from headlining a Friday fight night card in the Irish capital. In just his sixth bout of a fledgling professional career, this is a big moment for the middleweight prospect. Though in some respects just another step along the road, being the bill-topper in his home town increases the pressure and adds significance to how he performs on the night. Preparation for the six three minute rounds should have his full and undivided attention right now.
But it is not as simple as that. Where the Showtime Sports cameras to follow Keeler around for an all access look at his weeks building up to a fight, examples of Mayweather-esque largesse or Floyd’s opponent’s apparent Spartan-like devotion to training would be few and far between.
The former is just not in Keeler’s character: the latter is absent through circumstance. The complicated reality of life as a boxing prospect means there are more elements in the equation than train, rest and fight.
“I’ve got 150 tickets to sell,” Keeler tells me. “I need to sell them to cover me and my opponent. It’s that or you don’t fight.” It reminded me of the passage in Roy Keane’s autobiography were the ex-United man spoke of his performances suffering because he spent so much time running around sorting out tickets for friends and family. But at least Roy got to play either way. And at least his wages hit his bank account every month regardless of ability to move match tickets.
“Young guys, good amateurs who could make it in the pro game, contact me and ask me how to get started. I tell them, unless you have a fan base that can guarantee at least 100 tickets, you won’t even get a start.”
With the type of purses we are talking about at this level, a €700 compulsory medical could be all it takes to devour any profits a young pro could make.
Others, such as super middleweight Brendan Fitzpatrick, make a start but soon drift away from the sport when promoters continue to offer peanuts. The promising Fitzpatrick won six of his first seven pro fights but has been absent for almost two years now. It remains to be seen whether we’ll see him back in the ring again.
Despite the great tradition of boxing in Ireland, it is tough to make a living in the sport here. We talk about the increased opportunities across the water where a higher volume of shows, and thus potential sponsorship deals, can quickly open doors for fighters.
“I don’t mind going to England. I don’t even mind losing money. It’s about building a record, getting there and hopefully it’ll pay off.” It’s an astute long-term view of things that Keeler describes as “investing into himself.”
Another important factor is having the right profile – a highly subjective concept which can vary across generations, countries and even weight divisions. In general, a successful amateur career and a couple of medals in your pocket goes some way to providing the type of profile needed to sell tickets or, even better, tempt a promotional team to take a punt on you. But once again, it is not as simple as that.
“I had a decent amateur career and just missed out on an Irish title. I shared a couple of close fights with Eamonn O’Kane in the senior’s and lost a tight one to Jason Quigley as well. But I was competing against full-time athletes on grants while I was studying full-time and working a part-time job. It’s tough.”
Both O’Kane and Quigley were members of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s High Performance team. This elite unit was founded in 2003 and, with funding from the Irish Sports Council, those who make the team receive sufficient financial support to allow them to concentrate 100% on their boxing. They have all earned the right to be there, but it is difficult to fully quantify the advantages of being chosen.
Donegal’s Quigley, for example, made full use of his opportunity and leveraged a World Amateur silver medal into a contract with De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions when he turned pro. Needless to say, Jason quit any thoughts of a day job a long time ago.
Right now, Luke Keeler does not have that luxury and he’s up every morning to commute to his job with Intel, 20km west of Dublin city. With an honours degree in structural engineering from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Keeler will always have the safety net of a good education to fall back on.
But since his uncle Stephen, himself a boxer, first brought young Luke into a gym, his heart has been set on boxing. Stephen passed away tragically aged just 28 years old and he still serves as an inspiration and motivation to Luke who fights with his uncle’s name embroidering into his shorts. “He was my idol, I was very proud of him. To this day, doing him proud is a big part of why I have stuck with the boxing.”
Stephen will be looking down on Friday night as his nephew takes on Englishman Jamie Gelder, a 6’ 2” middleweight who will bring a 1 and 0 record into Friday’s contest. Fresh off a couple of weeks sparring six rounders with the quality 6’ 1” super middleweight, Frank Buglioni, Luke is confident of taking care of business. “I’ll hopefully get a couple of rounds, a bit of a workout,” is how he puts it. His sights are clearly set much higher than Mr Gelder.
“Up until the day of the fight, nothing is concrete in boxing.” Luke spoke these words last week as we discussed other boxing matters: little did we know how prophetic they would prove to be. Gelder never made it across the Irish Sea and so, instead of a tall, rangy 1 and 0 Englishman, Keeler was matched with a small, stocky 1 and 0 Hungarian on Friday night.
Though he took a comfortable six round decision against the tough and awkward Laszlo Kovacs, it was a below par performance from the Irishman and there was some despondency in his voice during post-fight interviews.
Three days on and he’s still not completely shaken the sense of not having done himself justice. “I’ve learned a big lesson from that fight,” he tells me. “I felt a bit run down and flat on the night. The fitness was there but I felt low on energy. I was close to forcing a stoppage towards the end but just didn’t have the energy.”
That lack of zip in his work is not so surprising when you consider the average day for Keeler in the build up to a fight. There is no question of cutting corners in the gym, but his preparation must be adapted to the financial realities of life on the preliminary rungs of the professional boxing ladder.
As well as his full-time job, Keeler admits he was then knocking down walls and hauling plaster board up two flights of stairs in the evening as he renovated an apartment. He took the day before the fight off but spent most of that chasing ticket money. Resting, both physically and mentally, is a pre-fight luxury Luke has yet to enjoy.
There are no truly easy paths in boxing, but even so, it is clear that Keeler is having to do things the hard way. Fortunately the Ballyfermot boy has the stomach for the fight and, more importantly, he is fully aware of what it takes to make a success of it in this toughest of games.
“In about six months I hope to go full-time,” he says. “I’ve opened my own gym in Dublin (Invictus Fitness in Parkwest) and with the income from that and regular fights, I’ll be able to dedicate myself to boxing. It’s a 100% thing, all or nothing. You need to be training full-time coming up to big fights.”
He hopes to be on the bill should Matthew Macklin fight in Dublin on November 15th. That would mean Eddie Hearn, Matchroom, and Sky Sports in town and the type of exposure that can propel fighters to the next level. You can have all the talent and dedication in the world, but without that break, that helping hand at the beginning of your career, life can be very difficult.
Right now, that is Luke Keeler’s life. The life of the boxing prospect.