By KEVIN BYRNE, Irish Sun boxing columnist. Twitter handle: @KevooByrne
Paddy Fitzpatrick is the cool head George Groves has turned to ahead of his title fight with Carl Froch.
The soft-spoken Clare man has travelled a long road in boxing which won’t culminate at the Manchester Arena, but the all-British bout will certainly put the spotlight on him.
Londoner Groves left long-time mentor Adam Booth in the run-up to this challenge and chose the somewhat unknown Fitzpatrick as his cornerman.
I say somewhat unknown – the man boasts a formidable cv – but he hasn’t been involved in this type of significant bout in the UK or Ireland as of yet.
With that about to change, I contacted 44-year-old Paddy during the week to speak about his involvement in this fight and his time in the sport of boxing.
And he has plenty of tales to tell – from leaving home at 15, to being ‘clowned’ by members of James Toney’s entourage at the Wild Card Gym and being summoned to Muhammad Ali’s hotel room in Las Vegas…
It’s been a busy week for you, Paddy…
Not really, we’re just winding down now.
There must have been a lot on, what with media activity, public training sessions, all that?
Well George is busy – I don’t talk much. They don’t talk to me much because they don’t get much!
I’ve watched you on Sky Sports during the week and you didn’t give away too much.
No, it makes me laugh when I hear the coaches going out and going through it all. I think we’ll tell them the gameplan at the last Press conference.
You had a long career in boxing so far Paddy, would 25-30 years be about right?
I wouldn’t say what I had was a career, brother, nothing to talk about. I did nothing in the pros and hardly anything in the amateurs. So there’s not much to talk about there.
You did box though?
I did box. I used to box for St Francis in Limerick. But when I travelled and left Limerick I came to England, I’ve always stayed involved with my boxing but I drifted away from fighting itself.
And then when I was in Jersey, the Channel Islands, I met Freddie Roach over there when Steve Collins was getting ready for the rematch with Nigel Benn. And that’s when Freddie asked me to come and move to America with him. That’s when I got involved with that level of the coaching.
It must have been an eye-opener to move from Jersey to Los Angeles, was it?
I’ve been all over but the first place I went to was Freddie’s place, the Wild Card in Los Angeles. I spent a couple of years there. It was a great opportunity, especially for someone like me who didn’t achieve as fighter himself. It was still very nice for somebody of Fred’s stature to ask me to get involved with him and work with these fighters. I appreciated that, and that was my start.
So you’d consider your time at the Wild Card as your apprenticeship in big-time boxing training, then?
I’m still… If you’re a fighter, you could box your whole life and you still wouldn’t be complete. And I think as a coach, the only way to keep getting better is never to think you’ve made it. I’m continually having an apprenticeship but that was my first invite, or that’s what brought me in at world level, yeah.
You’ve been away from Ireland for 20 years or more, but you haven’t lost the accent.
My accent is a mix and match of everything though. I’m a travelling man, I’m always moving around, and no matter where I go, my accent seems to get mixed and matched up by the time I go to the next place, and then it settles down again! But whenever I’m talking to anyone from back home, the Irish comes back out in me.
You’ve worked with some well-known fighters over the years. How did you come to work for Laila Ali?
I used to train her ex-husband when he was fighting. When I was in the States he touched base with me and said would I move up to Las Vegas and start working with her. I was living in LA at the time, they were living in Vegas, he says would I come up and meet with them and then he asked would I move up, start working with her so I did. And that was it.
How many fights did you work alongside each other?
Did she win championship fights in that time?
She did. My first fight with her was her first fight back after the operation following the (Jackie) Frazier(-Lyde) fight (v Shirvelle Williams, WPTS, 2002). And then her next fight after that was her first world-title fight. Then the remaining 10 fights were world-title fights or world-title defences. She won four world titles – a couple at super-middle and a couple at light-heavy.
It must have been a buzz, Paddy, to train the daughter of one of the 20th century’s most iconic sportsmen. What are your memories of that time?
My memory is shot to bits – I can’t remember yesterday!
It was good. We stay in touch and we’re still very close. She’s one of the people who I have stayed close to and we always have over the years. I was supposed to go see her this month actually and I couldn’t because of George.
Did Laila’s dad have much input into her career at the time?
No he didn’t have no input into it because he didn’t necessarily want her fighting in the first place. But she said ‘he knows I’m my own woman and I fight because I wanna fight and he accepts that’. I mean he would come along on fight night and go into the dressing room. They would have their own little natter but he didn’t have any input into her boxing career.
He never had reason to question you – or to praise you?
No, man. The first time I met Muhammad was when Lally opened up her gym. She opened up a gym in Vegas and he came up for the grand opening. Later that day, I was living in Vegas then, I was driving down the Strip and I got a phone call off Laila’s sister, saying ‘my dad wants to meet you, he’s up in his hotel room and he wants to see you’.
So I said ‘OK’ and went to the hotel room. Muhammad was there with his wife and with Lally’s sister. I didn’t know why I was being asked to come up but he’d asked me to. And then everyone left and the only ones there were me and Muhammad. And we spent two and a half hours talking about women first, then boxing, and then religion. In that order. That was it.
Then I met with him, to have personal time with him, around three more times after that. I still didn’t ask him why he wanted to see me because he didn’t ask me anything about Lally. Maybe he just wanted to meet and see what I was about. I don’t know.
I guess if another man is going to be a significant influence on his daughter, he’d want to test out that man’s credentials first…
I don’t know, bro, I took the invitation to come up and see him. It was nice, obviously, because of who he is and what he means to so many people. So the invitation to go see him was nice to receive. But he didn’t let me know why he wanted to see me. He always made me feel comfortable.
He was good with my son. He’s been with my son in Ireland and in Germany and in America, so my son has spent more time with him nearly than I have. My son was with him in Ireland when he came over, and in Germany when Lally fought there and spent some time with him in the States as well.
Does your son box?
My son’s only nine! These are when he was new-born. My son boxes but like a nine-year-old, he’s only playing at it still.
Is it possible that you took your meeting with Ali in your stride, didn’t get awestruck, because you were on first-name terms with so many major stars at the Wild Card?
I’m not being funny when I say this. But if you’re a boxing coach, the fighters you are training are just fighters. That’s what they are. I wouldn’t be much good of a coach if you are awestruck by the people you’re training. You wouldn’t be much use to them.
Most fighters don’t want a coach who’s going to be awestruck by them. They want somebody that’s going to develop them as a fighter in the gym, direct them in the corner during a fight, so my desire is always to do as well as I can at anything I do. So in every way when I’m approaching whatever I’m doing, I do it the best way I can. You’re not going to be awestruck because they’re just a student to you.
In that case you’ve got to be very sure of your methods. How was that when you’re working with someone like, say James Toney?
Yeah. I was wrapping James’ hands one day when I was working with him. And he said to me ‘hey Paddy Duke’ – he used to call me Paddy Duke – he said ‘Paddy Duke, how did you do when you were fighting?’ I said ‘I wasn’t no good when I was fighting’. And he said ‘no?’ And I said ‘no’.
And then one of his hangers-on decided that he was going to start clowning me. And then James let rip at the dude and told him – you know how his language is, how colourful it is – he effed and blinded him out of it. And he said ‘I don’t care how good he did as a fighter. There’s only two men in this gym training me and wrapping my hands. Freddie’s one of them and the other’s doing my hands right now’.
Because I was young in the game at the time, that actually gave me confidence as a coach. I’m a student – I’ll always be a student. How can you be a teacher if you’re not a student first? And I’ve been blessed and lucky enough to be around good coaches and good fighters. And therefore I just absorb everything that happens when I’m around and it’s no longer somebody else’s information, it’s mine to use as I wish.
How did your journey take you from the Wild Card to Team Hayemaker alongside Adam Booth?
I’m a travelling man, I’m always moving around. I’m always going wherever I feel I want to be at the time. So when my son was born, I didn’t have any intention to leave America until my son was born. And then myself and my wife thought ‘we don’t want to raise him up over here’.
So we went to Germany and I had a promotional contract with a team out there, but I didn’t like the set-up over there so I came back to England after a year and opened up my own gym. I knew David already because I had done a bit of mitt work with him when he was in the amateurs. We just started talking and his coach Adam, me and him started talking and then he asked me to get involved with George.
It’s the same as anything else, brother, you meet people and you talk. If it makes sense they ask you to talk a bit more, and if makes more sense you get involved.
A relationship between a trainer and fighter, it has to be initiated by the fighter in my opinion. It can’t be initiated by the trainer. You can’t ask a man to trust you. He will decide on whether to trust you or not and take it from there. It’ll be your choice as a coach either to accept the job or not. I don’t have a case for coaches who apply for these jobs and impose themselves on fighters. A fighter will make a choice who he wants to have with him.
You spoke about trust. Is that they number 1 fundamental in a boxer-trainer relationship?
Trust is number 1 in any relationship, isn’t it? Then when your relationship is based on, let’s face it a life-threatening situation – people pass away in this sport every year, people get badly-injured every year as they do in other sports, I understand that. But in the fight game two people get into the ring knowing that they’re engaging in a battle and they will be receiving punishment. So the man who’s going to be guiding you – you do want to trust him, don’t you? That would only make sense.
This leads us nicely into the Froch-Groves fight. Some pundits believe George is in very deep water. Others see it as a great fight in which to prove himself. How do you feel about the prospect of Groves being in deep water – or do you reject that?
It’s all right being in very deep water as long as you’re able to swim, isn’t it? And that’s the question – is he able to swim? And there’s no point in me spending this interview trying to convince you that he can. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating on Saturday night.
I have respect for myself as a trainer. I wouldn’t put myself in a fight just to be in a fight. I believe that the student that I’m guiding into this fight has the ability to win this fight and that’s the only way I would get involved in any fight.
I have turned down fights before because I didn’t think the guy I was training at the time would win, so I said ‘no’. George is going from shallower water into deeper water. Every comment that people have made, they’re all fair comments. But they’re all just conversations until this Saturday. Because we have no proof yet, so that’s all people do is converse.
Is this the biggest fight you’ve been involved in?
I don’t know. I suppose it’s the biggest fight for you guys back here. A world-title fight’s a world-title fight. I’ve been involved in other world title fights but I don’t sit down at night and think ‘this is a big fight’. I just look at my fighter’s opponent and think ‘how do we beat him?’ I don’t think of the occasion or the stage that we’re going to beat him on. How can you teach your student to be focused and composed on the task in hand if you as a coach are going to be getting all doe-eyed at what’s coming up? All it is is a fight between two men.
We’ve all heard the rumours that Adam Booth will show up at the last minute and this is all one big ploy… Is that all they are, rumours?
If it was a trick there’d be no point in me answering it anyway because I wouldn’t be telling you the truth, would I?
He might come into the ring like the Fan Man in the Riddick Bowe fight, might come flying in in his own little paraglider and arrive in the corner! Like 007, unclip his parachute and walk calmly to the corner! I don’t know man, I don’t get involved in other men’s business.
You’ve said you’re a ‘travelling man’. Do you mean that you like to travel, or do you mean as an Irish Traveller?
The Fitzpatrick clan are Travellers. My parents were farmers from Leitrim and their parents. But I’ve always considered myself a Travelling man. And my brother the same. I left home at 15 and have been travelling around Ireland – on my own – since I was 11 years old. At 15 I went to Dublin and then I left. I’m a lot more comfortable travelling than I am staying in a house for any length of time. So my heart is that of a Travelling man, yeah. The Fitzpatricks were Travellers before they were farmers. So I’m going back to what we were.
Cheers for all that Paddy, it was great.
Thank you. I appreciate the time, brother.