26 January 2009 – By Kevin Byrne
2008 really should have been Roy Sheahan‘s year.
Instead, after a vicious injury to his hand, he became something of a forgotten man in Irish amateur boxing.
But now the St Michael’s Athy boxer is back – and set for one of the biggest months of his life.
On February 6 he opens his campaign for a fourth Irish Senior title in a row at welterweight, an incredible feat considering the strength of the sport in the country at the minute. But more importantly, he is expecting the birth of his second child around the same time. It’s a due date that is either apt or unsuitable, depending on one’s viewpoint.
But he doesn’t care. It’s all part of a new start for him after a 2008 season he would rather consign to history. Beginning the year as reigning European Union champion, along with Kenny Egan and Darren Sutherland, it was expected to be a big year for Ireland’s top threesome.
With Paddy Barnes already qualified for the Beijing Olympics in August, the three men; team captain Egan and Sutherland in their 26th years and the Kildare man an experienced 23, were all set to lead from the front in China – providing they qualified first.
With two opportunities left, Sheahan felt he was good enough. He needed to make the last four in one of two tournaments; Pescara, Italy in late February, or failing that Athens in April. Approaching his peak, Sheahan knew he had the ability to more than match the best eight fighters Europe could offer.
Prior to his opening bout, Sheahan was having a ball, on top of the world.
It was the very last spar, in the tenth round and I was only sparring with my left hand because my right elbow was sore, he said.
“I was sparring against the 64kg lad that Johnny [Joyce] beat in the qualifiers in Athens [Lithuanian Egidijus Kavaliauskas]. I was told to get out of there after five rounds but I wanted to stay in there because I was enjoying myself, really mixing it with him. I was getting the better of him with my one hand and really enjoying my last spar. I was peaking at that time, I was flying over there, I never felt as good in my life.”
“And he came at me, I’d say it was about the last 20 seconds of the round. He used to come at me with a double-jab, and I could see it every time. And I turned on him with a left hook, and I hit him straight on the top of the head and me bone just popped up. Now I’d never broken a bone before, but I knew there was something seriously wrong.”
Indeed there was. What he didn’t know at the time was that his year was already over. There would be no more qualifiers, no Olympic Games to attend. In fact, he would watch his Athy team-mate John Joe Joyce take on the world from the comfort of his living room, shadow boxing and shouting at the television at his sparring partner from St Michael’s. The second metacarpal in his left hand was busted and a bar was inserted into his hand to aid the healing process, which subsequently got infected.
Just as another Irish kid came from nowhere to qualify, in the shape of Mullingar teenager John Joe Nevin, a forlorn figure went home early. Sheahan recalled: Trying to go asleep that night and knowing Id have to go home the next morning, it was a crappy feeling. Gary Keegan [former High Performance Director] took me up these winding hills to the hospital and I knew he felt so sorry for me, I could see it in the expression on his face. He put his arms around me, really he didn’t know what to say to me, maybe keep the head up and well get the next qualifiers.”
“We were getting it ready for recovery in five or six weeks but really that was pushing it too much. But when they put that bar in it was sore for weeks and weeks. Maybe if they just put a plaster of Paris on it but I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.”
With around six weeks to go until the qualifiers in Athens, he did all he could to get right. He had the bar taken out three weeks early, he trained alongside his team-mates with his left arm strapped to his body, he kept his conditioning topped up to tournament standard. A box-off was scheduled for Friday April 2 against Donegal fighter Willie McLaughlin, who he had beaten in the semi-final of the Seniors. The winner would board the jet to Greece.
Prepared to compete with just his right if it meant he could somehow make the Olympics, a one-handed Sheahan took to sparring in preparation. But it was just too soon, and with an infection to contend with, even self-defence with the left became an exercise in agony. McLoughlin made the trip to Athens.
And so it was. From then on the amateur boxing team was to go on a whirlwind journey that ended with three Irishmen on the podium in Asia. Sheahan watched on from Ireland, a world away in reality, as two of his fellow EU champions Egan and Sutherland took the kudos for their silver and bronze medal performances respectively. And with Joyce flying the flag for his club in Athy, the injured star was put firmly in the shade.
For a time Sheahan’s thoughts did turn to regret. But he also drew inspiration from what he saw. A man he had faced numerous times in sparring took 69kg gold and, after all, his mates had done the High Performance set-up proud.
“I was glad to see all the lads going over and doing so well, the five of them that fought got beaten by gold medalists, he said. But I would’ve loved to have been there, I trained all my life for it. It was just a bad year last year, it wasn’t meant to be. The next four years will mean to be, if you get me. I just have to look forward to something now, like getting to the next Olympics. And when I get there, go and win a medal like the boys. That was their aim, and they got it, and so can I.”
“Nine fellas in Europe qualified in my weight and I would’ve been up there in the nine. I cant say anything for definite, but I missed two qualifiers. In each of those, four from my weight got in. And I know I had a great chance. Even the Korean [Kim Jung-Joo] there who won a bronze in the Olympics – I beat him in the World Championships only a few months before. The Kazakhstan [Bakhyt Sarsekbaynev] won the welterweight gold at the Olympics. I sparred him, few times. He’s not bad but I didn’t think he’d win the gold medal.
So, as he watched the returning heroes get back to Ireland, which went boxing-mad for about a week, Sheahan resolved to get back to the gym. November’s European Championships in Liverpool were looming on the horizon and he hoped to lead an inexperienced squad to Merseyside after Egan took a rest and Sutherland took up a pro career under the guidance of Frank Maloney.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The same hand. The same bone. The same bloody way, a left hook to the head – this time sparring with Johnny Joyce. Having been out for the best part of a year already after his complications, this fracture nearly finished him.
He grimaced: “I was getting back into it. I was 60 or 70 percent there, I wasn’t really banging with my left hand. But I thought I was okay. Same thing again, caught Johnny on the left side of the head ‘aargh!’ It broke. That one hurt 10 times worse than the first one.”
“At that moment I didn#t know what to do. I wondered was it ever going to be right, is this me finished with boxing? You break your hand, do it again People were saying to me outside the ring, people outside of boxing were saying that it might never be right again. Billy [Walsh, Irish coach] and Gary told me I just had to rest it now. Even Kenny, he broke his hand as well and was out for 16 weeks or something like that. And they all told me I just had to rest from then.”
That nearly ended his love affair with the sport. Competing – and winning national titles – since the age of 11, the fight game was all he knew. But the thought of a real job crossed his mind, especially as an out-of-action boxer will probably find it tough to get his Irish Sports Council grant renewed without regaining full fitness. An out-of-action boxer whose girlfriend is expecting next month.
“I’m not a lad for crying. But I didn’t know what to do with myself, back in a cast again. I thought of other things. Will I have to get a job, because I have another child on the way now? My girlfriend’s due now when the Seniors start so hopefully I win a belt for him or her. So, of course, you think about doing other things.”
But he stayed the course, completed the rest he was urged to take by those who knew. Confident he has reached full fitness, the mind now focuses on the National Stadium on February 6. One possible opponent has a famous name and is entering his first Senior Championship – Shane McGuigan, son of Barry.
The 19-year-old has just captured the national Under-21 title under the guidance of his father, albeit at light-middleweight. But his presence attracted attention across the country as sub-editors gleefully wheeled out their ‘In the Name of the Father’ headlines.
Sheahan appreciates the challenge. But having won the last three finals and then missing out on the best ever year in Irish boxing, he is not about to let some kid take his place.
“He’s ready yeah. He’s talking anyway. I like Barry, I’ve talked to him a few times. I’m a big fan, I think nearly everyone from Ireland is. He probably will have a strategy alright but I’ll have my own too. I was reading an article on him in the paper there a few weeks ago. He hasn’t got many international fights, you know. But he’s tough, he’s a pro sort of a fighter. He’s strong, but I can’t underestimate anyone. He’s only one lad in the weight, there’s plenty more so I’ll take them one by one.”
“I just need a few fights, you know – it’s terrible! But that’s what it’s all about! The hand feels great now,” he smiles. “It feels great being able to hit with it again. I can hit full force with it, just get the first few shots out of the way.” His opponents would be best advised to avoid those very shots next month.