I’ve come to visit Beijing 2008 silver medallist Kenneth Egan at his home in Dublin, days out from his departure to Uganda for a charity boxing match.
After five years retired following a decorated amateur career, he’ll be fighting a guy called Joey Vegas over five, three-minute rounds in an exhibition bout.
The catch is that his opponent’s actually an experienced pro.
Vegas went to the 2004 Olympics and after that, racked up a 20–15–2 professional record, sharing the ring with names such as Nathan Cleverley, Dmitry Bivol and Edison Miranda, who’d all be well known to the boxing public.
Kenneth’s a recovering alcoholic who’s putting his life’s experiences to good use as both a counsellor and county councillor these days.
But he fancied another fight, so here he is, taking one to raise funds for Nurture Africa, a ‘Developmental Organisation focused on providing Healthcare, Education & Economic Empowerment to vulnerable families in Uganda’.
“I was over there in Uganda, back in the day. Just doing a bit of charity work, building houses and visiting the schools.
“Fantastic experience, but at the end I let my hair down and it’s actually when I had my last slip with the drink. I went back then and fought on a white collar show to raise money for the charity, and this time it’s only a short trip again.
“This Joey Vegas was at the show the last time I fought about four or five years ago. He would have been fairly active at the time but he was calling me out as I was leaving. I didn’t take any heed, didn’t know who he was, but he’s the local superstar over there.
“He hasn’t been as active as he was back then but he’s still fought three times this year. His last fight was May.
“He’s fought the likes of Cleverley, and he fought Bivol there recently and was stopped in four rounds or whatever. He went ten rounds with the Russian Egor Mekhontsev.
“This is over five threes so it’ll be interesting. No headguards, usual stuff, it’ll be rough and ready and I don’t know what way he’s going to approach it.
“It’s an exhibition but the word exhibition goes out the window. I’ve done a lot of homework on this fella. Watched him on YouTube to suss him out. He’s plenty of experience.”
You retired in 2012, this is your very first fight since?
“I haven’t boxed in five years. Nothing at all. I bashed up Colm Parkinson in my last attempt at a comeback!
“No, I’m back training about two and a half months. I needed something to get me up off my arse because I was just tipping away. Bit of a run, few weights, but no motivation.
“This was ideal to get back into it. I started getting on to the phone, making the contacts with coaches, ‘have you any heavyweights there?’, and I’ve been travelling around there tipping away.
“I’ve sparred Steve Collins Jr. I’ve done loads of rounds with him. Durable, you know what I mean? It’s all about getting conditioning for me now. I’m not going to learn anything new. Get my distance right, get my shots off.
“Tony Browne who fought Joe Ward in the Irish final, was in with him. He’s good. Sparred him down in St Michael’s. A Russian lad in town there. Tipping away and getting the engine ready for five rounds. Hill running and bag work.
“Myself and my friend Mick McGrail are on the journey together. He’s doing three one and a halves in a white collar show, headguard and that. Mine’s an exhibition.”
Given your opponent and the set-up, it looks more like a belated pro debut than an exhibition bout? (Egan flirted with the professional ranks in 2008 following his Olympic campaign, ultimately opting to remain within Ireland’s amateur set-up)
“It’s like a World Series of Boxing fight, when I think of it.”
Don’t you have any concerns, having not boxed for five years?
“No. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Well, you could get killed. That’so the worst that can happen, and you’re a married father now.
“I don’t think like that. If I’m in any way under pressure, and feeling in any way… enough’s enough. I’m not a seasoned pro ready to fight to the death. I’m not getting paid for this. I look after safety first.
“I’m not going out on my shield kind of thing. It’s for charity. He’s at the end of his career. He’s 35, same as myself, he’s had a long oul journey.
“He’s a pro since 2004, 2005. He’s a lot in the tank. I don’t think he’s going to be making any massive upward spiral towards a world title shot or that.
“I just think it’s nice to be tested, and that’s what’s got me up off my arse to get training.”
There’s not much competition out there for veteran boxers, is there? As a 35-year-old amateur, you’d be facing 25-year-old rivals or younger in Irish events in many cases.
If you want to keep ticking over, before a coaching career or whatever, what option do you have? Masters football doesn’t really apply to boxing.
“There is no harm in a boxer continuing to train but he needs to be careful and know his limits. You’ve the likes of lads who are hanging in there until they’re Jaysus how old, and they’re going in there and getting sparked.
“And there are seasoned pros out there, taking hidings day in and day out because they want to stay fit and they want to stay in the circle. I’ve no interest in that.
“I’m not going down to the High Performance and sparring Joe Ward and the boys. What’s the point in that, I’m not fit enough for that.
“There’s levels, and I’m at a level where I can go around to the clubs, spar all the pros around there. I don’t know what level he’s at, this fella, but I’m going out there now. I know I’ve good feet so once I stay out of danger, he can throw all the bombs he wants. I don’t get hit that often.
“By looking at his record, he’s chinny as fuck, now I’m not a big puncher but if I catch him clean I might get a bit of respect off him, but look that’s all part of it and that’s what’s going to make this exciting.
“With the weight issue, I’m not a light-heavyweight any more and obviously you can see that (Kenneth weighed in just over 90kg). It’s not all official. I don’t know what weight he is.”
So it’s definitely not a taster, or a teaser, for a potential pro debut?
“No. I’m not feeling any bother in the sparring I’m doing. But go pro? No.”
You’ve seen how many inadequate boxers have gone pro recently…
“It’s shocking. Shocking. It kills me going to pro shows these days, and that’s being honest with you and no disrespect to the promoters, they have to run a show and get people in. they have to get lads to sell tickets.
“But the age of new pros these days, 18 and 19, they haven’t learnt their trade and they’re going in there and aspiring to be what, Irish champions, European champions, world champions?
“It’s a hard oul game and the High Performance and amateur game has been depleted because of this. Lads don’t want to stay there.
“Now some people criticise the High Performance and say it’s too regimented and too hard and too… well that’s the way it has to be if you want to compete at the highest level.
“You’re not just going to be able to ponder around and do what you want and represent your country at the highest level. It doesn’t work like that.
“So these lads are taking, is it an easier option to turn pro? Once you have that ‘pro’ title, it’s ‘Oh I’m a professional boxer’. That’s nonsense.
“There’s pros out there and, honest to God I said it before, they’re shocking, they’re brutal, they wouldn’t win an intermediate title. In Ireland, everywhere. And it’s sad to see that they’re not learning their trade first.
“The coaches then that they’re signing up with probably don’t have their best interest at heart either. Get them ready for fights, are they genuine in guiding their boxers to the highest level though or are they just getting them in there to get the rounds, get the fights, get paid?”
I suppose, to come at it from a different angle, a lot of these guys aren’t going to win an intermediate title in Ireland or better, They might win a novice, a Leinster, but won’t get to Elite level.
Also, there is a mistrust among many of the IABA and its judging while favouritism can sometimes take place too. You were the No 1 for a decade but now many were so lucky, if you’d call it that.
For a lot of fighters, they appear to have rejected being in the background of the amateur game in order to give themselves a shot in the pro ranks. And the more who go, the more who follow.
“I get that. It is hard to become No 1 in the country, and to be part of the High Performance and to go on and represent your country. It is tough. This game is. And if you’re going to be No 2 or 3 maybe you’re thinking, ‘this is not for me. I’m not good enough to go on and become an Olympian’.
“Trying to become an Olympian is fucking tough. So these lads that are pretty average are going to try to make an earner elsewhere. There’s not much funding in amateur boxing either with the grants being cut and only a handful on funding. So lads go pro.
“But having no real experience, they go in there then and they’re not getting that many fights. Two or three fights a year as pros. And you have to take that into account when you’re starting off. ‘OK I need to get a job as well’.
“Steve Collins is working full time, he’s 13 or 14 fights. I don’t know. What’s the magic answer? It’s hard to tap into the High Performance and become the No 1. You’re right, there is a select few there that’ll dominate for the next few years and will win Irish titles.”
Does the Olympics appeal as much? We’re seeing young talents such as Gary Cully turn over, a fighter who’d be an asset to the IABA and who’d be in the running for Tokyo.
“Has the Olympics got the attraction it used to have? It’s bad, the whole Rio event and athletes not being looked after for the sacrifice they make to try to get to the Games.
“It’s just a competition at the end of the day. It’s two week every four years. And people sacrifice everything — not just in boxing but across all sports.
“I’m part of the Olympic Committee and you hear the horror stories of people trying to get there. And when they get there, whether they underperform or win a medal or are just happy to do well, they come home then and they say ‘that’s it? The fuck was all that about? Twenty years of hardship?’
“And the only people that are benefitting out of this are the boys at the top. The Olympic Council, the world Olympic Council, who are getting the sponsorship money.
“Some fella came out the other day saying ‘we should chip athletes like dogs’. So we’d know about their testing. These are the scumbags at the top. Have you seen Icarus on Nexflx? Powerful stuff. From the top down.
“And Mick Conlan was right. Corruption is rife in the Olympics. It’s all fuckin money. And the pawns are the athletes unfortunately.”
What sort of work were you doing on the Olympic Committee?
“There’s about ten of us across different sports on the Olympic Committee and we’re working to build a strategic plan to put in place for athletes’ welfare, when they’re thinking about retirement, we’re trying to get the seed planted earlier.
“That could be before they go to the Olympic Games. ‘What’s your plan for when you retire, for when you come back from the Games?’
“And that’s what’s important because there’s so many Olympians who come home and go ‘right, what the fuck do I do now?’ That loss of identity.
“Or it could happen before they get to an Olympic Games, or there could be deselection and they’re putting in the same amount of work as the next man but they’re left on the scrapheap. They’re trying to get all the National Governing Bodies involved.
“Another thing with the sports funding, we’ve young lads there like Joe Ward there and whoever else getting 40 grand a year.
“But there’s no tiered system, so we’re trying to bring in a tiered system where if you’re on top funding, and for whatever reason you’re coming off top funding, you can’t go from 40 to zero, which does happen.
“Instead, 40, 20, 10, zero, taper you down so you have time to get into the workforce. Otherwise it’s ‘out you go, you got beaten in a senior final, we’re bringing in someone else’. Things like that we have to look at.
“It’s too extreme. When you’re on the crest of the wave you’re going well, sitting pretty on the 40 grand. But when that ends… the likes of Ray Moylette, he was on 40 grand and the next year he just got cut to zero. That’s some drop. We have to look at stuff like that.
“It’s the welfare piece that us as athletes are looking at. There’s different things like scholarships we can get involved with but it’s very complex. Stephen Martin at the top was explaining it to it. There’s loads of different handouts you can get.”
You’re with the Olympic Committee then, sparring and boxing a bit, and doing some media. So still involved quite a bit. But you’re not involved in coaching with a club right now. Why not?
“To sacrifice time to a club, you have to give up your time and I don’t have that at the moment. I’m doing so many different things.
“I’ve just finished my degree there as well so I’m looking at how to get my own practice. That’s another thing, I have my finger in all the pies, I’ll be looking at getting a website up and running for that as well.
“I want to still continue with the therapy end of things. Coaching, it’s on the back burner because I haven’t got the time to sacrifice three nights a week.”
I guess you’ve already sacrificed much of your 20s in order to reach the Olympics.
“I just don’t have the time to give my life to a boxing club three or four nights a week. It’s just a no go. I’ll help when I can, if I can.
“I’m doing a bit of charity work and obviously a bit for the local council, and that takes a bit of time as well. Then I’m just being a daddy. It’s good though, I’m happy. Content. Nice, quiet, easy life.”
Which is why, presumably, you’re off to Africa to get hit in the head repeatedly?
“Yeah, yeah! This is going to be fun more than anything else. I’m not taking it too serious.
“This is not a comeback tester or anything, if I knock this fella out in two or three rounds I won’t be going around with a horn in my pants, ‘I’m good to go, who’s gonna sign me up?’ kind of thing. No.
“I know what the pro game is like, I’ve seen it. It wrecks people. Leaves them on the scrapheap. So, no.
“If I was gonna go pro, I should have went back in 2008. Obviously I couldn’t because me head was up me arse. I’ve no real regrets now. I’ve done a lot, achieved plenty, I’m quite content now just tipping away and living an honest life.”
Surely if you get back in and handle this guy easily, with the experience he has, while you’re also seeing the level of people turning pro such as Rio Ferdinand, you’ll be tempted to turn back the clock and make a late run at the paid ranks?
“I’d fight Rio Ferdinand no problem.”
I don’t think he’d fight you.
I’d imagine he’s looking for one of those pros who wasn’t much of an amateur, a gym tough guy who’s lacking skills, yet who Rio can match physically, and someone he can be faster and sharper than. He’s not going to fight a former amateur, let alone an Olympic medallist.
“He’d be right too. He can’t lose. He’s like yer man Flintoff. He was poxed. He got dropped in the first round and he still won it.”
But you remember how every boxer came out of the woodwork because they wanted to fight Conor McGregor? This is the same, it’s profile and cash. You’d go pro for Rio, no doubt.
“Ha ha ha ha ha. You’re putting words in my mouth now. Ha ha ha. I could do it. That’d be a bit of craic. I’d fight Rio, yeah.”
(At this point Kenneth brings his daughter into the room. It’s just been her birthday, she’s two)
“She’s like her mother. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. I didn’t get anything at all!
“Yeah Rio, that’d be what, a four rounder? I’d do that, there wouldn’t be any problem there. I’d be there to win unless they paid me to take the drop, to hit the deck, ha ha ha ha ha.”
No doubt you’ve moved around the gym with keep-fit people like him — strong, athletic, but no skill or experience. What can he achieve?
“It’s white collar. He’s not going to learn anything in the next few months that’ll put him in a position where he’s going to win an area title or anything. He’s not a boxer.
“He can probably throw a few smacks and probably has a strong punch on him. But his distance, his biomechanics, his movement, his awareness of angles, he’s not going to know much about any of that.
“He’ll be rugged, throwing straight punches and hooks, but he won’t have any feints or that.”
I guess for the man on the street, they sometimes simplify boxing as two men throwing punches, and that’s all it takes.
“He’ll have his fans there, people who are supporting him from his football days. They’re going to be cheering for him to win and won’t care if he can feint.”
But does it piss you off that the art of boxing is disregarded with new entries such as Rio? That many believe there isn’t any science to boxing?
“And that’s what I’m hoping I’ll have going out to Uganda, That little bit of amateur top level experience. And he was there himself, he fought as Andy Lee’s Olympics. He has that bit of pedigree but I’m a well-schooled amateur.”
Is that what you call 04, Andy’s Olympics?
“Yeah 04, Andy’s Olympics. The one that he went to and I didn’t! ha ha.”
You’re in there teaching boxers now in your own way, through sparring.
“I like moving around and sparring with the lads now, having a bit of a sneaky sneaky. I’m helping Steve Collins as much as I can. He’s very basic but he’s tough. He has the bit of head movement, the shuffle and the roll, but his footwork is still very bad. Still really novice.”
He’s learning things you did when you were 12 — and it’s easier to pick it up as a kid.
“He has that little thing where it’s ‘I don’t want to be taught’, I’ll do it my way’. That could be his downfall. He needs to open them ears a bit more and listen.
“He’s gone from coach to coach, fluting about, I saw he was over in England then looking for spars. Forget the spars, I say, and learn how to box first through the fundamentals. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Bag work. Pad work. The spar, instead of going in and wanting to knock people out.”
It sounds to me like you’d make a good pro coach for lads who are turning over without that extensive amateur experience.
Have you thought about a career in boxing? Or would you rather remain as you are, on the periphery but still close?
“Committing, you mean. Yeah, committing is tough. Once you’re back in, you’re back in. like I said I have a few things on and they’re in the early stages. At the coaching end of things, I would like to get back into it on some level, pros or amateurs. I don’t know.
“I like the amateur style and working with the top amateurs in the country. Because the pro game, you get lads coming in in their 20s and, like Steve Collins, you have to strip them right down if they want to make anything of themselves, and then it becomes about discipline and dedication.
“Are they committed? Are they working 9–5, coming in and getting an hour with you and gone again? What’s the lifestyle like when they leave? How serious are they about climbing the ladder in the pro game? All those things. I’d hate to be going in there and wasting my time. But I would like to give back though.”
With Neilstown’s Bernard Dunne now IABA HP Director, have you had any contact with him?
“Only when I was doing stuff with the Olympic Committee there, I met up with the number ones and had a chat with them about retirement believe it or not, this is before they went to the World Championships.
“I was just saying ‘look I know it’s a horrible word and you’re only young, but you need to be thinking about what’s after boxing. Some of youse might get to the Games, some of you might not, some of you might medal, some of you might not medal’.
“But you have to have an exit plan for when it ends. I spoke to the boys and to the girls as well. I met Bernard.”
Were they receptive?
“I put my mobile number on the flipboard so they could send me their name and number and keep in contact.
“That was good, I got a lot of texts in. I’m trying to get them to think about what other interests they have because they’re not all going to become coaches when they finish up boxing.
“A lot of them think they’ll go straight into that but they won’t. so what other interests have they got? I’ll go back into the Institute of Sport and go ‘right, X has an interest in computers, is there anything we can do for him?’
“We’ll see what course we can get him or her on, and they’ll supply the funding. These are all the number ones.
“We can marry it. I want to get them educated and competing at the same time. This whole craic of, ‘oh I haven’t got time to study’, it’s bollocks. That was Paddy Barnes’ mantra. ‘I’ve no time for that, no time’. I fell into that trap myself.”
Darren O’Neill, it’s well known, received many qualifications as a boxer but Paddy would say, ‘well I won more medals than him and I did what I had to do. Who’s right?
“It’s a long run. You have to think of the human being and not just the athlete. When they do retire they’ve a long time on the planet before they die. So you do have to put something in place.”
Do you box better if you’re obsessed, or does the distraction of study help?
“There’s a lot of athletes who box better when they know they’ve something to fall back on, when they know the pressure is off to medal regarding their funding.”
True enough. Other fighters have spoken about the pressure on them to keep winning to preserve their grant. Eric Donovan’s said how he lost a countback in the seniors, lost the money, and the pressure he felt had crippled his performance.
“That whole grant system needs to be looked at. They’re winning medals so young now too. I won my first major medal when I was 24 or something.
“I’d say now if they’re getting grants at 18 or 19, they should have to give some of it towards a course while they’re in the High Performance.
“So it’s mandatory. ‘Pick a course, any one you want, you’re doing that while you train. And it’s coming out of your grant to pay for it’.
“Instead of just giving them the money — because they’ll just piss it against the wall. Or gamble it, or whatever. It’s too easy.”
It’s fitting that the troubles you’ve overcome with alcohol led to counselling, which led you back to boxing.
“I’m in a good place at the minute. I’m not a millionaire. I have the Olympic medal in the kitchen, I had it out there the other day for something, but I’m no longer just Kenneth Egan the Olympic silver medallist. That’s in the past. I want to do more things now.
“People recognise me for the medal and fair play, or recognise me for something else and that’s grand. But I want to stand out on my own now and become a good therapist.
“It’s something I love doing. I love sitting with someone and engaging with them, one to one. When you make that connection, it’s amazing.
“Sometimes you’re thinking ‘Jaysus why am I doing this, it’s hard old graft’. But when you sit down with someone, someone could just walk in the door and you get that connection, that bit of dialogue going, and they feel better when they leave the room. It’s just great. That’s what it’s all about.
“And there’s a lack of that in the world now. People aren’t talking any more. They’re on their phones, on social media, expectations and Instagram, they have to look a certain way, all that type of stuff. It has people ruined.”
Yet there appears to be a growing willingness — on social media — to address issues of mental health. How does that square up for you?
“People say 20 years ago we went out and kicked a ball around in a field. The big wild fields where you went off and robbed horses. That was all there for us.
“You’d go out at 8.30 in the morning and go home at 9.30 at night, or when you’re hungry. Times are changing now, there’s more fear because of what we read and what we see. Abductions, we probably had them back then too but we didn’t hear about it through instant news.
“Now, kids are out in the garden and we’re constantly checking. The anxiety is sky high and that worry over safety is always there.
“In boxing clubs, that little bit of respect, it’s harder to earn from children these days. I was talking to a friend Igor who’s a coach, sparring his lad, and he was saying ‘when I was young, the kids came up to the coach like a dog panting, wanting to learn’. And that’s gone from kids these days. They go in and they’re hitting the bags but they’re looking over at their mates and seeing what he’s doing.
“Their mammy’s coming in then, ‘are you ready son?’ with a bottle of Coke and a bag of jellies, and then the next day dropping them off again and collecting them. Spoilt. Rotten. A nation of spoilt brats with no hunger any more.
“And this whole thing of learning is gone. You want that from kids. To want to learn. ‘If I slip this way, then what? Why am I putting my elbow here?’ But they’re not. They’re just killing an hour and a half until the parents come and collect them. And that’s coming from home, from their rearing.
“I do it sometimes, give the child the iPad, it’s easy just to keep them quiet. Whereas before we had to engage, we had to entertain the child, that human connection is something we’re losing all the time with technology. They (phones) can be good for some things but when you’re losing that connection with your children, that has to be questioned.”
So you’re seeing problems at work caused by detachment, due to technology?
“The most important three years of a person’s life are the first three years and that has to do with attachment. How they’re loved, cradled, touched, looked after, fed, nurtured.
“And if that is any way affected by the care-giver — mostly the mother, very seldom the father — that can cause massive anxiety issues, addiction issues, years on in life. Attachment and authenticity, they say. When you get older, being authentic is key.
“Cutting corners, telling lies, wearing masks — that’s not being authentic. You’re just playing the game, to fulfil your own little thing, just to satisfy yourself.
“So when you become authentic, then things start being good around you because you’re not looking over your shoulder and saying ‘I done a bad turn on him a while ago, I wonder if he remembers?’ All that type of stuff, skinniving and conniving.
“I say that to my clients. You have to start being authentic with yourself first and foremost. It’s an inside job. You’re telling everyone at home you’re great but when you hit the pillow, you’re crying into it. That’s not you being authentic.
“If you’re not well, you tell someone you’re not well. As hard as it may be, you have to open up.
“The clients I get, that’s why I say I love it so much. No one person comes into the room and has the same story as the other. It’s all different types of issues whether they’re grieving, angry, have suffered from abuse, it’s all there.”
Cut corners and get found out, be dishonest and get found out, get out of it what you put in… it’s funny how these life lessons apply to boxing.
“I wasn’t the perfect athlete. Jaysus, everyone knows that. When I did train, I trained very, very hard. I was the first on the floor and last off it. Did I cut corners? Through my career, I did.
“I’d go on the piss for weeks on end and come back in worse for wear, but when I was there I worked very, very hard — even harder than the rest of the lads who weren’t drinking.
“That was me burning the candle at both ends, that was just the life I chose. I loved drinking, and I loved boxing. And unfortunately I couldn’t do them both at the end of my career. I was drinking too much and it all just fell apart on me.
“I gave it up in 2010, retired in 2012, and that was that. But I just loved the social aspect of it, the connection with people who’d escaped from worrying about things in the real world by just being drunk.
“So when I knocked that on the head, I had to man up. Take life serious. Responsibilities and all of that.”
You’ve been vocal in telling your story, recently appearing on Ray Darcy and Claire Byrne. Does the openness bring strangers to your doorstep?
“I get lots of emails and stuff, yeah definitely. I met a guy there recently. He watched the Claire Byrne show and he rang me on the Fine Gael phone, that’s the one that’s for the public, and I met up with him and had a chat. Lovely chap, but just riddled with anxiety.
“He’d had a bit of grief in his life, his brother and father passed not too far apart, and he just had no direction and no guidance.
“I just listened to him, heard what he had to say, told him a bit about my story and off he went. It’s just nice to do things like that. I haven’t told anyone I do that, it’s just you mentioned it.
“I don’t go around bragging, ‘oh I met five people this week and they’re all in great form’. I do things because I like to help people, listen to people. No one knows what’s happening in someone’s head.
“We all have different troubles. No one’s perfect. I see people walking down the street and I think ‘I wonder what’s going on with that fella’ or ‘I wonder how he’s getting on’. It’s tough out there. Life is hard, for everyone.
“You think there of kids whose parents have money and gadgets and all of that. But they’re grumpy, never happy, spoiled rotten. Want more, more, more, more. Parents too busy working, ‘here’s an iPad’. Terrible. Then they grow up and go ‘Jaysus I don’t know how to talk to people’.”
So, still fighting the good fight anyway?
“I want to get a photo taken in my new shorts, but I might get my mate Mick to take it from the neck down cos he’s in shape and I’m not, ha ha ha ha! Ah I don’t care.
“I’m not one of these boys who needs a six pack to win a fight. Rio might have one of them! It’s an adventure.”
This just in — the fight was a draw. He doesn’t sound too chuffed. But there won’t be any regrets. Life’s too busy for them.