He has been christened “The Quiet Man” of Irish boxing but unbeaten Cavan man Andy Murray is determined to make plenty of noise in Cardiff this Saturday night by lifting the European Lightweight title when he takes on former World Champ Gavin Rees live on Sky Sports.
It’s 6am on a Monday morning in April in the beautiful but barren landscape of the Connemara Gaeltacht, where Ireland’s western edge meets the Atlantic ocean. When the sun is shining this part of the world can seem like a little piece of heaven on earth but on this particular morning the sun isn’t shining. To misquote an old U2 lyric, there’s a howling wind and a stinging rain and the first shafts of early morning light are struggling to break through the black clouds. It’s dark, cold, wet and forbidding but Andy Murray would not have it any other way as he pounds out the first few miles of roadwork at the start of a 6 week training camp that will culminate in his challenge for the European title in Cardiff this weekend.
In the opposite corner will be Gavin “The Rock” Rees, a former World, British and Prizefighter Champion with just one defeat in a 35 fight pro career that has spanned 13 years. Given his CV Rees is understandably matter of fact on the prospects of adding the European title to his already impressive resume.
“After I win this fight, the next step is world level,” declares Rees. “I want to fight for a world title and become a two-weight world champ. I want to win this European title, get world-ranked with the bodies and get a shot.”
In a nod of the head to this weekend’s encounter there is talk from Rees about needing to “concentrate on Andy” but it’s clear that Rees’ sees Saturday’s bout at the Motorpoint Arena as merely a stepping stone to a second World title. The Welshman’s former stable mates and fellow World title holders Joe Calzaghe and Enzo Maccarinelli have already tweeted their votes of confidence while promising to be ringside to cheer on their friend and compatriot.
Murray doesn’t feel slighted, as far as he’s concerned everyone is entitled to their own opinion but as a general rule Murray keeps his to himself. “The Quiet Man” has no time for the hype and bluster of pro boxing noting that, “Nobody ever won a fight by talking, all that stuff goes out the window once that first bell goes.”
The Cavan native is comfortable in his role as a 5/2 underdog, after all he has over come far greater odds to reach this point in his life having suffered from a debilitating hip condition known as Perthes in his childhood. A long abandoned wheelchair which now sits in his fathers attic is a powerful symbol of his inner resolve and the fighting spirit that belies his laid back and unassuming nature.
When asked about the condition that left him to alternate between the wheelchair and crutches for extended periods as a child Murray brushes it off with typical understatement explaining that he had “a bit of a limp for a few years”. It’s something he has long banished to the memory bank but it remains a matter of curiosity to those who believe that the period may reveal a little more about his character.
Although somewhat bemused by the interest and dismissing it as “no big deal”, Murray is happy to expand on it. “It was first noticed when I was six and the doctors diagnosed it as Perthes. It’s fairly rare and they’re not really sure what causes it but it’s basically where the thigh bone doesn’t get enough blood so it doesn’t develop properly and eventually separates from the hip socket.
“I had it in plaster of paris for a couple of years and then after that I was on crutches for about a year-and-a-half but after that it was fine and it’s never really been an issue for me. Thankfully it was diagnosed in time, the treatment worked and the hip bone set correctly so I was one of the lucky ones because I’ve seen cases where one leg is shortened by the hip not sitting in the right place and obviously that causes long term problems.
“It was frustrating because I was hyper as a kid and I wanted to do the same things as everyone else my age but I tried not to let it hold me back even though I drove the doctors and nurses mad. Even with the cast on I’d play in goals or try to be out doing something but I suppose everyone has their own story and that was mine.”
Murray’s condition ensured that he spent plenty of time watching television and he soon became enthralled by the thriving boxing rivalries of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s such as the bitter feud between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn. It infused a desperate and seemingly futile desire in the youngster to step between the ropes himself. Finally after enduring over three years of intensive treatment Murray was finally free to stand on his own two feet and one of his first acts of defiance was to head down to Cavan boxing club to finally don a pair of gloves himself.
“I was mad to have a go at it but the doctors were worried that the hip still wasn’t 100% and my Dad didn’t really want me going down because of that. I used to have to sneak down to the boxing club in the beginning so that he wouldn’t find out but I think in the long run the boxing training actually helped to strengthen the leg.”
Murray’s amateur coach Brian McKeown who has remained in his corner throughout his career picks up the story. “I can remember when he first came into the gym, he was tall for his age and a bit gangly and it was obvious that there was a problem with his leg but I was struck by how determined he was and the work he was willing to put in. He just wanted to learn as much as he could and train as hard as he could and that’s the way he’s always been.
“He actually lost his first fight but by the end of his first year boxing he was Irish Champion and he went on to win another 3 on the trot. In fact he was unbeaten for 4 and a half years in the amateurs and he went on to win 3 Irish Senior titles.”
Now over 5 years and 24 straight wins into his professional career Murray is in no doubt about the task that lies ahead this weekend. “It’s the biggest fight of my career for a major title against a former World Champion. That’s why I set up training camp in Connemara. It’s the first time I’ve done that in my career and I have really felt the benefits.”
Murray has based himself in the village of Rosmuc in Connemara working out of a gym there run by former world title challenger and local hero Sean Mannion. The County Galway southpaw put Rosmuc on the boxing map when he challenged Mike McCallum for the World Light Middleweight title at Madison Square Garden in 1984 and now over a quarter of a century later the village is once again buzzing with talk of another big fight.
“It’s an ideal setting for a training camp and the local people here could not have done more for me,” said Murray. “It’s a lovely part of the world, there’s a great gym here and you have the Atlantic ocean right on your doorstep so I’ve even been able to jump in there for my recovery sessions.
“It’s hard being away from home for such a long time but these are the sacrifices you need to make and ultimately I’m doing this for my family. I’ve been able to keep up with all the support from Cavan on Facebook and there seems to be a great buzz about the fight at home. I really appreciate all the support and well wishers and I know there is a big crowd travelling over to the fight as well so I’ll be hoping to give everyone something to shout about and get my hand raised on Saturday night.”
Murray’s manager Brian Peters believes the investment in the training camp will pay dividends this weekend. “It’s a massive fight but Andy has earned this opportunity. He’s there on merit as the number one challenger and he’s left no stone unturned for this fight. He’s a fanatical trainer and being down in Connemara has allowed him to focus 100% on beating Gavin Rees. We’ve imported great sparring and Andy’s also worked with a strength and conditioning coach for this fight so we’re very confident that he can pull off a famous victory in Cardiff and bring the European title back home. I think you only have to look at the buzz around Cavan for this fight to see just how popular Andy is there. His story is an inspirational one and I think everyone will be willing him to victory on Saturday night.”
Andy Murray V Gavin Rees is live on Sky Sports 1 from 10:30pm this Saturday night.