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Son of Kildare versus Son of Legend in a battle of the Australian bottleneck

Dennis Hogan faces a make-or-break fight with Aussie ‘second coming’ Tim Tszyu on Wednesday morning, live on eir Sport.

Updated Mar 29th 2021, 12:00 PM

PAUL KEEGAN LEFT school at 15 and in early adulthood worked as a barman in the Beaumont House and the Goose Tavern on the northside of Dublin. In 2000, partially inspired by their exposure to a land of perennial sunshine in Neighbours and Home and Away, he and “a load of mates from the housing estate” decided to go backpacking in Australia.

They went over just for the year. All Keegan knew from home was bar work but while he was in OZ, he was keen to expand his horizons professionally, too. His friends were builders so, by 2002 or 2003, most of them had made their way back to Ireland where construction was booming. By then, though, Keegan had become a sales-and-marketing prodigy. He remained in Australia, starting his own company and, eventually, a family in Queensland.

“I went away with a backpack and I came back with a wife and two kids,” he jokes from Dublin, to where he moved back a couple of years ago to run the Irish branch of the business he built Down Under.

Keegan’s Brisbane-born kids are besotted with their new home, getting to know their grandparents properly and taking to Gaelic games like ducks to water when such freedoms aren’t paused these days. It’s tougher for his wife, a Kiwi who spent most of her life in Queensland living the sun-soaked dream to which Keegan aspired in his younger days. “Sometimes she looks out the window and I’m sure she looks at me and goes, “what the fuck am I doing here?’” he says.

“Her brother’s had a baby, her best friend’s had a baby, we wanted the kids to spend the summer with their cousins but obviously that can’t happen now.

“It’s heartbreaking because all of our mates are in Australia and they send us pictures and they’re at the beach or in the pub; they’re going to see the rugby or going to the fights and it’s like… ‘Fuck’s sake. Of all the times to move back…’”

One of those teasing family friends to whom Keegan alludes is two-time world-title challenger Dennis Hogan, the utter normality of whose current existence back in Brisbane leaves Keegan green and indeed would be the envy of most of the western world at this stage.

Kildare native Hogan has all but completed his training camp for one of the most significant domestic fights ever to occur on his adopted soil this Wednesday — a make-or-break world-title eliminator against Aussie-born up-and-comer Tim Tszyu which will take place in the company of thousands of fans in an indoor arena in Newcastle, New South Wales. He feels as puzzled by our existence in Ireland as the rest of us do jealous while we thumb past Instagram Stories from friends or family Down Under.

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“I was doing an interview with the Kildare Nationalist the other day and they asked me what it was like over here,” says Hogan. “I had to tell them: ‘I’ve literally just walked past a place where there was thousands of people all out eating food, mingling, up on top of each other; no social distancing, no masks, not even a mention of Covid.’ And I just can’t imagine that ye guys there even know what that looks like anymore! It’s so weird to think of that from this side.

“Personally, I don’t know how ye’re coping; I don’t know how more people aren’t snapping. Or maybe they are but what can you do?

“This time last year, there were lockdowns in both Ireland and Australia to flatten the curve. Look at the difference now. Are people in Ireland not looking at Australia 12 months later and wondering, ‘Why they didn’t we do mandatory quarantine here the same way they did it there?’

“Like, how do you close businesses but allow people to travel into the country and move around pretty much freely? I’d have a massive problem with that, like, to be honest with you. If you’re going to do something, do it properly.”

Hogan speaks as someone who has, to a lesser degree, seen business affected by Covid and consequently twiddled his thumbs through a two-week hotel quarantine in Australia. When his Christmas fight with former world champion Julian Williams was cancelled after the American picked up the virus in early December, ‘Hurricane’ left his training camp at coach Wayne McCullough’s Las Vegas base and flew back to see his partner and two daughters in Brisbane — but before reconvening with them, he first had to isolate in Sydney for a fortnight.

The 36-year-old moonlights with significant success as a guest speaker on the Australian business circuit in which he has various interests, and perhaps his learned verbal conviction paid dividends when he explained his occupation and accompanying needs to the receptionist at the Sydney Olympic Park Hotel: Hogan was given a spacious apartment overlooking the Olympic Park, complete with a jacuzzi.

He enjoyed the enforced downtime at first but hit a wall during his second week despite daily check-ins from a psychiatrist.

On day 11, though, his luck was in again: Hogan received news from his friend and accidental manager-promoter Paul Keegan that the battle for Australia was on, his supposed successor and superstar-in-waiting Tim Tszyu having agreed to take him on in a 154-pound ‘eliminator’ (winner positions himself to fight for a world title; loser finds himself in career purgatory).

The Kildare man wasn’t long shaking off the lethargy of hotel life. He arrived back to his family in Brisbane on Stephen’s Day with a spring in his step and a career-altering fight — one way or the other — chalked into the calendar.

“This is a fight that truly inspires me,” says Hogan, as the clock ticks towards a defining night for two Irish emigrants who met over a text about tickets in a suburb of Brisbane 10 years ago.

boxing-hogan-nonaka Dennis Hogan (L). Source: AAP/PA Images

***

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Hogan was a carpenter by trade and a highly rated Irish light-heavyweight amateur boxer by talent. There were ceilings to both pursuits: the country was on the brink of recession and Kenneth Egan was in the middle of a decade-long domination of the Irish scene at 81kg during which he was able to keep Hogan — who was then nearly 11kg heavier than he is now — at arm’s length on three occasions.

But the Kilcullen man was still able to take both his trade and talent abroad, which is how his grá for Australia began.

Hogan first worked there between 2006 and 2007 on a 12-month holiday visa. A year later, an opportunity to don the green vest saw him return to OZ where he had three amateur fights in Brisbane, one of the cities in which he had previously lived and worked for a few months.

“I actually fought on a pro-am show and after my fights, I was told if I ever wanted to fight professionally, I’d be more than welcome to come back,” he says.

“I had that in the back of my mind from late 2008. And when the recession really kicked in around 2010, I was only doing a bit of work for myself at that point, so I thought, ‘Why not go all-in on boxing, now, and try my hand at the pros?’ It was always something I had been meaning to do — I had just never really focused in on it and done it!

“I gave Steve Deller (boxing trainer/manager/promoter) in Australia a call and he told me that if I could get out here by January [2011] he’d get me on for a St Patrick’s Day show. So, I jumped on a plane and got out here.

“At that point, I thought I’d maybe have a few fights, stay the year visa and then move off.”

Paul Keegan had once made similar assumptions about his own move to OZ. Eleven years after he first landed over himself, he and a couple of friends learned via an Irish immigrant Facebook group that there was an Irish-boxing night scheduled to take place in the nearby Brisbane suburb of Newstead. They text the phone number listed on the poster looking for tickets.

“Next thing, Dennis walked into my office,” Keegan recalls. “I actually thought he was the ticket-seller. ‘We’ll grab some tickets,’ I said to him. ‘Are you a friend of…?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m the boxer!’

“In fairness to him, he was going door to door, houses and businesses, looking for anyone who even sounded Irish to get behind him.”

“Paul couldn’t believe that at the time,” Hogan says. “But that’s obviously how it works, and not only in Australia. At that stage of your career, if you’re getting on a show, you might say, ‘I’ll sell at least 30 for this one’ — and you’d be pretty much expected to, you know? And you’ll definitely get back on shows if you can sell.

“So, it wasn’t long before I started to get a commission, and for a couple of fights, I made more money in commission than I did with the purse.

“I was very optimistic — more optimistic than I should have been, really, but it worked out well. I had lived in Brisbane for two months, twice, when I was there on a working holiday visa a few years earlier and I had seen there were a lot of Irish tradies around. So, when I went pro, I kind of thought, ‘They’ll surely buy tickets.’

I used to drive down to Gold Coast and put posters up in Irish bars there, as well as Irish bars all around Brisbane. I’d leave my number on the poster and I knew that a portion of every ticket sold was going to me.

“If all I had to do then was train, then selling more tickets and making an extra few quid for myself wasn’t a bad idea. I knew I’d meet sponsors and connections along the way.”

He was right. After Keegan and his friends attended that initial Hogan fight and then his next outing about a month later, four of them committed to pay him A$100 each per week so that he could live and train as a professional athlete.

“Paul brought a few more to the table, too,” adds Hogan. “Other business associates and stuff. And that was pretty much me, then, set and secured, to be honest with you. Before then, you might have a bit of sponsorship here or there but you were really counting your pennies to make it all work.”

Their arrangement continued in a similar vain for a couple of years, Keegan becoming Hogan’s de facto manager. He gravitated towards his fellow Leinsterman firstly because he found Hogan to be a “really decent person” but also due to a ferocious work ethic with which Keegan could identify as a fellow immigrant who had found success in self-employment. “It was the pure ambition in him,” Keegan says of Hogan, now Godfather to his youngest.

The first time we sat down, he told me he’d be a world champion. Did I believe him? Probably not. But he gets out there and doesn’t just wait for shit to happen, and I love that about Dennis.”

Case in point: Hogan won Queensland state titles at 168 and 160 pounds in his first nine pro fights, continuing to shed puppy fat and, even more crucially, mental blockades cultivated over years in Ireland; he gave up booze forever and dedicated himself totally to betterment on either side of the ropes.

Hogan fought every four to five weeks in the second half of 2013, winning the Australian middleweight title and defending it against the top available contender exactly a month later. He was named Australian Boxer of the the Year within three years of moving to the country. It remains one of his proudest achievements.

Bigger successes against better opponents followed when he took a couple of career-builders in the States in 2015, Hogan picking up and defending the American title down at 154 pounds and eventually earning himself an interim world-title shot against Ecuadorian-born German Jack Culcay.

Culcay inflicted upon the Irishman a first defeat in 24 professional contests in December 2015, out-boxing him in the German city of Wilhelmsburg in a competitive fight but one with a clear points victor.

Hogan subsequently made wholesale changes to his training setup and, as he began plotting a mountainous route back to world-title contention without the badly needed backing of a promoter, Keegan and his sales-and-marketing colleague Danny Dimas decided to take matters into their own hands.

“DDP Promotions: Dennis, Danny, Paul. The name is fucking brutal”, Keegan laughs, “but we needed a promoter’s licence and the plan was literally to do one show; a one-shot gig. It was a case of, ‘Let’s get Dennis world-ranked, and then someone will come along and sign him and we can go back to being sponsors and just go to the fights and get pissed again!

“But we did that one show and we absolutely smashed it, and it just grew bigger and bigger from there.”

download Hogan and Paul Keegan.

Keegan took inspiration from one of his previous passions, professional wrestling, and tried to apply the same sense of ‘event’ to his own boxing shows. Too often when attending other shows, he says, the yawning gap between the actual boxing matches would leave him feeling bored. So, he and his makeshift DDP outfit decided to shake up the formula and accidentally became Australia’s premier boxing promotional company in the process.

We would do VIP speakers, a gala dinner, that kind of thing. Forty per cent of the people who came to our shows in Australia were women. People knew we’d have bands on between fights, auctions; I’d have [then-world champion] Jeff Horn in the ring and we’d do press-up competitions. People would dress up coming to our shows because there was a certain kind of appeal to them. Our top tables were selling for $4,000 and they would have been sold out within a week, you know?

Hogan wound up headlining three of his own promotional company’s cards at the 8,000-capacity Brisbane Convention Centre, beating three world-ranked opponents in succession between October 2017 and December 2018 to copper-fasten his position atop the queue to challenge WBO World light-middleweight champion Jaime Munguia.

It was during this run when he and Keegan first encountered Tim Tszyu who, at a fledgling stage of his own career, fought on the undercard of Hogan’s make-or-break victory over Manchester’s Jimmy Kelly in April ’18.

Hogan had far bigger fish to fry at that juncture but he would later come up empty in his efforts to finally land a world title belt, and in two very different ways.

His majority-decision defeat to rising Mexican star Munguia [33-0, 26KOs] in an overdue title shot was one of the great boxing scandals of 2019. The fact that even Munguia himself admitted in front of his home support that he didn’t believe he had won was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Twenty-to-one underdog Hogan was robbed of one of the great away victories in the respective histories of Irish and Australian sport but his global standing within boxing grew considerably; he had ostensibly pulled off one of the biggest world-title shocks of that or any year.

With Munguia running from a rematch and the WBO not playing ball despite effectively admitting Hogan deserved one, ‘Hurricane’ showed patience until that winter when he was given a lucrative Hail Mary shot at WBC champion Jermall Charlo [29-0, 21KOs] up at middleweight, a division in which he hadn’t campaigned since his Australian-title days back in 2013/14.

It was a testament to his performance against Munguia that his odds were as narrow as 6/1 against a bigger and even marginally better opponent than the Mexican, but his task against Charlo would ultimately have been quixotic even without an injury-plagued camp in advance of it. Despite struggling initially with the Irishman’s unorthodox movement, the comparably huge Charlo eventually inflicted upon Hogan his first stoppage defeat in the seventh.

The Kildare man was at least handsomely paid to challenge Charlo but in suffering the second successive blot on his CV, the longtime Australian top dog had ceded ground to a vaunted native talent rising through the ranks in his absence.

***

“The misconception in Australia is that Tim Tszyu chose us but I’ve got proof on text message, we chose Tim,” says Keegan of the circumstances that led to Wednesday’s generational showdown. “After the Julian Williams fight fell through, Dennis pleaded with me: ‘Get me that guy — I’ll do anything. Get me Tim Tszyu.’

“And negotiations were really easy. I just think they were a little bit shocked that we took the fight.”

boxing-tszyu-morgan Tim Tszyu. Source: AAP/PA Images

In the year and a bit since Hogan’s last fight — his defeat to Charlo — fellow light-middleweight Tszyu has become not only Australia’s number-one boxer but one of the faces of Australian sport.

And his face certainly has something to do with that: at a certain angle, the clean-cut 26-year-old can surely resemble his legendary father, the boxing Hall of Famer and Russian-Australian sporting icon Kostya Tszyu, in whose unavoidable shadow he is beginning to forge something like a legacy of his own.

In crafting an impressive-looking 17-0(13KOs) record, baby Tszyu has done everything asked of him in the ring — including knocking off another Aussie boxing hero, former welterweight world champion Jeff Horn, in an eight-round demolition job last August.

World-title opportunities are seen as inevitable; he has stolen a march on Hogan in that particular chase and aims to vanquish his Irish adversary once and for all on Wednesday, a result which would amplify the hype surrounding him in his home country and propel him into the bigtime outside of it.

Mind you, not everyone is convinced by Tszyu 2.0.

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“Listen, Tim’s a good fighter,” says Keegan. “He beat Jeff Horn but Jeff’s a friend of mine and Tim beat an unmotivated Jeff Horn. If the Jeff Horn who beat Manny Pacquiao would have fought Tim Tszyu, Jeff would have destroyed him.

But all of a sudden, when Tim beat a shell of Jeff Horn, Australia thought they were looking at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It’s so overblown but down there, if someone in boxing does something, anything, they are the Messiah of Australian boxing.

“They need to calm down for a second,” Keegan adds. “Tim fought domestic-level fighters, then he beat an unmotivated Jeff Horn, and his last fight was against the no.67 in the world who was really a welterweight; he knocked him out in a round. I think real boxing fans can see through all the bullshit.”

Keegan admits he’s consequently “pissed off” by the comparable lack of respect shown to Hogan in certain quarters of the Australian media since the match-up was announced. News.com.au’s headline at the time, for example, read: ‘Tim Tszyu’s next victim revealed as Aussie boxing star stays busy’, a narrative into which Tszyu himself has fed throughout the build-up.

“See, what’s happening now isn’t a normal situation,” muses Hogan, the supposed victim in question. “What’s happening now is that on the tip of everyone’s tongue, here, is the name Kostya Tszyu. He is an absolute legend to people; he’s a god of boxing over here.

“So, for him to have a son in boxing, it’s not just people who follow boxing who are paying it attention, it’s people who grew up watching Kostya who weren’t even boxing fans. And now they’re all back on the bandwagon because they think his son is going to be him reborn.

They don’t know the amateur experience that Kostya had, that Tim doesn’t have. They don’t know the things that growing up in Russia would have done for Kostya in terms of mindset and hardening him — things Tim hasn’t grown up with. They think Tim is cut from the same cloth but it’s very different.

There are commonalities, however, between Hogan and the Tszyus: similar to Hogan’s own children, the fact that Tim is Australian at all is a direct consequence of his father taking a shine to the country when he boxed there as an amateur. Kostya won World Championship gold in Sydney in 1991 and, after falling for the place, moved there with his girlfriend early the next year following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

They married in Sydney in 1993 and with Tim being born there a year later, there is a sense that Wednesday’s fight is very much one between Australia’s biological son and its Irish stepson despite Hogan’s sincere efforts to ingratiate himself throughout his 10-year career.

On Wednesday, an Irishman with Australian citizenship will be every bit the away fighter in the country he has called home since 2011; some of the Aussies have already taken to calling the fight’s host city ‘Tszyu-castle’ and it will sound like it come first bell.

But it’s all water off a duck’s back.

“Mate, boxing’s like that anyway, you know?” Hogan says. “People jump on and off bandwagons. People forget very, very quickly. I don’t care.

“Casual fans will jump on and they’re reckless; you’d want to see some of the shit they’d be saying online: ‘Oh, Hogan got knocked out in his last one, I think he’s got a sus (suspect) jaw’ — and then people agreeing with that,” he laughs. “Are ya fucking kidding me?

But you know what, I’m getting messages from journalists and stuff in America and generally when I get hit up privately, it’s people saying, ‘Wow, Tim’s made a big mistake.’ Point towards somebody in the boxing know and they know what sort of a fight this is. It’s a case of me going back to clean up my backyard and also getting back my number-one [contender] spot while I’m at it.

“Deep in my core”, Hogan begins to chuckle, “Like, I’m laughing at the bookies!” (Hogan is 9/2 underdog). “He talks about going out there and knocking me out, none of this pitter-patter stuff.

He doesn’t understand that when I hit him, I will change the momentum of the fight. I land a good one and you don’t want to know about it again for a while, you’ll be dodgy about coming back at me again. The guys he’s fought before have been scared of his name for the most part.

“I’ll pay him the same respect I’d pay any fighter but I won’t change anything I do well; I’m going to go out there, fight my fight, and I am going to take him apart.”

“When Dennis fought Munguia”, says Keegan, “I did an interview beforehand with Aus-Boxing[.com] and I said Dennis was going to go over there and he was going to school Munguia, because Munguia’s the A-side and all the pressure’s on him, all the promotional money’s behind him, he’s fighting in his home country for the first time as the champion and I don’t think he’s mature enough for that. And I see similar things with Tim Tszyu.

All the pressure’s on Tim. Dennis is the bookies’ underdog, he’s 36 now whereas Tim is meant to be the next great hope in Australian boxing. All the TV money has been invested in Tim, all the ticket sales are on Tim, all the sponsorship has been given to Tim. Everything has been put in place for Tim.

“Before the Munguia fight, I sat with Dennis on the bus from the hotel to the stadium and he was laughing and smiling. And when we got there, he was just smiling away and I asked him, ‘Are you all right, man?’ And he goes, ‘This is all for me.’ He was like a psychopath. I actually said to him, ‘You’re acting a bit weird, man.’

“And when I was talking to him yesterday, the psycho was back again: ‘I’m going in there to hurt him. I’m going to destroy his career.’

“Because Tim has said plenty, you know, like, ‘This is your last fight, I’m going to eat your soul’ or whatever the fuck he said at the presser. And Dennis is giving me the same vibes as he gave me before Munguia.”

boxing-hogan-weetch Hogan celebrates his victory over Jamie Weetch in December 2018. Source: AAP/PA Images

Hogan adds:

When he said that thing about taking my soul at the press conference, I just didn’t believe him. That’s the thing. I think he was trying to rid himself of some insecurities. Look at the experience that I have. I’m known as awkward and I outbox people and they start to go, ‘What’s going on here?’ I think he’s going to be left in that predicament and I think he knows it.

Keegan says he expects Tszyu to start fast, run out of ideas, and “absolutely shit himself” when Hogan drags him into the deep end. “He doesn’t see it but he’s in for a brutal night.”

He acknowledges, however, that he’s “nearly having a nervous breakdown” himself in that he won’t be able to attend the fight due to the fact that it would cost him a month’s worth of hotel quarantine there and back. Those nerves will only increase when he tunes into eir Sport on Wednesday morning like the rest of us.

“Nobody’s under any illusions here,” Keegan says. “If Tim beats Dennis, where is there for us to go? There’s nowhere, really, to go. And what Dennis won’t be is he won’t be a gatekeeper or a stepping stone for other younger fighters. So this is huge. Tim wants to win but Dennis has to win.”

Hogan, too, is only human. “Every fighter will catch themselves having a doubt,” he says. “‘What if you were to…’

“And life is just like that; you ask every question in your subconscious and you think, ‘Well, what would it look like?’ And other questions stem from that: ‘Would you want to keep going [if you lost] and, if you did, what would that look like?’

“But not only do I think I won’t have to cross that bridge, I actually think I’m in the perfect spot. It’s all about getting to that place of being world champion and this is the guy I have to beat to position myself; this is the guy who is going to get me closest to it.

“If he was to beat me, I’d say, ‘Jesus, fair play. You obviously knew something that I didn’t.’ And I’d happily learn whatever that lesson was. I’d know that I tried to fight the best guy that I could and whatever way it was to go, I’d be happy with that decision.

“When you’re living your life after boxing, you’ll ask yourself, ‘Did you give it the best crack you possibly could?’ And this fight is definitely doing that so I’ll be happy in that regard.

“…But I’m not going to lose, so…” Hogan laughs, catching that doubt in its infancy.

“I just have absolute certainty about this win. I can’t read anything different or be told any different. I cannot wait to get in and just let fly.”

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