'I felt like I had lost my roots': Jason Quigley is back with a Donegal vengeance

Donegal’s ‘El Animal’ is back in action after 11 months of injury woe, and he feels like a new man in and out of the ring.

Image: Lina Baker (@seeyouringside)

I’M HEADED UPSTAIRS to give Jason Quigley a buzz and my housemate asks who I’m interviewing.

“The boxer, Jason Quigley”, is my answer, to which my housemate responds – in a botched attempt at what I take to be a Mexican accent – “EL ANIMAL!”

He’s scarcely a boxing aficionado, and so the fact that this particular BIS guru knows not only the fighter in question, but his ring moniker, is a testament to Quigley’s tantalising potential to transcend.

Given 31 of his fellow Irish pugilists have, through a haphazard campaign instigated by their management company, cut their noses off to spite their faces, Quigley’s long-awaited return to the squared circle couldn’t be arriving at a better time as far as Irish media attention is concerned: ranked seventh by the WBC – or sixth, now, technically, given his compatriot Andy Lee’s retirement last night – world honours surely beckon for Quigley in the next 18 months, and he’ll be high in demand where others have inexplicably opted to cut off the supply.

But Quigley, one of our most introspective and articulate athletes in any field, has always been a bit more savvy than the rest: off-hand, the Ballybofey middleweight did at least four interviews with this writer alone during his 11-month recovery from what his surgeon described as a ‘one-in-10-million’-type break to his primary weapon – his right hand.

There were countless others, too, as well as public appearances aplenty and Instagram takeovers for his promoters, Golden Boy, and glove sponsors, Everlast. Between April and August of last year, he amused himself by publicly declaring that his friend and compatriot Conor McGregor would annihilate Floyd Mayweather in the pair’s farcical boxing match despite not believing such a statement remotely, all the while cognisant that such a bold claim would significantly bolster his profile irrespective of the fight’s inevitable outcome.

Sure enough, just a couple of months after his original glinty-eyed prediction on Sky Sports News garnered massive traction, he made his co-commentary debut on Sky Sports, sitting alongside Matthew Macklin and Adam Smith to call Jorge Linares’ defence of his lightweight world title versus former Olympic gold medalist Luke Campbell. Quigley’s unhurried Donegal brogue went down fairly well by all accounts.

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The game is the game, and Jason Quigley knows how to play it, but now – at last – he’s back in the thick of it, ecstatic to have been able to press ‘unpause’.

“It’s unbelievable, like,” he says of his return. “It’s funny, actually, because I had an idea as to when I’d be back, but when the date’s not locked down, you’re sitting there thinking of this date, that date, but now that it’s set in stone I’m just delighted. It’s great to get that feeling – there’s a wee switch which goes off in your head as you prepare for a fight – and it’s just so good to have that feeling again.

“I always try to look at the positive side of everything. I’m not really trying to look at the positive side to my injury because, let’s be honest, it’s cost me nearly a year of my career, so it’s difficult to be thrilled by it! But I can’t bypass the positive side entirely, either at the same time.

“It just seems so blatant that it was meant to happen. The way I’ve viewed my career – my mindset – I’ve always been dedicated and focused, but while I was out injured it’s just like something else happened: I just feel like I’ve matured over the last year, and come into myself more – as a man.

“It just seems appropriate that the injury had to happen for me to grow personally and to take this next step now in my career. As a man, I’m ready for the next challenge now.

I feel like I’m ready for anything, now, honestly. Just throw it at me and I’ll hit it full steam ahead, like.

The Quigley Express has diverted its course back across the Atlantic, where the North American middleweight champion now resides and trains in Sheffield – some 7,500 kilometres closer to his native hills than those of the Hollywood variety under which he trained for the first three years of his professional career.

The move could scarcely be considered a shock: in an August 2017 interview with The42, Quigley evinced a sense of not homesickness but an appreciation for what he was missing: his beloved mother, Muriel, his younger sisters, Jade and Holli – the latter heading into the championship rounds of primary school – and his girlfriend, April, with whom he’s fought to sustain a transatlantic relationship.

The great moments in California were, for the most part, experienced without those closest to him, presenting a tree-falls-in-the-woods-type conundrum for Quigley: if he couldn’t share such moments with loved ones, were they even great?

It was an egregious hand injury suffered against game gatekeeper Glen Tapia which ultimately afforded the Ballybofey native the opportunity to properly reassess his circumstances, and sure enough, a full-time oceanic traversal beckoned.

But Quigley maintains his hand-break and heartbreak will transpire to do more than bolster merely his personal life.

“Obviously, you can’t tell the future”, he says, “but honestly, if I hadn’t broken my hand against Tapia… Like, when you think about it, I had Tapia gone in the first round; I had him gone again at the start of the second round. And as soon as I broke my hand, the fight just changed.

“If I hadn’t have broken my hand, I would have gotten him out of there in, say, two, three, four rounds. That would have been a serious statement made.

“And I would have been into some big, serious fights straight after that. There would have been a whole new level of hype around me. And it was just… Just not the right move for that time, I feel.

“All the time out – not only did it allow me to grow a bit – but it afforded me the time to plot out my next moves. That’s exactly what happened.

“I had been thinking of moving [away from California] in any case – don’t get me wrong. I felt things were just ‘off’ in America. They just weren’t quite clicking.

“The move to Sheffield has been great in every aspect. First and foremost, being closer to home, being in the same timezone, being in the same climate – going back to your own roots, so to speak. It brings you back to something closer to where you’re from, and what’s valuable to you – do you know what I mean?

“The comfort and enjoyment of training – now, I don’t like to use the word ‘comfort’ because you should never be too comfortable in your professional life, but I mean more the enjoyment of being… I don’t quite know how to describe it, but there’s just a certain contentment to me now.

“I feel a lot happier in my personal life – outside of the gym. From a boxing standpoint, things are much the same: you work hard, you do your training and you give 100%. But in America, going out on your own and leaving the family and things like that – that’s the difficult part. And boxing’s a tough enough sport without living thousands of miles away from your family! So when your life outside of boxing is difficult as well, you have to weigh things up.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing.

And, you know, coming from Ireland, we’re not made to be strolling around Hollywood Boulevard with all the stars – it’s just not a place where we can go and ‘be ourselves’. We’re probably a little bit too authentic for that life.

Jason Quigley Source: Eoin Mundow/INPHO

“And yes”, he adds, “I could go out there and do it – I feel I could still do it – but the type of person I am, I like where I’m from. I’m a proud Donegal man, a proud Irishman. Where I’ve came from, who I am, the people who got me to where I am today – for me to keep growing, I need to stick with that.

Over there, I felt like I was losing my roots, losing sight of where I come from – and so I knew it was time to sort it out. Coming back to all of that, I really feel, has made me the man that I am again.

“And if I wasn’t out injured, I honestly wouldn’t have had the time to reevaluate and come to that realisation.

“I always tell you that everything happens for a reason, and I’m delighted with the way everything has happened for me so far.”

“I came home just to surprise the mother today, because I was away in Fuerteventura in camp and I’ve been in Sheffield for the past few weeks. And it’s so good to just come home and not have to worry about, like, ‘Oh, I’ll never sleep tonight – I’ll be up until five or six in the morning because of jetlag’”, Quigley laughs.

“The beauty of it is you’re still in routine as far as training is concerned. Fly back out to Sheffield on the Sunday evening, and it’s back to business then on the Monday. It’s unbelievable, the difference. You don’t actually realise it until you make that change.”

He sparred a lofty caliber of fighter Stateside for the past several years, earning stripes in the bullpen against the likes of perennial world-title challenger David Lemieux.

The Steel City offers further opportunity for Quigley to sharpen his tools, though: in Dominic Ingle’s Sheffield gym, two stylish Britons in former welterweight world champ Kell Brook and WBO World middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders – Lemieux’s most recent conqueror – are currently in camp alongside their new Irish gym-mate in preparation for their own spring ring-returns.

The latter in particular presents an intriguing dynamic: Saunders, despite welcoming Quigley with open arms (the 2008 British Olympian trained alongside him during the aforementioned trip to Fuerteventura), will likely be reticent to show his new pal too many ropes given Quigley, currently ranked at 15 by the WBO, is a world title defence-in-waiting should Saunders remain at middleweight for the foreseeable.

But while he now deems himself a contender more so than a pretender to Saunders’ throne, Quigley is cognisant that belts are rarely fastened tight to the waists of their beholders; he has an eye on Saunders, sure, but no more so than the world’s other top gunslingers in the 160-pound division.

“The thing about it is, of course the two of us know – I mean, it’s definitely in the back of my mind that he’s a world champion, and I’m ranked in the top 10, 15 in the world.

Obviously, I don’t know what he’s thinking, but for me, I look at him, Canelo [Saul Alvarez], Golovkin and I think, ‘They’re the champions right now, and they’re the guys I want to fight eventually’.

“And so it’s great to be training alongside Billy Joe, in that environment with world champions. But who’s to say Billy Joe is going to be a world champion at middleweight when my shot arrives in the not-too-distant future?

“You never know how the landscape might look in two or three fights’ time. There are some amazing fighters out there – Danny Jacobs and the likes – so it would be silly of me to be fixated on Billy Joe, or whoever.

“I just concentrate on myself and being ready when my time comes. My fight in Boston – that’s the only thing that’s in my head right now.”

He ships up to The Olde Town at the end of March for his 14th professional contest, and his first in over a year.

It will be his sophomore appearance on America’s east coast, but the first of what’s understood to be a concentrated Golden Boy push towards the enormous Irish contingent which calls it home.

The truth is that it likely won’t require much of a push such was Quigley’s success in making a name for himself in California; his only previous taste of Bostonian fight fandom – while then a relative pro novice – would suggest he’ll be wholly welcomed on his return.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted in my career, and it’s been a dream I’ve wanted to fulfill, to fight on the east coast of America,” he says.

I got a taste of it in my third fight [versus Greg McCoy]: I fought in Massachusetts and the first taste I got for it was the crowd – the fact that the place was packed for my fight, and by the last fight the place was half-empty again. Everyone had gone when the Irish guy had finished, you know?

“It’s hard to put into words what it means to me to be fighting back there again. Like, I’ll nearly feel more at home there than I would if I was fighting in Donegal! It’s going to be unbelievable.

The amount of people that have been onto me already about booking their flights, booking their hotels, ‘When do the tickets go on sale?’ – everything like that, it’s unbelievable.

“It’s given me an extra bit of excitement, a bit of a buzz about this fight.”

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Adding to the distinctly Irish flavour on next month’s Golden Boy on ESPN card will be Mayo’s ‘Sugar’ Ray Moylette [8-0, 3KOs], with the former European amateur champion squaring off against Irish-American Matt Doherty [8-3-1, 4KOs] after the pair exchanged verbals in interviews with last year (Moylette famously likened Doherty to “a donkey’s flute” after the latter claimed ‘Sugar Ray’ had avoided him).

Quigley is enthused by the prospect of having his old friend for company in the lead-up to fight night, with both men’s bouts set to be broadcast live to the masses on ESPN – a far cry from the more ‘remote’ experiences they shared in boxing’s unpaid ranks.

“Oh, to have on Ray on it as well is brilliant. Obviously, we’ve been away together with the Irish team to Kazakhstan, Belarus, all of these…beautiful countries,” Quigley laughs, sparing Gennady Golovkin further motivation for a prospective clash down the line.

“You know what I can’t wait for, is just meeting him around the hotel, going for a coffee and things like that. There’ll be a real excitement for both of us.

For Ray and myself, it’ll be a great moment to share – to see where we’ve come from as team-mates in the amateur days to national television on ESPN over in America; fighting in Boston, selling out arenas.

“That’s not a bad achievement for us. And we’re only getting started.”

“I remember the days when I was going through the world amateur rankings”, Quigley adds after a pause, still running his mind through the old times which, in truth, are only five years old. “And I was like, ‘Jesus, look where I am now! This is fecking unbelievable!’

“And now I’m up there with the big dogs, like. This is real-deal stuff.

“Or, at least, that’s what I used to think maybe a year ago: that I’m some youngfella in with these top fighters in the rankings. But now I’m like, ‘Ah… I should be climbing up this ladder now. This is where I belong.’

This stage of my career is what I have been training for since I was a kid. This is where it all becomes reality, now.

“It was all fun and games – and still is, to a certain extent, because you have to enjoy the journey and all – but at the end of the day, now, this is where the cream rises to the top.

“And I am the cream,” he laughs. “I’m ready to rise.

I’m ranked number seven in the world by the WBC – the most recognisable world belt out there. If you want to look at it one way, I’m seven away from the world champion. But on the other hand, I could get a call any day to fight for the world title: once you get in the top 10, top 15, the phone might ring.

“For me now, I realise that this is exactly where I belong. My opportunity is coming. And believe you me, I’m going to be 110% ready when that happens.”

But if the phone were to ring, and soon – say, after he returns in style next month – what would his answer be to the magical question? Surely it would be better to wait until he’s, well, 140%-or-so ready?

“See, I’m not sure if a lot of boxers have this, but I have a boxing brain and I have a business brain. And right now, my boxing brain is shouting at me: ‘Is this guy being f-…n’ serious?” Quigley laughs, as Boxing Brain takes the reins. “‘He’s really asking me if I get offered a world title fight, will I take it. Of course I’ll fucking take it!’

“And then my business brain is telling me: ‘Will you calm down? You’ve gotten yourself into a nice position, seventh in the world. There’s no panic here. You’ve been 10 rounds twice. Get yourself 12 rounds in the bank before you do anything; get a couple of fights not against journeymen, but fighters who’ve fought at the top level that will test you.’

Business Brain is definitely more pleasant to deal with.

“So, you don’t just jump into these things,” Quigley says, “but even while I’m saying that, there’s a part of me that’s thinking: ‘JEEZ, HOW COULD I TURN THAT DOWN!? This is everything I’ve wanted from day one.’

“If somebody offers me a world title shot versus Canelo, Golovkin, whoever…” He sighs loudly. “Honestly, I couldn’t turn that down.

“But that being said, I know my team around me would probably be like, ‘All right, look, maybe two or three more fights and you’ll be ready’.

But I know I’m ready to be a world champion. I know what I’m capable of. I know what’s inside me, I know how deep I can dig into the trenches to pull it out of the bag. I know how far I can go. I also know that nobody else knows that.

“So, of course, I couldn’t turn that opportunity down,” Quigley adds, as Boxing Brain and Business Brain exchange jabs, “but at the same time, I do need to think, ‘Okay, two or three more fights, and you’ll be in even better shape to win a world title.’

“It’s obviously conflicting, because this is a sport where you can’t let opportunities slip. In boxing, one shot can change everything. So if that call came, I don’t think I could turn it down. You do have to say to yourself” – and Quigley says it to himself with a laugh – “‘In 60 or 70 years’ time, will you be sitting there thinking, ‘I was stupid, really… I should have taken that fight!’

Look, I’m also the type of fighter that, if a man gets in there on a given day and beats me, I’ll wish him all the best. Because the man who one day beats me will be one hell of a fighter – if anybody ever does beat me!

He probably has a bit of time – if not much – before he fields that kind of phonecall, but I can’t but help but wonder as to whether his boxing brain or his business brain tends to prevail these days in light of his recent uprooting and newfound maturity.

“The boxing brain has won for most of my life, but the business brain is starting to have more of a say the older I get”, Quigley laughs, “and the more life becomes real to me!”

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