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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 19 June, 2019
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'I swear, I look at how well some of my old rivals are doing - rivals who I beat - and I nearly cry to myself'

Troubled years behind him, John Joe Nevin faces a race against time, and a battle of the mind, to remind us of his brilliance.

John Joe Nevin celebrates his Olympic silver medal with Niall Horan, then of One Direction.
John Joe Nevin celebrates his Olympic silver medal with Niall Horan, then of One Direction.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT PUTS IT into stark context that on the night they share a bill in Philadelphia, Katie Taylor slings a third world-title belt over her shoulder after her 13th professional fight just 90 minutes before her former Irish team-mate, John Joe Nevin, moves to 12-0 without having yet come close to fighting for his first.

Of course, in the considerably deeper men’s ranks, nobody could expect a prizefighter of 12 bouts to hold three world titles. The starkness lies not in Nevin’s lack of global honours compared to Taylor’s, but both in their respective number of pro bouts and the hour and a half between their ring entrances at Liacouras Center.

The Mullingar man turned professional almost exactly three years before Taylor but has one fewer paid scrap on his CV. On the night when Taylor relieves Rose Volante of her WBO title to raucous acclaim in a chief-support slot, Nevin is quite literally an afterthought.

Pencilled in for the Matchroom card’s ‘floater’ or ‘swing bout’, he lingers in the arena for over seven hours, warming up, watching, waiting to plug a gap in the running order between a couple of quick knockouts which never arrive. He eventually takes to the squared circle post-midnight, the venue all but emptied, the cameras folded away and the broadcast teams from Sky Sports and DAZN halfway to their shared hotel.

D1yorMvW0AEP7Ve Nevin in action in Philadelphia.

Nevin doesn’t tear up any trees but wins well a six-rounder against a 9-4(5KOs) Colombian journeyman. He takes Andres Figueroa to the outskirts of Funky Town on a couple of occasions in the latter rounds but, respectful of his opponent’s chopping left hand, he skirts his way around it toward’s the night’s final bell. Hometime.

But not for the media who stayed back including the full Irish contingent of five or six who are immediately hauled backstage to the post-fight press conferences where still-IBF World super-featherweight champion Tevin Farmer and Finglas’ Jono Carroll, his beaten challenger, are already about halfway finished.

Farmer and Carroll, practically arm-in-arm at the top table, are shooting the you-know-what about cheesesteaks and bruised knuckles upon our arrival; Katie Taylor — who we’re told is bored you-know-whatless and is keen to hit the road — patiently awaits her turn at the back of this sweat dungeon where her comparably small frame is obscured by tippy-toed videographers straining to capture the transatlantic bantz for their YouTube channels.

Nevin, meanwhile, is not required for media duty. He grabs a shower and gets changed before strolling out the venue’s front doors into the Philly night.

An after-party awaits somewhere in the city.

Katie Taylor in action against Rose Volante Katie Taylor drops Rose Volante en route to a ninth-round stoppage of the WBO lightweight world champion. Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

An eagle-eyed Corkonian who was one of the hundred or so observers to stay behind and watch Nevin after-dark had spotted this writer across the ring.

During the press conference, a tweet: “Pints in the draught horse around the corner if you’re around.”

Listen, it’s been a long night. And he is from Cork…

Twitter1 Cheers, @M1i9k8.

The Draught Horse bar is literally around the corner: out the door, turn right and turn right again. It’s a college bar in a college part of town; Liacouras Center is the home of the Temple University Owls basketball team — the university campus is dotted across the general vicinity — and the Owls’ logo is emblazoned upon most spare surfaces in the area, including the t-shirts and hoodies of every other passer-by.

There are two bouncers stood to each side of doorway and while the thump of some tune inside can be felt in your feet, it’s plain from their apologetic faces that these men bear only bad news at this hour. Philadelphia shuts down at 2am, and this night is deep into stoppage time. “Sorry, buddy.”

But then a booming British voice forces its way out of the porch area behind them, followed by the 60-odd-year-old man to whom it belongs.

Excuse me, gentlemen! This man is a member of the Irish media and we need him inside at once, please.” (GAA managers, take note).

“Oh, this gentleman is with you, Sir?”

Of course he’s with us! He’s on the list!

“I don’t think there is a list, Si–”

Excuse me! Come on in, Mr Casey! I’ll get John Joe for you now, one moment.

NCAA Basketball 2019 - Temple beat USF 82-80 NCAA Basketball 2019: Temple Owls guard Shizz Alston Jr goes up for a dunk at Liacouras Center. Source: Ken Inness

In the years since he won Olympic silver at London 2012, Nevin has slowly slid back to the bowels of the Irish sporting subconscious.

He has appeared more frequently in front pages than he has in the back, his stop-start professional boxing career overshadowed by incidents which might have led to its demise; there was his legs being shattered by a relative, of course, but also a fairly public battle with booze in the middle of the decade which, in a vicious cycle, was inextricably linked to his injury-plagued innings as a prizefighter.

There have been few prizes thus far but that battle has at least been won: Nevin is sober as a judge at his own after-party while those around him cut loose partially in his honour, the plastic cup in his right hand containing half a pint of by-then stale beer which never gets put out of its misery.

He’s had his fair share of sobering experiences in front of judges back home, too — the most costly stemming from a brawl between two Traveller groups at The Stillery pub on Dominick Street in March 2015, an incident for which Nevin and 13 others were charged with violent disorder.

“The legal stuff… I’ll tell you about the legal stuff,” Nevin tells The42 when prompted by Ron Boddy, the British gentleman who coerced the bouncers and is part of Nevin’s Philly-based management team. We’d met a day prior.

“The legal stuff was some cousins and things down having a few words down the town,” Nevin says. “I didn’t so much as throw a punch that night. But I’m always the one who gets called [by those involved] because I am who I am. And I’m only a small little lad so I can’t do nothing to stop it, but I can have a few words. Some of these people respect me or they might look up to me, and they might not want to do anything stupid when I’m there; they might just stand back and leave it.

So I come down, and I literally got out of my car. I hadn’t had a drink. And that’s it. I got charged. There was a €10,000 fine [payable to charity].

“People say: ‘Oh, you can avoid stuff like that — what are you getting involved in that sort of stuff for?’ And things like that can be avoided…if I stay in my house for the rest of my life.

“When anything happens in Mullingar, it’s only a small little town, I get linked to it. There was a cousin up in court for something a while back and I’ve never spoken to the guy in my life. You actually have a better chance of having spoken to the guy! But then he’s up in court and it’s ‘Cousin of John Joe Nevin in court…’ So, I don’t really get a fair break with anything on that side of things.

Now, listen, I’ve had my fair share [of incidents] — I’m not saying I’m a saint or anything like that. But it’s a bit like… Get me away from that, give me a break and let me do my stuff. Because I’m trying.

“That’s why I spoke up about it in court myself,” Nevin continues, referring to a separate charge of assault following a 2016 incident at Feerick’s Hotel in ­his hometown. Nevin and his cousin were told that the case against them would be dropped if they vowed to keep the peace for three years, and while the cousin in question accepted the court’s offer, Nevin refused it, instead vowing to clear his name. The case was dropped a year later.

“That was important for me, to fight that.

There are some guys [journalists] — and I won’t mention any names — but they give me a hard time. Even if the story is positive, they’ll knit something into it, something negative, just to keep that whole thing going and let people know what they think of me, and maybe what people should think of me. And they’ll be smart about it, they’ll write it in a polite sort of language, but it’s clear what they’re doing.
I think Irish people might have an impression of me as being this…like…bad guy, or a rowdy guy. That’s not the case. Again, I’ve had some stuff in the past — I’m not denying that. But all of that is behind me. I just want to get on with my boxing. I’m 12-0 now. I just want to keep winning — keep winning and getting big fights. That’s all I want.

John Joe Nevin celebrates after a first round knockout Nevin celebrates a first-round knockout at the 3Arena in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Nevin, who splits training between England and Philly, got his wish at Liacouras Center earlier in the night — or at least partially: it was scarcely a major fight but he protected his unbeaten professional record on a major Stateside bill at least.

Standing in an outpost of the bar that another bouncer reluctantly cordoned off so as to shield us from the relentless choonz, he’s kitted out sharply in a tweed sports jacket, dark trousers and brown shoes, a flat cap the cherry on top.

Only for the polite interventions of selfie-hunting fans, one would easily forget that this is one of Ireland’s most decorated-ever athletes, not to mind boxers: along with his Olympic silver, Nevin won two World bronze medals and European gold as well as silver and gold at separate EU Championships; back at home he won five straight Irish Senior Elite titles between 2008 and 2012, and only a wrist injury prevented him from continuing his streak a year later.

All of that feels like a long time ago because it was.

The six years since his European gold in Minsk have sprinkled his hair and stubble with a smidgen of grey, but Nevin is still just 30 and feels as good as new physically.

His mind has matured more perceptibly. Layoffs through injury and out-of-ring issues have hampered his career but afforded him time for introspection.

That’s a double-edged sword for a fighter: Nevin has become not only a thinking man outside of his sporting domain, but a thinking man within it. Gone is the instinctive, cocksure connoisseur who purveyed a mastery of his craft. Replacing him between the ropes, for now at least, is an altogether more unsure protagonist, acutely cognisant of both the time he has lost and the little time he has left to start making moves in the pro game.

“I was flying for weeks in the build-up to this fight. In there tonight, then, I was 12% of the guy that I’ve been in the gym, in sparring. Again, no excuses.

You can’t help that,” Nevin says with a nod in this direction. “Ron can’t help that,” he adds with a nod towards ‘The Body Man’.

“No one can help that but me. That’s my responsibility. I have to put that right.

“Being honest…” Nevin pauses, seemingly consulting with his shoes. “I think it’s all in my head…

“It’s definitely in my head.

I’ve done a six-week training camp here. I’ve been brilliant in sparring. People can use the excuse, ‘Ah, well, you’ve been lying around for seven hours, it’s a swing bout, you’ve been sitting around all day.’ But so has the guy who was fighting against me, you know? The waiting around isn’t an excuse. He was waiting the same amount of time as me.

John Joe Nevin in Cusack Park Nevin celebrates his Olympic silver medal in Cusack Park in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s up here,” Nevin says, pointing towards his head. “It comes down to that, I think.

“If I can just get a bit of momentum, if I can a bit of good luck — we’ve a good bit of luck going now without any injuries thanks be to God, touch wood — then things will start to work.

“It’s like… You saw me fight as an amateur. I kept getting better as tournaments went on. In the Olympics, I kept getting better as I went through the rounds. That’s the way of it: you find your range, you find your rhythm, and it starts to fall into place.”

What makes it all the more impossible for Nevin to forget how good he was, and possibly could be again, is the progress of his former amateur contemporaries.

Take London 2012 alone: his quarter-final opponent, Oscar Valdez of Mexico, is currently the WBO World featherweight champion.

His semi-final opponent, Lázaro Álvarez of Cuba, was the reigning amateur world champion and has gone on to win two more World Championship golds and a world silver in the unpaid ranks, also pocketing Olympic bronze in Rio.

His conqueror in a close and thrilling final, English rival and friend Luke Campbell who fought on the same Philly bill, is currently pencilled in to face pound-for-pound star Vasyl Lomachenko this summer for the Ukrainian’s WBO and WBA titles as well as the vacant WBC strap. Nevin had previously beaten Campbell in the 2009 EUs before losing a highly contentious countback at the 2011 Worlds.

London Olympic Games - Day 15 Luke Campbell and John Joe Nevin, good friends but boxing rivals, pose with their Olympic medals in 2012. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

(SP)US-LAS VEGAS-BOXING-WBO-FEATHERWEIGHT TITLE Oscar Valdez celebrates his world-title victory in 2016. Valdez is set to defend his WBO World featherweight belt against Carl Frampton later this year. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“I swear, I look at how well some of my old rivals are doing – rivals who I beat – and I nearly cry to myself,” he exclaims.

I look at Campbell, I look at Valdez, all of these good, good guys — good men but men that I’ve boxed and I’ve beaten — and… I mean… Just look at them. It’s unbelievable. It’s tough to take. It’s tough for me to see that.

“But a huge amount of it is just down to bad luck — proper bad luck. It’s not down to much else.

“What happened my legs didn’t help,” he adds almost flippantly, referring to the infamous 2014 incident during which both of his legs were shattered during a family dispute, a relative leaving him wheelchair-bound after seeing to him with a golf club.

Nevin was initially told there was a fair chance he wouldn’t walk again, not to mention box.

He lists a litany of other injuries — hands, ribs, one to his chest which cost him a headline slot at Philadelphia’s prestigious Fillmore venue — before returning to the damage he sustained to his pins, which until 2014 had been such a key component of his ring arsenal.

“I had two surgeries. I got back training three months after the first one, or something like that. Then, I kept the rods in for about a year, maybe 15, 16 months. Then, I had to go and get them removed because we were having problems training — the bulge of the bar was making it impossible for my legs.

I was crying from the pain. The bar wouldn’t affect the likes of someone not doing a sport, but the bulge was coming through my legs after every session. I couldn’t skip, I couldn’t run, so we’re working in the pool doing these therapy sessions, and there were tears in my eyes.

“The one thing is, even with all that pain, I could see what I was doing it for. I know why I was going through it — it was to get back boxing.

But when you get the pins removed, obviously they have to come out the way they went in. So they make a fresh wound, you get stitches, you’re back on crutches. I couldn’t do anything. It was just like getting your legs broken all over again.

“We can take a positive from all of that, maybe: it gave all areas of my body time to heal after a long, tough amateur career, so I should come back as a better fighter. But I need momentum to get into the swing of things; I need to develop that confidence in myself.

“George Groves once told me to keep learning by the fight, look at what you’ve done and learn from your mistakes, build on it. I just need the fights!”

Supporters in Mullingar watch John Joe Nevin's final on the big screen Supporters in Mullingar watch Nevin's Olympic final in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The situation with regards to his getting those fights, says Ron Boddy, “is that he’s got several people who are very keen on him. We work with Cameron Duncan, so we’ve got some stuff happening there. Obviously, we’re working with Eddie Hearn and we’ve got some stuff happening there.

“It’s just a matter of tying it all together to make it all work, and he will then get the momentum. It’s as simple as that, really.”

Well-connected within the Irish-American community through his team in Philly, Nevin sold a bucket-load of tickets for Hearn’s show — supposedly somewhere in the region of $30,000′s worth, all told.

And while not everyone who bought those tickets stuck around to see the Mullingar man in action post-main event, Hearn was an interested observer at ringside, joining the Irish media in foregoing the start of Tevin Farmer and Jono Carroll’s press-conference natter.

“Yeah, but I’m afraid he didn’t even see 12% of what I’m capable of,” Nevin admits. “Hopefully he saw enough to say, ‘Right, there’s something there.’”

Adds Boddy: “John’s had some top sparring over here — he’s been sparring against some really top-level guys. And he’s been handling them pretty-much easily.

And one or two of them, because he’s handled them easily, they’ve come back to spar him again, to turn him over. And he’s more than met the task — let’s put it that way. If you speak to any Philly fighter, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Mr. Nevin…’ You know, they’ll all have words for him.

“He’s real, you know? And he then goes in tonight, and it’s just half in his mind that things aren’t quite clicking, that he’s not quite kicking on.”

inpho_00880252 Nevin seeks momentum in the pro ranks.

“If you saw Hank Lundy’s fight with [Avery] Sparrow there tonight”, Nevin interjects, “firstly what a class fight. But secondly, if you saw my sparring with Sparrow, you’d think it was a different John Joe Nevin to the one you saw in the ring.

“You can blame waiting around for seven or eight hours not knowing when you’re getting in the ring, but these are things you have to deal with. These are things I’ve dealt with in the past as an amateur, so I should be ready for them — I should be able to deal with them.

My mind was very weak today. I wasn’t ready for it.

“But it’s about what you do when you’re down…

“I’ve been looking at Reece Bellotti and I’ve seen how well I’ve been working in the gym with him — he’s a top-of-the-range guy. And he’s had a few unlucky problems as well. But he just keeps smiling,” says Nevin, sporting his own.

“He just keeps coming back into the gym every day because he’s a fighter, and that’s what we do.

“Reece didn’t quite come through in his last couple of big fights, but he’s back in the gym still. That’s what a champion does, and that’s what I want to do.

“I want to push on. I need to push on.”

John Joe Nevin Nevin lands a right on Albert Candalaria in 2014. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

With that, one of the bouncers pops his head in and respectfully calls time on our chat, the rest of the bar all but emptied.

Nevin, who is driven off in a jeep after a handshake and a hearty thanks, still has a bit of time on his side to roll back the years.

For now, the challenge is to get on a roll in the first place.

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‘They were worried about getting an extra inch on the soles of his feet… I was like, ‘Ye’re f****d!”

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