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Dublin: 15°C Thursday 29 October 2020

How one of the Dropkick Murphys became a key figure in Joe Ward's career, and Irish boxing

Punk rock star Ken Casey will co-promote the Irish boxing great in the professional ranks.

Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys leading the crowd at 'Rock im Park' festival in Nuremberg, Bavaria, back in June.
Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys leading the crowd at 'Rock im Park' festival in Nuremberg, Bavaria, back in June.
Image: DPA/PA Images

“And I’ve lost my leg
“Climbing up the top sails
“I’ve lost my leg!”

Its lyrics snarled in their Bostonian vehemence and accompanied by a foot-thumping amalgamation of mandolin, accordion, and power chords, ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ shot to prominence upon the release of Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir crime thriller The Departed in 2006.

In the intervening 13 years, the rousing Dropkick Murphys hit has taken on a life of its own: it’s used frequently by the NFL’s New England Patriots, by the University of Notre Dame’s ‘Fighting Irish’ football and basketball outfits, by the Ireland, Connacht and London Irish rugby teams; it has featured on television shows spanning from The Simpsons to Lobster Wars, from Shameless to Derry Girls; it is not only an unofficial anthem of Boston, but a psalm for wider Irish America.

And then there’s boxing.

At a conservative estimate, half of all ring walks involving Irish boxers since 2006 have been made to that same riffage, be they shipping up to Tijuana, New York or Good Counsel GAA Club in Drimnagh.

And so it’s only fitting that the Massachusetts man who first put the words to music and now belts it all out for a living has almost by accident become a key player in several Irish boxers’ pursuit of both belts and a living.

It has all come squared circle.

“It’s kind of funny now,” says Ken Casey, the burgeoning boxing promoter still known to most as the bassist and co-frontman of Dropkick Murphys.

A lot of times when the opponents come into Boston to fight a hometown guy, they might have a manager or trainer that says, ‘We want Shipping Up to Boston for the ring walk’. So now it’s not just the Irish kids who walk out to that song, but the Guatemalans come out to it too! They try to earn a little local favouritism.

“Sometimes, during a fight card, it’ll be on the list four or five times on the same night and I have to say, ‘Just once, just once…’” he laughs.

What I’ll say about that song is thank God it’s only two minutes and 10 seconds long, so it’s over before it starts!

(Warning: the below clip contains crude language)

Casey was raised in Milton, just outside Boston — a town which, when he was growing up, was the most Irish in America per the US census; all of his grandparents hailed from these shores. One of his grandfathers, an amateur boxer, first exposed him to the sweet science when he was “about three”.

That overlap would become evident in his music many years later: Murphys include among their nine-album back catalogue songs about boxing’s first superstar, Irish-Bostonian John L. Sullivan (1858–1918) — the last-ever heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing and the first-ever lineal heavyweight champion of gloved prizefighting — as well as the great ‘Irish’ Micky Ward, whose famous left hook to the body adorns the album cover of the band’s breakthrough 2005 release The Warrior’s Code.

“Micky wore his heart on his sleeve and he put his head in the way of some shots to fire some of his own”, Casey gushes of his dear friend, “but it’s how he carries himself as a person that would make you think every young boxer should spend some time in the presence of Micky Ward.

“But how I really got involved in boxing was that Danny O’Connor — Irish-American kid, an Olympic alternate (substitute for the 2008 USA team), two-time national amateur champion — was a personal friend. He was training down in Texas but he was trying to sell tickets and promote himself back home in Boston. I just thought, ‘I’m going to help him.’ I kind of got involved in helping him to steer his career.

“I never let being too busy get in the way of making a decision”, Casey chuckles, “much to my detriment oftentimes.

And, eh, be careful what you ask for in boxing, right? It’s like quicksand. Now, all of these years later I’ve got what, 15 or so fighters, and I probably put more work into boxing than I do anything else in my life.

“We’re very fortunate that the band has unbelievable, loyal people that have been with us for 10, 15, 20 years working for us, so I’ve been able to let a lot of the good people working for us do a lot of the day-to-day grind stuff that I used to do for the band.

“Boxing actually reminds me of the early days of the band. And having the chance to get my hands dirty again kind of brought back my entrepreneurial, promotional spirit, so to speak.

“But it is a labour of love, and it’s a lot more work than I ever intended — that’s for damn sure.”

Untitled Casey on the mic during a Murphys Boxing event.

Untitled Casey (R) and Irish-American boxing legend Micky Ward.

Casey’s approach to life is to “have a good, strong cup of coffee and go get ‘em”.

Case in point: last May, following a motorcycle accident which caused severe damage to the C6 vertebra in his neck and the loss of feeling in one of his hands, he underwent surgery. A week later, and naturally against the doctor’s advice, he showed up in Cleveland to begin the Murphys’ tour. The sensation was yet to return to his hand and so playing bass would be out of the question — and remains so as of last month — but there was nothing wrong with his pipes so he sung away.

He only founded the band as a means of winning a bet more than two decades prior: dared by a work colleague to open for his own group on three weeks’ notice, Casey assembled a collective which took its name from a local alcohol-detoxification facility which was run by Dr. John ‘Dropkick’ Murphy — a former pro wrestler and an actual, qualified doctor. The only people present for the Murphys’ first two gigs were close friends of the band members, and Casey claims quite seriously that they showed up “strictly” to take the piss.

Vieilles Charrues 2017 - Dropkick Murphys Press Conference Casey being interviewed in France in 2017. Source: Reynaud Julien/APS-Medias/ABACA

He’s also a restauranteur and bar owner, but his role in the wider Boston community greatly supersedes the provision of tunes, grub and pints. Through his organisation, The Claddagh Fund, Casey and the Murphys have helped to raise millions of dollars for underfunded charities in their region. In 2016, Casey and the band received the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps’ Embracing the Legacy Award for their years’ worth of efforts on behalf of various organisations. “Charity work is like the real work,” he maintains. Everything else is supplementary, a privilege.

Even one of his pursuits which, in many ways, is the antithesis of charity: the boxing business.

Six years ago, Casey established Murphys Boxing — his Boston-based promotional outfit which has rapidly become the industry leader in the New England area. His frequent fight cards — including the famous annual St Patrick’s Day Clash, the fourth instalment of which took place this year – are known for their fan-friendly atmosphere and are often de-facto headlined by a full Dropkick Murphys concert.

Rock on the Ring Casey shares a chorus with a fan in Germany. Source: Thomas Frey

A link-up with trainer Paschal Collins, who lived in Boston with his then-future world-champion brother Steve in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and shares several mutual friends with Casey, has seen several high-level operators from these shores traverse the Atlantic to fight under the Murphys umbrella: Cork light-middleweight Spike O’Sullivan, Mayo light-welterweight Ray Moylette and Wexford heavyweight Niall Kennedy are among those to have amassed huge followings in Boston and surrounding areas; Kennedy faces former US Olympian Devan Vargas — whose last fight was a defeat to current unified heavyweight world champion Andy Ruiz — in a Murphys Boxing headliner tonight (Saturday), while Spike and Moylette are pencilled in for Beantown scraps in the coming weeks.

Within the space of six years, Casey has already cultivated relationships and worked closely with a host of higher-profile promotional organisations such as Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy and Lou DiBella’s DiBella Entertainment, supplying full undercards and even co-promoting ESPN-televised events.

And his open-for-business approach paid dividends quite recently when it was proposed to him by the New York-based DiBella that they embark on an exciting joint venture: Joe Ward.

Joe Ward with Julio Cesar La Cruz 2017 AIBA World Boxing Championships final, Hamburg, Germany: Joe Ward vs Julio Cesar La Cruz of Cuba. Source: Pixathlon/Thomas Balke; ©INPHO/Pixathlon/Thomas Balke/INPHO

Already an Irish sporting great with six European and World Championship medals to his name — three of them continental golds — the 25-year-old southpaw sensationally ditched the amateur vest in June, just a year out from a Tokyo Olympics at which he would have been arguably Ireland’s best medal hope across all sports.

At a private but highly publicised press conference in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel two weeks ago, Moate man Ward confirmed his co-promotional deal with DiBella and Casey.

The former was on hand in Dublin to state his intentions for the departing Irish team captain and even sink a couple of pints afterwards, but the assembled media were told that Casey had felt a bit under the weather as he was about to board his flight and so had decided to stay at home.

“A lot under the weather,” he elaborates. “I’ve been having this thing called vertigo and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It makes you feel like the world’s spinning, but you’re standing still! Remember when you used to get to bed drunk — we called it ‘bed spins’ when you got drunk when you were a little kid. It feels a little bit like that, you know? It’s come and gone probably four times over the last six months, so I don’t know what the fuck is going on. But anyway..

“I’ve had my eye on Joe Ward as a fighter for a long time”, he continues, “but, to be honest with ya, I didn’t think he’d be somebody attainable for me, you know?

“Lou actually came up with the idea, he created the whole ‘team’ aspect to it where we would join forces. Lou’s in New York, I’m in Boston, so we’ve got two major Irish[-influenced] cities where we can all play to our strengths.

“I think sometimes just going with the biggest promoter, or the promoter of the moment, isn’t always the smartest thing. Going with some people who have a genuine interest in you as a human being and as a fighter — and who have a little niche in the boxing market which is perfect for you — is a wiser decision.

And I’m glad that Joe and his management team saw that, because a lot of times a management team especially will go, ‘Ah, go wherever the biggest bucks are!’ But I think Joe’s team saw a number of…let’s call them ’boutique promoters’, and decided to instead choose promoters who would most benefit Joe as an individual and as a fighter.

Adam Glynn, Joe Winters, Joe Ward, Jimmy Payne and Lou DiBella Ward at a press conference in Dublin alongside his management team, trainer and co-promoter. Source: Gary Carr; ©INPHO/Gary Carr/INPHO

One of those to lose out on Ward’s prodigious talent was Eddie Hearn, who through prospective manager Matthew Macklin had all but ironed out a 12-fight, two-year deal around Christmas time before a last-minute hitch in negotiations put the kibosh on the move.

There were no such troubles, however, where Casey was concerned; he wanted not only a legitimate, blue-chip prospect on his books, but a potentially transcendent force who, like Micky Ward before him, would conduct himself in a proper manner on the safe side of the ropes. The younger Ward fit that bill like a dream.

“Listen, it’s absolutely a feather in my cap to have signed Joe. We’re trying to step it up here in Boston in terms of our promotional efforts. We’ve got a casino, now, in Boston, that’s amazing for holding fights.

I’ve got a UFC Fight pass deal so fans around the world can watch our fights — so when Joe fights, people will be able to watch him back in Ireland.

“It just seemed like the timing was right. I love Joe’s team — I love Joe Winters and Adam [Glenn]; it’s nice when you get people who are all on the same wavelength.

“And it’s interesting — the band’s fanbase has always turned out in support of the fighters that we sign. I think, obviously, in building upon the Irish fanbase here in Boston, in America, I know who to turn to, I know where to go in order to really build an Irish fighter in the States.

“Joe Ward is a guy who, in our neck of the woods, should come over and make an immediate impact.

It just makes sense. For instance, I have my charity golf tournament coming up, you know? And I’d like to get Joe to that. I like to promote a fighter as a person as well, and get them to shake the hands and meet the people in my world. I take more of a hands-on, out-of-the-ring approach than most promoters do.

Dropkick Murphys live in London Casey playing with Dropkick Murphys in London. Source: Ryan Dinham

Ward will predominantly train in New York and fight out of both the Big Apple and Boston, from where Casey, DiBella and the Westmeath man’s Times Square management team all believe he can become the face of his sport.

“We’ll be keeping Joe busy — that’s for sure, bud,” Casey assures.

Of course, he’s fairly up the walls himself: Dropkick Murphys are about to embark upon a nationwide tour before heading for Europe in the new year.

“I still gotta make time for Number One because music is what provides for my family,” says their founding member. “I never let boxing come to the detriment of the band — I only let it come to the detriment of my sanity.”

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