'I like the mentality of the Irish fighter - an aggressive style & flair outside the ring'

Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey talks about shipping Irish boxers up to Boston & Corkman Spike O’Sullivan’s bout tonight.

IT SEEMS LIKE the perfect mix: the lead-singer of a Celtic punk band from Boston promoting Irish boxers on the east coast of America. And it’s a case of so far, so good for Ken Casey.

On Saturday night, the Dropkick Murphys frontman and bassist will walk into Agganis Arena, located on the campus of Boston University, and take in a deep breath. Before him will be a litany of TV trucks, cameras, production staff and thousands of paying spectators. The majority will be there to watch the headline act: the highly-anticipated IFB super-middleweight bout between James DeGale and Andre Dirrell.

11070538_819607968121596_4734148915864791337_n Cork's Spike O'Sullivan with Ken Casey (centre, with hat) and the rest of the Dropkick Murphys. Gary Spike O'Sullivan Gary Spike O'Sullivan

Casey has partnered with Al Haymon’s ‘Premier Boxing Champions’ and the event will be screened nationally on NBC (Sky Sports will show it across the UK and Ireland). Haymon is a huge name in boxing circles, mainly known for his handling of Floyd Mayweather’s affairs, his glittering stable of other high-profile names and his mysterious reputation.

It’s been a rapid and prosperous journey for Casey, who started ‘Murphys Boxing’ to cope with the demand and the growing list of fighters on his books.

Fittingly, the pre-fight press conference was held at the city’s iconic Fenway Park. In a city dripping with sporting history and prestige, boxing is now back amongst the heavyweights. And Casey has played a huge role in its resurgence.

murphysboxing / Instagram

“My grandfather was an avid boxing fan and an amateur boxer himself. He turned me onto the sport from about the age of three and the band has always had connections too. We have a song about John L. Sullivan (the bare-knuckle champion) and another one about Micky Ward (former WBU light-welterweight champion). But how I actually got into promoting was through my friend Danny O’Connor, who’s a boxer from here. I was watching how hard it was for him – training in Texas, trying to sell tickets for his fights up here, he had a newborn baby and, like, how do you sell tickets when you’re in Texas? I thought I’d just do some social media, promoting him to the Dropkicks fans, and the next thing you know is that five years later I’m immersed in boxing.”

On Saturday’s undercard is another of Casey’s fighters – Cork middleweight Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan – who takes on Melvin Betancourt for the WBA-NABA title. The 30 year-old has blossomed since aligning himself with Casey and put on a show at Madison Square Garden in March, racking up an impressive TKO win over Colombian Milton Nunez. That night, the legendary Micky Ward was in his corner. With big names offering their support, O’Sullivan’s star is on the rise. Another victory this weekend and more high-profile bouts are inevitable.

Irish Boxing / YouTube

For Casey though, it all makes sense. Good people, he says, are drawn to good people. Uninterested in the dark and murky politics of boxing, he detaches himself from it and concentrates instead on just helping guys he likes.

“I have no desire to be involved with anyone who’s a piece of shit in any way. I don’t care if you’re the next Muhammad Ali – if you’re not someone who I like, I’ve got no time for you. Micky (Ward) is a great friend of mine and I didn’t write a song about him because of what he did in the ring. I wrote a song about Micky because of who he is outside the ring, how great he is and how much he does for charity and how he’s just a solid individual.”

11059508_818140758268317_728450310592704095_n O'Sullivan with his team, including Micky Ward, after his victory over Milton Nunez at Madison Square Garden in March. Gary Spike O'Sullivan Gary Spike O'Sullivan

“I kind of had the same feeling with Spike that I had with Danny (O’Connor) – I wanted to help the guy out and see what I could do for him. He’s a great guy to work with – he’s funny, he’s everything you want in a fighter. He brings it inside the ring but outside it, he’s personable and respectful, he gives a great interview, he treats people with respect. I have a grassroots, old-fashioned approach to it and guys like Spike fit perfectly into that model.”

But Casey is wary of nailing everything to one mast. He’s not just interested in representing Irish fighters but does admit to being organically drawn to their personalities and boxing style.

“I’m not going out, per se, trying to find and support Irish boxers only, but I don’t know any Russians – know what I mean? Spike came about because of mutual friends – people from Boston, who have lived in Boston but who are from Ireland. It’s kind of natural. I also like the mentality of the Irish fighter. I think most are known to have an aggressive style, which I like, and for the most part, they also have a flair outside of the ring.”

Independence Day Boston Pops Ken Casey, centre, on a regular working day as lead-singer with Dropkick Murphys. Michael Dwyer / AP/Press Association Images Michael Dwyer / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

The east coast of the United States has a long, rich history in embracing Irish fighters. In the early 1930s, Boston wrestling promoter Paul Bowser enticed an army private from Cork – Dan O’Mahony – to return with him to America, promising stardom. In 1935, O’Mahony became world champion with local, Irish-dominated communities providing relentless and furious support.

Bowser repeated the trick shortly after and introduced Kerryman Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey to Irish audiences in Boston and beyond. Casey was also crowned world champion.

Decades later, Steve Collins would base himself in Boston for many years, prior to becoming WBO champion in the mid-nineties.

Casey acknowledges that the substantial links between the city and Ireland will remain forever embedded in Boston’s fabric though it doesn’t carry the same weight or significance that it used to.

It’s post-9/11 America so you don’t have as many Irish living here. As it becomes more and more gentrified, the two most expensive neighbourhoods in the city are now Charlestown and South Boston – the two biggest Irish enclaves.  So it’s widened the scope and it’s a little bit different. It’s not as easy as it was. An Irishman can’t just walk over here, get off the plane and have a fan-base waiting for him. They have to go out and earn it. Spike O’Sullivan has definitely earned it. Jason Quigley (super-middleweight from Donegal), when he’s with me, down in the coffeeshop shaking hands with all these people and then going into the ring and knocking people out in the first round, that’s going to get you a fan-base. But it’s not just about your citizenship.”

Still, O’Sullivan will have plenty of support on Saturday. And Casey says that even though he’s affable and well-liked away from the ring, it’s his fighting abilities more than anything else that have won him so many admirers.

“He’s a puncher. Nothing wins people over more than someone who’s coming in to knock someone out. I’ve done a few of his fights in these 900-capacity venues – great rooms for boxing – and in places like that, you can hear when someone’s a puncher. When one of his shots lands, you can hear the entire room go ‘Oooooohhhh’! You feel it, you hear it.”

Gary 'Spike' O'Sullivan James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s the whole package. He goes out and entertains inside and outside the ring. I always say that in boxing you have your casual fans. You have your fans that watch Pacquiao and cheer for him but they don’t cheer for him the way they cheer for a guy they know, someone who they feel is a personal friend. And it’s like that with the band too. I feel that probably 75% of the band’s fan-base has met me at some stage and that’s what makes people be more loyal to you.”

So, what now for Casey and his new enterprise? It’s successful, it’s expanding and it’s taking up a lot of his time. What’s the long-term plan or is there one at all?

“I used to run a small record label when the band was starting out and sometimes it was such a headache. But I looked at it like ‘I’ve made an obligation to these small bands that I’m going to release their music and I need to do it or I’ll let the bands down’ and  I feel the same way about the fighters. If I really want to stick my head in the game, I can’t treat it like a part-time job. Because it’s a full-time job for Spike O’Sullivan. It’s a full-time job for Danny O’Connor. So, for me, it’s a very taxing second job.”

Mark Higgins / YouTube

And there’s a neat crossover between of all of this and the Dropkick Murphys. Owing much of its success to its prominent role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the band’s rousing ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ has been adopted by many fighters as their walk-in music.

But it won’t be blaring from the speakers when O’Sullivan makes his entrance to the Aggannis Arena on Saturday. Casey is a little more subtle than that.

“I’d almost be a little embarrassed if my guys went out to my songs. But on the last show I did, two Dominicans both came out to ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’!”

“Our songs kind of translate to fighters anyway – a lot of them do walk in to our music. I’m usually trying to dissuade fighters from using our music but I’ll tell you where it has been good – when I’m trying to get TV to Boston. Fox Sports was coming here to do a couple of shows and we were haggling over stuff and I said ‘Well, you can use the song on your TV show’.”

The song is significant. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics describe a determined sailor who has ‘climbed up the topsails’, despite his obvious disadvantages.

A bit like Casey, actually.

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