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'Here I am at the Olympics, halfway through the 1st round, and I'm thinking: 'What the 'f*** is going on?''

Ireland’s only boxer at the 2000 Olympics, Cork’s Michael Roche, reveals why his 16-year dream turned into a nightmare, and how it followed him home from Sydney.

2000 week

This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

Here, Gavan Casey tracks down Ireland’s only boxer at the Sydney Olympics, Michael Roche, who two decades later reveals how his dream became a nightmare and wound up contributing to a significant change in Irish boxing and Irish Olympic sport.

“THIS ISN’T GOING out live, now, is it?” asks Michael Roche a few minutes after answering his phone at his home in Blarney, Co. Cork.

“It’s funny”, he says, “I was just thinking of the late RTÉ journalist Pat McAuliffe. Pat was a lovely, lovely man. And how he got the phone number of my hotel room on the day I qualified for the Olympics, on 19 March [2000], I’ll never know.

“We were just back in the rooms, getting ready to go for a bit of grub or whatever and the phone rang. I think we had a 93-second conversation. And then he said: ‘Mike, just have a listen back to that, there, now. This is going on the Nine O’Clock News on RTÉ.’ He gave me a listen to the recording. I says: ‘Pat, no way.’ And there was just silence. ‘You’re not putting that on the news,’ I told him again.

“‘Why, Mike?’ he says. ‘You’ve just qualified for the Olympics, it’s national news and people will want to hear from you!’

“‘Not a hope,’ I said to him, and I wouldn’t allow him put it on — it never aired. Hearing the sound of my own voice… Jesus, no way!

“Looking back, now, I probably should have just let it play away, but look… Pat and I used to laugh about it whenever we met. Getting my hotel-room number and all… He did it, boy! Fair play to him.”

michael-roche-1342000 Michael Roche poses on the northside of Cork City ahead of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

It’s been 20 years since Roche’s voice was last heard on such a national scale. Ireland’s sole boxing representative Down Under, bloodied but not yet bandaged, gave a shoulder-slumped post-fight interview to another great Corkonian RTÉ reporter, Tony O’Donoghue, seconds after exiting the Sydney Games at the first hurdle.

Minutes later, Roche provided a fairly curt assessment of his performance to the print journalists who had assembled in Darling Harbour for his opening, and ultimately closing, bout. “Waited all my life for this,” he mumbled, words no longer of great interest to him. “I just thought I’d do a little better. But I didn’t box the way I should have. Maybe through no fault of my own — I don’t know.”

He knew, all right — he just wasn’t sure how much he should give out about it.

***

Raised in Fairhill on the northside of Cork city, Roche joined the famed Sunnyside Boxing Club just off Blarney Street while he could still just about count his age on two hands. And those hands weren’t long doing damage: before he turned 16, he had won six county titles, six provincial titles, and four All-Ireland Juvenile Championships. He added national U18 and Intermediate honours to the cabinet before graduating to the Senior ranks in 1990, “but it didn’t really happen until ’97,” he says — ‘it’ being his long-awaited breakthrough.

And what a breakthrough: Roche went on to win five consecutive Irish Senior titles at light-middleweight (71kg) between 1997 and 2001, finally living up to his underage potential and establishing himself as one of the finest amateur fighters in the country. He was, by pugilistic standards, a late bloomer having not hit his purple patch until his mid-to-late twenties.

However, between ’97 and ’99 particularly, his being a fully fledged adult was something of a disadvantage on the boxing front: work commitments dictated that he was for the most part unable to compete for Ireland internationally; he and his wife, Lorraine, had a mortgage and other bills to pay.

Reality tended to take precedence over his sporting dream until the turn of the millennium when reality and dreams melded to such an extent that Roche still finds it difficult to fathom.

michael-roche-national-finals-731997 Roche in action during the 1997 71kg Irish Senior final. Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

“I moved to Pfizer in December 1999,” he says. “And I suppose, look, outside of everybody who helped me along the way — and I got great help from so many people throughout my boxing career — only for Pfizers jumping on board when they did, I would have never gotten to the Olympics.

“Oh my God, you don’t know the half of it. I mean, like… Pffftt… I remember after winning the Seniors in January 2000, we went to UL for a training camp. Pfizer told me to take time off; they’d pay my wage, pay my mortgage, the whole lot; I’d nothing to worry about.

“Billy Walsh was only breaking onto the Irish coaching team at the time, and Billy was asking me: ‘Michael, what’s going on? You’re in good form. What’s happening with ya?’ I told him Pfizers were paying my bills and everything. He couldn’t believe the difference in me. It was as though, even psychologically, the whole thing turned for me. It was unnatural.

“And that was what nailed the Olympic thing for me: time off with pay. Genuinely, Billy couldn’t believe it. He’d say, ‘You’re after coming out of yourself, you’re more confident’, and I didn’t even realise it at the time. It’s only when I stand back, now, and think about what he was saying: ‘You’re a different man altogether…’

“But I mean, that’s why the grants are there for them [athletes] nowadays, and that’s what the High Performance is about.

“Billy would travel down to Cork a lot and we’d have a few drinks, and we still talk about it.”

Suddenly, despite not quite being one of the “golden boys” as Roche puts it, the Olympic dream was well and truly on for the 28-year-old Leesider. It was one he had harboured since he was 12, and finally, he could afford to really go after it.

“Sixteen years,” he recalls. “I suppose the way it kicked in was that Kieran Joyce would have been the idol in the club when I was growing up.

Kieran was going to the ’84 Olympics, and I’ll never forget it: Kieran was sweating tremendously and he had a big blanket over him. I was looking at Kieran; I was just skipping away — we idolised Kieran, like. And Albie [Murphy] was the coach at the time — he was the one who told Kieran what to do! And Albie turned around to me and said: ‘That’ll be you one day.’ And from that day in 1984, it was in my mind. It was always there. 16 years…

kieran-joyce-651988 Two-time Irish Olympian Kieran Joyce, Roche's idol. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“And thank God we got there,” adds Roche, who qualified for Sydney at the third time of asking, via the 2000 Chemistry Cup in Germany.

“It wasn’t what we wanted it to be when we did get there, but sure look, it is what it is…”

***

“I used to meet Jimmy Magee in the Olympic village before I’d go training, and Lorraine, my wife, used to meet Jimmy and have coffee with him every morning,” Roche recalls. “But Jimmy knew well that there was absolutely no training camp done for me ahead of the Olympics. Nothing.

“I qualified in March and I think it was in late March or early April, Kieran and John Joyce organised a meeting with the IABA. Kieran and I went up to Dublin to meet them. Three officers and Nicolas Cruz [trainer] showed up. The president, I was told on the day, couldn’t be bothered. And I was told they were organising training camps in France, Mauritius — all sorts of names of places, they were floating. There was actually nothing done, after.

And Jimmy Magee knew there was nothing done for me — he knew I’d been essentially left to fend for myself out there. And he said to me: ‘You’ll always be an Olympian.’ I run off after hearing him say that and I’m on top of the world, of course. But he knew what was coming in the back of his mind… And not even the back of his mind!

jimmy-magee-21121999 The great Jimmy Magee. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“And Billy Walsh knew it as well,” Roche adds. “If Billy had been a bit more established on the coaching team by then, who knows? Look, as we know, the whole High Performance thing came shortly afterwards. I would have been involved with Billy during the conception of it — well, I used to be talking with him about it and I was very excited about it. And I’m delighted it’s there now for boxers, for athletes.

“But I’d be disappointed that… Okay, not the High Performance as such but if there was something, anything done along those lines for me… A proper training camp, even. And I can’t understand it to this day [why there wasn't]. The media — the Examiner, the Echo: they didn’t print anything on it. And I just can’t understand it.

I remember I was told before I got into the ring out there, ‘Whatever happens, don’t say this afterwards…’ And I know, now, why. But I was told not to open my mouth because it would have looked like sour grapes back in the day.

“I had so many people who helped me to get there, who supported me: friends, family, work and so on. And then this is what happens. It’s just disappointing, you know?”

Roche’s 16-year dream was ended in eight painful minutes.

Peacocking Turkish youngster Firat Karagollu saw to that, brashly bludgeoning and bloodying the Cork man over what was a four-round distance at the time.

It was 7-1 to the cocksure Firat after the first verse.

12-3 after the second.

14-4.

17-4.

Ding, ding, ding.

Slán leat. Thanks for coming.

firat-karagollu-and-michael-roche Roche bows out in Sydney. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Roche had officially landed just one scoring punch per round on average. The nature of his defeat was more difficult to compute than defeat itself.

The one-sidedness of it made more sense to the naked eye when it was brought to light that the Irish camp had believed Firat was, like Roche, a southpaw, when in actual fact the Turk boxed from an orthodox stance, i.e. with a right-handed backhand; furious trainer Nicolas Cruz publicly laid the blame for that particular oversight at the feet of the Irish government, citing boxing’s lack of funding as cause for what had become its fairly rapid descent to farce.

Two decades on, Roche laughs off the southpaw-versus-orthodox mix-up: “That’s right, yeah”, he says, “but sure…”

The rest of it, however, he remembers well, and he still can’t make head nor tail of it. That’s where the laughing stops.

“I keep going back to Billy but we’ve talked about this as well, like. It was the one time in my life where I went forward in a fight — I decided to do it on the biggest platform of my entire career,” he says, still perplexed by his decision to turn aggressor which was completely at odds with his natural style.

“There were four or five hundred Irish people in there singing The Fields of Athenry, the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck, and I just wanted to go forward.

“He even said it to me afterwards, the Turkish guy: he was shocked. He had been expecting that he would have to come to me. I walked straight into him and I just got caught with so many punches. Left, right, every shot in the book.

“I felt absolutely great going into the ring. I was buzzing. And I just got carried away in there — I got caught up in the atmosphere, the whole thing. I’d literally never gone forward in a fight before in my life. And sure…it wasn’t to be…

It’s totally understandable that I got carried away, too. There are things in place, now, these days, that would prevent that from happening. Sports psychology [a lack thereof] — that’s all it was. When Andy Lee went to the next Olympics, that had all changed, you know? And of course I’m glad it changed, but I kick myself that at the time, it wasn’t there for me.

michael-roche Nicolas Cruz addresses Roche in the corner. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“It’s just looking back on it now, it’s disappointing,” Roche adds.

“There had been one training camp organised for me before going out there, which was up in Breen’s Gym in Belfast. Martin Power [IABA treasurer, stalwart], who was a lovely, lovely man, organised that. I sparred Neil Sinclair and I came out of that with a broken rib at the back.

“Then I trained for four weeks once I got over there, in Newcastle in New South Wales. I was sparring an Australian — Jamie Pittman was his name.”

Pittman, who himself went on to become an Olympian and challenge for a world title as a professional, is now Boxing Australia’s head of development. He was just 16 at the time, and provided Roche with the vast majority of his pre-Olympic sparring outside of Bernard Dunne, an Olympic reserve who was 14kg lighter than his Irish team-mate.

The IABA didn’t lift a fucking finger for me. They actually did nothing. Even after the meeting that myself and Kieran Joyce had with them in Dublin, where Mauritius was mentioned as well as Germany, England and France, there was not a thing done. I was fit for a national championship, but for the biggest stage in the world? For fuck’s sake. No international experience, nothing. The biggest stage on Earth — you have to be physically and mentally prepared. Physically, I maybe was 50%. Mentally? 5%.

michael-roche-372000 Roche sips water after a skipping session. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

As for whether it was ever explained to him why the training camps abroad never came to fruition, Roche replies curtly: “No, no.” He adds: “And I know now that Pfizer would have picked up the tab anyway — but that’s easier said than done, too. The horse was after bolting at this stage.

“Look, I’m an Olympian and that’s the way to look at it. The rest is just in the back of my mind.”

Mind you, it was all on the tip of his tongue when he stepped back out beneath the top rope in Sydney, his head fried.

“I remember speaking to Tony O’Donoghue and for the life of me I don’t know why I bit my tongue, but I did,” he says. “I just kept it to myself.

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“And the thing is, all of these thoughts kicked in even in the first round when I knew I was getting caught but I kept coming forward. The crowd were still singing and… Jesus, it’s just sickening. Sickening.

“Sickening is the word,” he adds with a rueful laugh.

I knew I was going about it the wrong way and I’m like, ‘Jesus, what am I doing? I’m getting carried away with the crowd.’ Here I am at the Olympics, halfway through the first round, and I’m thinking: ‘What the fuck is going on?!’ And I just keep going forward! I can’t understand it! I’d never done it and the one time I decide to do it is on the biggest stage of them all.

Those questions continued to bounce around his brain during the long flight home, and for some time afterwards back in Cork.

His dream crushed, reality became torturous:

Mentally, it was a huge downfall. It was a killer just trying to live with it. I didn’t touch a gym for a few months afterwards. Even just trying to get fit to be able to go back into a gym and do what I had been doing — I couldn’t. It was soul-destroying… What can I say? Hero to zero, that’s how it went. There was no gradual drop-off.

“Bottle it — bottle the whole lot up. Soul destroyed, bottle it up.” Roche chuckles, recognising in retrospect the lunacy of the mostly male predilection towards suppressing heartbreak instead of addressing it. “Without doubt, that made it worse. Sure it multiplies it tenfold.

For months, the wife would ask what’s wrong and the answer would be ‘nothing’. But really, I felt that with everybody who had helped me all my life, all through my career — friends, family, the whole lot — I had let them down. I felt like I had just let everybody down. It was like the rug was pulled from under my feet.

“It was just to go over there and do that — something I had never done before in my career… And to not even give myself a fighting chance…

“Even with the job, like, I had only been working at Pfizer for three, four months by March, the time of the qualifier. And for them to give me that much time off and for me to go out and perform like that, then… Them alone — I felt like I had left them down.

“That’s just the way you feel. Unfortunately, that’s the way we’re made.”

***

michael-roche-372000 Roche takes a drive prior to his departure for Sydney in 2000. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Roche says he’s glad that professional help is now more readily available to athletes who find themselves in such post-defeat depths of despair. And while he didn’t personally seek it out at the time, he wound up inadvertently receiving it; he was still on the scene for the early stages of Irish boxing’s seismic culture shift.

But even though his in-ring woe had been a major catalyst for the systemic overhaul that followed under Billy Walsh, Gary Keegan and Zaur Antia, some of the new-agey stuff introduced in the shadow of Sydney still nearly gave him the gawks to begin with.

“I remember being in UL the following season for a training camp and Brendan Hackett was there doing sports psychology,” Roche says. “I’d never had it and I’d never bought into it. And Brendan used to tell us: ‘Any time you’re having a problem, have a board meeting with yourself.’ I was probably more senior than him [in the Irish setup] and I’m thinking, ‘Fucking eejit, what’s he on about?’

“We used to go out for a run in the morning at half-past six and I was always the first out and first back — for the simple reason that I just wanted to go back to bed and not because I was a good runner. And I’ll never forget, the Reynolds boys [brothers Stephen and Alan] would have been in the Irish team at the time and it’s not that they were lazy, it’s just that they were heavier boys so they were a bit slower and they’d usually be at the back of the pack. And there was one morning about halfway through camp where I found myself back there with them. One of them goes, ‘Fuck it, Rochey, come on, what are you doing back here? Have a board meeting with yourself!’

“And do you know what? It actually made me fucking laugh, but I did. And it put me back into the spot again and I got back to the top — I got there. So, from that day on, I bought into Brendan Hackett’s ways of sport psychology. It’s huge — for sport, for life, I think. You have to have it.

“Look, it just wasn’t there the year before. But I still got it at the end of the day, I suppose, is one way to look at it.”

brendan-hackett Renowned sports psychologist Brendan Hackett. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In 2001, for the fifth consecutive year, Roche was crowned Irish champion at light-middleweight, besting John Duddy for the second final on the spin.

He went on to represent Ireland at the Worlds in Belfast that summer, bowing out in the preliminary round to Georgia’s Anatoliy Kavtaradze. By then, though, there had been a couple of knocks on the door from Father Time: the injuries were no longer getting better of their own volition.

Like most practitioners of his sport, varying degrees of pain and discomfort would follow Roche into retirement for a couple of years until his body was able to regroup.

His decision to hang up the gloves on his 30th birthday got lost somewhat in the fact that his 30th fell on 9/11, but the following 19 years of near radio silence make for enough evidence that he wouldn’t have craved much of a fuss anyway.

Mind you, he got one in July 2016 when Cork and Irish boxing convened to honour one of their greats at an event in his hometown. Watched on by his proud son, Shane, Roche thanked his wife, Lorraine, for her sacrifices during the boxing portion of his career, and paid an emotional tribute to his late parents.

And for all of his justifiable gripes about Sydney and the lead-up, perhaps the highlight of 21 years in the ring was being able to show his mother and father around the Olympic village during what was, for them, the trip of a lifetime.

However, “maybe the best seven years of my sporting career”, he says, were spent involved in soccer with Shane. “I dunno. I could give a kid confidence — I knew I could do that — but I know nothing about soccer,” he says. “There comes an age, then, where he’s 14 or 15, and obviously I stepped back.

“Boxing is all I know. And we’ll never know everything, but boxing is everything I know.”

michael-roche-and-john-duddy Roche in action against John Duddy during the 2001 Irish Senior final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Roche, entering his 21st year at Pfizer where he is an enhanced process operator, is plainly being unkind to himself with that assessment. He’s “still hoping to get back into the game”, however, and loved every second of a spell during which he was able to lend a hand at his club, Sunnyside, a few years back.

In 2013, a permanent switch back to boxing seemed to be on the cards after Pfizer announced it was to shut down the Little Island plant at which Roche is based. Fittingly, then-Irish head coach Walsh, who had learned so much from his old friend’s Olympic woes 13 years prior, was quick off the mark to try and steer Roche in a new direction — perhaps even up the N8 towards boxing HQ, eventually.

“Billy got me this course in UL: a Masters in Sports Performance. Huge course, two-year course. The company were paying for it, the whole lot, but then all of a sudden, the place wasn’t closing anymore and things were whipped off the table.”

The Masters is still there to be done, and Roche still has his eye on it, too.

“I’d often say, ‘If it’s for you, it won’t pass you.’ Time is the problem, especially with shift work, but hopefully, someday, I’ll get to do it. Ah, I’d love it more than anything.”

An itch to scratch, lessons to teach, and a new dream. It’ll hardly be another 20 years before we hear from him again.

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