Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO
world beater

Ryan Burnett might be Ireland's greatest ever fighter before he becomes a household name

Ryan Burnett held two world titles before he owned a house, but he’s no stranger to putting the cart before the horse.

MOMENTS AFTER RYAN Burnett’s historic unification of the IBF and WBA World bantamweight titles on 21 October, Matchroom’s media chief Anthony Leaver informed ringside reporters that there would be no post-fight press conference.

Burnett, 25, was on his way to hospital, Leaver explained, having understandably felt a bit ‘off’ after 12 hellish rounds with Kazakh human-blender Zhanat Zhakiyanov, whose world title strap would be staying in Belfast.

It was only when promoter Eddie Hearn returned from the hospital an hour later did we learn that the new unified champion had departed the SSE Odyssey Arena on a stretcher – fully conscious, thankfully, but complaining of a pain in and around the temporal bone which surrounds the ear.

Accentuating the concern for Burnett was the fact that a despondent and defeated Zhakiyanov had strolled past us in comparably fine fettle not seconds before Hearn’s update backstage – this despite his having absorbed even more punishment than his now-hospitalised adversary.

Doing his best to hide his own disquiet, Hearn would proceed to explain that Burnett himself had requested he be whisked away to the infirmary ‘as a precautionary measure’ immediately following his win.

This was October, and Burnett was suddenly out until March as far as boxing was concerned, but everyone was more concerned for his general well-being than they were interested in a defence of his titles.

What a joy it was when, at roughly 3:30am – some three-and-a-bit hours later – Burnett bound into the lobby of the Hilton on Belfast’s Lanyon Place, the head on him like a burst tyre, his newly-accrued WBA world title slung over the opposite shoulder to the IBF strap he’d accrued a fight previous.

‘The Champ Champ’: it had been uttered fondly all night – an allusion to the UFC’s Conor McGregor (0-1[1KO]) who, while adored by the majority of Irish boxers, isn’t held quite in the same regard by the country’s boxing community as a whole. But Burnett sauntered into the lobby not wholly unlike his Notorious compatriot: he, too, definitely borrowed a couple of steps from Vince McMahon as he triumphantly announced himself to the resident’s bar, playfully polishing the baubles which intersected at waist height.

The entire room – much of its occupants well-oiled at this hour – stood to his attention; undercard fighters such as British Olympian Josh Kelly, a gym-mate of Burnett’s who joins him on Anthony Joshua’s undercard tonight, offered smiles and applause, while friends and family members swarmed to his side for hugs, handshakes and pictures.

The relief was near-palpable – not least on the face of Eddie Hearn – but trainer Adam Booth probably said it best with a deliberate puff of his cheeks and a drawn-out exhalation: tough night, yes, but what a night.

It was alleviating, too, to watch Burnett ‘own’ his moment. Here stood the supposedly shy, unified champion of the world, on the night of just his 18th professional fight, and he was lording it; not a single picture request was turned down, not a single hand turned away.

The 25-year-old swashed and postured, laughed and sighed, and eventually found a corner of the bar within which he retreated to type, reflecting on the night’s events with Booth and those closest to him. He didn’t drink, he didn’t even sit down – he just conversed with family, friends and courageous well-wishers for about an hour.

And then he was off to bed, pausing for countless more selfies and adulation on his way out while his fiancée, Lara – a lead dancer with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance – waited patiently at the swing doors which lead back out to the lobby.

He was proud, certainly, but seemed nearly embarrassed by the fuss – and the selfies in particular. He wouldn’t have been the centrepiece of too many even six months prior, but everybody wants a picture with The Champ Champ.

Ryan Burnett Ireland's Ryan Burnett weighs in for his first WBA World title defence Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Ireland has just two world champion boxers at present: Ryan Burnett – who has since relinquished one of two titles due to the IBF’s typical bollocksology – and Katie Taylor. They sparred together, once, and both claim they lost; Taylor, at least, is on record – half-jokingly – as wanting a re-run, while Burnett has in the past jovially claimed he never again wishes to step through the ropes with the former Olympic gold medalist.

Taylor’s CV is well-documented, Burnett’s not so much: two years before the Bray woman topped the podium at London 2012, Burnett made a little bit of history of his own: he won gold at the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore, in doing so becoming boxing’s first ever Youth Olympic champion.

In all he lost just four of 98 amateur bouts – the last to his current gym-mate and friend Michael Conlan, who edged him by a single point in the 2011 Irish Senior Elite finals.

Conlan, of course, became a household name by way of two Olympic Games in 2012 and 2016 – the latter debacle in particular (those unfamiliar with Conlan’s story can take a look here). Burnett, meanwhile – a year the Falls Road featherweight’s junior – slipped out the side door in 2012 and turned professional under Ricky Hatton aged 20, and to little fanfare.

Fast forward six years, and as Conlan rather sheepishly alluded to in a pre-MTK media ban interview with this publication, the Irish public remain far more cognisant of his exploits than they are those of 2017 RTÉ Sports Personality nominee Burnett; years of exposure on the state broadcaster have seen to that, really, even if Burnett’s achievements in the professional ring have undoubtedly warranted a louder trumpet call in his homeland.

There are other factors at play, too: not many south of the border actually care about boxing, to put it plainly; look no further than your national newspapers should you require further proof.

And Burnett hasn’t exactly helped his own cause to date: his shyness and/or indifference to media chatter can be mistaken for a lack of charisma – or at least an age-defying seriousness – and on the rare occasion that there are a few inches of a back page to fill, you could understand how the Antrim Road bantamweight might not be the first port of call.

Reporters will tell you that during one-on-one conversations he’ll frequently drop one-liners which they half-wish he’d reserve for top-table chats; such charm might serve him better at press conferences or in media scrums where he tends to revert to his more reserved shtick – often to the point of inadvertently seeming distant or disinterested.

A superb recent interview with Boxing News notwithstanding, the formerly unified world champ hasn’t been a scream-it-from-the-rooftops-type character en route to the higher echelons of his craft. Add to this the fact that his professional career has, for the most part, been forged away from Ireland, his ascent to world honours astoundingly premature – his unification of bantamweight titles even more so. As such, he hasn’t yet racked up the back catalogue of social media-shareable stoppages which might have seen him garner the type of fame which belts alone don’t provide.

But as an undefeated, two-time world champion at 25, there remains boundless scope for Burnett to achieve stardom through accolades alone; the wooden Anthony Joshua, under whose heavyweight unification scrap he defends his bantamweight bauble tonight, is world sport’s greatest testament to the fact that one doesn’t need to make much noise in order to be heard.

Already, Burnett is just the second ever Irish boxer to unify world titles. All going well, he’ll have the bones of a decade to build upon a legacy forged preterm. And by God – and perhaps most importantly on these shores – he’s a hard bastard to boot.

FullSizeRender (1) John Kavanagh, coach of Ireland's original 'champ champ', learns of Burnett on Instagram.

Just ask the folks at American broadcasting goliath HBO, who were so impressed by Burnett in victory over Zhakiyanov – as well as the Belfast overtones broadcast live on their network – that they want Burnett to fight for another world title in America this year, and not even at bantamweight but one division above, at super-bantam, where they have a vested interest. Indeed, such is Burnett’s prospective marketability and prodigious pugilistic ability, HBO’s executive vice president of sports programming, Peter Nelson, traversed the Atlantic to watch him unify the belts last October.

“I think the move to super-bantam will come, but at 25, you’d maybe wait one or two fights,” Eddie Hearn told us while Burnett was whisked off to hospital from the SSE Odyssey last autumn. “But it’s hard – when he’s done it the way he’s doing it – to do something ordinary next time around, because he hasn’t even had the opportunity to be built in Belfast.

His first real fight in Belfast was for the world title. And his second real fight in Belfast was a unification fight. He didn’t have the British, the Commonwealth, the European [titles] in Belfast, so, you know, it’s difficult, because you’re sort of building him in mega fights without yet having the profile to really make the most of those fights.

“I feel with Ryan, he has to keep doing things spectacularly to get the respect and the profile, because doing things normally might not… Well, it doesn’t appeal to him anyway!”

And while Hearn, true to form, reneged on his assertion that he didn’t wish for Burnett to ‘lose momentum’ in his hometown – instead planting him a couple of scraps deep into the Joshua-Parker undercard in Cardiff for his first WBA title defence – one can’t help but feel Burnett might be better served away from Belfast for now.

The figures were promising, sure: 4,700 people rose to their feet at the Odyssey as the imperious Burnett won his first world title versus Haskins last summer, and nearly 6,300 watched him best Zhakiyanov in the same arena four months later (the capacity for his fights was roughly 9,000). But boxing ain’t cheap, and a city which plays home to just over 300,000 people is not large enough to sustain Burnett’s rise simultaneous to the return of his friend, Carl Frampton – arguably Belfast’s most popular active sportsperson – who remains top priority for most willing to part with their cash in return for fistic gratification.

‘The Jackal’ packed out the Odyssey in November, returns there this April, and should he win the latter contest versus Nonito Donaire, seems likely to fulfil a lifelong dream of fighting for a world title at Windsor Park in August. Even American giants Top Rank, who promote another of Belfast’s boxing darlings in Mick Conlan, are having second thoughts about a contractually-obliged homecoming slated for June: nobody wishes to contend with empty seats, and frankly, if you’re to squeeze into Belfast between Frampton bouts, it’s likely you’ll be left with a few.

The landscape won’t be long changing, though: should all go to plan in the coming months, Frampton will see out his career across the pond, and barring the odd throw-him-a-bone novelty night, Conlan too will fight in the States; ESPN are the bosses there – not Top Rank nor MTK.

Within the next two years, there’ll be a headline vacancy in Belfast. Burnett’s almost feral willingness to scrap all-comers – and a career trajectory which suggests he’ll be a pound-for-pound player in due course – will see him fill the void even if he never speaks, tweets or winds down his car window again.

He’ll do all three, of course, and with an extra couple of years’ experience not only in the ring, but on the civil side of the ropes, his face will adorn walls aplenty – be they of the pub or bedroom variety.

Ryan Burnett in action against Zhanat Zhakiyanov Ryan Burnett (L) in action against Zhanat Zhakiyanov Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO / William Cherry/INPHO

The double world champion will finally own his first house – due for completion in July – before he either enters the bantamweight World Boxing Super Series this autumn or further stakes his claim to greatness through other means.

And though he won’t face the same odd scrutiny as Carl Frampton once did south of the border, it’ll be a few years, too, before Burnett filters into mainstream conversation here. Indeed, he might well have supplanted his fellow Belfast man as this island’s greatest ever fighter before he’s hoisted onto any sort of similar pedestal outside of his hometown, even if his achievements to date dictate that he should stand atop one already.

An undercard fight on Sky Sports Box Office might not seem like the optimal platform to accelerate that process, but tonight’s title defence versus the capable Yonfrez Parejo provides a rare opportunity for Burnett to put the horse before the cart.

A highlight-reel destruction of his Venezuelan foe wouldn’t go amiss, but in any case, you could do worse than to keep an eye out – even if only to spare yourself the YouTube deep-dive in a couple of years’ time.

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