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The U.S. startup steering top Irish talents toward the top of the boxing world

Sheer Sports guide the careers of boxers Jason Quigley and Aaron McKenna, and they’re on the lookout for more Irish talent.

Image: Tom Hogan/INPHO

THE YEAR 2014 was a simpler time in Irish professional boxing if not altogether more prosperous.

Sure, before sections of the sport were blighted by a cancer of crime and cringe, every Irish fighter could fight in their homeland, and sure, every Irish fighter could speak with every Irish media outlet. But neither was exactly commonplace.

The recession dictated that there were fewer pro boxing shows happening in Ireland at that juncture than there are taking place even now, despite the cloud that currently lingers; as a result, the sport struggled for column inches even when every fighter was willing and able to speak with a writer and vice versa.

Eddie Hearn and Sky Sports finally threw us a bone that November only to find they were after flogging it off a dead horse: Matthew Macklin’s deflating 10th-round TKO loss sadly saw to it that Hearn’s 3Arena card – the last of three pro shows to take place south of the border in 2014 – would be the Matchroom chief’s last stop in Dublin for the foreseeable future. (Other factors have since seen that absence prolonged and prompted the indefinite shelving of a homecoming fight for Katie Taylor).

Matthew Macklin after the fight Matthew Macklin and Eddie Hearn after 'Mack The Knife''s Dublin defeat Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Microcosmic of an economy as boxing tends to be, many Irish pugilists had already sought employment elsewhere over the course of the previous four or five years, whether that meant in a different field or a different country.

What made European amateur champion and World silver medalist Jason Quigley’s transition to the punch-for-pay ranks so exciting to boxing fans here – apart from his obvious pedigree – was that rather than emigrate through necessity, he did so by invitation.

Following his unanticipated explosion onto the international amateur scene a year prior, the Donegal middleweight was singled out and signed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, a behemoth in boxing terms, in April of 2014.

At the flick of a pen and the pressing of ‘Send’, Irish professional boxing was provided with a potential saviour of sorts; someone who not only had the skills but would fly the flag on the biggest bills; someone who could potentially haul the sport back into mainstream consciousness in Ireland for the first time since the Bernard Dunne era tapered off five years prior.

Jason Quigley is declared the winner Jason Quigley celebrates victory over James De La Rosa in Las Vegas Source: Eoin Mundow/INPHO

“Jason Quigley is part of the next generation of European boxers who are about to make their mark on the international stage”, De La Hoya said in a press release sent on 29 April 2014, “and we believe he has the skill and determination to go very far in the future.”

It also doesn’t hurt that he has the great nation of Ireland behind him, and I know they will support him wherever he goes.

Quigley promptly upped sticks, leaving The Hills of home for those of the Hollywood variety. Such a move is a precarious prospect for a 22-year-old hopeful in any industry, and one with which Quigley would require plenty of assistance as he navigated his way through La-La Land.

For this career guidance between fights, Quigley put his faith in an American professional sports management group called Sheer Sports which, at the time, had been operational for only a couple of years.

Four years on, the undefeated Ballybofey banger [14-0, 11KOs] – who lost one of those years to injury – stands on the brink of world-title contention and is presently gearing up for what could be a career-biggest fight to date.

Furthermore, Sheer Sports’ name is now synonymous with Irish boxing: they currently manage not only Quigley but red-hot Monaghan prospect Aaron McKenna [4-0, 3KOs], an underage amateur sensation and Ireland and Golden Boy Promotions’ youngest professional boxer at 19. They’re in the process of ironing out a deal to also sign McKenna’s older brother, Stevie – a former Irish Senior Elite champion who has relocated to Santa Monica alongside Aaron and the boxers’ father, Fergal.

And the recruitment drive in Ireland is unlikely to stop there.

31345516_10213823845602870_5680128502877924078_n Oscar De La Hoya and Aaron McKenna

“The whole Irish connection started with Jason Quigley, of course,” says Sheer Sports vice president Lyle Green.

At the time, Jason was the number one amateur in the world, so it wasn’t all that outlandish for us to wish to represent him; boxing managers and promoters worldwide knew who he was, and they were all chasing his signature.

“But Jason was – and remains – very different. He’s an excellent boxer – he’s tough, he can box, he can punch, he can mix it up, so I loved his style – but when we met him, he was just as personable as can be.

I mean, Jason is a good-looking kid, but he’s a high, high-character individual who is going to be successful both inside and outside the ring. He just ticked every box for us.

“Having Rachel [Charles] being from Europe was a big bonus for us, I think, in being able to sign him, because there were plenty of people looking to sign Jason outside of Sheer Sports as you can imagine.”

Mrs. Charles is the daughter of acclaimed jazz musician Washington Rucker, who was once a drummer for Stevie Wonder; she’s been a single mother since she was 16 except for a five-year marriage to the late Vince Charles, who was Neil Diamond’s drummer for over 25 years; she was born in Birmingham, England, has lived in LA for 28 years, and is the vice president of operations and publicity at Sheer Sports in name but far more focal by nature.

37886009_10214450485268470_945859499179114496_n (1) Sheer Sports from left to right: Ken Sheer (CEO), Lyle Green (vice president) and Rachel Charles (queen/head of PR)

“I just love being around the boys. They’re all good kids, and they’re all really good craic,” Charles explains.

“With Jason being from Ireland and me being from England, I almost considered him a neighbour, in a way, when he came over to LA first.

“I think with the McKennas and with Jason, coming over here they’ve got no one with them – obviously Fergal is here with the two brothers, but Jason for sure – and it was just about making them all feel welcome.

“I’ve been in Los Angeles for 28 years: I know all the pitfalls – I know how LA can be – so it’s just about guiding them through that. Without that, it’d be horrible – getting off the bus and there’s nobody there waiting for ya, so to speak.

I’m a mother myself, and the last thing I’d ever want is to have to call someone’s mother – especially all the way back in Ireland – and have to tell them, ‘Oh, your kid’s in the hospital and nobody really gives a crap.’

“I felt like if I was close to them, then at least they’d feel they’ve got some kind of family, if you will, around them, or at least somebody that’s got their back. And that’s absolutely one of the things about Sheer Sports: we’ll have their back until the end.”

Omnipresent to the point that she has in the past been described as ‘The Queen of West Coast Boxing’, Charles’ reputation as a publicist precedes her on either side of the Atlantic: interviews with Sheer Sports-managed fighters are typically organised meticulously and within minutes, while fight updates and pictures of ‘her boys’ meeting boxing icons or other celebrities on their travels have been known to land in fight journalists’ Facebook messages on occasion.

In a year when another boxing management company, the Dubai-based MTK Global, issued a blanket ban on Irish publications gaining access to their fighters as well as any associated events – the sheer stupidity of which merely intensifies as the months roll on – Charles’ and Sheer Sports’ approach is alleviating in its sanity.

“I’ve always kind of gotten along with the press,” she says. “Obviously, there are characters even within the boxing media that can be difficult, but you can’t please everyone – I don’t really give a shit. They’re either going to write something or they’re not. Neither situation is the end of the world.

“But with that ban that you guys are dealing with – I mean, that just hurts the lads (fighters). It just hurts these kids, because when that ban ends – if it does – or when the fighters are no longer with that company, they’re going to have to build themselves up. And that’s going to be difficult. How are they going to build a profile, really?

“You guys (journalists) will get a lot of calls, like, ‘Well, I wanted to call you, but…’ And what are you going to say?

“For me, when I’m seeking publicity for a fighter, I want them to talk to journalists who will do a good job of telling their story, [who will] give them worthwhile press that allows them to build their profile. And that’s it.

What I don’t want is some rinky-dink poser running up to a fighter with a camera and a microphone pretending to be a journalist. That can be quite bothersome. Some of those guys just want a ticket to the fight.

“And I do try to keep my eye on that: if it’s someone I don’t know, I might tell my boys, ‘Don’t talk to this person without me,’ because I don’t want them to say something they don’t mean and have it missold as something it wasn’t.”

jason-quigley-lina-baker-see-you-ringside-photography-14-1-390x285 Source: Lina Baker/See You Ringside Photography

Charles recalls a transatlantic phone interview from her time working for the now-late boxing promoter Dan Goossen, during which three-weight world champion James Toney told a British journalist: ‘I hate the English, I hate cricket, and I’m going to kill everyone over there with a cricket bat!’ It was one of the few occasions she’s had to smooth things over post-interview.

‘Light Out’ Toney, Charles’ baptism of fire in the pit that is pro boxing back in 2004, is described by the Brummie as “just the most vulgar person I’ve ever met in my life.”

She says they “clicked immediately.”

Her five years with Sheer Sports have made for plainer sailing, surely…

“Longest relationship I’ve ever had,” she laughs. “No, I love the gig. I love the team. We all share the same passion, and we all know what we want. Thankfully, we’ve been able to put that together so far.

RachelJames-200x300 Rachel Charles and James Toney

Vice president Lyle Green was himself a fighter for just under two decades, and counts an Ohio Golden Gloves title among his accolades. He trained alongside Olympians and shared a trainer with the legendary light-welterweight world champion Aaron Pryor.

He hung up the gloves when his best friend was killed in the ring, but later wound up training fighters himself.

It was his close friend Ken Sheer – in whose gym Green both worked out and worked the pads, and whose grandfather had been a boxing trainer and promoter years prior – who approached Green in 2013 with the notion that they they go into the hurt business together.

“Really, we had no idea what we were getting into,” Green laughs. “We both loved the sport but didn’t understand the business of the sport. We were signing fighters out of The Heavyweight Factory (gym in Hollywood, Florida). We were kind of bouncing around but didn’t have a good understanding of the sport at all.

“We ended up hiring Courage Tshabalala, the former heavyweight contender, who helped a lot. He’s a fantastic trainer now – he trains Aaron McKenna as you well know – and it was he who introduced us to Rachel, who really is the best PR person in the business but is so much more than a PR person: she knows everybody, and she was extremely helpful in making introductions.

“All of a sudden, three years after we started, and after all of the money we had dumped in, we had a real company. We had real boxers on the books, and we could provide the type of management for these fighters that nobody else really does.

“When I was fighting and I met Olympians who turned pro, people would give them big signing bonuses, et cetera, but they thought that was ‘looking after them’: they thought throwing money at them would ensure they were looked after.

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“Whereas we want to make sure that our guys aren’t blowing their money; that they’re doing the right things outside of the ring as well as within it. It’s more of a personal management approach than just boxing management.

We’re extremely interested in the character of the individual; we’re extremely interested in their family and where they come from. We really want high-character individuals – like Jason Quigley, like Aaron McKenna – so that we can make sure when they’re done with boxing, they can continue to support themselves, but also become a contributing member of society.

original (9) Jason Quigley has already done work for Sky Sports, and intends to do more when he hangs up the gloves

“One thing that we’re very careful of”, Green adds, “is that, yes, it’s great to hire managers to make sure you have somebody who understands the intricacies of contracts – the small print and things of that nature – but in our opinion it’s very, very important that our fighters themselves understand all of the contracts that they enter into.

“We spend time with them so that they fully understand the contracts. And that’s really where it starts: we’re talking to fighters even now who tell us: ‘Well, I didn’t really know how my contract worked; I trusted this person, I trusted that person…’

And obviously, we want any fighter who signs with us to trust Sheer Sports, but we also want them to be able to make informed decisions. Once we can get them to start making informed decisions about their livelihood inside of the ring, then they can start to make informed decisions outside of the ring.

Charles adds: “I am a bit older than the boys (the fighters) – I know I don’t look it, but I am! And I’ve just been in so many promoters’ offices where they don’t give a shite about their fighters. And I’m like, ‘Hang on – these guys are getting punched in the head for a living. We’re not. If they need your help, go help them.’

“We look at the idea of management a little bit differently, I think, than most managers do. And it’s proving to be the right way.”

Green continues: “Once we get them accustomed to looking after themselves for once in their lives – and in many instances it truly is for once – then they tend to appreciate the value of understanding these details.

I don’t remember the exact quote, but when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression, one of the things he said was along the lines of, ‘You give a man a job, you give him a backbone.’ And it’s not that different with fighters: if you give them the ability to understand and support themselves, they want to do it. The problem is nobody usually takes the time to allow them to understand.

“It’s certainly not easy, but once we put the responsibility of understanding contracts on our fighters, the natural evolution seems to be that they start to take more responsibility for themselves as people.”

29541573_10213575345030511_3657678636022786711_n Ken Sheer watches on as then-18-year-old Aaron McKenna hops in the commentary seats to discuss his second pro victory back in March

So far, up-and-coming Irish fighters have fit the bill laid plain above. Of course, stellar as it doubtless is, it wasn’t the conviction of Aaron McKenna’s character which caught Sheer Sports’ eye to begin with.

“Well, for starters, the Irish kids that we’ve seen can just flat-out fight,” Green says matter-of-factly.

“I mean, Aaron McKenna can flat-out fight, and I think it has a lot to do with your amateur programme there in Ireland: it seems like quite a professional style of fighting, and there seems to great coaching within that system, frankly.

I think in the United States, there’s so much of a focus towards being slick and stylish, and some of our coaches seem to miss the basics. The basics aren’t missed in Ireland at all. Boxing fans love fighters who know how to fight and know how to perform, and right now in Ireland, we’re seeing some just fantastic fighters coming through. We’re blessed to have two of the best at the moment.

“And we’re taking a look at Stevie McKenna right now, too, and he’s entertaining and one hell of a fighter. We had Kieran Molloy (Irish Senior Elite welterweight champion, Oughterard Boxing Club) come out – he’s entertaining and one heck of a fighter.

We really respect what’s happening over in Ireland in terms of the boxing talent that your country is producing. To be honest, it wouldn’t really matter to us whether they stayed in Ireland, moved to somewhere in Europe or if they came to the United States: they’ll be successful just because of the way they fight. That’s a testament, I believe, to your amateur programme.

All of which begs the question as to whether the likes of Tokyo 2020 hopeful Molloy and his fellow Irish amateur prodigies are on Sheer Sports’ radar, be they considering a move to the professional ranks before or after the next Olympics.

“Oh, without question,” says Green. “Without question. Yes, absolutely.

“I think that there’s always that opportunity: we’re looking for the best fighters in the world, and as long as they are high-character individuals – and we have not met any Irish boxer who isn’t, I don’t believe – we are interested.”

37806703_10214461486703499_2003354926482194432_n (1) The McKenna brothers with 'Irish' Micky Ward

But where Jason Quigley took an educated punt on then-newcomers Sheer Sports to steer his career in the right direction just over four years ago, his management group has since established itself as an industry leader in the States.

A fructuous relationship with Golden Boy Promotions, under whose banner both of Sheer Sports’ Irish charges throw leather, has been paramount to that rapid ascent.

“Golden Boy has been critical and a very important part of our success,” says Green. “The introduction, actually, was really made via our relationship with Jason. That really cemented it: because we manage him and they promote him, it created a real mutual respect between the two companies. And we’ve been working so well together since then.

“We do work with other promoters and we have a lot of respect for them as well, but we just have more fighters signed to Golden Boy than we have with other promoters.

“And after Jason, all of our fighters that have signed with Golden Boy are fighters that we introduced to Golden Boy. Since Jason, every now and then – and as recently as today – they’ll ask us if we’re looking at any particular fighters with a view to signing them to a management contract, because they in turn might then be interested in signing them to a promotional contract.”

36063258_10214238943740064_2066120861286400000_n Aaron McKenna (L) speaking on Golden Boy Radio

“We share such a mutual respect with Golden Boy at this point”, adds Charles, “that when we had Aaron, they signed him straight away, pretty much. They just heard us talking about him, they’d seen our social media posts about him, and they took him on.”

“That’s absolutely true,” Green says. “They never saw him! That’s right.”

“Yeah,” replies Charles. “They never came to the gym to see him spar. Nothing. Right, Lyle?”

“Right!” he says. “They saw a video, they knew what his accomplishments were, and they really did take our word for it.

Aaron McKenna was a natural fit, really, for Golden Boy. I mean, he is young, he is powerful, he is smart, and he wants to fight.

“They knew that we wouldn’t cross their threshold with a mediocre fighter,” Charles continues.

Golden Boy know the calibre of fighter and person that we’re looking for, so they know that if we go to them with a fighter, we’ve got a proper potential star on our hands. And that’s what Aaron McKenna is.

Aaron McKenna looks on as the referee waves off the fight Aaron McKenna looks on as the referee waves off his fight with Keasen Freeman back in April Source: Tom Hogan/INPHO

‘The Silencer’ of Smithborough will take to the ring for a fifth time as a professional in Hollywood on the 11th of this month.

Sheer Sports’ other Golden Boy has left Tinseltown in his rear-view for a combination of boxing and family reasons; now fighting out of the famed Ingle Boxing Gym in Sheffield, Jason Quigley is already in tentative preparation for a career-biggest test versus 2012 Olympic champion Ryota Murata [14-1, 11KOs] in Las Vegas on 20 October, though the bout has hit a roadblock as of Wednesday night.

Were it to take place as planned, it would be a seminal moment not only in Quigley’s burgeoning career but in the young history of his management team, who will have helped him to the precipice of world title contention in just three years of actual boxing – the odd year out being lost to an egregious break of his potent right hand.

If it doesn’t happen, that seminal moment isn’t far away in any case: despite having just one fight since his 12-month absence, the 27-year-old is ranked #4 by the WBC and #9 by the WBA.

Jason Quigley in action against James De La Rosa Jason Quigley in action against James De La Rosa Source: Eoin Mundow/INPHO

Quigley has told this publication on numerous occasions that the time he spent away from the squared circle offered him a fresh perspective on either side of the ropes.

Green, too, is of the opinion that the injury which threatened to derail Quigley’s blossoming career in March of 2017 might transpire only to fire it to greater heights down the road.

“I am more confident in Jason’s ability now than I was five fights ago,” he says. “I believe he’s with a great trainer, Dom Ingle, who will take him back to his roots of using his jab and not always mixing it up. He’ll take Jason back to actually boxing, which I think he lost track of maybe four or five fights ago where he perhaps felt he had to brawl a bit more.

“I think the layoff for Jason was a blessing in disguise. Jason was at a high point, he was fighting well, and he likely would have knocked out [Glen] Tapia in the second or third round had he not broken his hand and ruptured his tendon. The ascent would have been rapid.

Everybody at that point was Jason’s best friend; everyone wanted to be around Jason. Jason was The Guy. And I think being away from all that – not being in the ring – and realising what’s important to him has really reframed him as a person. It’s made a huge, huge difference and matured him to a degree he never would have been had the injury not occured, and had he continued on this rapid ascent.

“His head has always been in the right place, but it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re a young kid – especially living away from home – and everyone’s telling you you’re the greatest thing in the entire world. And it’s harder when you stop fighting, and all of a sudden…people aren’t telling you, ‘You suck’, but they’re also not telling you you’re the greatest thing in the entire world anymore!

“I really believe that layoff has done a lot for Jason as far as his growth as a person is concerned, and it will certainly make a difference in his growth as a boxer, too.

“I’m excited, now, to see what he achieves – in and out of the ring.”

Sheer Sports have their own plans beyond the ring, of course. They’ve already fielded the odd phonecall enquiring as to whether they intend to cast their net into other sports, and such expansion is certainly part of their overarching plan.

For now, though, they’re focused only on their fighters, at least two of whom they’re hellbent on taking from Ireland to the top of the world.

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‘I felt like I had lost my roots’: Jason Quigley is back with a Donegal vengeance

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