“I told my dad when I was 11 years old I’d win the world title.”
That statement was uttered some 14 years ago by the young man from Belfast Northern Ireland and Ryan delivered on that promise on Saturday 10th June at the Odyssey Arena in Ryan’s homer town.
It was a command performance were in Ryan won virtually every second of every round. For the young man, it was nearly a life's work culminating in this victory lifting the IBF Bantamweight title off Lee Haskins, a tough grizzled Brit with twice the professional experience of the lad from Belfast.
Ryan's success story is the story of UK boxing generally and Irish boxing specifically.
And how those two nations have interacted with each other over the last several decades, the relative peace and calm between factions within and without the borders of Ireland have absolutely played a role in that.
The British army no longer patrols the streets of Belfast en masse and the citizens of the UK no longer need fear explosions in their shops and streets.
Ryan Burnett grew up in a very different Ireland.
A Troubled Legacy
Ireland is a beautiful, lyrical country with a rich and unique culture and history. Some of that history is quite dark and violent.
In the modern era, the violence that flared between Ireland and it’s professed sovereign Great Britain was euphemistically called “The Troubles” ostensibly several hundred years of religious, political and ethno-nationalist conflict between England and Ireland which did not ‘officially’ end until the good Friday Agreement of 1998.
One man knows that better than anyone is “The Clones Cyclone” Barry Mcguigan.
Finbar Patrick “Barry” McGuigan was a soft-spoken lad from Clones, County Monaghan in the Republic of Northern Ireland. He turned pro in May 1981.
Barry knew all too well the horrible violence, sadness and loss felt by all sides of the conflict. Though he remained apolitical Barry would literally risk his life crossing borders and boundaries all over Ireland and the UK fighting in Loyalist and Republican strong holds and in Great Britain as well.
Barry grew up in a Catholic “Republican” family and had to learn to bridge that side of the divide, and so he did. He was beloved by British fans all over the commonwealth regardless of which side of the conflict a person was on. They were all cheering on Barry. And now they can cheer for Ryan Burnett.
Thirty-two years ago, virtually to the day that Barry McGuigan bested Eusebio Pedroza you claim the WBA Featherweight title Ireland has added a new world champion to her honor roll; the young man from Belfast Ryan Burnett.
A Boy From Down the Antrim Road
The middle child of three boys Ryan was in a boxing gym at the age of four and was educated in part at the Roman Catholic St. Patrick's College on the Antrim Road, a main artery that has flowed people and products nearly forever.
The inhabitants survived The Belfast Blitz by the Nazis in ’41 and the murderous rampage by the Loyalists during The Troubles.
Ryan's family were themselves nationalists. Though the bulk of the violence had passed by the time Ryan was born the scars of conflict were deep and the feelings raw.
Oddly enough it was through boxing that the country can and has healed.
A New Path
Barry McGuigan was a trailblazer, uniting all of Ireland during his fights. In his personal life, he would “intermarry" with a protestant girl and Barry has a son Shane who is a well-known boxing trainer and was a boxer himself of some repute.
Barry and Shane have worked together to help shape the skills and career of Carl “The Jackal” Frampton. Carl grew up on the other side of the divide in the Protestant Loyalist stronghold of Tiger's Bay and went into the enemy territory of New Lodge another one of those communities on the Antrim Road affected by the legacy of violence. Carl too intermarried into a catholic family and with the guidance of the McGuigan’s has become a world champion and was named fighter of the year in 2016 by Ring Magazine.
Ryan Burnett is now walking this path as well, beginning as no more than a toddler Ryan’s training started at Belfast’s Kronk Gym then moved to the Holy Family Boxing Club in North Belfast. Run by former British champion Gerry Storey. A gym renowned for bringing members of a divided community together. Catholics and Protestants and those form across the tumultuous political landscape bonded in a boxing ring. It was here that Barry McGuigan learned the skills that made him a champion and Ryan Burnett trained alongside Carl Frampton as “The Jackal” fulfilled his dream as well.
Ryan became the best of his class in Ireland by some distance in the amateurs being ranked #1 by the AIBA. Ryan went on to win Silver in the World Youth Championship in 2010 and then won gold in the Youth Olympic games avenging a loss to nemesis Samaz Alizada to whom Ryan had lost to at the Worlds. Ryan holds a record of 96-4 as an amateur and then turned pro in 2012.
Ryan moved to Manchester and signed with Hatton Promotions. There he trained under former World Champion Ricky Hatton directly. Ryan was forced to leave in 2014 due to financial trouble with the company, it seemed his career was in jeopardy before it even began. Destitute and living out of a car at one point Ryan eventually landed on his feet and was signed by the outspoken former professional boxer Adam Booth who has trained the likes of David Haye and George Groves.
By 2015 in his sixth fight that year Ryan fought and defeated Jason Booth for the vacant British Bantamweight title. Barely three months later Ryan captured the WBC International title by unanimous decision over another undefeated fighter Anthony Settoul.
Ryan fought two more times in 2016 and fought only four months ago again defeating unbeaten opponents and successfully defending both the British title and WBC International strap!
Ryan’s opponent last night Lee Haskins the tough Brit from Bristol had no primrose path to his world championship. Haskins fought the tough Japanese Ryosuke Iwasa, knocking Iwasa down in the 6th round before scoring the TKO stoppage later that round. Haskins was elevated to full IBF Bantamweight champion by out working and out pointing Ivan Morales, younger brother of Mexican legend Erik ‘El Terrible” Morales one year later. Haskins made another successful defense against the experienced Stuart Hall last September winning by unanimous decision.
The stage was set for Ryan the upstart to face his toughest challenge by far vying for his first world title.
It was a wild and wooly start, Ryan came out hands at his sides as if to draw pistols with the champion Haskins. Right away Ryan set a blistering pace, on his toes he pounced on the champion almost immediately. A clash of heads in the second round saw both men cut with Ryan getting the worst of it.
The pace and aggression of the lad from Belfast was clearly frustrating the champion, as were several more head clashes. The fight got a bit testy in the 5th and referee Marcus McDonnell admonished both boxers.
Likely up 4 to 1 Ryan scored a knockdown over Haskins in the 6th round with a powerful right hook. Haskins took the 8-count and attempted to bare up under the heavy weather of Ryan Burnett. Haskins returned to his corner complaining of a shoulder injury at the end of the round.
The frenetic pace set by Ryan from the opening bell wore on the champion, Ryan’s constant shoulder feints exhausted Haskins as he never knew what was coming, what usually did was the right hand that Ryan routinely scored with.
Haskins offense continued to dwindle over the rounds 9 and 10 which were grueling for the champion. Ryan seemed positioned to finish the gritty man from Bristol, Ryan scored another knockdown in the 11th round from another scorching right hand followed by a chopping left hook. Haskins met the 8-count but with only 10 seconds left Ryan bullied the champion along the ropes unleashing a furious combination, Haskins was in real trouble now and was no doubt saved by the bell. One wonders why Haskin’s trainer did not pull his fighter out rather than risk critical damage – brave trainers are a dangerous thing.
The second knockdown punctuated the lopsided victory for Ryan Burnett in the minds of all in the arena …except the US judge Clark Sammartino who mystifyingly scored the bout 118-108 for Haskins, the outcry has been swift and pointed and I can only hope Clark Sammartino never judges another boxing match in his life.
Nothing could take away from the victory of Ryan Burnett however as father and son came together in a tearful embrace.
Belfast has another champion and all of Ireland has another son to rally behind.
A life’s work complete, a promise kept and a dream fulfilled.