By Gerry Hand: It was one of those random questions you often get down the pub, especially when people know you like boxing. "Who was Ireland’s greatest ever boxer"? Straightforward enough until you actually have to decide upon it, but for me the answer came automatically.Steve Collins.
Confining myself to those I had actually seen, thereby ruling out the likes of Jimmy McClarnan and Rinty Monaghan, I narrowed it down to two, Collins or Dave McCauley.
Barry McGuigan timed it right, he fought Eusebio Pedroza when the Panamanian was on the way down, Wayne McCullough tarnished his legacy slightly, though only very slightly, by going on that bit too long, although his winning of the WBC bantamweight crown when he travelled to Nagoya, Japan , in 1995 and beat Yaseui Yakushiji was undoubtedly the best achievement by any Irish boxer in my lifetime.
Apart from that you are left with McCauley and Collins, and while McCauley’s record stands scrutiny there are two facts that spring out from a look at it, firstly he fought exclusively in Europe, and secondly while he did win a WBA flyweight crown, his main stint was as an IBF champ, arguably the least ranked of all the Alphabet organisations.
Collins on the other hand is the only Irish fighter to win world titles at two different weights, and fought for both his titles away from his native city.
Also the fact that Collins boxed for a lot of his career in the USA has to be factored in.
Collins beat decent scrappers in Kevin Watts and the late Tony Thornton in the US and while he was probably out of his league, at the time he stepped in against Mike McCallum, he was a lot closer than many remember in his effort to bet the excellent Reggie Johnson for the vacant WBA middleweight crown in New Jersey in 1992.
One judge had the fight a draw, one had Johnson winning by two points, another by a single point, now that is close.
Collins almost re invented himself over here, and his taking of the WBO middleweight crown from Chris Pyatt was the launching pad for the best known phase of his career.
When Collins faced Chris Eubank for the WBO super middleweight belt in Millstreet on St Patricks weekend in 1995 there were many Irish fight fans who had barely heard of him, indeed it is arguable that at the time he was not even the best known sportsman in the Collins family, his brother Roddy being a well known League of Ireland footballer back then.
But that battling points win over Eubank changed everything, Collins was suddenly the returned hero, the prodigal son, and the name on everyone’s lips.
The key to his win over Eubank was in preparation, something that was to turn out to be the hallmark of the Celtic Warrior. The Dubliner had sussed Eubank out, not psyched him out, he realised that Eubank fought at most for two minutes of each round and rested for the remainder.
With Collins, rest was something you did between fights, not between rounds, and certainly not during them.
In a way Collins adapted his battle plan from another great Irish sporting icon of the era Jack Charlton, who’s game plan that saw him lead the Irish soccer team to the World Cup in 1990 and ’94 was defined simply as “Put them under pressure”.
And that is what Collins did to Eubank, for every second of every round he pressed forward, and never gave the Englishman a moment’s respite, forget the mind games before the fight, Collins announced to the world that he had been hypnotised and could not feel punches, that may have spooked Eubank, but what REALLY got to him was when he realised he was in the ring with not alone an irresistible force, but given Collins cast iron chin, also a resolutely immoveable object.
The rematch was closer, but if one can argue Collins received a hometown verdict, even if the fight was not in Dublin but in Cork once again, then Eubank can scarcely complain as his own career is littered with just such decisions.
It can of course be argued that Nigel Benn was on a downward spiral when he fought Collins but the Dark Destroyer came into their first bout on the back of over a dozen undefeated fights against some big names.
Collins done him fair and square on two occasions, and went on to defend his crown a further five times with none of his opponents hearing the final bell.
The question marks that remain over Collins are very few, there is a suggestion that he would not have beaten Joe Calzaghe for example, and the debate over which of them was the better fighter can rage on forever, but at the point in time where their careers overlapped I believe Collins would have been too cute for the Welshman.
For those who suggest Calzaghe would have been too powerful for Collins, I suggest they think again, nobody has ever suggested that Joe hit harder than Nigel Benn, and Benn couldn’t shift Steve, neither could Mike McCallum who was a fair puncher as well.
The itch Collins never got to scratch was Roy Jones Jr, although not for the want of trying.
That would have seen a different sort of test for Collins as in his heyday Jones was a very fast and smart scrapper who did carry a decent dig.
But given that the fight would have represented Collins legacy as a boxer who can say that given his famed preparation Steve would not found a way to win, he may well have been dropped by Jones, and maybe even hurt, but beaten, well that’s a different matter.
For whatever reason that fight didn’t take place, and you know what the fact it didn’t has for this writer left Steve Collins record untarnished.
For ability, determination, and a bring them all on and I’ll beat them attitude, Steve Collins deserves the accolade of the best Irish boxer I ever saw.
And if you don’t value my opinion then hear this. Trainer Brendan Ingle, a true son of Dublin was once posed the same question I have tried to answer. Without hesitation he responded, “Collins definitely, he was mad, strong and extremely self confident, I’ve never seen better from Ireland”.
October 20, 2009