Jonny Rashman tells the ongoing story of O’Rourke’s Gym and speaks to its optimistic owner Steven O’Rourke
Blood dripping down both fighters’ faces, leaking on to their bruised and battered bodies, a shell-shocked Ricky Hatton looking aimlessly across the ring, the scars of war evident to see. After 12 rounds of toe-to-toe action, somewhat scrappy at times yet pulsating to watch, the Celtic title clash between Ricky Hatton-trained Chris Blaney and O’Rourke’s Gym’s Craig McCarthy was declared a draw. This wasn’t in the script; McCarthy was much more of a problem than Team Hatton had anticipated.
O’Rourke’s Boxing Gym, based in Dublin, Ireland, is one of boxing’s best kept secrets. A lifetime of sacrifices and blinding dedication has been poured into the four walls by owner Steven O’Rourke in the hope of completing a goal that is never guaranteed to be achieved. With more of his talented stable of fighters looking to enter the professional ranks, 2020 is set to be the breakout year for the gym.
I met 57-year-old head trainer Steven O’Rourke and his team on a wet and windy Sunday morning in a hotel in Manchester. They were spending the weekend there on a mini spar break and I don’t mean the type where you’re lying on a bed with cucumbers resting on your eyelids. They were touring the local boxing gyms looking for the best sparring around.
The gym’s main protagonists were all here, which included elite Irish amateur fighters “Superfly” Tony Browne, Tiernan Bradley, Ryan O’Rourke, heavyweight Paddy Nevin, professional fighter Craig McCarthy and of course ‘The Gaffer’ as he is respectfully known, Steven O’Rourke. The super-talented “Slick” Victor Rabei was the only team member missing.
Born and bred in Denton, Manchester, surprisingly, the hot, musty boxing gyms of Los Angeles would prove to be the perfect apprenticeship for the Mancunian to learn the sweet science. Traveling to different countries has been a constant in The Gaffer’s life.
“At 27 years of age I went on my own to Los Angeles to pursue a professional boxing career,” Steven explains. “There was a lot of unemployment in England at the time and I thought America was the best place for me. I tried to get a promoter over there, and it just didn’t work out. Even though it was a negative back then, looking back now there were tremendous positives I took away with me.
“I went around the small, local boxing gyms which mainly had Mexican trainers and I learnt how to use my feet. I had a very basic British style and when I was sparring the Mexicans, they had incredible foot movement and would create angles that I had never seen before, so I know first-hand the benefit of sparring different fighters. I never knew at the time, but I learnt a lot which I later took with me when I eventually became a trainer.”
Los Angeles has always been plagued by gang culture. The bright lights of Hollywood are synonymous with the rich and famous, yet, there is a dark and dangerous underbelly carved into the city; one wrong turn and you could be in a perilous position as Steven recalls:
“I stayed in a little apartment in the Hispanic part of Santa Monica and it was just too violent to stay there. I would regularly hear gun shots; it was like the Wild West. I didn’t have a car at the time and one night when I was walking home a police officer pulled me over and asked me where I was going. I simply told him I was going back to my flat, he looked at me and said, ‘Listen Englishman, you want to get your arse away from here.’ I soon realised what he meant because later that night I got a knock on the door of my apartment and the police officer said, ‘There has been a murder outside, apparently, someone was shot and put into a skip nearby.’”
A boxing gym is much more than a room with a ring in it. It’s the epicentre of where hopes and dreams are created, lifetime friendships are forged, a tribe is constructed. You all go to war together and never leave anyone behind. There was something different about O’Rourke’s Gym, there was a focus, a camaraderie that can only be generated through time.
“When I was in America, I never had the stability of a full-time boxing coach,” Steven points out. “I got accustomed to doing things myself and in a strange sort of way that would be the catalyst for me to become a trainer. I make sure there is a bond between me and my fighters because I never had that.”
A picture floating around social media taken 10 years prior of a then-15-year-old Tony Browne towering above a 10-year-old Ryan O’Rourke tells the story of the gym in a single snapshot.
“You can’t buy, borrow or pretend to have loyalty like that!” Steven adds, “Looking back at that picture is incredible to be honest. I have coached my son Ryan and Tony Browne from scratch, they have literally grown up together. There’s no egos in my gym its an ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality.”
The job of a boxing trainer is often in your DNA. Having success as a fighter doesn’t guarantee you the same feat outside of the ropes. Often the most accomplished trainers in world boxing had mediocre prizefighting careers. Freddie Roach, Joe Gallagher and Billy Graham are proof of this. Yet, somewhere along the line a trainer adopts his own unique blueprint, a memory vault of years and years in the industry sculpted into a style.
“Going from gym to gym in the states allowed me to analyse different training methods which I would write down and look over, Steven explains. “I have notebooks filled to the brim with different training techniques, so, I knew early on that I had a trainer’s mentality. It fascinated me how different gyms had different ways of training. It was all invaluable experience.”
A career in boxing at any level requires the type of dedication the average person just can’t muster. Somewhere along the road a decision must be made: are you in or out? After coming to the realisation that his professional boxing career had finished before it begun, Steven moved back to Manchester and took a two-year break from the sport. A chance meeting with his future wife on a stag do in Dublin presented him with a choice that would shape the rest of his life.
“When I first met my wife Gina we just clicked straight away and we knew we were right for each other,” he tells me. “She was that family-orientated, she would have never settled in Manchester, so I packed my bags again and moved to Dublin where I fell back in love with the sport. I decided to dedicate my life to boxing, and my wife [laughs]. It was an exciting but tough part of my life.”
American writer Earl Nightingale once observed, “We are all self-made but only the successful will admit it.” The impressive stable of fighters Steven has amassed all have a story and have devoted their whole life to boxing; they are all self-made. Every fighter must be willing to spend hour after hour on the fundamentals. Every pad session, footwork drill and sparring encounter is painstakingly, meticulously planned out.
“I truly believe in self-expression; a fighter is most dangerous when they can express themselves,” Steven asserts. “I also 100 per cent believe they must master the boxing fundamentals. In the professional game you must be a jack of all trades, to get to the top you’re going to come across different styles and you have to be willing to adapt and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“My mentality is if I’m going to take you on, you’re going to be a world champion. I will put my life and soul into you! Does this mean every person I train will be a world champion? No, there are some fighters who may only be British and European level and that’s fine as long as they put 100 per cent into the sport. That being said, I am totally convinced that I have future world champions at my disposal.”
The stone-cold belief The Gaffer has in his fighters is easy to understand when you see them in action. The collective boxing IQ his stable possesses is frighteningly high. The emphasise on foot movement and creating angles is clear to see. This is a team who truly believe they are destined to reach the pinnacle of the sport. However, the transition of turning professional from the amateur game is often the most daunting and challenging one for a fighter. Without a promotional powerhouse behind you a boxer’s career can fade into obscurity.
They say when you put a pair of boxing gloves on you will never take them off. Somewhere along the road boxing becomes about money. Every athlete at O’Rourke’s gym is at the infancy of their career. The struggle is real for both fighter and trainer; sponsorship is the blood line of the club.
“It’s been a struggle; I’m not going to lie,” Steven confides. “Not just for me but for my wife, she has often said ‘Just pack it in’, and I don’t blame her. I have not given myself a wage for five years, just to have the rent of the gym building paid for would take a gigantic burden off my shoulders, it really would! We do have fantastic sponsors in Coalition Medical, Premier Property Group and Fightstore Ireland. I can’t thank them enough.
“Even though it’s been extremely tough, the long days and nights will all be worth it. I’ve always had the self-belief that me and my fighters will reach the top, I truly believe that! I work with them day in, day out, and I’m telling you these kids have what it takes to become world champions.”
Professional boxing in the Republic of Ireland has been on the decline in the last few years; shows have been virtually non-existent. This has had a ripple effect for the gym as the traditional route of building a fanbase by fighting in front of your home crowd has been taken away. Steven has once again had to adapt. Unbeaten super-lightweight Victor Rabei has just penned a promotional deal with respected American outlet Star Boxing to fight across the pond.
“There’s nothing more I would love more than to have the boys fight in front of their home fans, but, unfortunately its been taken out of my hands,” Steven explains. “There just isn’t the volume of shows compared to the UK and the States. Victor is entering the next stage of his career and we’ve had to look elsewhere. Star Boxing has offered us a great deal with 50- 50 fights; that’s what we need, believe me Victor is ready and will excite the American audience.”
O’Rourke’s Gym has true potential in its ranks. Former world champion Andy Lee and current middleweight contender Jason Quigley are frequent visitors. Tony Browne has just completed an Olympic cycle and is in the running to represent Ireland at Tokyo 2020. With a high IQ in and out of the ring, to say he is a future world champion is an understatement.
“It’s fantastic for the boys to have Andy and Jason down,” O’Rourke enthuses. “If you can’t learn off a former world champion, you’re in the wrong game.
“I have been with Tony since he first put on a pair of boxing gloves. His dedication and talent is scary. Reaching the Olympic games is a very fragile process, you’re only an injury or a bad decision away from having the opportunity taken away from you. He was selected for the European Games and gained invaluable experience. He will be a world champion, there’s no doubt about that.”
A glimpse of stardust has been added to the team with the addition of seven-times national amateur champion Tiernan Bradley, who gained recognition from being Conor McGregor’s main sparring partner for the Floyd Mayweather fight.
“Tiernan is a ridiculous talent” Steven boasts, “one of the most naturally gifted boxers I have ever seen. When he is sparring, I can literally see him thinking; he is always one step ahead. He gained phenomenal experience in Conor McGregor’s camp. He will be turning professional in the new year.”
Whilst Tony Browne and Tiernan Bradley are known amongst the Irish fans, the term ‘Boxing’s best kept secret’ accurately reflects The Gaffer’s son, Ryan O’Rourke. A student of the game wise beyond his years, the 20-year-old grew up in the sport.
“Ryan first entered a boxing gym at eight months of age, he first hit a pad aged four,” Steven recalls of his son. “He has mastered the basics and is exceptionally skilled. We call him ‘The Silent Assassin’, he is so quiet outside of the ring but a monster inside of it. I’ve seen him spar world-class fighters such as Jack Catterall, which he more than held his own in. His style is more suited to the pro game. We will look to turn him over in the new year.”
O’Rourke’s gym is a hive of activity, with silky skilled heavyweight Paddy Nevin looking to charge up the ranks, Craig McCarthy vs Chris Blaney 2 on the horizon and a link with former professional fighter Danny Randall’s Manchester-based BoxRooms Gym.
Professional boxing is often referred to as a dirty business, the highs are only matched by the lows. Steven O’Rourke is one of the good guys and will no doubt produce world champions in the coming years.