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Steve Collins – The Celtic Warrior – World Champion Boxer

‘Posey photos, is that what you want? Could you not use a photo from when I was fit and had abs?’ Photo: James Fennell

Titles

  • Irish Senior Middleweight Champion, 1986
  • Irish Professional Middleweight Title 1988
  • USA Middleweight Champion 1989
  • WBA Pentacontinental Middleweight Champion, 1993
  • WBO Middleweight Champion, 1994
  • WBO Super Middleweight Champion, 1995
  • WBC International middleweight title

 

Boxing Record

 

  • Wins 36
  • Wins by KO 21
  • Losses 3

 

In 1989, just as 25-year-old Steve Collins was preparing to take on world middleweight champion Mike McCallum, an ABC cameraman caught up with the Dublin boxer. Steve’s grandfather, John O’Rourke, was by his side, beaming with pride.

‘So Grandad started showing the guy from ABC his moves. “Here’s the famous O’Rourke left hook”, he says. And he brings his hand down and up and clips me on the chin. “Oh my God, I’m sorry,” he said, “did I hurt you?” “No”, I said, “you didn’t Granddad, but the problem is when McCallum sees what you just did, he’ll know I’m open for that punch”.’

McCallum won the fight and it took Steve another six years to become World Champion. In the meantime, his grandfather passed away but Steve had got to know him well, ‘a proper gent he was’.

John O’Rourke (1908-1996) was evidently a man who knew how to punch but he had learned the hard way. Born in Meath Street, he was the youngest of three children. His parents appear to have died in about 1912 and, aged three, he entered St Vincent’s Orphanage in Glasnevin. He later told Steve how, just before they walked in for the first time, his older brother Edward, aged 8, put his arm around him and told him not to worry, he’d look after him. In 1923, the 15-year-old became a laboratory assistant at the Guinness Brewery, with whom he worked for the remainder of his career. By 1967, he was Shift Foreman in the Storehouse. [1]

Steve’s uncle Jack O’Rourke was both an Irish middleweight and heavyweight champion in the 1960s. ‘He was a very good fighter, very talented, but he enjoyed life too much’, says Steve. ‘He had the ability but he didn’t have the dedication.’

In time, Jack’s sister Collette O’Rourke would marry a Guinness-based boxer called Paschal Collins. They were Steve’s mum and dad.

Paschal was named for his uncle Patrick Gallagher, a Liberties boy who was killed at Ypres in April 1915. In one of the more poignant stories from that cataclysmic era, Patrick and his four brothers all signed up with the British Army at the outbreak of the First World War. By May 1916, all five brothers lay dead, some upon the barbed wire coils of the Western Front, others ambushed by unseen forces in Macedonia and Basra. They left behind one sister, Annie, who Steve knew well as ‘Nan’. Anne and her husband John Collins had five sons. She named each one after her five slain brothers. [2]

‘My father and all my Collins uncles worked in Guinness’s’, says Steve. ‘My dad and my uncles Terry and John were in the Traffic Department’.[3] It was hot and sweaty work, loading all the hops and grain, but it gave you powerful muscles. Paschal, Steve’s father, also enjoyed boxing. Indeed, he fought for the Leinster title in the first boxing match [check] shown on Irish television. ‘My mam watched it with her baby on her lap’.

Born in 1964, Steve was the third of four sons, with two sisters. ‘My mother told me I was the only planned baby’, he winks, ‘so I’m special’. [4] They grew up at 12 Annamoe Terrace, Cabra East, a semi-rural suburb which sprang up on Dublin’s northside after the Second World War. With Hanlon’s Corner and the cattle markets on Prussia Street nearby, the countryside was always close enough to inspire Steve’s rural dreams.

‘I was only a nipper when I started to work with the trainer Noel Chance. He was just up the road at Luttrellstown. That’s where I learned to ride, taking race-horses out for some exercise’. [5]

Steve was eight-years-old when he decided he was going to be World Champion. The epiphany took place at the Corinthian Boxing Club, a basement gym on Gardiner Street, when he won a junior tournament.

‘I remember going down clear as if it was last week …They were all townies! They probably thought I was a posh softy but I enjoyed showing them! I loved it. The trainer was an old guy called Maxi McCullagh. I remember going down, the guys walking around watching the timing, another guy with his thumb over a lemonade bottle spilling water to keep the dust down … I’d be training and skipping with my dad, my uncles, my cousins, they all boxed in that gym. There was a tournament on and they put me on and I won and I got such a buzz that I said “I’m going to be World Champion”. My dad got a bit worried. He thought “there’s something missing in that kid”.’

Steve’s first school was on Stanhope Street in in Stoneybatter, followed by O’Connell’s Christian Brother School on North Circular Road, and then over to Cabra Tech.

By the time ‘Rocky’ hit the silver screen in 1976, the 11-year-old was hell-bent on boxing. His father urged him to get a trade first. Five years later, when Steve was 17, Paschal Collins went for his regular jog in Phoenix Park. He suffered a massive heart attack and died in 1981. His death still brings great sorrow to his otherwise upbeat son nearly quarter of a century later. The devastated, teenager left school to start as an apprentice electrician at the Guinness Brewery.[6] Meanwhile, his mother moved up the road to Blanchardstown.

He recalls his Guinness years fondly. ‘There were 3,000 people there when I started. No clocking in, free beer, great times.’ However, the sixteen-year-old was after more than free stout.

‘I wanted to be heavyweight champion, but I wasn’t big enough. My brothers were big but I wasn’t that big. I kept on eating and eating so I’d get big. I realised I wasn’t going to be tall so I figured I’d be a short and stocky heavyweight like Rocky Marciano. So I modelled myself on him.’

‘But the defining moment that convinced me was a sparring session with Joe Christle. I’d won three heavyweight titles. I was in Cabra Tech, learning to be an electrician. I was about 17 or 18, and the Christle had been boxing at Trinity College under Fred Teel. I went over to spar. Joe was a good pro. He beat [Frank] Bruno. He was a solid man about 14 or 15 stone. I was only about 13 and a half, quite puffy. I was only a boy but I wanted to be a heavyweight. I went in with Joe and he didn’t take it easy on me, banging my right hands. I had already fought heavyweight and I thought it was easy. But sparring Joe, who was a proper heavyweight, and him hitting my hands … I was trying it on, I was cocky, but he got me. I remember the punches and I thought ‘I’m too small’ and what a great way to encourage someone to go on a diet … And I realised I’m not big enough to be heavyweight. He was just too strong. I dropped down to Light Heavyweight in weeks.’

By the time he turned professional in 1986, Steve had won 26 amateur Irish titles at middleweight, light-heavyweight and cruiserweight. He was also middle-weight champion of Ireland when he had another defining moment while sparring with Terry Crystal, Joe’s US-trained brother,  who was boxing pro.

‘I sparred with Terry a few times when he was back from America. We were sparring in Crumlin and he gave me a lesson that just gob-smacked me. I thought I’ve just got to go to America. He’s learned so much. I’ve got to go there. He was with the Petronellis Brothers gym in Brockton, Massachusetts, and my favourite fighter at the time was Marvin Hagler [former world champion] who was in the same gym as Terry and had a similar style to me.’

And so the 21-year-old flew to Boston where he started sparring with Sean Mannion.

‘Then I met Mel [Christle] who gave me an introduction to the Petronellis, and they said “come over and we’ll see what you’re like.” They put me in with Robbie Simms, ranked the No. 1 in the world at that time. He was Marvin Hagler’s half-brother. He tried to do a number off me and I knew what he was at. I had a go off him, and I held my own and they were loving it. “Come back anytime.” I worked my way up and eventually, after a few years, I was top dog. Even Marvin said I was top dog.’

In his debut fight, he knocked out Julio Mercado in the third road. He was on the undercard of a bill that featured his future trainer Freddie Roach and the future Fight of the Year winner Micky Ward.

In 1988, Steve defeated Sam Storey to win the Irish professional middleweight title in Boston. He then defeated world #5, Kevin Watts. He enjoyed a run of sixteen successive victories, including the USA Middleweight Title, before Mike McCallum outpointed him over 12 rounds in the WBA World Middleweight Title Final in Boston in 1990.

In 1992, he lost at the same weight to Reggie Johnson and to Sumbu Kalumbay in the EBU decider, before beating Gerhard Botes of South Africa to win the WBC Penta Continental title in 1993.

He moved to Belfast, under the management of Barney Eastwood, and then to England where he joined Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing. In 1994, Steve defeated Chris Pyatt to secure the WBO middleweight belt.

The following year he relinquished this title without a defence and moved up to super-middleweight. In March 1995, he embarked on perhaps the finest fight of his career against the previously unbeaten world champion Chris Eubank. When Steve won, Eubank accused him of playing mind games. ‘But I had the hunger to beat him’, says Steve. ‘You have to have the hunger to succeed’.

The new World Champion whirled his Reyes-clad fists to defend his title seven successive times, including a second meeting with Eubank at Millstreet in Cork and two fights against Nigel Benn. On the eve of his showdown with Benn, he famously told The Sun that Readymix Concrete had offered to sponsor his chin.

The Celtic Warrior, as he became known, fought his last professional fight in 1997, annihilating his opponent Craig Cummings in three rounds in Glasgow. [7] Injury forced him to bow out of a planned fight with Joe Calzaghe shortly afterwards and he handed in his title. In 1999, he announced his decision to come out of retirement to fight an old rival, Roy Jones Jr., only to collapse during a sparring session before the fight. On doctor’s orders, retired for a second time. ‘Nobody ever knocked me out’, he says. ‘And nor are they ever going to’.

Steve was formerly based in Bangor, County Down, with his then wife and their children. He now lives on a 55-acre farm just outside the old Roman town of St Albans, England, with his second wife Donna, an equestrian enthusiast. ‘I’m like a hermit. People who live near me don’t know I live there; I’m under the radar and I like it.’

It took him a while to settle. He had a cameo in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And then, well, as Steve puts it:

‘I’m not an actor but I got asked to do a part by Nick Moran from ‘Lock, Stock’ in a film called ‘The Kid’. [8] He wanted me to be a bare-knuckle fighter. I asked ‘do I get beaten up?’ and he said ‘no you win’ so I said ‘okay’. It was a very good part.

I ask if he ever boxed bare-knuckle.

‘I’ve seen people do it and I just think they’re mad. I suppose if someone picked on me in a playground I’d use my fists but no, I’m not into bare-fist boxing. It’s harder with gloves on. But a guy recently made a very good point to me that when people boxed bare knuckles, there was practically no brain damage. Their hands cut up more and they know that if they punch you too hard, they’ll break their hands on teeth and so on. You’d look more damaged but you wouldn’t be as badly hit. But with gloves on, you can hit as hard as you like. When I was world champion, I had a choice of gloves and I always went for the small ones, the Reyes, which were nothing. You could do damage then. I could look ‘em in the eye and say “I’m ready now, are you ready for me?” Reyes were great. No padding.’

I throw in some mock-boxing manoeuvres and ask whether any of his forbears boxed.

Steve looks at me sideways and says: ‘Errr, not like that anyway … that’s kangaroo style”.

I like Steve, even when he calls me a “jammy bastard” for growing up in a big house. I was interested by his distaste for Ireland’s economic boom.

‘You know what killed us. The Celtic Tiger. Its undone thousands of years of bloody hardship! I found your book ‘Vanishing Ireland’ depressing because what you are showing was the real Dublin, the real Ireland, that I knew. The country has changed so much.’

Steve also featured in U2’s video for ‘Sweetest Thing’ and, alongside Nigel Benn, in a British TV reality show called Commando VIP. He also managed and coached in Ireland for a while before returning to the UK. He and his brother Pascal also  built and opened a gym in Corduff to boost sporting ambitions in the area.[9]

‘‘We are going to put a gym in the area for kids to use for martial arts, weights, boxing everything. You pay a quid a the door to go in. My brother Pascal trains pros so he’ll use it too. It’ll be called “Celtic Warrior – The Gym”’. There’s been a big Nigerian influx in the area so there’s lots of Nigerians with thick Dublin accents. Who knows, I could be producing the first Irish Nigerian boxing champion?’

‘Life is good’, he says. ‘I have five children, all healthy, clever and great characters. I’m very lucky. I’m also a farmer. I was raring sheep until a year ago but it was too hard work. They’re escapologists!’

‘So I’m going on the equestrian side now. My passion has always been my horses. The week I retired, I bought my hunter. I hunt twice a week. I just got another horse so I might go three times. I hunt with the Pytchley and anyone else who will have me. I work to pay for it. Mucking out and paying bills. Nobody works for us. Me and my wife do all the horses work ourselves. We have six horses at the moment so that’s a lot of riding. My wife show jumped in Switzerland so we know about it all. I’ve ridden in a couple of races. Mick Kinane Snr got me the horse for my first win at Fairyhouse. There’s a photo of me and Tommy Carberry in a photo-finish for 3rd place at Leopardstown.’

In any case, he plays a prominent role as manager of the St Alban’s Polo Club, while his close mates include jockeys Barry Geraghty and Tony McCoy (who he holds is ‘probably the toughest guy on the planet’).[10] He is also pals with several players on the Wasps rugby team whom he supports.

‘Riding out, mucking out, breaking the ice in the troughs … that’s what keeps me fit these days’.

He recalls a yellowing photo in his grandmother’s house of a man dressed in cavalry uniform out in India with horses. ‘And I wonder if that’s where I got my love for horses from … maybe that’s too romantic’.

 

End-Notes

 

 

[1] According to the 1911 Census, John’s father Edward O’Rourke (b. 1864) was an ‘Engineer Fitter at Works’, while his mother was called Esther. John, only 2, is described as a ‘scholar’. His eldest brother Edward Leo (b. 1904) also worked in Guinness and he also had a sister, Letitia (b. 1906, called Tilly) who worked in Lambs in Inchicore who made the jam. ‘I can go back to my great-grandparents on both sides and it’s all Dublin. That is quite unique.’ Steve doesn’t know what happened to Edward or Esther.

John O’Rouke’s personnel file, Register Number 194670, is preserved in the Guinness Archive. John O’Rourke was born in 7 Meath Square, off Meath Street in the Liberty’s, on 10 November 1908. He was first employed in the Brewery on the boys list working as a Laboratory Attendant on 25 June 1923. His address in 1923 was recorded as St Vincent’s Orphanage, Glasnevin. John remained working in the Brewery for the remainder of his career working in the Cooperage, Brewhouse and Storehouse Departments as a labourer. In 1959 John was promoted to Foreman in Storehouse and in 1967 he was promoted to Shift Foreman in the Storehouse. John was pensioned on 30 June 1969 and died on 26 August 1990. His wife, Julia (née Logan) then received his Brewery pension until her death on 25 August 1996.

[2] Bridget Gallagher was born in 1861. She married Bernard Gallagher and they lived on 63, Bridgefoot Street, Dublin. She was mother of five boys, described as Catholics and labourers on the 1911 Census, by which time Bernard was deceased. The sons fought variously with the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. They all died between 26 April 1915 and 14 May 1916. John (Connaught Rangers, 7 Dec 1915) was killed by the Bulgarians in Macedonia, Private James (Connaught Rangers, 21 Jan 1916) by the Turks at Basra, Patrick (Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 26 April 1915) by the Germans in Basra. Christopher (Royal Dublin Fusiliers, gassed aged 19) and Lance Corporal Terence (Royal Dublin Fusiliers, aged 20.) Christopher and Terence died within three weeks of each other in the Spring of 1916. They are buried 1½ miles from each other in Northern France.

[3] Steve’s father Paschal Collins was employed in the Traffic Dept at the time of his death on 21 October 1981. Steve’s late uncle Terry Collins, who retired in the 1990s, was also employed in the Traffic Dept. There are no personnel files in the Guinness Archive for either Paschal or Terry but their pension payment files may be held by Diageo Pensions. John Collins had an address in Cabra in the early 1940s and later lived in Glasnevin. He was pensioned in 1976 and died in 1986.

[4] His brothers are Michael, Roddy (aka The Rodfather) and Paschal; his sisters, Collette and Audrey. As youngsters, the boys all played football. Roddy Collins is a media pundit and former manager of Bohemian, Carlisle United and Shamrock Rovers football clubs. Paschal was also a professional boxer.

[5] Noel Chance later moved to Berkshire. He married a daughter of Sonny Molloy, a famous old bookie, and trained two winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Mr Mulligan in 1997 and Looks Like Trouble in 2000

[6] He joined the Brewery on 21 September 1981 as an apprentice electrician. There is no leaving date for Stephen, however he is still employment on the 21 September 1985. On his employment record he is recorded as son of Paschal Collins, Driver, Traffic Department.

[7] ‘I believe there’s some wrestler going around calling himself the Celtic Warrior’, growls Steve Collins. ‘He can’t be the Celtic Warrior. There’s only one Celtic Warrior and there only ever will be one.’ In fact, he has seen his ‘Celtic Warrior’ rival in action. ‘He’s very good. Sheamus is his name. He’s big, white as chalk, a real Dub, with a big range beard and a spike. My little boy loves him.’

[8] ‘The Kid’, based on Kevin Lewis’s book of the same name, starred Rupert Friend, Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone and Liam Cunningham. It’s was released in 2010.

[9] Today he manages property in London and Dublin, returning to his home city 3 or 4 times a month. ‘I’m a Dub, so I still have to wheel and deal’. He enjoyed being part of the Irish Mafia who purchased so much of London during the days of the Celtic Tiger, such as Johnny Ronan who bought the Battersea Power Station.

[10] Another pal owns a pub in Lambourn so he sees the jockeys a lot. When I met him, he was hoping to referee a boxing match between jockeys at the Cheltenham Festival. He’s a pal of Philip Baker of Dunchurch and has been hunting in place where Guy Fawkes plotted his Gunpowder missions.

‘A lot of Celtic Tigers bought horses – it’s stopping now – but I’ve seen people out who just shouldn’t be out. They think they’re jockeys because they bought a horse. They can’t ride and its dangerous