If the walls of the Crumlin Boxing Club could tell stories, you’d almost forget that you were actually standing in a boxing gym.
Located in the heart of Crumlin just off the Kildare road, the Crumlin Boxing Club was UFC Featherweight champion Conor McGregor’s first foray into fighting and today the gym is as much a shrine to boxing as it is a temple to youth across southside Dublin.
As soon as you walk into the gym you are instantly confronted by a 20 x 20 ft ring which sits directly opposite the club’s entrance. Club owner Phil Sutcliffe Sr. makes the most of the limited space he has, and maybe the entrance is the only place where the ring will actually fit, but on a subconscious level, it might also be a subtle reminder of the foremost reason people come here – and that’s to box.
It’s not until you actually look around the place that you realise this is no ordinary boxing gym, this is as much a boxing museum as it is a place to train, and while I’m highly intrigued by the gym’s surroundings, I’m here for work and work today requires talking to Sutcliffe about his history with Conor McGregor.
Sutcliffe invites me into his office, which in all actuality looks more like a small staff room than a traditional office. There’s no big mahogany desk, there’s no plaque with his name on it and there’s no big Apple iMac in front of him. There’s two wooden tables, four chairs, a locker to our left and a kettle to our right. It’s a real boxing gym. There’s different pieces of paper across the desk, as well as a stack of hand towels, and in the middle of it all I’m afforded with just enough space that I can sit down and talk to Phil about a young McGregor.
“He was 12-years-old and he walked in here off a football pitch,” Sutcliffe replied when asked about the first time McGregor dropped by the gym.
“He had a look around and he asked if he could join, so like all kids, we had to get one of his parents to come down and fill out forms. We took him out on the floor in the first class and he showed nothing special at the time, but as he stayed and hung around longer at the club he got better.
“Even early on he showed that he was very diligent towards his workload. He always put 100% into what he was doing. He stayed in the club and sparred with my own son Phil Sutcliffe Jr., he sparred with Jamie Kavanagh, and both of those guys are professional boxers now. He sparred with older guys. He was always keen to spar and he was always keen to learn.”
Before long McGregor was boxing in amateur competitions and by 16 years of age he won the Dublin Novice Championships at the National Stadium just off the South Circular road. He was talented and he worked hard according to Sutcliffe, but his interest in MMA curtailed what could have been a promising boxing career.
“He was only 17 when he left here and that’s where you start to show great potential,” Sutcliffe added.
“Back then he could’ve entered the National Senior Championships, entered the Juniors first and then the Intermediates, but when he was 16 he started going to the wrestling and the MMA.
“They must have saw good potential in him because a lot of fighters do drift into MMA because they’re so good with their hands, but he’s [McGregor] older now. He’s more powerful now. He’s a man now, he was a boy when he was here, but all of the skills he would’ve learned here he’s carried into MMA. With his skill of reading his opponent, his timing, his power, that’s how he’s knocking all these guys out.”
Sutcliffe has previously said that McGregor could’ve been a Senior Champion if he stuck with boxing and that he’s had conversations with Conor about his thoughts on MMA. Sutcliffe believes MMA to be barbaric.
“You shouldn’t be able to hit another man on the ground. I think it’s a sin,” he tells me.“But we still have huge admiration for Conor here, because he’s doing well and he’s someone from our local area. To do well in any sport is a great achievement and the kids do look up to him.”
Although McGregor is the club’s most notable former pupil and is held in high regard around the gym, Sutcliffe shows similar admiration for all his students. It’s evident in the pictures and the posters that are plastered on every wall of the building.
It’s an important part of the fabric of the club and Sutcliffe is extremely proud to talk to people about his students’ achievements. The former two-time Olympian is as animated talking about his own career in boxing as he is talking about a young teenager’s future football ambitions. He walks me around the gym and talks about nearly every National Champion the club has ever had. He covers what they’ve done in their career, how far they went, what they’re doing now and most importantly how they were as people.
As we walk through the gym he stops by and talks to some of the gym’s youngest students. He asks them how they’re doing, what they’re up to, how one kid broke his foot and when he’d be able to come back and train. It’s genuine and authentic from Sutcliffe, and you get the impression that they’re everyday interactions for him.
The gym must hold over 500 photographs and posters but there’s a couple that stick out from the crowd. The picture of Muhammad Ali and Sutcliffe laughing at the 1980 Moscow Olympics is one that immediately brings a smile to the former fighter’s face.
“He called me a Leprechaun,” Sutcliffe laughs. “There was something special about him, a bit like Conor when he goes into his song and dance.”
Ali’s presence is very much felt in the gym, with pictures, artwork, fight posters and quotes hanging all around the club. He is one of Sutcliffe’s favourite fighters, but so is Sugar Ray Leonard, Jack Dempsey and Barry McGuigan, all of whom also have a place on the gym’s walls. Even Daniel Day-Lewis has a photo hanging after Sutcliffe helped train the Oscar winning actor for his role in the 1997 film The Boxer.
But just as the gym showcases the positives of boxing and what it’s done for Sutcliffe, as well as the kids in the community, there’s also the harsh reality of looking at young fighters who got swept up in drugs and crime, and some who even paid the ultimate price with their own life. Looking at the photographs it’s hard to tell who went down what path, but Sutcliffe remembers, and reflects on those individuals during better times in their lives.
As we head back down to the floor, the whole experience comes back full circle. After spending nearly 30 minutes looking at photos of the past, Sutcliffe yells at a bunch of young kids to get their gloves on and to prepare for the start of training. The next class is about to start and my time with Sutcliffe is nearing an end.
‘Do you coach any classes?’ I ask him before I leave, to which he replies “I supervise everything!”
“I take the seniors and I corner fighters during fights, but I supervise everything. I used to have a stable of pro’s, and then amateurs, but the club is my focus now.”
‘Do you have any particular preference between pro’s and amateurs?’ I ask him with my final question.
He turns and smiles after taking another sip from the same cup of tea he’s had throughout my entire time with him. “Nope, I just like boxing. I’m a boxing man.”
Read More About: boxing, boxing news, conor mcgregor, Conor McGregor news, Crumlin, Crumlin Boxing Club, Dublin Novice Championships, jack dempsey, jamie kavanagh, mma, mma news, muhammad ali, Phil Sutcliffe, sugar ray leonard, UFC, UFC featherweight, ufc news