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Exclusive Interview With Irish Trainer Of The Year Paschal Collins
By Gavan Casey
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Paschal Collins sit down. Sparring finished for the day, Ireland’s Trainer of the Year is still in constant demand, and somehow manages to bid farewell to a dozen or so fighters and colleagues without remotely interrupting our 35 minute conversation.
“Firstly, it’s down to hard work. Every single one of my fighters work hard. I’ve got seven or eight pros in the gym at the moment, and I could have thirty or forty. But to be honest, with three quarters of the fighters who come to me, I actually tell them I’m not interested. They’re not 100% committed and therefore they’re not trustworthy.
A fighter can’t be educated if they don’t have a bloody brain between their ears. So first and foremost, let’s be able to hold a conversation. Secondly, they have to live a clean life; they have to be willing to learn, to dedicate themselves.
But more importantly – it’s not just a case of me being comfortable in my gym; I’m bringing them into my fighters’ gym too, so they need to get on with everyone. We have a great family atmosphere here. I know every one of my lads treat each other like brothers. They’re in the corner with me.”
Some of the great coaches in world sport have served apprenticeships of sorts; José Mourinho’s autobiography, ‘Anatomy of a Winner,’ explores in detail the Chelsea manager’s learnings from the great Sir Bobby Robson in his time at Barcelona. Recently crowned a four-time Super Bowl winning head coach, Bill Belichick won two previous NFL championships as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, under the tutelage of the great Bill Parcells.
The term, ‘student of the game’ can be thrown about too liberally in sport, but Celtic Warrior head honcho Collins has unquestionably integrated his boxing education at the hands of both Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, and in particular the legendary Goody Petronelli, into his own personal blend of coaching.
“Positivity is key. If I detect any element of negativity or lack of confidence, I look to fix that. Because, as important as hard work is in preparation, I believe 90% of your ability is in the mind. You must be able to visualise what you’re trying to achieve.”
“I think it’s the key to Conor McGregor’s success at the moment. Conor walks in here to train sometimes and there’s an aura of confidence about him. I want my fighters to have that too. And they do!”
I mention a certain other notoriously self-assured icon – the other Ali. Is it a case of ‘I am the Greatest! And I’ll say that until I know I am,’ in the Celtic Warrior Gym?
“What Muhammad Ali did was apply a mantra to motivate himself, and he used it to get in his opponents’ heads. What I try to give to the lads is more than just a mantra to use in their boxing careers; I try to give them a lifestyle and work ethic to apply not just in the gym, but outside of it as well.
My philosophy is, my fighters don’t come to the gym to train. They come to learn.”
Paschal Collins’ own studious activities extend beyond his guidance under Petronelli and Roach; he explains how he has completed a number of diplomas, incidentally in the college I currently attend, to bolster both his knowledge of the science behind sport and coaching, and his ability to run a successful business.
“We have a brilliant sponsor from Cork called Conal’s Tree Services. Conal came to me and said, ‘Stephen Ormond is a fantastic fighter – I’d like to sponsor him so he can train on a full-time basis.’
I said, ‘You know what you can do? Give him a job! Let him work and earn his money. You can leave him off to train when he needs to.’ And actually, three of our boxers along with my assistant Mark now work with Conal full-time.
It gives them an opportunity to earn a living outside of the ring. I believe that a fighter who has to work for a living is a hungry fighter. It gives them confidence. It gives them an education and a good trade that they can rely on after their career.
If you have a fighter who doesn’t have a job outside of boxing, and things don’t quite work out in the ring, where does that leave them?”
I’m immediately drawn back to our first encounter, where Collins was carrying a gas cylinder in the family shop beneath his impressive boxing setup.
“There’s definitely a perception that boxers are uneducated thugs, and I’m very much in favour of changing that.
I don’t let my fighters curse in the gym. There’s no need for it. I make sure they dress well. Let’s change that perception for future generations and let people know that, actually, boxing is a very respectable sport.”
I had wondered why Collins’ middleweight charge Spike O’Sullivan had remained so reserved at the ‘Return of the Mack’ press conference back in November, when facing a barrage of vitriolic abuse from opponent Anthony Fitzgerald.
“We just don’t condone that. It’s a case of getting to the ring and letting all that out.”
His eyes light up when he asks me if I saw Spike’s pre-fight shove on his bitter rival as Fitzgerald entered the ring to the noise of his adoring fans.
“That was planned. He’s wrapped up in the crowd, emotionally. So I said, go at him. Let him know he’s here to fight!”
I mention to Paschal that Spike O’Sullivan has told me of plans for O’Sullivan himself and Steve Collins to work Luke Keeler’s corner for (last Saturday’s) Prizefighter, when the tournament clashed with with Stephen Ormond’s WBO European title clash versus Terry Flanagan in Wolverhampton.
“My brother, Steve Collins, has been coming over from England to train Luke every Wednesday in preparation. And Spike knows Luke well – they’re both middleweights and they train together.
My brother Steve and I are similar trainers. Plus you have the added effect of having one of the best middleweights around right now, and a former champion, in the corner to hopefully act as a kind of deterrent. An intimidation factor.”
The embedded work ethic within Paschal Collins and his charges manifests itself in a humility not overly common in top boxing trainers; he refers to his legendary fighting brother as ‘my brother, Steve’ in case I don’t know who he’s talking about. It’s refreshingly reflective of a gym devoid of any delusions of grandeur.
And the family feel certainly extends beyond Paschal’s brother, to the gym as a whole.
“I meet all my fighters every Wednesday – we go for lunch, we have a bit of craic – but we talk. I’ll ask, for example, what do they think of Stephen Ormond’s next opponent Terry Flanagan, and Spike might say he’s noticed a mistake that Flanagan makes.
And I’ll look over the opponent’s fights and think, ‘yeah, he actually does make that mistake.’ So as a group, we then look to capitalise on that opponent’s weakness.
At the end of the day, I’m learning too. I learn from my fighters.
But the funny thing is, maybe six or seven years down the line I won’t want to do this anymore!”
Given the recent meteoric rise of Collins’ gym and fighters, along with personal accolades, it’s a statement that catches me off guard.
“I worked for Goody Petronelli – he trained ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler and other great fighters. Goody was like a father figure to me. We’d have a bit of food on a Friday in ‘George’s Café,’ and we’d talk.
Goody told me his one regret was not spending more time with his family, and not visiting his family more often. He told me, ‘if there’s one piece of advice I can give you it’s don’t give up your life for boxing. There’s more to life than boxing.’
I’m interested in horse riding – I own a horse, actually. So I’d like to dedicate more time to that along with spending time with my own family.
So what I might do in six or seven years time is take a step back from the gym – still run it! – but do something like Emmanuel Stewart; have a few of my fighters who’ll be retired by then take the bulk of training, and come in for the last week or the last couple of weeks. It’s part of what I’m trying to teach my fighters.
Of course, such is the immediacy of modern life, I enquire about a nearer future.
“I think there’s been a bit of an upturn recently with boxing in Ireland. I opened the first boxing-only gym in Dublin, and others have followed suit, which is good for the sport. You have big things happening down here and in Belfast. 20 years ago, it was a different story. You had to go to America to get a boxing education.
I spent fifteen or sixteen years in America, and I can pass on a whole bag of experience to Irish fighters. My guys get fit by boxing. They spend more time in the ring than they do running or hitting pads. You make your mistakes in the ring, and you fix your mistakes in the ring.
Irish fighters don’t have to go away anymore.”
As we part ways, Paschal calls me back and tells me he forgot to mention his trusty assistant, Kerrie Christie, who runs the gym in his absence. Having also worked with Freddie Roach in the Wild Card Boxing Gym, the multi-talented Christie is a former fighter out of Lucan BC. Now donning pads in place of gloves, Christie recently received her qualifications to become Ireland’s first licensed female boxing trainer.
Gavan can be contacted on Twitter: @GavanCasey or at firstname.lastname@example.org