BROOM Park in Twinbrook will be lined with familiar faces from the Irish boxing community at midday today as Harry Cunningham makes his final journey.
The Saints stalwart passed away last Thursday after contracting the Covid-19 virus and, although current restrictions may prevent the kind of send off he deserves, the Cunningham family have been left in no doubt about the regard in which he was held by all those who knew him.
Two-time world champion Carl Frampton was among those to pay tribute to the 75-year-old, who was involved with various Irish teams through the years and, right until the last, remained a guiding hand for generations of up-and-coming County Antrim boxers.
“It’s been lovely to see all the messages coming in over the last couple of days,” said son Liam who, alongside brother Harry, has taken over the running of the Twinbrook-based club.
“I was getting personal messages from boys whose first trip away had been with my dad, representing County Antrim, getting to fight in a different country. Even boys in our gym have said to me he wasn’t just a coach, he was more like a father figure.
“That’s heartwarming to hear.”
Long-serving St Oliver Plunkett coach Patsy McAllister counted Harry Cunningham as one of his best friends, the pair making sure to catch up at least once a week to put the world to rights.
“Ach, I’ve known Harry a long time,” said McAllister, another stalwart of the Belfast boxing scene.
“He used to be involved with the football over at the Short Strand so I’d have met him at various wee things like that. He took over Saints from Billy Denvir and we got really close then after that, once he came into the boxing.
“Harry was a great friend of mine, we travelled to a lot of places together – we were in Sweden, Cyprus, Spain, France, all over, and he arranged all those tournaments. He was a great wee man for that, a great worker.
“Harry was a great organiser, a great matchmaker with the county board, and very well liked across the board. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Some of his best days in the sport came courtesy of the exploits of Liam and Harry – not least when, in 1999, they became the first pair of brothers since the 1960s to win Ulster and Irish elite titles in the same year.
The year previous Liam claimed flyweight silver at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpar, while Harry came home with the same colour medal around his neck from the World junior championships.
“He was a huge influence on our boxing careers,” said Liam, who is currently involved with coaching the Irish youth squad.
“I know he was very proud of us, but he was always looking at the next thing we had to be ready for. We might have had a week off and then he’d have sussed out sparring for us down in Dublin, Drogheda, wherever it may be.
“When we started, we probably had a bit of natural ability but he instilled the need for dedication and discipline. People used to think my da had us like robots, or that he starved us because we fought at the lighter weights, but by that stage we were boxing at international level.
“Everybody else boxing at that level was doing exactly the same thing. If you move up half a stone, you’re fighting boys a stone heavier than you who are coming down to that.
“When we got to 17, 18 he said ‘boys, it’s up to you, either stick at it and stay dedicated or you’re going to get hurt’. That was his attitude, if you didn’t give it 100 per cent you were leaving yourself vulnerable in the ring.
“I still say that to the kids in the club now – 99 per cent of the work is done in the gym. Yes it was tough going at times, but I was seeing the world and representing my country.
“I was seeing the success I was getting and I was enjoying the success. Staying focused didn’t seem like a big price to pay for me, and a lot of that came from my da.
“He was a character and he will be missed, not just by ourselves but a lot of people in the boxing world. He leaves big boots to fill.”
Irish boxers, from left, Aidan Walsh, Kurt Walker, Emmett Brennan, Kieran Molloy, George Bates, Gytis Lisinskas, Gabriel Dossen Kirill Afanasev and Antoine O’Gríofa at a training camp in Assisi, Italy
IRISH ELITE TEAM TO COMPETE IN FRENCH MULTI-NATIONS
THE Irish elite team is to compete at an international competition in France next week.
The Alexis Vastine Memorial in Nantes, France will be run off over three days – from Wednesday, October 28 until Friday, October 30, with all Olympic weight classes operating.
It will be the first competition Irish boxers have been involved in since the European Olympic qualifier in London back in March, which was postponed after just three days due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
They are also scheduled to compete at the Cologne Cup, formerly known as the Chemistry Cup, on December 15-19.
For the past week the 16-strong squad – as well as Irish Athletic Boxing Association high performance director Bernard Dunne and coaches Zaur Antia, John Conlan, Dmitry Dimitruk and Eoin Pluck – have been at training camp in Assisi alongside teams from Italy and India.
The panel includes Ulster boxers Carly McNaul, Kurt Walker, Aidan and Michaela Walsh, as well as 2018 World champion Kellie Harrington and 2019 European middleweight queen Aoife O’Rourke.
Flyweight Brendan Irvine, who secured his qualification for the Tokyo Olympics on the final day of the qualifier back in March, is not with the squad.
The Irish squad will remain in Assisi for the next week before travelling to France.
51kg: C McNaul (Ormeau Road), N Early (Ryston); 57kg: M Walsh (Monkstown); 57kg: K Walker (Canal); 60kg: K Harrington (St Mary’s); 63kg: G Bates (St Mary’s); 69kg: G Walsh (Spartacus); 69kg: C Desmond (Fr Horgan’s BC/Garda BC); 69kg: K Molloy (Oughterard); 69kg: A Walsh (Monkstown); 75kg: A O’Rourke (Castlerea); 75kg: G Dossen (Olympic); 81kg: E Brennan (Dublin Docklands); 91kg: K Afanasev (Smithfield); 91kg+: A O’Gríofa (Celtic Eagles); 91kg+: G Lisinskas (Celtic Eagles). High performance director: B Dunne; Coaches: Z Antia, J Conlan, D Dimitruk, E Pluck