THE big nights have been a feature of boxing in Belfast over the last decade with indoor and outdoor arenas utilised to help the city earn the unofficial title as Europe’s capital of the sport, but for Brian Magee, it was a glorious career spent mostly on the road.
Just eight of his 42 pro contests took place in his home city as he earned the reputation as a ‘road warrior’, testing himself in the back garden against some of the most illustrious names in the 168lb division.
The Belfast southpaw left the sport with WBA and IBO super-middleweight title belts to supplement the European and British versions; came within a whisker of the podium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but did medal two years later at both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships.
Recently, Carl Frampton put Magee in his top five Irish boxers of this generation and an examination of the career of West Belfast’s quiet man confirms his credentials as one of the finest in recent times.
Magee’s career came at a time of change for boxing, where old school methods gradually gave way to a new scientific approach to training and one where he moved with the times to enjoy something of an Indian summer towards the tail end.
“Half of my fights were 12-round title fights - even the IBO Inter-Continental ones,” he recalls.
“That is a lot of championship fights where you are up against a really good standard, especially my division that was very tough.”
Boxing wasn’t something necessarily on Magee’s radar as he grew up in Poleglass, but along with some friends, he dipped his toes in the sweet science.
Initially, he wasn’t enamoured, but as the teenage years approached there was a fresh urge to return and give it another go. This time, he didn’t look back as he stepped through the doors of St Agnes’ ABC.
“My first year, I only had three fights before going down to the All-Irelands - two in the Ulsters and one in the Antrim Championships - but I ended up winning them in my first year, winning against two Irish champions along the way in quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
“I suppose from that I realised I had a talent for it and my coach, Larry Graham, reckoned I was a natural. It all just snowballed from there and I fell in love with it.”
As the years passed, he established himself as one of Irish amateur boxing’s leading lights, now boxing out of Holy Trinity under the watchful gaze of trainers Harry and Michael Hawkins, securing a place at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta having negotiated a tricky qualifying process.
Magee, alongside clubmate Damaen Kelly plus Irish wildcard entries Cathal O’Grady and Francie Barrett, would get to live the dream of every amateur boxer by walking out at the Olympic Stadium and fittingly for the Belfast boys, they would watch as Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame.
Trading leather at middleweight, Magee ousted Canada’s Randall Thompson and Betrand Tetsia of Cameroon before losing to Mohamed Bahari of Algeria at the quarter-final stage.
“For me, it would have to be the Olympics you wanted to go to as to have Ali there lighting the flame was unreal. You also had Evander Holyfield handing him the torch too, so for a boxer, it was incredible.
“It was disappointing not to medal, but it was a great experience.”
It would not be the last time Magee would be in the presence of Ali as the following year, he was selected to box at the Muhammad Ali World Challenge in Louisville, Kentucky and this time he would not just medal, but take gold.
“I beat the Olympic silver medallist and two top Americans.
“Ali gave me my medal for that and I ended up with a private meeting with him. That was great as Ali is a big hero of mine.”
In 1998, Magee would claim a silver medal at the European Championships in Minsk, while taking bronze at that year’s Commonwealth Games, but a change was afoot and one that probably had made him lose focus in those final months when boxing in the vest and headguard.
“I had already made up my mind that I wanted to turn professional so my head was a bit off with the amateur game.
“I was going to get gold but came away with bronze, so it was a big learning curve for me. I don’t make excuses, but I really should have got the gold.”
Transitioning from amateur to professional can be a delicate operation, but with Pat Magee and John ‘JR’ Rooney forming his management team, Magee had men with a plan and he would retain Harry Hawkins as his coach.
His professional career got off to an excellent start on March 13, 1999, with a second-round stoppage win over Dean Ashton in Manchester.
The victories would come thick and fast he had built an 11-0 record by the end of the following year, leading to his first title opportunity in January 2001 when facing Neil Linford for the vacant IBO Inter-Continental belt he would win on points before taking the IBO’s world title at the end of the year. He would need just 116 seconds to blast through Ramon Arturo Britez in Liverpool and would successfully defend the belt seven times including victories at the King’s Hall against former world champion Hacine Cherifi and Jerry Elliott to leave him with a record of 22-0 by April 2004.
It had been a hectic run of fights and training camps, and one that would ultimately take its toll when matched with Robin Reid on June 26 of that year.
Reid, a former WBC champion, was his biggest test to date, but despite boxing relatively well, the visitor had him on the floor four times and those knockdowns were to prove crucial in a points victory for ‘The Reaper’.
“When it came to Robin Reid, I’d hoped that would be the springboard to push on but it ended up being a stumbling block for me.
“I had been on holiday in Florida at Disneyland at the time when the fight was made.
“I had been training non-stop so I was looking a few months off. When I came back from Florida I’d put over a stone on with a fight in seven weeks.
“I just didn’t make the weight well and that was a mistake I made. I think it was a learning curve for us all.”
That fight would be his last in Belfast as Reid moved onto a meeting with IBF king Jeff Lacy and Magee was forced to rebuild following the defeat.
He bounced back with a second win over Linford before travelling to Germany to face Vitaliy Tsypko for the vacant European belt the following year but would fall victim to a controversial split decision reverse.
Two routine wins at the National Stadium in Dublin later, Magee was again on the road. This time it was the York Hall in London to take on an up-and-coming Carl Froch for the British title.
It was a close affair as the fight entered the 11th with little between them on the cards when Froch found a huge right through the middle to shake the Belfast southpaw and a monstrous uppercut would close the show.
“I fought Carl Froch with two weeks sparring because there was very little sparring when you were based here.
“It made things that bit more difficult, but nowadays there’s a bigger network of fighters here.
“Fighters seem to be very well looked after and have the extras like meal plans, training camps and all the small things that make a huge difference.
“It was nobody’s fault (I didn’t have those things), but that just wasn’t the way things were.”
The defeat to Froch left not just a rebuilding job, but a change in direction as the decision was made to move up to light-heavyweight.
After three wins at 175lbs, a British title shot was secured against Tony Oakey in Dublin on August 25, 2007, and whilst Magee boxed well, it wasn’t enough to take the title as it was declared a majority draw.
Despite a good showing, the higher weight just didn’t feel right and a sparring session in Denmark soon after was to make him decide that super-middleweight was where he needed to be.
“Because of the Reid fight, I thought it was a weight problem so I’d move up, but the thing was I just made the weight badly.
“I ended up going to spar Mikkel Kessler before he fought Calzaghe and I remember thinking that if he can make 12 stone then I really should be as he is a huge guy.”
That decision would be vindicated as Magee regrouped once again and having put three wins together, it was back to England in December 2008 to face Stevie McGuire for the British super-middleweight title and this time there would be no denying him as he took the belt with a ferocious display of body punching to stop the champion in the eighth round.
Whilst that fight would see Magee split with Hawkins as trainer and also signal his last bout until January 2010, the ‘body snatcher’ had been born...
A native of Panama, Bernardo Checa had arrived in Belfast as a man hoping to emulate the exploits of his countryman Roberto Duran, but based in the Eastwood Gym, he soon found himself transitioning into a coaching role during a golden era in the 1980s.
Indeed, he would man the corner for ‘Hands of Stone’ on a couple of occasions in the later years of his career so it would be fair to say the man with a penchant for performing magic tricks had enough knowledge to add the magic dust Magee would require in the latter years.
“Bernardo’s style of training suited me and we really gelled, so I wish I’d have met him earlier.
“I had Alec Doherty in doing my strength and conditioning then as well so that was the time where a few pieces fell into place.
“I had great coaching up at Holy Trinity with Harry and Michael Hawkins - the best you would have got - but the new methods suited me a bit better.”
It would take little time for them to hit the winning formula as Magee travelled to Aarhus in Denmark for a showdown with Mads Larsen for the European title on January 30, 2010.
His body punching would again be the decisive weapon as he stunned the home fans with Larsen dropped in the fifth, twice in the sixth and for the fourth and final time in the seventh to claim the belt that had been denied to him against Tsypko five years earlier.
After an impressive defence against Roman Aramyan in Dublin later that year, a deal was done to challenge IBF champion, Lucian Bute, at the Bell Centre in Montreal just after St Patrick’s Day in 2011.
Whilst body shots had been his ally in previous fights, this time they were to prove his nemesis as Bute ripped through in the sixth and seventh to turn what had been a competitive and entertaining battle decisively his way with an uppercut in 10 closing the show.
“I just didn’t have the experience of all that razzmatazz and if I had that, maybe I’d have fought it a bit differently and been a lot more aggressive like I was against Larsen.”
Unlike previous defeats, there was no rebuilding job needed as his manager, Pat, had done a deal to get his man an immediate crack at the interim WBA title against Jamie Barboza in Costa Rica in July of that year.
Magee travelled out to Panama to complete preparations where his trainer, Checa, had learnt his trade.
“That was one of the toughest experiences of my career.
“I got my nose broken in my last spar out in Panama with this huge uppercut. It was so hot there that once you put the air conditioning on in the room, you were getting sniffles and my nose would bleed.
“I ended up needing to get this rod put in to burn the inside of my nose three days before the weigh-in and then fight.
“It was so hot and humid, I was just glad to win but think had it been over here I’d have stopped him maybe.”
Magee had far too much class for Barboza in a fight that almost descended into farce when the bottom rope snapped in the second round and forced a lengthy delay.
However, he focussed on the job and boxed his way to a comfortable victory that would again open doors.
Following another impressive win, ended again with a body shot, he took care of Rudy Markussen in Brondby, Denmark in February 2012 that would see him elevated to full WBA honours after.
Another big night lay in wait but initially, it wasn’t to be the opponent he would eventually trade leather with.
Andre Dirrell was fighting under the newly-formed TMT Promotions banner headed by rapper Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson alongside Floyd Mayweather Jnr and a deal had been agreed between the parties for Magee to travel to the United States to defend his title against the American.
However, a split between Mayweather and Jackson saw the deal fall through.
“We had the contract basically done, but then Mayweather came out of jail and he and 50 Cent had a falling out so their Money Team split up a bit and the contract was voided.
“The next best offer was to fight Kessler and I just thought that I was 38 and may as well fight the best out there.
“It turned into a bit of a nightmare because my boxing boots went missing, the gloves on the night were wrong, my protector went missing and then the drug test after it.”
On that December night in Herning, Denmark, as the snow fell outside the heat ramped up inside the BOXEN Arena as the Danes arrived to see if the ‘Viking Warrior’ could finally end Magee’s run of victories over Danish opposition.
His chosen Everlast gloves were discovered just before the fight to be 8oz and not the regulation 10oz for a super-middleweight bout so he was forced to wear Kessler’s spare Adidas set.
It would matter little as the golden boy of Nordic boxing ripped through Magee with body shots that would see the fight end in the third round.
A subsequent drug test would find health supplements taken by Magee to contain traces of a banned substance that was later proven to be unintentional by the fighter who immediately took a voluntary ban, but his name was later to be cleared of wrongdoing.
The whole episode would leave a sour taste and while he felt he could have fought on for a little while, the time had come to step away from the squared circle.
“That (drug test) was to do with a contaminated batch of supplements that had been sent to me. It would never have enhanced performance, but had traces of a banned substance in it.
“We got it retested with another batch and they ended up overturning the ban. I think I must be one of the only ones to have a ban like that overturned.
“That whole thing was a reason why I left boxing as I didn’t feel like I got any support from the Board over it. I had been tested about 50 times before and there was never an issue.
“I thought I maybe had another year left, but just decided to move on when I got the chance to open the gym and start the next phase of my life.
“I have been lucky to get that as I have come away from boxing with something to show for it.”
Magee Health and Fitness is now thriving with keep-fit classes, groups and individuals filing through to train with a former world champion.
Throughout his career, Magee banked the techniques and new developments in sports science he learnt during his career in the ring.
Briefly, he turned his hand to training fighters and even enjoyed a stint as strength and conditioning coach for Antrim’s footballers.
He walked away from boxing with plenty to show for his efforts and can look back with pride for all he accomplished.
His last opponent, Kessler is the man he ranks as his toughest foe: “After I had beaten the other top Danes, he had a bit of a point to prove that night.
“He was a really good all-round boxer who could box and punch hard.”
Perhaps the only regret is that he didn’t get to fight in his home city as often as he would have liked. By the time he had hung up his gloves, 18 years had passed since that fight against Reid at the King’s Hall.
It was simply a sign of the times with Belfast fighters having to travel for the big opportunities and big purses.
Things have changed now with some huge nights consistently coming to the city with the Ulster Hall also enjoying a renaissance as the home of boxing in Belfast.
Still, he got to bow out on his own terms and for that, he is eternally thankful.
“I’d love to have fought more at home and had some big nights,” he agreed.
“Most of my big fights were away and I can’t remember many nights where I wasn’t the underdog whether I was champion or not, so there was always that going against you with the travelling and staying in strange hotels.
“I was well looked after and Pat did an amazing job, but it was just how things were then.
“At the time, maybe I didn’t enjoy the moment as well as I could as I was always looking forward to the next one. But looking now, I have to say I’m very happy with what I did.
“Looking at Ryan Burnett having to retire through injury, I got the chance to do it all on my own terms so I count myself lucky.”
Magee achieved more in the sport than most fighters can only dream of. It was a life spent on the road, but the journey led to the ultimate destination.