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The long and winding road for champion boxer Noel Magee built on courage and skill

Noel Magee relaxes at his home in Newcastle, Co. Down with his grandchildren and new version of the Commonwealth title belt he was recently presented with Noel Magee relaxes at his home in Newcastle, Co. Down with his grandchildren and new version of the Commonwealth title belt he was recently presented with
By David Mohan

“Has he quit? Has he quit? He has, you know. Delaney has quit on his stool. I don’t know why, but something is clearly very wrong and against all the odds, Magee has won the title.”
(Eurosport commentator, David Brenner)

IF at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Noel Magee had made four attempts to claim a professional title and on each occasion came up short, but he had made a promise to himself that he would have something to show for his efforts before he hung them up.

While a succession of title losses can be demoralising for a prizefighter, finally reaching the promised land makes that seminal victory taste all the sweeter.

Magee was never short of courage or skill, but he had run into rivals who were to scale the highest peaks of the sport.

That all would change at the Festival Hall in Basildon 25 years ago when stepping through the ropes to face Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion Garry Delaney. This was his moment and there would be no denying the man from Ardoyne.

“It goes past in the blink of an eye; I can’t believe it’s 25 years since I won it.”

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Noel Magee was born on December 16, 1965, and grew up amid an air of descending chaos in Belfast.

Ardoyne was one of its epicentres with political violence exploding throughout the 1970s, but it was fistic fury that held a greater intrigue.

Older brother Terry was a regular in the nearby Sacred Heart Boxing Club so it was no surprise that a 10-year-old Noel followed him through the doors.

Like his sibling and indeed, younger brother Eamonn, Noel quickly discovered a love for the sweet science.

“A school friend just said he was going to the Sacred Heart Club around the corner from us,” he recalls.

“Although my older brother was in boxing, I just wanted to go and see what it was like. Once I started punching the bag, something just clicked.”

In many ways, his amateur career was to mirror that as a professional. Goals were set, but it took a little time to reap the rewards. Until the age of 15, he just couldn’t get over the final hurdle, but then it all began to come together.

An Antrim Youth Championship began a run of victories that would see him collect an Irish Youth title before Antrim and Ulster Intermediates in the following years.

The main target was an Irish Senior title and in 1984, he travelled to Dublin and got the victory against Steve Collins to be crowned light-heavyweight champion.

A second victory over Collins would earn him his place on the Irish team and the following year, he closed out his amateur days with the Ulster Senior title before he again was to follow in Terry’s footsteps.

“Terry turned professional at 18 with a guy called Pat Brogan in Stoke-on-Trent, so Terry must have told him about me winning the All-Ireland and then I got a phone call from Pat Brogan saying he would take me on.

“I was out of work at the time and had a child on the way, so turning pro was as much about getting a job as anything.

“I ended up going over there to live, got married and topped the bill in Stoke a few times.”

Nigel Prickett was the man in the opposite corner on May 22, 1985, when Magee made his debut at the European Sporting Club in Stoke, winning by first-round knockout.

The fights and victories would come thick and fast as he amassed a 10-0 record within just 12 months, but things began to slow down even though he would win his next four contests.

“Over the next 11 years, I only had 27 fights so it was a bit of a frustrating career,” he continued.

“I wanted to get going and the fights wouldn’t come.”

The first blemish came with a razor-thin points loss to John Held in October 1987 that was to instigate an up-and-down run that left his record at 16-2-2 before he got his first big chance – a British title fight against Sam Storey in November 1989 for the fellow Belfast man’s super-middleweight title. Magee made the weight comfortably – too comfortably – and this contributed to a ninth-round loss and an acrimonious split with Brogan: “I was a light-heavyweight from I was 17. My management asked me to drop to super-middleweight and I ended up fighting Sam Storey.

“I was over-trained and under-advised in those days because I ended up only 11 stone, six pounds on the day of the fight and ended up losing.

“I went into the Eastwood Gym after losing, thinking what went wrong, but once I saw the video of how skinny and drained I was, I just sacked my management. I had talks with Barney and he took me on.”

The Eastwood Gym was the place to be in those days and Noel found his home there, trained by John Breen back at his natural light-heavyweight.

He returned to the ring with a win over Glazz Campbell at the Kings Hall in October 1990 and would win his next six contests to earn him a crack at British champion Maurice Core.

Not for the first or last time, the ninth round was to prove his nemesis as the Mancunian prevailed on home turf.

That defeat didn’t prevent another title shot in his next outing, this time against a man who would go onto become one of Europe’s top pound-for-pound fighters at the time – Dariusz Michalczwski. The Pole would go on to become the unified and lineal world light-heavyweight champion, while also picking up a cruiserweight strap. On that night in Germany, Michalczwski had too much for Magee and won in eight rounds.

Two wins later, Noel was back in title action. This time it was Fabrice Tiozzo for the European title in March 1995, but the Frenchman would prevail in the fourth round and he too would go onto become a two-weight champion.

It seemed he was destined to finish up without that belt he craved, but two months later his fortune was about to change. The call came in for Magee to face Commonwealth champion Garry Delaney and with the thought of giving it one more crack, off he went to Essex.

Delaney was regarded as a hot prospect at the time having won the Commonwealth and WBO Inter-Continental titles in consecutive fights, stopping 13 of 19 victims with one draw before he would defend against Magee. They had been due to meet before Magee’s European title loss, but a hand injury had forced the Londoner to delay.

As was the rather antiquated practice at the time with Commonwealth title fights, the boxers entered the ring with hands wrapped, but only gloved-up when both inside the squared circle. The delay didn’t affect Magee, who quickly settled into the fight, popping out his jab despite conceding height and reach.

As the rounds passed, the man from Ardoyne grew in confidence and despite sustaining a nasty cut over his left eye from a head clash in the fourth, he poured forward and was dominating. The champion did rally in the sixth, but there was no stopping Magee on this occasion as he rallied in the seventh with Delaney looking ragged and by the end of the round, he was done, citing a fractured hand as the reason why he didn’t come out for the eighth. However, Magee was a long way ahead on the cards and a worthy winner, becoming the first and only Irishman to claim the Commonwealth light-heavyweight title.

“I knew I was a 10/1 underdog. He was an undefeated fighter, had won the Commonwealth title, the WBO Inter-Continental title and I think he was ranked number two in the world by the WBC, so he was a big knockout artist at the time. I was going in like it was the last chance saloon and took the title off him.

“Like the amateurs, I set myself a goal to win a major title. I never thought I would be a world champion, but I always felt I was good enough to win a British or Commonwealth. It took me 10 years to do it, but I achieved it, so I could leave the sport happy.”

Ordinarily, a champion who had gone into the lion’s den and ripped the title away could be expected to enjoy a routine defence or two on home turf, but that wasn’t to be.

On the night ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed bamboozled and beat-up Steve Robinson for the world featherweight title in Cardiff, Magee had his own showdown with a Welshman.

Chief support for Hamed’s coronation, Magee defended against local favourite and world title challenger Nicky Piper. He exuded the confidence earned from his title win as he took it to the challenger and looked on course for a big win, but a cut to his eye turned the tide and Piper closed the show in the ninth, with Magee admitted to hospital and losing his memory for a spell after.

“I won the Commonwealth title, but I didn’t get the couple of home defences.

“Barney was talking about world titles even though I wasn’t in that league, so the next thing was he got me a fight over in Cardiff against Nicky Piper who was one of the hardest punchers I faced.

“I nearly stopped him in the second round but he held on. I was thinking ‘oh, I’ll get him later’ but I ended up getting cut in the eighth round and then got caught in the next one because your head’s all over the place.

“Nicky was unlucky not to win the world title against (Leeonzer) Barber before that so it was no disgrace to lose to him, but it would have been nice had Barney given me a few fights at home to defend the title. I just got thrown in at the deep end a lot.”

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Boxing has been described as ‘show business with blood’, yet the number of ‘A-Listers’ in terms of fame and fortune are few and far between.

Magee didn’t earn the purses that would allow him to sail off into the sunset and indeed, during his career, he worked on building sites and nightclub doors to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. It was during a spell in 1997 when work was scarce he went back to what he knew best.

Sixteen months had passed since he lost his Commonwealth title when he returned with a routine win over John Duckworth at cruiserweight and that set-up a battle of North Belfast with Irish champion Darren Corbett.

‘The Raging Bull’ was coming into the peak of his powers and had the size advantage of being a natural at the weight. It proved a bridge too far with a pair of knockdowns in the second ending the fight and Magee’s career.

“I lost to Darren because I was no cruiserweight. You’re going up to 14 stone and I was always fighting at 12 stone seven.

“When I fought Darren he was one of the most dangerous cruiserweights in the world. He put me down twice, the second time I broke my ankle and I just walked to the microphone and announced my retirement there and then.

“I was really happy Darren went onto become Commonwealth cruiserweight champion because it meant I didn’t lose to a nobody. I was there that night cheering him on when he won it (against Chris Okoh).”

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Magee had achieved all he had dreamed of and made a piece of history that night against Delaney, so retirement wasn’t a bitter pill to swallow.

Younger brother Eamonn would take the baton and secure another Commonwealth title for the fighting family from Ardoyne, this time at light-welterweight and later a WBU title while coming within an ace of derailing the Ricky Hatton express.

Older brother Terry won Irish titles as an amateur and professional, while another brother, Patrick was a highly decorated amateur.

Magee has lived in Newcastle, Co. Down for 27 years and enjoys the gentler pace of life there.

While some boxers leave the sport never to return, for Noel, he threw himself into coaching at the local club and passed on the tips and tricks he amassed during his own illustrious career.

These days, he works at Shannaghmore Outdoor Centre near Newcastle and still gets a thrill from staying active, while his young grandchildren also keep him busy.

“I love my job and couldn’t be in better. It pays the bills, but I get a great buzz out of it and looking after all the gear, handing out the wetsuits and things like that.

“I left Belfast in 1993 to come to Newcastle because of the Troubles. I wanted to get my kids out of that environment and as soon as I did, I sent my two kids to an integrated school.

“My son is the head teacher in a secondary school and my daughter is working away too, so they’re all happy. I’ve nine grandkids so I’m kept busy, but it’s just a great way of life here.”

Boxing is the most unforgiving sport of them all with very few happy endings, but sometimes there is a beauty in that imperfection.

The refusal to back down in the face of adversity is the overriding trait that shines through and for Noel Magee, this translated into that title win at the fifth time of asking.

The history books continue to show he remains the only Irishman to ever win a Commonwealth light-heavyweight title and nothing can ever take that away from him.

“I turned professional on May 22, 1985, and it was May 9, 1995, when I won the Commonwealth title. I could have walked away from the game a load of times, but I stuck at it and achieved my goal.

“There are some great memories and I ended up in the history books. My kids know what can be achieved if you work hard enough for it.”

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