Ireland was a great place to be back in the mid-1990s. World Cup qualification and Eurovision hegemony appeared a given, while the roar of a green, white and gold Celtic Tiger was ushering in an unparalleled, though ultimately arenaceous, period of economic growth and prosperity.
Amidst the revelry, a Celtic Warrior rode the crest of the emerald wave across the Irish Sea to gate-crash and then dominate the golden age of Super Middleweight boxing in the British Isles. All in all, it was a fine time to be an Irishman and, presumably, even better if you were an Irishman named Steve Collins. Right?
“I used to think that my life was like that Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue, that’s how I used to look at things. I had to fight a lot of people growing up, boys wanting to tell everyone that they beat up Steve Collins’ son.”
Steve Collins’ son is, of course, Steve Collins Jr. and growing up in Dublin, his was the biggest scalp for local hard lads looking to stamp their authority on the playground. With the, my da could beat up your da claim highly unlikely to hold much water in this instance, young Steve was, in the late, great Mr Cash’s words, forced to grow up quick, with mean fists and a keen wit.
Yet it was as a hooker on the rugby pitch rather than the boxing ring that Junior first made his mark. “From an early age I showed a lot of talent and a lot of potential at the rugby so they sort of kept me out of the boxing gym so I could concentrate on that.”
That talent and potential led to a place in the Leinster youth setup before signing professional contracts with a variety of teams including Lansdowne in Dublin and Wasps and Irish in London. They were all short-term deals, however, and the nomadic front-rower describes himself with a laugh as “almost like a journeyman of rugby.”
So it wasn’t until he was in his twenties that Steve Jr., by this time six foot tall and almost 17 stone of solid muscle designed to withstand the rigours of ball carrying and tackling on the rugby field, finally laced up the gloves and climbed through the ropes.
“I remember the first time I did pads with my uncle Paschal [renowned Dublin-based trainer], he kept telling me to keep my hands up, but due the density of my muscles from all the weights I’d been lifting for rugby, but I just couldn’t do it and I remember thinking, Jesus, I won’t be able to do this.”
But with the decision made to concentrate on the boxing, the iron-pumping was cut out completely and, slowly but surely, Steve started to come down to a more natural fighting weight. He has already shed three stone to sit comfortably within the Cruiserweight division and the twelve and a half stone Light Heavyweight category could be where he finally settles. Just three kilos above his father’s old Super Middleweight stomping ground as it happens.
Steve Jr. knows that, at least at this early stage of his pugilistic career, his old man is bound to crop up in the vast majority of conversations he has in boxing circles. And his mature acceptance of this fact is made clear by the measured way in which he discusses the patronymic double-edged sword.
It has undoubtedly been somewhat of a cross to bear at times, but Collins Jr. is the type of young man that prefers to focus on the positives. “I’m very happy with my name because it has made me mentally and physically stronger and given me a lot of drive to make my own mark. I want people look at me and say, there’s Steve Collins, and not, there’s Steve Collins’ son.”
He also acknowledges that it can open a few doors in boxing and cites the example of Frank Warren being eager to put him on his cards after just one professional fight.
But perhaps the greatest advantage of his illustrious name is the automatic entry to the Celtic Warrior gym in Dublin it affords. A shoulder injury, and the subsequent inability to fight or work in England, has led to Steve spending a year back home in the Irish capital. There, he is thriving under the tutelage of his uncle Paschal and absorbing information from the pros that frequent the family gym.
When I suggest the place has the potential to develop into the world class hub that Irish boxing so craves, Collins tells me it is already well on its way to achieving such status. “We’ve guys coming over [from the UK] for sparring and camps, we’ve just signed the high profile Frank Buglioni, and with guys renting from uncle Paschal you sometimes have five or six trainers with a couple of guys each using the gym at the same time. The place is hopping”
And while the Matthew Macklin-owned MGM Gym in Marbella may have been getting more attention recently, the performances of Gary O’Sullivan, Luke Keeler and Jono Carroll on the Return of the Mack undercard in Dublin last weekend show the level of talent operating in the Celtic Warrior.
As well as Buglioni, O’Sullivan, Keeler and Carroll, the likes of Stephen Ormond, Sean Turner and Ian Tims are all regulars as well so Collins does not struggle for quality sparring. “I’ll jump in with anyone, it doesn’t bother me. I’ll get in with Luke and try to keep the pace fast and then with Sean and try and work a bigger more powerful guy.”
Fellow Cruiserweight, Ian Tims, receives special praise. “I need Timsy, he’s like a mentor to me. After sparring he’ll sit down with me and tell me what I did great and what I might need to work on. He’s very clever, a cute boxer, and I’m lucky to have someone like that around.”
He certainly is, particularly when you consider that Collins Jr. does not have the traditional foundation of an amateur career to build on. He describes his surroundings as feeling alien during the first minute of that first fight, but he is quickly settling into his new profession. “I know I have the talent and I’m more than capable. I’m only lacking one ingredient: experience.”
When he says this I immediately recall the famous Einstein quote about experience being the only source of knowledge. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t dare argue with the logic of a functionary in the Swiss patent office, but in this case I have to question whether Albert factored in the possibility of a boxer having Steve Collins as a father when he delivered this particular pearl of wisdom.
Certainly, Steve Jr. is fully aware of the advantage of having such an invaluable resource so close to hand. “The one-on-one time I got with him while I was in England was great for me – it turned me into a different fighter. He broke everything down and then fixed a lot of things and I developed very, very quickly while working with him.”
If anything is going to make up for a lack of experience, it is a father-uncle combination like Steve senior and Paschal.
That said, it must be acknowledged that the lack of ring-time undoubtedly makes the process of building Collins Jr.’s record and managing his career progression even more delicate than usual. But he is adamant that he is neither receiving favours nor being wrapped in cotton wool. Even at this fledgling stage, he is keen to be tested and pushed.
“I want high end journeymen at this stage, not a Lithuanian plumber who’s there to get banged out for a few quid because that’s not going to help me at all. So I ask Paschal to get me someone tough, someone who will take and throw shots.”
And that is exactly what he has faced in his first four contests, all swing-bouts that ultimately went the distance, with none ending in defeat. The shoulder injury kept him out of action for the guts of eight months but he has just completed a full training camp in preparation for a slot on the undercard of this Saturday’s Fury Chisora rematch in London’s ExCel Arena.
Prospective opponent Lee Kellet has just pulled out injured so it could be the 11th hour before Steve knows who he’s up against in the Docklands. The uncertainty does not trouble him, however. He only asks that they find someone who is of a decent standard, someone who “will take a few punches and is there to fight.”
At the end of the interview, and with the tune of A Boy Named Sue still buzzing around my subconscious, I wonder if Steve Jr. has ever traded leather in anger with the man who named him. I picture the two crashing through the ropes and into the street, kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer. It would make for a great story but, of course, there has been no such showdown.
Throughout our conversation, Collins Jr. comes across as a man with his head firmly screwed on his broad shoulders. He is open and engaging and speaks with an assured confidence that never spills into arrogance.
There is great respect and admiration in his voice as he discusses topics as varied as his father’s achievements, his uncle’s coaching ability, his stable mates’ performances, the role journeymen play in the sport or, having taken in Frampton v Cazares at the Odyssey Arena in April, the Belfast fight fans.
He basically comes across as someone who, regardless of surname, is destined to achieve great things in life. Boxing will certainly be a part of that, as will the birth of his first child in the spring of 2015. And in case you are wondering, no, despite the gravel in his guts and the spit in his eye, Collins Jr. has no intention of naming any sons he may have Steve.