From Coolock to a golden night in New York

From Coolock to a golden night in New York

The Irish Times – Monday, March 29, 2010


LOCKERROOM: BEING YOUNG. Pushing through those damn doors without knowing what’s on the other side. All going down the long slide like free bloody birds, as Philip Larkin says. Being young. Being gifted. Being a Dub.

Tom Hardwick went snowboarding on Saturday. Left the Bronx early. Over the stateline to Jersey and on toward Philly for a day of crack and laughter. It’s been a long winter. He owed himself.

It’s just a year since he hit New York. Nine months in Sydney wound down, and, instead of heading home to Coolock, Tom decided to give the Big Apple a chance to impress him. He did the Irish thing, old-style, because there is something old-fashioned about Tom Hardwick anyway. He got a place up near Yonkers and went working on the construction.

And sport. He wanted sport back. As a kid he and his best mate, Warren, lived through sport. When the time came Warren went up the Malahide Road to O’Tooles and Tom went down the road to St Vincent’s. Warren played some soccer.

Tom boxed a little in school. Being young.

Tom’s football career had slowed when he tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder, and when he was slowly rehabilitating he went back and did a little boxing again, slowly, painstakingly building himself back. In Yonkers one day he wandered through the doors of the YMCA gym in Getty Square with half a mind on just getting really fit again and half on maybe putting on a pair of gloves.

He met a bald black guy the size of a mountain. Jim Howard is 75 but once he was a contender. A New York City Golden Gloves champion back in the day before the day. He was coached by Cus D’Amato, a decent heavyweight at a time that meant something.

Tom went down to the Y just to get fit, but Howard saw something and encouraged him. Told him he should compete, a line of advice which came, in a way, straight down from old Cus D’Amato. They talked about the Golden Gloves, a magical tournament stretching back 80 years through the stogie-fumed heyday of New York City sports. Jim had won the gorgeous little medal, a pair of solid-gold gloves studded with a single diamond.

Tom had fewer than 10 fights. He was eligible for the novice class in the heavyweight division.

Meanwhile, back home in January, his old friend Warren, not long out of the Army, went, on behalf of a friend, to ask that the music from incessant parties be turned down. They came after him and ran a blade through him and left Warren dead at 24.

That’s Dublin. In New York, Tom broke training for a few days. Hit the drink. Decided then that he’d get back to work. He’d fight the Golden Gloves for his friend.

Set the alarm for half-four. Get out the house for quarter-to-five. Go for a run around Woodlawn cemetery. Damon Runyon is buried in there. Runyon would have loved this story. Four miles. Back home at twenty-to-six. Shower and a bowl of porridge. In work for seven. Finish at half-three in Brooklyn. Get back in around four o’clock, quarter-past, and be in the gym from five to seven or half-seven.

Sounds bad? Throw in the T-shirt up over his face and head, with just Tom’s eyes showing as he avoids frostbite.

The socks over the gloves in his hands. The days he doesn’t go out are the days when the snow is so bad you can’t see your hand in front of you.

It takes four bouts to get to a final. Couple of weeks earlier he got a bad cut on his nose sparring. In the run-up he wasn’t able to spar. Zachary Bunce, a cop. Big, black, toned dude who looked more like a super heavyweight. The bout was in Bunce’s gym out in Suffolk. Forty seconds in, he catches Tom with a left hook. Put him down. Tom bounced up like a ball. Took the standing eight. Went back out even more determined. Got caught with a straight right out of nowhere. Legs buckled. Fell against the ropes. Held himself up. Another standing eight. This wasn’t the plan.

Went back to the corner after the first round, he wasn’t even breathing heavy. Not a sweat broken. He talked to himself. Landed a straight right. Started working the big guy’s body. The first good punch he landed to Bunce’s body the cop let out this big long moan. Paydirt. That was February.

A week or so later. Ten days maybe. He’s fuzzy on it. Mount Vernon, not far from Yonkers. A small, heavy-set guy. Kinda stumpy but solid, Tom says. It was the last fight of the night. Weigh-in was at six. Had nothing to eat since three.

Ended up sitting in the changing room till half-eleven. Five-and-a-half hours sitting around. Battles going through his mind. Starving. By the time he went out to fight he had no desire to fight. He was weak and hungry.

He fell into a brawl. Let himself get in close till he copped on to use his longer reach in the third round instead of getting tied up on the inside. Good lesson. He enjoyed figuring it out on his feet. Where’s my advantage?

Where’s his? How do we fight to mine.

Gerry Cooney was there. Paulie Malignaggi, who fights Amir Khan in the Garden in a few weeks.

Two more between him and the final. A Dominican. Beat him easily. Noted that night a large, incredibly toned guy being almost dragged by the feet out of the ring in another bout. Looked up and saw the guy who would be his semi-final opponent. Stay out of the way of those haymakers, Tom said to himself.

The Golden Gloves final. Madison Square Garden. Note the Irish out. Many of them wearing the T-shirts that Tom got made up with a picture of his friend Warren on them.

Not long after Warren had died Tom was looking for a way to get his dreams going again. He went down Manhattan to Madison Square Garden. As a kid he’d loved Ali, still does, and the Garden’s magic still has the scent of the Greatest on it.

He walked around, looking at the names on the walls, breathing in the history. This was the place.

The ring has no room for sentiment though. This is the Garden now. A Thursday night in late March. In the other corner, Earl Newman Jnr out of the fabled Gleason’s Gym. Same stable and trainer as John Duddy. Fast feet. Long left jab and good left hook. Just 18-years-old and a couple of inches taller than Tom Hardwick. No sentiment.

Tom tried something. Straight rights without leading with his left. Just no warning. Boom boom. They split the first two rounds.

It came down to fitness and guts and determination in the third. All the mornings around Woodlawn in the cold. All the days put down with his old friend back in Dublin. It was never a fair fight.

So Tom Hardwick, novice Golden Gloves heavyweight champion, went snowboarding on Saturday. Tomorrow night he gets down to training with the New York Gaelic football team. They host Galway in about six weeks.

The phone rings a lot these days. People wanting a piece of him. He knows each time that he won’t be picking it up and hearing Warren O’Connor on the other end of the line. He knows you live for now and do everything you can do, because nothing is endless. Especially youth.