Darren Cruise (26) from Cloonbonniffe, Castlerea, is County Roscommon’s first professional boxer in over 100 years. In a few weeks’ time he hopes to fight for the Irish middleweight title. Not only that, but Darren has his sights set on a bid for a world title at some stage in the future. Now based in Galway, Darren is training hard for his forthcoming bouts. He is a former Roscommon U-16 and minor county footballer and retains a strong interest in the fortunes of Castlerea St. Kevin’s and the Roscommon county football team. Indeed Darren was in New York for the recent championship game and met with his famous cousin Thomas McNamara, another man with Roscommon roots, who plays in the MLS for New York City alongside some of the biggest names in world soccer. SEAMUS DUKE met up with Darren recently…
SD: Where did it all start?
DC: I’m a born and bred Castlerea man, Cloonbonniffe actually, and I have one brother and one sister. My sister lives in London and my brother lives in Castlerea. My first introduction to boxing was when my father (Tom) brought me to boxing training in Loughglynn when I was seven. Mick Ward was the coach there at the time along with his son, Frank. My father wanted me to try something different and I have to say I didn’t really like it for the first two or three years, but then I got used to it and I began to like it – and here I am 20 years later (laughs).
SD: Tell me about your underage boxing career…
DC: I won countless titles in Connacht, in fact I was never beaten in Connacht at underage level. I won seven Connacht titles from the age of 12 to 18. I have won four Irish titles and I have boxed for Ireland 30 times too…I also won a silver medal at the European Championships (all as an amateur). I never made it to the Olympics though. I was beaten in a couple of box-offs by Kenneth Egan, who actually went on to win a silver medal at the Olympics in 2008.
SD: So what about the decision to turn pro, how did that come about?
DC: I went professional in 2011. I was training in Crumlin in Dublin with a coach called Philip Sutcliffe, who is legendary in Irish boxing circles. He was an Olympian in 1980 and 1984. He looks after a few pros in Dublin and I was training there and sparring with them and he made me an offer and I decided to take it. At that time Ken Egan was the champion at my weight in the amateur ranks and I knew that he would always be the top man at that weight for a number of years so I decided that I would give the pro game a rattle.
SD: So how has it gone for you since turning pro?
DC: My first pro fight was in 2011 in the City West Hotel in Dublin against a guy called James Tucker who was a tough Englishman from Doncaster. I won that – in fact I won my first three fights. I then went into the ‘Prizefighter’ competition in 2012, which was live on Sky Sports. That was a huge event and the winner got a prize of £32,000 sterling. You had to win three fights in the one night to win it but I was beaten in the first round by the man who got beaten in the final. It was great to be live on TV. I joined the army then later that year and I was out of the ring for almost a year and I moved to Galway. I got back into the boxing then again and I have had six fights since. Even though I am in the army I am a fully-fledged boxing pro. I’m living in Galway since 2012.
SD: What does your training involve?
DC: Training intensifies when there is a fight coming up. At the moment I have a fight in four weeks’ time so I am training very hard now. I am training twice a day, six days a week. I train in the morning before I go to work and I box every evening at 7.30 pm. My manager is a guy called Mark Dunlop, he is from Belfast and he manages a lot of pros who are based in Belfast.
My trainer is a man called Pavel Popko who is from Poland and he was the Polish national team coach in the past but now he lives in Galway, which is great, and I find him excellent. I have been with him over the past two years.
SD: What’s currently on the horizon for you?
DC: I am fighting an as yet unnamed opponent in four weeks’ time and I want to fight for the Irish middleweight title soon. I fought for the super-middleweight title in London nine weeks ago and I was edged out by one point, so I decided to drop a weight for this next fight. This next fight will be a six-round fight, which will get me back into the scene again. But I want to be Irish middleweight champion as soon as possible.
SD: Can I ask if this is ‘paying’ for you as a career?
DC: It is paying, but it is a lot of hard work and especially when you are based in the West of Ireland. You really should be based in Dublin in this game but I love it here. I think I have done well so far. There are only three or four pros in the West of Ireland. I am the only professional boxer in County Roscommon and the first in over 100 years. A guy called Jim Coffey was the last one. I have had no serious injuries, which is great, so hopefully that will remain the situation.
SD: Who were your heroes in the boxing ring?
DC: Ricky Hatton was my idol when I was growing up. In fact he is the man who is promoting the show when my next fight is on in Dublin. The press conference for that show was held last week and it was a huge honour to sit at the same table with him. When he was at the top, the fan base he had and the public appeal that he had was phenomenal. I loved his style of fighting too and here I am now working with him, which is a dream come true really. That fight will be on a programme which will be held at the National Stadium where I fought at least 50 times as an amateur. It will be my second time to fight there as a pro.
SD: Amateur boxing is at an all-time high in Ireland at the moment and the country is enjoying unprecedented success over recent years. Are you sorry you didn’t stay amateur for longer?
DC: I try not to look back and I don’t regret that decision to be honest, although the weight division I’m in is wide open at the moment. There is no Kenneth Egan there now and there is no Andy Lee either and when I was 19 or 20 those two guys were there and to be quite honest they were almost unbeatable at that stage. Now there is Michael O’Reilly at that weight. Joe Ward is there at light-heavyweight but he will probably go pro after the Olympics this year.
SD: How will the Irish boxers do at the Olympics this year?
DC: I think we will win three gold medals at least. Joe Ward, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon are looking good as far as I can see. Conlon and Barnes are very experienced now and if Joe Ward is on his game then he will be very hard to beat. Of course we have Katie Taylor too and she should win another gold as well.
There is unbelievable strength in amateur boxing in Ireland at the moment. We are in the top three or four countries in the world in terms of strength now, which is great to see.
SD: What’s the big ambition for Darren Cruise?
DC: My short-term goal is to win the Irish middleweight title as soon as I can. I am the number two super-middleweight at the moment and I want to be the number one middleweight. That title was won in the past by Steve Collins and Andy Lee, both of whom went on to win world titles. It’s a great stepping-stone for where I want to go.
Long-term I want to fight for a world title. That’s the aim. When I retire I want people to be able to look back and say ‘he was a good fighter’.
My dad (Tom) is a huge boxing fan. He rarely misses a fight. In my almost 20 years fighting he has missed very few fights – the ones he missed were out of the country – he has never missed one here in Ireland. My brother also follows my fights all the time. My mother, Bernadette, is a fan of me but not (of) the fights! She is the first one on the phone after a fight is over and she doesn’t care how I got on as long as I’m okay. She never watches me fighting and has no desire to do so either.
SD: Tell me about your famous relation in the USA?
DC: Thomas McNamara is his name and he plays Major League Soccer in the USA with New York City. He plays in midfield. He is a fully-fledged American himself and he is 25 years old. His grandmother, Mary, is a Cloonbonniffe woman and she went to America when she was nine years old. She is my dad’s sister and incidentally Thomas’ grandad is from Sligo.
Thomas is one of the best young players in the MLS. Patrick Vieira is the manager of the New York City team. Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo also play for them.
I went to see them play a few weeks ago when I was over for the Roscommon game against New York in the Connacht Championship. I went to see New York City play on the Saturday and the Rossies on the Sunday!
New York City play in Yankee Stadium and they won 2-1 (against Vancouver) the day I was there. Then on the Tuesday, Thomas’ dad brought me out to see them train and look at their facilities and I met all the players as well. That was a brilliant experience. By the way, Thomas McNamara wants to play for Ireland and hopefully he will get a chance to do that in the near future.