boxing factory | 

As in the movie Field of Dreams it was a case of build it and they will come

Offaly town has become centre of excellence for elite international female boxers thanks to Brereton

World and Olympic superstar Mary Kom of India has trained in St Brigid’s© Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sean McGoldrickSunday World

Edenderry in County Offaly is the improbable location for a world renowned female boxing academy, but for almost a decade now many of the sport’s top amateur fighters, from Indian superstar Mary Kom to the current light heavyweight world champion Gabriele Stonkute from Lithuania, have sparred in St Brigid’s Boxing Club in the town.

Our own heroes, Katie Taylor, Kellie Harrington, Amy Broadhurst, the O’Rourke sisters, and hundreds of other Irish fighters have trained there as well.

It is the strength in-depth of Irish female boxing from junior to elite level which keeps the foreign fighters trekking back to the midlands town.

As in the movie Field of Dreams it was a case of build it and they will come. In Edenderry’s case Liam Morley Brereton was a real life Ray Kinsella.

The Brereton name is synonymous with boxing in Ireland.

Liam’s father Sean ‘Dutch’ Brereton built the ring used for the famous Muhammad Ali-Al blue Lewis heavyweight fight in Croke Park in 1972.

The heavyweight icon gifted ‘Dutch’ Brereton the gloves he used during the sparring sessions in Croke Park. They now hang proudly in Edenderry Boxing Club.

Ali never forgot his encounter with the Edenderry native.

More than two decades later Liam, a roofer by trade, was working on the first free-standing Muslim mosque to be built in Chicago.

“There was a bit of commotion one day because all the top bosses and the financier of the project were coming to visit. This big white Cadillac drove into the site and out stepped Muhammad Ali (right). He was the financier.

“After a day or two I got talking to him. I swear to God he remembered my auld lad and what happened in Croke Park.”

St Brigid’s Boxing Club was founded in 1933 by a guard, a solicitor, a school-teacher and a bank manager, according to Brereton, whose brother Martin boxed for Ireland at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Though he boxed, Liam Brereton’s first love was athletics. Having returned to Edenderry after working abroad, he didn’t return to the boxing club.

“After Katie Taylor won the Olympic gold medal in London my daughter Maeve who had a huge interest in all sport said she wanted to learn how to box. Brereton’s first cousin Jim Murrin, a life-long stalwart of both the club and the IABA suggested he get involved again and coach the girls. Before long he was hooked.

With a background in business and armed with a ‘can-do’ attitude, a refusal to take no for an answer, and a disdain for bureaucracy it wasn’t long before he began to make waves in the corridors of power in the Irish Athletic Boxing Association.

“One day Dominic O’Rourke (former president of the IABA) asked me about raising money for a training camp ahead of the EU Women’s Boxing Championships in 2013.”

Brereton offered to organise the camp in Edenderry, with the girls and coaches staying in local guest houses.

Better still, he persuaded a business friend to donate €7,000 in sponsorship to fund the camp.

Led by Katie Taylor, that Irish squad won five gold, three silver and seven bronze medals at the EU Championships in Keszthely, Hungary.

“I went along as a supporter. I thought the girls were f… brilliant.”

On the flight home Brereton told the girls Ireland would be sending a team to the World Youth and Junior Women’s Championships six weeks later in Albena in Bulgaria.

The only problem was there was no money in the IABA budget for the trip.

Informed by a top official that the girls would be going nowhere, Brereton replied: “If I said they’re going, they’re going.”

With the aid of a loan from the club, a €1,000 donation from an old-age pensioner and a dig-out from his business associate who sponsored the training camp, he raised the €16,000 needed.

They won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal at the championship, while Ciara McGinty was named Boxer of the Tournament.

Meanwhile, in Edenderry Brereton was now the driving force behind the transformation of the club’s home, which now boasts on-site accommodation for up to 30 boxers, toilets, showers, kitchen facilities and an office.

The latest project saw the installation, at a cost of €16,000, of overhead ring cameras which capture the sparring sessions from four different angles, with the feed being fed live to anywhere in the world that wants it.

Next month the emerging superstar of Indian women’s boxing, Lovlina Borgohain, who became only the third Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal when she secured bronze in the welterweight division in Tokyo last year, is due in Edenderry for a training camp.

“Her coaches back in India can now watch her sparring session live via YouTube,” said Brereton.

The club has secured over €250,000 in government grants to finance the transformation of the club.

Brereton acknowledges he has cajoled, badgered and, at times, bullied politicians, up to and including government ministers, to make his case.

“I’m a big GAA man myself but I couldn’t understand why they were always getting grants, whereas boxing clubs were losing out.”

Between 2013 and 2019 Brereton travelled all over the world with Irish under-age female boxing teams; he became a three-star boxing coach and networked with boxing officials globally.

The lack of sparring opportunities for female fighters was a recurring theme on these trips.

Brereton mentioned the club in Edenderry – it being only an hour’s drive from Dublin Airport.

The trump card was the availability of qualify Irish fighters to spar against.

“They are the best in the world,” he said. “People don’t realise the wonderful talent we have in Ireland. Unfortunately, it is not nurtured properly, because the right structures are not in place.”

Sweden was the first country to send a full squad, Poland came next, Canada made two trips in the space of a few months.

Now virtually every country in Europe send female squads and the boxers keep returning. Prior to Covid-19, India sent three squads annually.

He has worked with boxers from Sierra Leone and took on the role of development manager with the Cayman Island boxing federation during Covid-19.

“I cannot sit down. One day during the lockdown I walked for six hours and 27 minutes. So, the job in the Cayman Islands was the handiest way to deal with Covid-19.

“But there was no way I was going to walk away from what has been created here. We call it the home of female boxing and nobody has contradicted us yet,” is Brereton’s parting shot.

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