Ukrainian boxing superstar Oleksandr Usyk has become a hurling fan thanks to a 13-year-old Belfast schoolboy.
Usyk, the former undisputed World cruiserweight champion and 2012 Olympic gold medallist, turned up with a hurley and sliotar at a press conference ahead of his heavyweight fight against Dereck Chisora in Wembley Arena tomorrow night.
As Micheál O’Muirchearthaigh might say, Usyk’s native city Simferopol is not a hurling stronghold. But thanks to young Michael Marlow, the undefeated fighter and probable future World heavyweight champion now knows about Ireland’s native game.
Michael is a sports fanatic according to his Dad Mark, who says: “He has been boxing since he was nine with the Holy Trinity club here in Belfast and he also plays hurling with St Galls. He has always been a big fan of Oleksandr."
A student at St Mary’s Grammar school in west Belfast, Michael was bitterly disappointed when the first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed.
“He had been training for months in preparation for the All-Ireland schoolboys’ boxing championships. He was really fed up when everything was called off.”
Michael sat down one night during the lockdown and wrote a letter to Usyk, telling him about his exploits in the ring and on the GAA fields.
His Dad Mark, a press photographer, emailed the letter to Rival Boxing Gear, whose CEO Russ Anber has been working in Usyk’s corner during his recent fights.
The email found its way to Anber, who contacted Mark and asked him to send Usyk some of Michael’s boxing gear which the boxer would autograph during his stay in London ahead of tomorrow night’s fight.
On his own initiative, Michael went one better. He bought a hurley and the new yellow-coloured sliotar in O’Neills Superstore in Belfast, spending £28 of his pocket money. He then autographed the hurl and together with a boxing singlet sent the package by express post to the Hilton Hotel in Wembley where Usyk is staying ahead of the fight.
“I was shocked when Ross Anber contacted me earlier this week. He went out of his way to see that Usyk got Michael’s letter and the hurley stick. He couldn’t have been more helpful,” said dad Mark.
A signed vest is on its way to Michael Belfast’s home from the Ukrainian, who acknowledged the youngster during the press conference. “I got it (the hurley) from a boy called Mickey in Ireland,” he revealed to the bemused reporters.
The story was an instant hit on social media and Michael is thrilled, according to his Dad. “He was beaming when he saw it on Sky.
"The only thing he was disappointed about was that he didn't explain to Oleksandr the proper way to hold the hurley."
Michael's next ambition is to see his hero in action live. His father had planned to bring him to the fight in London, but it is now taking place behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions. “The next time he is fighting anywhere in Europe we will go.”
Known as the Cat, Usyk is rated as one of the best pound for pound fighters in professional boxer. After a brilliant amateur career, during which he won gold medals at heavyweight both at the World championship and the Olympic Games, he turned professional in 2013 and has won all but four of his 17 fights via knockout.
The 33-year-old became the first cruiserweight in history to hold all four major world belts and he was named the 2018 Fighter of the Year.
He is now focussing on the blue riband heavyweight division and if he beats Chisora tomorrow night he will earn a shot at WBO champion Anthony Joshua next year.