She did it, Da.
She did it, and I got to see it.
A lifetime waiting for that moment, and she did it.
D’you remember when you told me about Muhammad Ali, Da?
I was six. You were reading the paper, and I was annoying you.
- What’re you reading?
- I’m reading about Muhammad Ali son, the boxer
- Sounds like an Arab. Is he an Arab, Da?
- No, he’s an American and he’s the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s fighting Leon Spinks tonight.
- He must be good so.
- He is. He says he’s the greatest.
- Is he, Da?
- I’d say he is.
- It’s a funny name though Da. For an American like.
- He used to be called Cassius Clay.
- Why did he change his name?
- He won a medal at the Olympics and threw it in the river when he got home.
- Why did he do that?
- He’s a Black man son, and Black people didn’t have it easy back then.
You told me how he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, and how he talked as well as he fought. Sometimes better. And just like that I was in love with a man and a sport I’d never seen.
The next day I couldn’t wait for the paper to come. I had to ask you. Did he win?
- He didn’t.
I was shocked.
- I thought you said he was the greatest?
- Maybe you can’t be the greatest for ever. Maybe you can only be the greatest for a little while.
It didn’t matter. You taught me how to watch it, what they were doing, how you have to get the feet right before the hands fight, getting your head off the line, fighting from behind the jab and setting up the big shots. You told me about all those thousands of tiny things that decide the outcome.
There were other nights, and other chats.
Jimmy McGee and Harry Carpenter booming out of the telly. Sonny Liston. Barry McGuigan fighting Eusebio Pedroza. Hagler and Hearns. Sugar Ray and Duran.
Being old enough to go out with friends and watch Steve Collins, the Celtic Warrior, fight Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough. Mike Tyson (you never really liked him, did you?) and Frank Bruno and yer man Buster Douglas. Katie Taylor and Mick Conlan.
And it wasn’t just boxing. Ronnie Delaney, Kevin Heffernan, Christie Ring and Nicky Rackard, a plethora of names and records and deeds, stories told and retold until they were tattooed in my mind.
And then Kellie.
D’you remember the house on Portland Row, Da? Number 21. I loved that house, even though I never lived in it. We had left it and moved to Donnycarney by the time I was born. I still love that area, mad as it is and a stone’s throw from town. The world was against the people there – still is, for the most part - but they were never going down without a fight.
Years later our basketball team used to meet by the Five Lamps, lads from Sherriff Street and Portland Row, before we went to matches. I never lived there, but I wanted to belong there, and they never made me feel like I didn’t.
Kellie’s from up the road.
And right now, she’s nine minutes away from a gold medal at the Olympics, and I’m about fifty feet from the ring.
Nine minutes is not very long, is it?
Actually, three minutes is not very long. One mistake can cost you the round and make you try things you don’t want to try. Things that don’t come naturally. That can leave you open to more bad things. Many’s the boxer that has come unstuck in this hall already this week.
She seems a bit slow out of the blocks, Kellie. It’s as if she’s a bit surprised by the Brazilian going forward so aggressively, slipping and countering.
Then it all just clicks.
She’s something else Da. She really is. She’s switching from southpaw to orthodox and back again, so smooth you don’t even see it. She’s using her jab and scoring and staying out of trouble. Her head is hardly in the same place long enough to hit. God knows the Brazilian is trying. It’s like a chess match in there, but there’s only two pieces and they can both move wherever they want.
And just like that, it’s over. Nine minutes out of a lifetime.
She’s done enough. I’m sure of it, but you can never take anything for granted in this game, sure you can’t? I can hear you, half a world away, saying “never leave it to the judges”, but fights like this always go to the judges.
I’m still sitting down, pretending to be calm. The fight was over in a flash. The result seems to be taking an age.
Kellie is to the left, Ferreira to the right, the ref in the middle. What are they waiting for?
They start to make the announcement. Then they have to translate it.
Then they say it.
The new Olympic champion.
The handful of Irish cheer and clap and whoop. I can’t. It doesn’t look right in the press box. I can’t do anything but hold back the tears.
I’m half a world away. The rest of the world you told me about, the world of Caesar’s Palace, the MGM Grand, Madison Square Garden, the world you never got to see yourself?
I’ve seen it.
But I’ve never seen anything like this.
The English lad I’m with goes off to the mixed zone to be ready to ask questions when she comes through. I’m relieved because I don’t want him to see me cry.
There’s another medal fight. I know, because I wrote an article about it straight after, but for the life of me I can’t remember who won.
It doesn’t matter.
Then after that fight there’s a break, and they start setting up the podium in the ring.
The four women’s lightweight boxers troop in. The Finnish girl and the Thai Kellie beat in the semi are on the bottom step.
Then Ferreira, the Brazilian, gets the silver medal on the second step.
Then Kellie on the top step.
The Olympic champion.
Gracious and humble, giving a thumbs-up to those she vanquished.
They give her the medal and she holds it and stares at it. Because of the virus she has her mask on and she has to hang it around her own neck, but she doesn’t want to do it just yet. She doesn’t want to let it go. This is what it was all for.
In the end, they give her a little bouquet and she has to put the medal around her neck to free up her hands to take it off them.
A lifetime waiting for this moment.
The soldiers are waiting with the flags, the tricolour in the middle – not to the left, or the right, where the silver and bronze medallists’ flags are.
Smack bang in the middle.
She turns to face the flags. I think they all do, but I don’t really care about the others. I’m not looking at them.
They say her name again.
She’s crying even more.
We’re all standing up now.
The first five notes of “Amhrán Na Bhfiann” play, and the dam breaks.
The Soldier’s Song.
The tears are rolling down my cheeks now.
A lifetime waiting for this moment.
That’s how much it matters.
I love you, Da.
You’re the greatest.
And I wish you could have seen it with me.