Boxing

Through Hell And Back: The Inspirational Story Of Caoimhin Agyarko

Through Hell And Back: The Inspirational Story Of Caoimhin Agyarko

Caoimhin Agyarko is a boxer. There are few who could match his dedication. It is an obsession; the technicalities, the styles, the mechanics, the movement. A passion that is palpable. There was never anything else that he wanted to do.

He fulfils a life-long dream on Saturday. A professional debut that will be broadcast live on BT Sport. The 21-year-old was destined for topflight from a young age. He recently signed a management and promotional deal with Frank Warren, which explains why his blockbuster inauguration to the paid ranks will play out as a six-rounder on live television. However, this is not just the commencement of a journey but also the end of one. Through hell and back, Agyarko is now ready to move on and take his big chance. No one deserves it more.

Born in Croydon to an Irish mother and a Ghanaian father, Caoimhin moved to Belfast when he was just a child. There he found Holy Trinity Boxing Club, tucked into a housing estate along Norfolk Way. Every day he looked upon those red-brick walls, adorned with fight posters and flags of the globe. His calling became clear. Agyarko wanted to be a boxer; it defined his being.

“I wanted to be at the top of the sport, to totally understand it,” He admits. From the age of twelve, he knew he wanted to dedicate every waking moment to the sweet science. Professionalism was a means to do so.

"The goal was to do that. I understood that boxing is a business, but I knew that is what I wanted to do. I love boxing. I love training. I love the good and the bad. I love the movement."

"Every single day of my life is about boxing. I always wanted to be a boxer; a professional is just someone who gets paid for it."

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Growing up, Agyarko developed a deeper understanding of the sport than the typical athlete. In his unmistakable Belfast brogue, he reminisces on a childhood made up of hours in front of an old computer, watching internet footage of Floyd Mayweather, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. At 12 years old, these videos were utilised for research purposes. Consistently learning, focused on his goal.

"When I was a lot younger, I was always watching YouTube footage of their training methods to see what they used to do and what I could do myself."

 It was always small details. Low moves, weight changes, feints, or even a training method that they would have done for hand speed, footwork or head movement. I would try that in my own gym.

They won’t all work for me, but it’s about finding the right thing for me. So as a kid, you try ten different things; maybe only two or three work and you improve from there.

This dedication reaped rewards in the form of six national championships. He quickly developed a reputation as a mean power-puncher and blossomed in Belfast. Underpinning that all was a pride in his unique background. Agyarko knew who he was from an early age; the Irish-Ghanaian boxer. It's a peculiarity that was embraced.

This definition, this self-imposed label is why Agyarko takes such offence at anyone who tries to inhibit his boxing. Twice in his life he felt like others tried to stop him from doing what he loved. Eventually, this obstruction nearly killed him, literally.

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That was in 2017, but in early 2016 the first set-back unfolded. This was a time pre-Rio’s Olympic controversy and the AIBA storm that has engulfed amateur boxing. The crooked system had disposed of Agyarko long before then.

"For 2016, I had the Olympics as a priority even though I was very young, I was just 19. That was the Olympics that I wanted to go to. There was also talk about Tokyo if I went to the 2018 Commonwealth games but over that year it got to me, I just fell out love with training. I felt pushed out of love with it, the last year and a half were very tough for me."

"I had to force myself to train. I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t get Rio. I didn’t qualify for the Commonwealth Games. I had a two-year plan and I didn’t get to meet my targets. I wasn’t happy going through it. It became a chore. There is no point in giving your time to something if you are not happy..."

There is no bitterness in his voice. He remains relaxed throughout the conversation. That is not to say he pulls any punches; Agyarko is scathing when he discusses the organisational structures that have landed amateur boxing in the state it is currently in.

I’m not saying anything new. The amateur circuit is corrupt. Some of the decisions I got in the last three years - I was beaten on three split decisions for fights I should have won. You’d say to yourself, ‘maybe if I performed beyond myself, I would have won’ but still they were fights I should have been awarded. Amateur boxing did not… I was giving my time training six or seven days a week and then they don’t give you decisions you should be getting.

"Amateur boxing in itself is just.... just look at people like Michael Conlan. It is disheartening, I was coming through. For all the younger generation, it is not nice to see that. They will ask, "what if that happens to me one day?"

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"Even that. You want your own to do well. Michael Conlan is a such a talented boxer but he is also a hard worker. I thought he would win the Olympics even with everything that is going on. Unfortunately, it was out of his hands. He won the fight but didn’t get the decision."

By 2017, Agyarko had begun weighing up his future intentions. The pro game beckoned but his Holy Trinity coaches were adamant he should take his time and ensure he made the right call for his own happiness.

Because from an early age, that was ultimately what Caomhin Agyarko chased; to be happy. Boxing guaranteed that and became his drug. A vehicle for fulfilment. The Belfast middleweight doesn’t drink and is reserved in conversation. But he comes alive in the ring; that is where he is at home.

Saturday’s electrifying debut could have come sooner, if not for a scandalous incident on May 1, 2017. It was late in Belfast city and Agyarko had just accompanied his girlfriend on a night out. They decided to go to McDonalds before heading home. Then he was the victim of a life-altering crime.

That night Agyarko was viciously attacked by a gang of men and stabbed in the neck. The knife came within an inch of his artery and left him requiring over 30 stitches. His family only discovered his phone and wallet were missing when he was brought to the hospital. No one has ever been charged or identified for the assault.

 I was out for five months after that. That was a dark and lonely place. At the time, it changed my life massively. It felt like they took boxing away from me. It was very difficult. I try to look at things now as either a blessing or a lesson. Now maybe going through it made me realise things. If there is anything I want to do in life, I have to do it because something like that can happen. I will do what I have to do to make me happy.

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"It’s hard. It depends. With me getting stabbed I was angry and hurt. I still am angry and hurt. It is was so tough to be attacked but on top of that, the justice system didn’t do anything. They didn’t find anyone."

"I mean I never got any compensation. Not that I was just looking for something out of it but they denied me compensation because no one was done for GBH. I am disappointed in that. And hurt and angry that someone could do that to me."

"It just became such a messed-up situation. It’s hard to process that. I was innocent and got stabbed. But all that came of it was me left like that, a victim."

Understandably, Agyarko struggled to process the attack. The consequences were severe. As is so often the case with victims of violence, the real damage manifested itself in obscured ways.

Physically I have a scar down my face, it took two weeks or so for the cut to close and heal. It didn’t take too long physically. Mentally though...I still have mental health issues now. I am not afraid to talk about them. I am just so thankful for my girlfriend. I can sit and talk to her about them. Once you go through something like that, it is just so hard mentally. That last year has been tough. Now I am getting through it and everything is starting to look up for me.

We’ve been through hell and back. She was with me when I got stabbed, literally there with me. She had family issues after that; then I did as well. We have been through a lot together the last year. I am so grateful for that person. I’m sure people know that how that feels. She's the only person I can open up to and tell her my feelings. On my bad days. she’ll do her all to make it a good day. Without her and boxing…

In full flight, the 21-year-old is a frightening prospect. His ferocious right hand routinely catches attention, and growing up the Belfast boxer developed a far-reaching reputation for his punching power. So much so that he was regularly compared to two young boxers; a young Mike Tyson, and a young Darren Sutherland.

Darren Sutherland was an Irish Olympian boxer turned professional who sadly passed away by suicide in 2009. Agyarko remembers heading to the National Stadium to watch his fights and diving into one of his routine YouTube binges with Sutherland's fight footage.

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After a hellish year, Caoimhin promised himself a bad chapter wasn't the end of the story, and he would not shy away from his issues. He speaks with an eloquence and honesty that is remarkable for a man of his age. He just needed a break to get going once again.

The boxing dream never died and it would take a little luck to stoke those fires. It came thanks to an evening spent playing PlayStation.

"I play Fortnite online with a few pals and I joined this party once. Lerrone (Richards, WBO European Super Middleweight Champion) was playing as well from London. I introduced myself, as you do. We connected online."

"Then one day, we were on together and I was just talking about boxing and my intentions. He had been pro for a while now so he gave me some advice on the pro game and what he thinks I should do."

"He invited me over to London, he said 'anytime you want to come over you can train with us' and from there he put me in touch with his coach, Al. So then I met Al in Belfast because one of his fighters was fighting. We sat down and we sorted out a plan to come over and train. I came for two weeks and decided to train from here. It's mad like... my career started from meeting someone on the PlayStation. It is crazy!"

Caoimhin Agyarko

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2018 kicked off in emphatic circumstances as 'Black Thunder' bid farewell to the amateur game with an Irish Senior Elite light-heavyweight championship and a World Series of Boxing victory in Paris. Signing with Frank Warren opens up the possibility of making it on to Carl Frampton undercards. Just the fact he is fighting on the same weekend as Katie Taylor, James Tennyson, Sean Mc Comb, Niall Kennedy and Michael Conlan is cause for excitement.

Caoimhin Agyarko is back doing what he loves and grateful for the opportunity.

My life revolves around boxing, I get up, go training, rest and go train again. This what I love doing. Some people have that when they go to work. I'm sure you love your job. Now there is no point in me doing something if I don’t enjoy it. You are not here for a long time like. I am doing something I love now. It’s not a job, it’s a hobby.

Beyond that, life is good. After Saturday's fight, he will return to his home city of Belfast and spend some time with family and his girlfriend. He can move on from the demons that haunted him last year but will carry the experience with him, safe in the knowledge that he has the mechanisms to cope.

"Things are starting to look up for me. Look, every day is still a struggle. It is mentally hard to move on and get over it. Every day I get 1% better. Today I feel good but other days I will get down. It is about getting through it, knowing it is not going to last forever and I am better than I was last year. I do still struggle some days, but this has been a much better year than what went on last year."

On Saturday, he'll lace up the gloves for the love of it. Boxing was his crutch when he needed it and now is his moment to give back. World titles are not the priority- "if they come, they come"- this is about something much bigger than that.

Boxing has done so much for me. When I got stabbed last year, boxing was the thing that got me back mentally strong. I have travelled the world because of boxing. Without boxing, I don’t know what I would do man. I mean, in school, I didn’t have much that I wanted to do. Without boxing, I don’t know where I would be.

 

Maurice Brosnan

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