Boxing

'I Was Emotional Because She Deserved It': Hugh Cahill On Calling Kellie Harrington's Gold Medal Fight

'I Was Emotional Because She Deserved It': Hugh Cahill On Calling Kellie Harrington's Gold Medal Fight

It was a sensational year for Irish sport, but there was no sporting event that captured the public imagination like the morning of August 8, when Kellie Harrington defeated Beatriz Ferreira to win gold in Tokyo. Those jubilant scenes in Tokyo and outside Harrington's home in Portland Row in Dublin were like something from a different period of Irish life. There was something so pure and genuine about Harrington and the emotion she inspired during the Olympics. That Harrington's home place became something of a pilgrimage site for Irish people after the fight was proof of her greatness. For all she had been through, and all she had sacrificed to win that gold medal, Kellie Harrington proved she is the best of us that day.

Hugh Cahill's voice will forever be associated with Harrington's gold medal victory. History tells us that Ireland's gold medal days are few and far between so there is enormous pressure on the commentator on the day both to correctly explain what has happened, and capture the emotion of the achievement.

Cahill's first Olympics as RTÉ's boxing commentator was Rio 2016, a now infamous all-time low point for Irish boxing. Tokyo was different. Harrington's fight was his first time commentating on an Irish gold medal fight. His commentary of the fight was pitch perfect: clear, full of technical insight, impassioned and emotive when it needed to be.

We caught up with Hugh to look back on one of the great days in Irish sport to find what it's like to commentate on an Irish gold medal, and how it almost nearly went all gone wrong.

Balls: The Kellie Harrington fight seemed like such a difficult commentary because you have to convey such a range of emotions, but you're in Dublin commentating on a fight in Tokyo in a mostly empty arena. Were you very nervous ahead of it?

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HC: It was strange not being there definitely because doing a commentary off tube, whether it’s at a rugby match or boxing you’re completely relying on the pictures in front of you like everyone else is. Normally when you’re at the ground or the arena you can see what you want to see and notice things that perhaps people mightn’t be able to pick up on purely on what the director is showing.  As regards to the final, I was nervous for Kellie really because I really wanted her to win, but obviously her opponent Beatriz Ferreira had just demolished everyone on her way through and is a really tough, hard fighter. The fact that I was getting up at 3 in morning to go in to RTÉ to a studio on my own to do it,  I wasn’t really nervous about doing it. I just wanted Kellie to win. I didn’t think she would win, to be honest with you.

I watched Ferreira a good bit and had done research on her, I watched her other fights and seen her in Tokyo and I just thought she would overpower Kellie, but as the fight got started and carried on it became obvious early on that Kellie’s gameplan was unbelievably tight, that she was in the zone and it was just a really enjoyable experience. The fact that she won made it as enjoyable as it was. But it wasn’t until I got home afterwards, I left the studio about half an hour after we went off air, drove home, went into bed and fell asleep for around 5 or 6 hours. I woke up around 12 o’clock and sat down in the kitchen, made a cup of coffee and turned on my phone and the phone went absolutely crazy. All these notifications and Twitter messages and Whatsapps and that kind of stuff. I sat there for about an hour reading them and it kind of hit me the enormity of a) being able to call an Olympics final like that, Kellie had won gold and b) that I almost fucked the whole thing up in that I kind of preempted the judges decision, saying it was unanimous before her hand was held!

(At this point, we must again direct your attention to RTÉ's broadcast of the fight. When the ring announcer declares 'the winner, by unanimous decision', Cahill immediately calls the fight for Harrington. Yet there is an agonising pause before the result is confirmed)

At the time I was fully convinced that I was right but looking back on it, if I was wrong, it would’ve ruined the entire thing. I saw the video then of her whole family and her whole street out watching it and just listening to the commentary and when I said “it’s unanimous she’s done it” they all went mad. I was just saying to myself “if you got that wrong it would’ve been the greatest fuck-up in the history of Irish TV commentary." I would’ve had to leave the country!

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I was wondering if you had access to info as commentator that punters at home wouldn't have had? You sounded very confident Kellie had won!

We get the scores after each round but they don’t give you the scores after the final round, you just wait like everyone else for the decision. But because the judges had her 3-2 up after 2 rounds - she was up on three, all square on two, it might that once they said unanimous they all had to have gone with her because with was mathematically impossible otherwise. I’m shit at maths and I would never back myself to make a judgement like that normally, but I just blurted this thing out. It was like I was thinking out loud and forgot the microphone was on. I was so relieved that it went the right way, it was so surreal watching it back wondering what if?

But that might be a credit to your own skills as a commentator? The whole time, you'd given a very clear explanation of a difficult, technical sport, and you knew she'd done enough to win the fight, and had won it.

Go back to Rio, go back to Michael Conlan fight, go back to Katie Taylor’s fight against the Finnish opponent Mira Potkonen, the amount of shocking decisions you see in the boxing ring, not just in the amateur ranks but in the professional ranks and how many times you watch a fight and think X clearly won that round and it goes the other way or how many time you watch something and go “oh clearly the judges will go this way” and it goes the opposite. It was as clear as days that she had won that third round but you never know with boxing judges what they’re going to do, it’s subjective but it’s also riddled with corruption. That’s fact.

The 'Kellie Harrington: darling of Dublin' line is famous now. Did you have that planned or did that come to you in the moment?

Yeah darling of Dublin I did [have planned]. Commentary is 'say what you see' and that but I was driving in and it popped into my head because of how much love she was getting. This woman from Dublin who’s grown up in a working class area and had to scrap for everything that she’s had, not just her job but also in boxing being in the shadow of Katie Taylor trying to start later in life because Katie was so dominant until Rio when she went pro and Kellie just had to bide her time and she was to me the darling of Dublin. It popped into my head 'what will i say if she wins?' and the darling of Dublin came out.

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Were you thinking of Jimmy Magee at all after she'd won gold, and your own place in the lineage of Irish commentators? It was such an iconic moment.

You know what struck me as well: George Hamilton who I’ve grown up listening to and absolutely love as a commentator, but George only got to call his first Irish Olympic gold medal in Tokyo 2020 in the rowing and he’s been commentating as long as I’ve been born. Jimmy Magee as well, a lifetime of commentary as well, obviously he called Michael Carruth and Katie Taylor. It just don't happen that often. So I feel completely spoiled rotten by getting a chance to do it and quite early on with Jimmy gone and George retiring relatively soon enough, I found out it was very surreal for him to call it. It’s luck of the draw, it’s complete luck of the draw and you have to be in the right place at the right time, there’s nothing to do with me, there’s nothing to do with what I’ve done, it’s just the fact that Kellie came along, she was good enough. It’s an absolute privilege. Jimmy had been a legend of Irish broadcasting and George, I can't praise him highly enough, even lessons that I've learned from him over the years, and bits of advice he's passed on. I was just blessed to do it.

Your voice cracked a bit after the fight. Is that the most emotional you've been in the moment as commentator?

Yeah, it was. There’s something about Kellie Harrington that I love, I love the personality. You know, Ken Egan and Darren O’Neill were very good to me when I was working on the boxing tournaments and doing a bit of commentary. I had one white collar fight in my entire life but I asked Darren O’Neill and Ken Egan would they get in the ring with me and spar with me and basically teach me by kicking the crap out of me! It was the best way I got to know the ins and outs and the technical side of the game, all the shots that come in, the footwork and being able to read what a boxer is going to do. Now I’m no expert by any means but the best way to learn, as the lads told me was to get into the ring and spar. They brought me up to the national training centre in the National Stadium there and took their time to do it.

Just the difficulties Kellie would had to go through as well, starting late in life, but it’s out of the ring stuff that as well that she had to go through, working at the hospital, just having to fight for everything she ever had. I knew that when she was going to win gold that it was going to change her life. Financially, it was going to bring a huge amount of security for her and her family, for everyone close to her. It was life changing. I knew what it meant for her, I knew what it would do for her and her family and all those pictures as well at her home and everyone out on the street. I got a bit emotional at the end because she deserved it and no one deserved it more than her. 

You also commentated on the Ireland v New Zealand game, which was also very memorable, but must have been a completely different experience as a commentator with the Aviva full?

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It was amazing. Donal Lenihan and I would always sit down before the game and go through talking points for the game and what we want to bring up and what we expect might happen and he could tell straight away the fact the crowds were back, the fact the All Blacks were in town. We hadn’t had a great Six Nations and the England game sort of masked over the shortcomings and people weren’t really sure what Andy Farrell’s team were really like. We would find out against New Zealand and see was there real optimism in the team or was it a flash in the pan.

The game started and it went on and it became very apparent that no, there is something really clicking in this Irish team. Then the crowd started to notice that from really early on and they fed off it and because the fans been denied for so long to going to sporting occasions, there was just an extra 50% from everybody in terms of making that atmosphere what it was. It helps that  it was New Zealand, it helps that it was Ireland playing brilliant rugby against New Zealand but the whole occasion coming together made it what it was.

When we put down our microphones when Caelan Doris was getting man of the match  and Donal said  to me, “Hey kid, we couldn’t have done any better than that!”

SEE ALSO: The Best Sporting Achievement From Every County In 2021

 

Donny Mahoney
Article written by
Donny Mahoney is Chief Sportswriter and one of the founders of Balls.ie

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