The career within the fight

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

The announcement of Bernard Dunne’s retirement on Friday came as only a mild surprise. Followers of the former WBA champion knew he could still earn well at a high level but that his best days were probably behind him. With this in mind the Dubliner’s decision seems wise and indicative of a man who showed he could learn from his failings.

His decision to retire now, at a time when he has a solid footing in his life away from boxing, demonstrates that for all his boyish charm this man was a thinker who could make the right call on both sides of the ropes.

No occasion summed up Dunne’s career as a fighter more than his high-point, the 21st of March 2009 when he claimed the WBA World Super Bantamweight title. It’s not the glory that makes this a definitive moment, rather it’s how the story of this fight condensed the tale of Dunne’s career so well.

If you watch the start of that fight with Panama’s Ricardo Cordoba you will see it opened with Dunne playing cautiously, he dictated the tempo but was not too adventurous early on as he needed to find a comfort zone.

While Dunne showed great talent early in his career, it was never likely that he would be a dominant champion like a Calzaghe or Mayweather. If the Dubliner was to reach the top of the pile he needed to find the best route for him. This meant a truckload of patsies lined up to get their beating as Dunne focussed on developing his skills.

Once he found his comfort zone we soon saw an explosion of talent. A stunning shot to the solar plexus of Jim Betts introduced him to an Irish audience in 2005. True he was rocked late on by Yuri Voronin but his next outing against Sean Hughes, for the worthless IBO title, and his string of wins up to his European title date with Esham Pickering showed a clever fighter that could bring the crowd into a fight. Against Pickering he plotted a tactically superb 12 rounds. Knowing he was against a physically stronger foe, the Dubliner fought a boxer’s fight early and did enough to stay well clear when the Englishman came back into it late on.

The world lay at his feet but the near-certainty of Dunne’s success would be his undoing. Having been a thinker in the ring for so long he began to believe his own hype. Kiko Martinez gave him a crash course in humility at The Point in 2007. After a showbiz build-up, Dunne’s unbeaten record and title reign ended in 88 seconds.

In the third round of the Cordoba fight we saw the same explosiveness that brought Dunne his first couple of straps as a left hook to the chin floored the Panamanian. Yet within two rounds we saw how the naivety that cost Dunne his European title resurface. Dunne, despite being an educated fighter, became too comfortable with his position of power and failed to show enough respect to the threat before him and fell prey to a fierce assault twice in the round. The momentum was swinging away from the Dubliner.

To the casual viewer this fight was as good as over but this is where our two arcs begin to converge. The easy option for Dunne after the Martinez defeat would have been a quick return to the ring to show he was still a capable fighter. Such a choice however would have seen him resume his career without a real direction. Instead he took an eight month absence from boxing and returned more focussed. A world title, a real world title, was always the aim and Dunne was solely fixated on finding the best path to such success.

Likewise in the Cordoba fight, a quick charge at the WBA champion would have indicated he still wanted to control the fight but it too would have been foolhardy and taken Dunne’s focus off the bigger picture. Now was the time to recover, to bide time and work out how to get back on course for victory.

Slowly Dunne rebuilt his game plan, momentum began to swing his way but he was far from dominant. He didn’t need to be, all he had to do was enough to make Cordoba respond. Even in a hostile foreign environment the champion holds the advantage entering a title fight, judges will almost invariably side with the man holding the strap. It’s up to the challenger to take it from him, as the fight wore on Dunne made sure he was in contention to do so.

Despite the comeback the odds were still against the Dubliner. He was doing enough to be in with a shout but, despite what Dave McAuley said in that video, still trailed on points. If the title was to be wrapped around Dunne’s waist then he was going to have to go out and take it.

This however was a man who had no trouble being opportunistic in his timing. His comeback from Martinez after all had been a victory over Felix Machado, a waning former IBF super-flyweight champion whose name still carried weight at the time. This and two subsequent wins catapulted the Dubliner back up the rankings enough to be able to at least look for a big fight, even if the big fighters weren’t looking for him.

You see this match was never really meant to be. Dunne was no concern to Cordoba but the Panamanian entered the Dubliner’s sights as soon as he landed the WBA belt. In a division loaded with talent, Cordoba presented the best shot for Dunne both to make and win a world title fight.

The Irishman’s management team was able to lure the Colombian to the newly-opened O2, aptly built on site where Dunne’s dreams had been demolished just two years earlier. The opportunity was there and the plan was in place. Now in the eleventh round, it was the time to play for all the marbles.

Almost a year after it happened I still managed to get goosebumps watching that round again before writing this piece. Dunne came out looking for Cordoba and the Panamanian, having been forced into the fight over the previous five rounds, hadn’t the energy to dodge the assault. To his credit he tried to stay in it but Dunne was a bloodthirsty hound. After the first knockdown the Irishman’s focus was solely on putting Cordoba down and keeping him there until the referee finally intervened just before the bell. Bernard Dunne was the world champion and he had done it on his terms.

That his career ended in defeat to Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym is no shame. Plenty of boxers with Dunne’s talents in the ring have failed to garner even a shot at a world title at any point in his career. The Dubliner and his management’s savvy ability to play both sides of the boxing game ensured they got their chance at Cordoba before the boxer from Thailand got to him. Dunne saw his chance at glory and he took it. He has retired on his terms, not as some puncher who kept on trying past his prime but as man who reached the top and wouldn’t settle for anything less.

6 Responses to “The career within the fight”

  1. It’s all about the timing. Some of his fights were against so-called ‘lesser’ opponents but when he had the chance for a meaningful title he got up there and took it. I never understand why people over-react so much to losses in sport; sometimes it just happens (Ireland vs France – get over it people!). At 30 he’s approaching that dodgy time in a fighter’s life when you start to think why am I in this ring? why is this guy hitting me when I just want to go for a run? Smart move to retire with titles, respect and the prospect of a long sports-related life ahead of him. Good luck to him!

  2. In short it was a career that had to be paced well in order to maximise his chance at being world champion. He had to be opportunistic in his time and he was. Remember his shot at Cordoba came less than a year after his comeback fight against Machado. That’s a much faster turnaround than most would have expected but he realised there was a now or never element to it because of his age.

  3. Good article, Emmet. I still reckon that fight was the best Irish sporting event of 2009, never mind the rugby. It was shortlisted as a Ring Magazine Fight of the Year (didn’t win). I still get goosebumps watching that fight, I think every budding young fighter should watch it. What are Dunne’s prospects as a commentator on RTÉ? I would imagine good, I thought he was good during the Olympics.

  4. I imagine Dunne will definitely be used by RTE as a commentator but he’ll obviously want to do more than the odd fight on TV. He said on Ireland AM this morning that he wants to work with kids, talking to them about overcoming adversity and dealing with times when they feel down. He sounded quite genuine about it and I think he’d certainly have a lot to offer from his own experience.

  5. [...] far from a polished experience. The BBC often has a video along some text based analysis, and even we have experiemented once or twice with blending the written word with video or audio [...]

  6. [...] this? Bernard Dunne’s epic with Ricardo Cordoba from 2009 ranks as one of the most electrifying [...]

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