‘The day hasn’t come yet where I haven’t wanted to be in boxing’, UCD Boxing’s head coach Phil Rooney tells me as we sit down after training on Friday night. His perennial smile wide across his face, he adds, ‘I don’t want it to’. Phil’s infectious passion for the sport is doubtlessly shared by his students. As many as fifty boxers at a time converge on Hall C of the UCD Sport Centre on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings to fine-tune their understanding of the intense sport.
Indeed, there are few better coaches in the country to learn from. Having previously competed all over the world, Phil now divides his time between training UCD’s boxers and those of the prestigious Irish ‘High Performance Squad’, in addition to serving as a ring-side judge and three-star referee for the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA).
Having coached UCD Boxing for the past three years, Phil tells me there are different challenges when working between the high performance players and the beginners. ‘It’s definitely different’, he says, ‘with the high performance squad, a lot of them are already elite amateurs’. Indeed, many of Ireland’s representatives at the London 2012 and Rio De Janeiro 2016 Olympics are members of the high performance stable. While UCD certainly has its fair share of seasoned fighters, Phil reveals that the club is also far more accessible to newcomers. ‘With college boxing there are a lot more beginners’, he explains. ‘There’s a lot more developing new talent from scratch’.
If you were to observe or to participate in a UCD Boxing class, however, no such difference would be apparent. Phil’s carefully planned training sessions are challenging yet entertaining for seasoned and novice boxers alike. Following a rigorous warm-up consisting of footwork drills, running, and shadow boxing, boxers then alternate between individual work on one of the club’s various heavy bags, and paired work practicing combinations and head movement through the use of handheld focus pads.
The effectiveness of such training is time-tested: bag-work improves both the power and technical form of a boxer’s punches, while pad-work develops the quick-thinking and deep arsenal of combinations essential for success in the ring, in addition to the invaluable coaching tool of pad-holding.
No martial arts class would be complete without sparring, though, and this also forms a crucial part of training at UCD Boxing. Despite erroneous conceptions of sparring resembling a mindless slugfest, the actuality is a series of high-quality sessions. Boxers of equal size and skill level are paired together, and under the watchful eye of Phil alongside experienced committee members, are encouraged to trade blows with controlled speed and power. Such training is not only essential for boxers to develop their in-ring composure, but also fosters a sense of respect both for one’s self and one’s opponent, one of the central benefits of martial arts training.
UCD’s Boxing is a keen participant in inter-collegiate competition against other colleges. In addition to the Colours Competition with cross-town rivals Trinity, UCD also compete in the University Junior and Senior Championships alongside Trinity, the University of Galway, and University College Cork. Having conquered the Junior Championships in 2015/16, I ask Phil about UCD’s chances of repeating last year’s success. ‘I’m very confident’ he answers, ‘I’d say we have a nine in ten chance of doing it again’. Having witnessed the standard of the club’s competitive boxers first-hand, it’s certainly hard to argue.
The Katie Taylor Effect
Boxing has seen its share of criticism in the past for failing to foster a culture of gender equality. Such scrutiny is not undeserved, with female fighters being starved of the limelight for many years. However, this is not the case at UCD. Phil tells me ‘when I see a student training I don’t see a guy or a girl, I see a boxer,’ and this inclusive outlook is reflected in the club’s high proportion of female members.
Phil tells me that there has been a surge in popularity in boxing among Irish girls and women following Katie Taylor’s success gold-medal success at the 2012 Olympics. Having had the pleasure of refereeing several of Taylor’s bouts, he’s a strong advocate for bringing more women into the sport at every level. Towards that end he happily explains that there has been around a ten per cent increase in female participation in boxing since 2012 across Dublin’s fifty-two amateur boxing clubs, which includes UCD.
The passion that students develop for boxing at UCD is not just a college fling either. Phil tells me that, just as it is for himself, boxing becomes a lifelong passion for UCD students, with many continuing to practice the sport at local clubs after moving on from academic life. In an era where we are in a constant state of worry over our diet and exercise regimens, the work of a club which has fostered such long-term commitment to healthy living is worthy of great credit. With high membership turnout, quality training, and great competitive success, the future certainly looks bright for UCD Boxing.
Jamie Duff | Sports Writer