Oisin Fagan: From Ireland to Madison Square Garden via Oklahoma

By George Kimball


Oisin Fagan: From Ireland to Madison Square Garden via Oklahoma

"I frequently tell people that I'm not the greatest fighter in the world, but they'd have to look very hard to find anyone with a bigger heart than mine. There's no quit in me. That's the only reason for my success to date. Whether you're a world champion or a journeyman in this game, you're going to know you were in a fight with a mad Irishman when that final bell rings -- if you make it that far."  -- Oisin Fagan, who will be facing Brian Carden (6-4), at the pre-St. patrick's Day show in New York City's Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2008.

James Moore, the undefeated Irish middleweight from County Wicklow, steps out from beneath the shadow of longtime stablemate John Duddy to headline his own St. Patricks Day card at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theatre when he faces Colombian veteran J.C. Candelo Saturday night. Another unbeaten middleweight with a substantial local following, Poland’s 19-0 Pawel Wolak, may well have been re-christened “O’Wolak” by the time he steps into the ring against erstwhile Duddy foe Dupre Strickland in the co-feature.

Although his 20-5 record might seem middling alongside those of the featured performers, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Oisin Fagan upstaged this illustrious company in his New York debut. Put it this way: it wouldn’t be the first time the Dublin-born junior welterweight stole the show from those regarded as his artistic betters.

Fagan came to the United States a decade ago, the recipient of a soccer scholarship at Oklahoma’s University of Arts and Science. He spent four years playing for the Drovers, but upon surveying his situation upon graduation, realized that he had no job, no work permit, and no obvious means of even getting back to Ireland.

While at OUAS, Fagan had stayed in shape with winter workouts at an Oklahoma City gym operated by Buck Smith. A legend on the Midwestern boxing circuit, Smith is credited with a 179-19-2 record in a career that lasted from 1987-2007, despite not winning a single fight over the last ten years of that span. (Over the years the Buckster fought and lost to the likes of Buddy McGirt, Mark Breland, Antonio Margarito and Julio Cesar Chavez.)
Sympathetic to Fagan’s plight, Smith suggested that he could earn a quick $200 by serving as the opponent in a 4-rounder at the AMC Flea Market in Oklahoma City. Oisin, who at that point had exactly $21 left in his bank account, jumped at the chance.
On Feb. 18, 2002, Fagan, much to his own surprise, scored a fourth-round TKO over Sheldon Mosley in his pro debut. At this point, Oisin didn’t look at the achievement as the beginning of a career, Rather, by his reckoning, one more of these adventures might earn him the price of a plane ticket back to Dublin.
So in May he was back in the ring. This time he knocked out Jason Varnell in the first round of a bout at the Farmers’ Market in Oklahoma City.

Seated in the audience that night was Phil Cunningham, the principal at Columbus Elementary School. Impressed by Fagan’s victory, he chatted with him afterward. During the course of the conversation it developed that Cunningham had a vacancy for a Physical Education teacher. Oisin interviewed for the job a few days later, and has been gainfully employed at the inner-city school since.

Having a day job didn’t lead Fagan to abandon his avocation, but it has meant that on more than one occasion he has shown up for work with a black eye or a stitched-up face.

In 2004 Fagan outpointed Lee Cargill to win the Oklahoma state lightweight title, and in Dublin the summer before last, he stopped Jeff Thomas to add the Irish 140-pound belt to his growing collection of hardware.

The losses he has accumulated along the way are nearly as instructive as the wins.
His first loss had come in 2003, when the ringside physician intervened to stop his fight against Isaac Mendoza at the Creek Gaming Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although Fagan had five broken bones in his face and was bleeding from the nose, he vociferously protested and had to be dragged from the ring. The Mendoza fight remains the only time he was stopped in 25 pro outings

In February 2004, with Buck Smith once again serving as the intermediary, Fagan was matched against Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., the son and namesake of the Mexican legend, on the undercard of Erik Morales-Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
“Buck had fought his Dad,” recalled Fagan (indeed, the 1999 bout bout in Mexico between Chavez pere and Smith matched two veterans who between them owned an incredible 281 professional wins).  “And he was friendly with Sean Gibbons, who was working as a matchmaker for Top Rank. I think they saw that I’d been stopped (by Mendoza) the year before and figured I’d be an easy touch, but (Chavez) got a bit more than he bargained for.”

Once again Oisin acquitted himself well. Ten seconds before the end of the third, Fagan was dropped for a flash knockdown – his glove barely touched the canvas, and he was up before he went down, but the subsequent count from referee Tony Weeks turned a stanza Fagan was on the verge of winning 10-9 into a 10-8 round for Chavez, which proved to be the difference on the scorecards in a fight that would otherwise have been no worse than a draw.

Three years into his pro career, Fagan had made barely a ripple back in his homeland. In Ireland, Gagan was recalled, if he was recalled at all, not as a boxer but as the Portmarnock midfielder who’d gone off to play soccer in America. All of that changed in October of 2005, when in his Irish debut Fagan upstaged some illustrious company with an impressive first-round KO of American Richie Scifo on a Brian Peters card at the National Stadium in Dublin. The following June, Fagan was pencilled in to challenge for Peter McDonagh’s newly-acquired Irish lightweight title on the Bernard Dunne-David Martinez card in Dublin.

Even boxing fans who generally pay scant notice to European national titles probably have some recollection of the mini-scandal accompanying McDonagh’s January 2006 acquisition of the Irish 130-pound championship. Heavily-favored Michael Gomez (ne Armstrong) was 32-6 going into that bout; the Galway-born McDonagh, having lost four in a row, was 7-11. Moreover, there were reports of irregular betting, with some bookies taking unusual action on McDonagh inside the distance, despite the fact that he had stopped only one of his 18 previous opponents.

Although McDonagh had boasted of his “secret weapon” – Uri Geller, the spoon-bending Israeli psychic from the 1970s, had joined his team in an advisory role – for four rounds Gomez appeared to be having his way. Then in the fifth, Gomez abruptly spit out the bit and, for no apparent reason, quit in mid-fight.

Amid rumors of a betting coup, the Boxing Union of Ireland initiated a full-scale investigation, but, unable to prove wrongdoing on the part of either boxer, released the purses of both contestants and recognized McDonagh as champion.
Scheduled to make his first defense against Fagan that June, McDonagh, citing a “knee injury,” withdrew less than two weeks before the fight, prompting Oisin to wonder “Why didn’t he just get Uri Geller to fix it?”

Peters hastily arranged for Fagan to fight for the vacant light-welterweight belt instead, and procured a suitable opponent in Thomas, who, though Dutch-born and based in England, verifiably had an Irish mother.

On an evening when Dunne required 8 rounds to dispose of Martinez, Fagan stopped Thomas in seven, finishing off his foe with what he described as “a Ricky Hatton move” – a solid one-two followed by a quick sidestep and a left to the body that came straight up the middle and, in Oisin’s words, “tore the guts right out of him.” Referee Emil Tiedt declared the bout at an end at 2:21 of the round.

That evening also marked the first time Fagan shared a bill with next Saturday’s headliner James Moore. Fighting as a professional for the first time in his homeland, the three-time Irish national amateur champion knocked out a Frenchman name Salahedddine Sarhari in four.

Moore doesn’t exactly figure to have a cakewalk in his main event against Candelo. The 34 year-old Colombian is 27-9-4, but has lasted the distance with the likes of Verno Phillips, Teddy Reid, Marco Antonio Rubio, and Winky Wright (Wolak’s opponent, Strickland, hasn’t fought since going the distance with Duddy at the Beacon Theatre last May).

Fagan’s most recent two losses came via split decisions – to 18-1-1 Verquan Kimbrough last December in a regional title fight on Kimbrough’s home turf in West Virginia, and a year ago to former IBF lightweight champion Paul Spadafora (39-0-1) in Michigan.

Still employed as a schoolteacher at Columbus Elementary, Fagan’s nonstop, action style probably won him more admirers than all those wins around the Midwest in between. He says he can’t wait to add his first-ever appearance at the Mecca of Boxing to his resume.

Although he knows little of Brian Carden (6-4), who signed for the bout just a few days ago, Oisin reckons “he’ll be busy trying to keep me off him” Saturday night.
"I'm tremendously excited", said Fagan. "This is a massive opportunity for me in front of a crowd that will be behind me 100%. I usually fight in my opponent's backyard and on cards promoted by my opponent's people in my big fights, so this will be a little different, to say the least. I've been training very hard and can't wait to step into the ring in what has to be the greatest place in the world to fight."