The interior of the 3Arena on Dublin’s North Wall Quay is dark and cavernous. Eight days ago Emmet Brennan stood in the middle of it alone soaking in the silence. The former Olympian closed his eyes and imagined the roar of the crowd as he entered the amphitheatre to fight Limerick boxer, Jamie Morrissey. It is the only all-Irish fight on the night so it is likely to hear the loudest roar other than the title bout when Katie Taylor tries to win her rematch against Chantelle Cameron.
“It didn’t really hit me that I was fighting in the 3Arena until I got down there last Friday,” Brennan said. “It is a big place and it was completely empty. It was quite eerie, but it was also a dream come true. Not everyone in the crowd is going to be there for me which is great as it will make the atmosphere even better.”
Brennan grew up less than a kilometre from the arena on the North Strand in Dublin’s North inner city. He is a big local draw and knows his family, friends, and community will all be there to watch him. At 32 Brennan knows he is fighting against the clock also, in a sport that is more ruthless than any other.
The Olympics to turning pro
Emmet Brennan is sitting outside a coffee shop in CHQ, the historic building that overlooks the River Liffey, a few hours before he begins an afternoon of sparring at SBG, the famous mixed martial arts club run by coach John Kavanagh who is best known for training Conor McGregor. Brennan is training there as his opponent next weekend is a former Muay Thai champion – so he is sparring fighters with a similar style. They are also a few inches taller than him just as Morrissey is. Brennan has the lean look of a fighter less than a week away from entering the ring. He is neatly dressed and could easily be working in one of the many start-ups located nearby but his hands are hard and calloused unlike everyone else around him.
Brennan competed in the 2020 Olympics as a light heavyweight. His reaction after he lost to Uzbeck fighter Dilshodbek Ruzmetov encapsulated how tough a road he had chosen. “It’s gutting though, absolutely gutting…” he told RTE. “I’ve Credit Union loans out, I’ve worked part-time and trained full-time, but my family are the big support… I’ve been injured for six months. It’s tough, the biggest fight of your life, and your body lets you down. It’s just tough.”
Making the move into professional boxing has been hard both financially and personally, Brennan admits.
“It is a huge adjustment,” he said. “With the Irish team, you have your physio, strength and conditioning, nutritionists, coaches. You’re training within a team every day.
“People tell you that professional boxing is a lonely game but you realise it when you’re in it that it is very, very lonely. I took for granted so much being on the Irish team. It’s all on your doorstep and paid for. When you step away from that you have to start paying for it all.
“You’re also your own competition. I do my running on my own now. There is nobody running beside you, or holding the clock for you. So it is different, but no one made me go into the pro game.”
He adds: “It is a natural progression after the Olympics. To go again I would have been 33 at the next Olympics when the average age of a boxer is maybe 24. In terms of amateur boxing, I am past my peak, so that played a part in my decision to go pro.
“I have always had this dream of fighting in New York since I was kid. That is still in my head. I went over there 18 months ago, and it didn’t go well. My mind frame wasn’t where it should have been, but it is now.”
Brennan picked up an injury in New York, and he struggled with alcohol.
Eighteen months ago, Brennan gave up drinking as he came home to rebuild. His shoulder was in constant pain, and he didn’t know if he had a future in the sport.
But then he met Tommy Brennan, the owner of the Pain and Performance Clinic in Lucan.
“When I came back from New York. I thought I had two options either have surgery or retire,” Brennan said. “I met Tommy, and he said there is a third one. He had me back punching within three of four months after I met him which I thought was impossible.”
The Clinic, he said, worked with him for free. “Every training camp you’re always going to get an injury or a niggle,” Brennan said. “I need a good physio and Tommy is giving me that.”
Brennan said he felt in the right condition to win on Saturday week. “I’ve trained according to a fight of this magnitude,” Brennan said. “I’ve had nine weeks of preparation. For my first fight, I only had three weeks beforehand. The opposition then wasn’t great, and I took it because I wanted to get up and running.
“This is a fight with a lot more at stake. I haven’t thought about losing but if you lose that could be your career over before it started. I want to fight in New York next year. I want to fight for bigger titles.”
He added: “I don’t only have to win here, I have to win and put in a good performance. Winning is not enough at this stage of your career. At 32 you have to put on a good show.”
“I have sold a lot of tickets for the fight which is great and going to help me big time but you have to put in the performance to go with the tickets. There is a lot on the line which is only motivating me to train more and do better. In terms of training my camp couldn’t have gone much better.
“I got a cold two weeks ago but that is the thing that happened. I’m over it now and feeling great with a week to go.”
The business of boxing
Becoming a professional boxer is not easy. Besides the physical danger and demands, it is also poorly paid other than at the top level. Brennan said a small group of companies had helped make it happen for him.
Brennan said Michael Slein, the founder of LED lighting company Robus, is a big supporter. “They have not only helped me financially but also personally,” he said. “Michael has given me advice about business like sometimes you have to have hard conversations, and what to say. He has been great.”
He said Aidan Garcia, an accountant, had also helped him manage his business affairs. “Aidan has been a real friend. He has boxed too so he understands the business.” Pattern Barber Shop, architects and chartered consulting engineers the CEA Group, and Novum, a commercial refrigeration company were also supporters. Brennan said he was also working with NIC Side by Side, a charity for neuro-diverse children to fundraise for them by selling merchandise ahead of the fight.
Brennan has also co-founded a boxing club called FightR in the North inner city. He said this business too had helped him financially with its fees from the 60 members it has so far.
“Our whole thing is teaching people how to box correctly,” Brennan said. “Once somebody is 18 or 19 it is very hard to learn how to box as nobody wants to know you in an amateur boxing club.”
“There is a market we believe of people who are over 18 and who want to learn boxing correctly, get fit and be able to defend themselves. If they want to get in and spar they can, but they don’t have to. We have a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that welcomes everybody.”
Brennan’s co-founders Jordan Moore and Eric Piggott have backgrounds in boxing and jujitsu, so he said in time the gym may also offer martial arts classes.
“Hopefully this fight in the 3Arena will give us more profile and encourage more members to join,” Brennan said. He said he also hoped to use his profile to establish connections with banks and technology companies in the docklands.
“I know from my own amateur club we don’t really get help from big companies who are making money from the same area where the kids who are into boxing are from. I know corporations spend money on wellness and health for their staff – and we would like to work with them too.”
“In a year or two I’d love to be able to give local lads or girls a job,” he said. “These are people who know how to box but might not want to work in an office. They may not have a great education and may not be going to school.”
“I’d like to give them some work and a few quid and help them feel good about themselves rather than being on the streets with their mates selling or taking drugs. We are all based in this area and I feel it would make sense for companies in the IFSC to get behind me and do this”
A dream of Madison Square Garden
Emmet Brennan still wants to make it as a boxer in New York despite his previous bad experience. “It didn’t play out the way I wanted the last time but I still have that dream.” Brennan said he was working with his manager, former IBF world middleweight champion Darren Barker to get back there.
“I want to fight in America at least twice next year. I want Madison Square Garden. I’d also like to bring my gym FightR there too in time,” Brennan said. He said his focus right now was solely on Saturday week.
“I am a winner. I know that. I do everything to win. This fight…there is a lot on the line here. I’m going for a title in my second fight as a pro. No one does that. But this is an opportunity on my doorstep and something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ll be a kilometre from my house and the area I grew up in. I could never turn this down.”
“Since I came home from New York in May 2022 I’ve been non-stop in the gym,” he said. “For maybe 15 months I was not seeing improvements. I wasn’t sharp.”
“But right now everything is clicking,” he said. “I am expecting a great performance and to win. I think I can stop this guy. My confidence is at an all time high but it is a confidence that is not coming out of nowhere. It is confidence from having done the preparation and the hard work.”
“I am not underestimating Jamie. He is tough. He is a warrior. He fights until the end and keeps coming forward. He has that warrior heart so it is going to be a war.”
“I know there will be thousands of people on Saturday…but I’ve boxed in a box-off to go to the Olympics Games and there is no bigger pressure than that. I was fighting in an empty stadium because of Covid but I knew 20 years of my life were reliant on the next three rounds of my boxing. I will never face greater pressure – but I won that fight with a great performance. I’ve been there before and I have done it.”