There’s a likeability about Barry McGuigan’s 7 and 0 middleweight prospect, Conrad Cummings. Time in his company gives you a strong sense that what you see is what you get with the County Tyrone man.
He has an honesty about him, an endearing genuineness particular to affable souls who were raised in small towns, far from the cynicism of big city life. The quality ensures that the grin which frequently appears on his face is contagious and quick to spread to others in his vicinity. Then he slips a pair of boxing gloves on.
The 24 year-old hails from Coalisland, Dennis Taylor country off the south west corner of Lough Neagh. At the age of nine he entered the local Clonoe ABC and found his calling. Clonoe is the club that the late Frank Girven MBE built. It boasts over twenty national titles and, in Olympian Tommy Corr, Ireland’s first ever world championship boxing medal.
Cummings’ goal is to go one further and knock snooker’s Taylor off his perch as Coalisland’s only bona fide professional world champion.
That is the path he is now on. By the age of eighteen he was studying Sports Science at Jordanstown University (“not just a pretty face he,” tells me with a laugh) and fighting out of Belfast’s Holy Trinity Club. Despite fully embracing the student culture (“the maddest year of my life,” he admits with another, even heartier laugh), he managed to win two Irish titles that year and his performances earned a place on the Irish Elite team.
At that point his academic studies had to be put on the backburner, a decision he took with his father’s blessing and his mother’s palpitations. His old man’s support is clearly something Cummings will never forget.
“I was very fortunate that my father backed me financially to leave university and focus on my boxing. He saw something in me back then that a lot of people didn’t. He believed this is what I was destined for and he has always given me every chance to succeed.”
And succeed he has. His performances for Ireland led to a spot on the Mexican Guerreros team for the 2012 World Series of Boxing and it wasn’t long before Cyclone Promotions came calling.
Now, almost three years later, I catch up with Conrad in Shane McGuigan’s Battersea gym as he prepares for the biggest fight of his professional career this Friday: a ten rounder against Alfredo Meli for the Celtic middleweight title in the Waterfront Hall.
As he prowls the ring in search of Shane’s pads, it is immediately evident that Conrad is naturally a very solid unit, a large lump of Tyrone granite that Daryl Richards and Steve Broughton, the health and conditioning gurus of McGuigan’s Gym, have been chiselling away at to sculpt a robust middleweight with world level aspirations. The result is a bull of a man, with the muscular neck and powerful legs particularly striking in a relatively young fighter. Tensed and poised for action in the ring, he calls to mind a Narnian Centaur on the cusp of battle.
As he batters his trainer’s pads for six relentless rounds, Shane calls over to me requesting a lend of my shoulders for three minutes. I smile nervously in response, sure they wouldn’t survive more than a couple of jabs. It is fascinating to watch the two men working hard to refine Cummings’ style and add further dimensions to his attacks. As Conrad repeats movements, particularly lateral foot manoeuvres that allow his punches to travel from, and arrive at, angles his opponents are not expecting, the trust he has in Shane and his methods is clear to see.
“I was known to fight like a pro, a relentless pressure style, even as an amateur and I was a little rough around the edges when I arrived here,” Cummings is happy to concede. “Even now I know I’m far from the finished article but I want to be world champion so I’m willing to learn. I’ve polished up my skills, I’m trying to be a bit cleverer, move my feet more – people haven’t yet seen the best of me.”
That best may be required against Meli, an 11 and 0 southpaw from Belfast known as a busy, volume puncher, in a bout that many are calling a fifty-fifty encounter. “A genuine fight, a tough fight” is how Cummings himself describes it, but it is one he is confident of winning.
“I respect Alfredo Meli but I think he is thinking of the same guy he fought as an amateur (Cummings beat Meli in the 2011 Ulster final) when I’m a different beast now. I’m in this to be the best and this is another step on the ladder. I’m living like a professional, doing everything right and leaving no stone unturned. He’s in for a big surprise and when I hit him he’ll know all about it.”
That’s about the limit of Conrad’s braggadocio, he’s just not that type of guy. The conversation is soon back to self-deprecating comments on his facial hair and quotes like, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. That doesn’t look like being an issue for Cummings with his determination and will to improve and win second to none. Barry McGuigan once described Conrad to me as, “extremely driven. Stupidly, madly driven.” Conrad himself simply says he’s a grafter.
A grafter with the talent to go far. Victory over Meli opens the door to a wealth of mouth-watering clashes. Old amateur foe Jason Quigley, talented Dubliner Luke Keeler, and Olympic medallist Anthony Ogogo are all at similar stages of their life and career. Beyond that the likes of Ireland’s Andy Lee and Spike O’Sullivan or England’s Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr. await.
Typically, Cummings refuses to look past the challenge of Meli, however. He prefers to express his gratitude for being able to fight for a title in his eighth bout with someone of Marco McCullough’s class on his undercard.
“I’m privileged and I’m enjoying it,” he concludes with a massive grin, “and now I just have to go and win that title.”