When Celtics Collided in Olympia

By G.E. Simons on March 3, 2014
When Celtics Collided in Olympia
Micky Ward was a fighter who was expected to give the unbeaten Neary his sternest test.

They were already in each other’s faces, forehead to forehead, nose to nose, jaws clenching, mouthpieces flashing…

Based on their names alone, “Irish” Micky Ward against Shea “The Shamrock Express” Neary was always going to be a Celtic collision between two stoneground, blue-collar warriors of Irish descent, hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts and Liverpool respectively.

Sharing joint top billing with Prince Naseem Hamed’s successful WBO featherweight title defense against Vuyani Bungu, this was a matchup that had all the makings of a proper tear up on a vacant parking lot in a forgotten steel town – and a small parking lot at that.

Like an apparition emerging from the frozen, dusty grooves of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, Micky Ward was a fighter who was expected to give the unbeaten Neary his sternest test and he certainly did that. With a record consisting of 35 wins and nine defeats it could have been argued that matching the unbeaten Neary with this upper-echelon journeyman was at best a calculated risk.

Then again, Ward was no ordinary journeyman, in fact he probably wasn’t even one at all. A Golden Gloves-winning amateur, he compiled a pro record of 14-0, before a batch of losses in 1990 and 1991 combined with persistent hand problems forced him into retirement for three years, during which time he drove a paving machine to pay the bills.

Hands repaired and fire restored, he returned to the ring and winning ways in 1994, since when he had only lost twice. One defeat was to the heavy-handed Vince Phillips, albeit on a nasty cut, and then by decision to a prime Zab Judah, only three fights previously, making this an intriguing and dangerous encounter for Team Neary.

At a perfect 22-0, with 16 knockouts, and as the defending WBU light-welterweight champion, Neary walked to the ring ripped and focused, psyching himself up by clipping his own jaw with pea green gloves as The Pogues’ Irish Rover belted out around the arena. This was the big one and a night of Irish thunder was now gathering in front of 10,000 fans at London’s Olympia on this glowering night in March 2000.

As referee Mickey Vann issued final instructions to both men in center ring, they were already in each other’s faces, forehead to forehead, nose to nose, jaws clenching, mouthpieces flashing in an uncompromising hint of what would follow.

Round one opened with Neary landing well, mixing quick and solid punches, taking the initiative as you would expect of a champion fighting on home soil. Until the halfway mark of the round, when the first of Ward’s paralyzing body shots detonated into Neary’s right kidney.

This caused a genuine hard man who had seen action in the Falklands during his time in the Kings Regiment, to grimace in real agony, dropping his elbow to cover the raging pain only to receive several crisp head shots, forcing him back onto the ropes. That he was able to digest such a brutal punch to the body and see out the round was a true testament to his heart, resolve and bravery. For his part, Ward returned to his corner knowing he was in a fight but shook his left glove repeatedly, less out of bravado, more to say, “This fight is mine.”

Neary was out like a bull in the second landing solid body shots of his own. Ward returned the favor, eating a left hook and literally smiling and shrugging it off in a round of frenetic but high-quality in-fighting. It was a session edged by Neary, which after that first round was some feat.

Round three saw Neary land a great right to the temple and suddenly the steel-tough Ward was in trouble, legs spasming before being driven to the ropes and covering up as the champion sensed a stoppage. Ward simply sucked it up and whooped in defiance, enjoying the tear-up before whipping in his own solid uppercut and finishing the round in a real throwback exchange of leather. As the bell rang the two squared up but Ward simply cupped his canary yellow gloves on the top of Neary’s head, flashing him an “ain’t this great?” smile before turning for his corner, a celebratory glove raised in the air.

The action continued in round four, with relentless punching to head and body, some smothered, most not, in an incredibly intense brawl that Neary seemed to be edging.

But with 30 seconds to go, Ward landed another sickening shot to Neary’s kidney; again the wince, again the elbow dropping to protect his side and again the punishing head shots that the dropped elbow allowed.

Rounds five and six unsurprisingly saw the intensity cool a little with six minutes of fairly even exchanges, though no less competitive and difficult to decide on the scorecards.

As these two genuine fighting Irishmen met in center ring for the seventh there was little if anything to separate them; even their reddened faces and ribs matched.

Neary started strongly, landing good body shots, driving Ward back to the ropes. But Ward simply shrugged his gloves as if having just been told that lobster was off tonight and switch-hit his way to the bell with real spite and purpose, with Neary doing very little in the final minute other than take several heavy shots too many.

If Ward had finished the seventh strongly, than Neary started the eighth just as fervently, punching with snap and causing Ward to cover up – it was still anyone’s fight. Until, without real warning Neary suddenly came undone with 40 seconds of the round remaining.

Three savage body shots and an uppercut felled the “Shamrock Express” heavily. He rose equally quickly but was swaying in understandable pain as that floating rib had been punished one time too many. Mickey Vann waved the fight on and Ward, in a merciless finish, unleashed a torrent of punches that finally washed the brave Neary down again and out, as the referee indicated he had seen enough.

Ward fell to his knee, head against a corner post and prayed thanks for an incredible show of resolve and a hard-earned win, an act Neary had performed at the beginning of this unbelievable battle.

Sitting on the ring apron minutes after Michael Buffer’s confirmation that Micky Ward was the new WBU light-welterweight champion, the two fighters still couldn’t be separated but now it was in their mutual respect.

“He sure can hit.” said the new champion. “It was just my night tonight and I have all the respect in the world for him.”

Clearly and understandably dejected, Neary agreed, “It could have been anyone’s night but all credit to Micky, all respect to him.”

When pushed on Ward’s famous body punching, he also dryly conceded, “Sure he hits hard to the body, but he hits harder to the head.”

You’ve got to give it to Shea Neary. Having been beaten by one of the world’s toughest fighters in Ward – and following a comeback workout win over Alan Bosworth – he then immediately signed to fight another one.

Eamon Magee, the terrifyingly hard Irishman and then-Commonwealth light-welterweight champion was that next opponent in a fight at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall only seven months after the Ward setback. Fierce rivalry had been brewing for more than two years and another night of cold heart and bleeding soul was expected between these two fighting Irishmen.

Eamon Magee took the verdict following a scrappy and physical encounter, in what had been a close contest but one that most felt he had done enough to win. The Neary camp however was incandescent at the outcome with promoter John Hyland moved to make an official complaint to the BBBofC focused on referee Roy Francis’ 116-114 calling of the fight against his man. The result was upheld.

Neary hasn’t fought since that controversial encounter, retiring with a legacy of 16 knockouts from 23 wins and only two losses in a hugely genuine and exciting, albeit brief career. Now running the appropriately named Shamrock Gym in Old Swan, Liverpool, he remains integral to the boxing community in and around his city, training and working with enthusiasts and prospects with all the fire, passion and commitment that made him one of Britain’s most exciting fighters in the late 1990s.

For Micky Ward, genuine superstardom beckoned through his truly incredible trilogy with Arturo Gatti, the first fight of which stands alongside the greatest bouts of all-time, if blood, sweat, tears, thunder, bravery, heart, soul and sheer will are any gauge. Ward emerged victorious in that fight and even though he finished the loser in the following two rematches, before retiring with a solid record of 38 wins with 27 by knockout against 13 losses, his place in boxing folklore was assured.

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  1. G.E. Simons 02:40pm, 03/06/2014

    That moment was amazing Ted, it looked like they were old friends meeting for the first time in years having bumped into each other on a station platform. Rather than midway through a thunderous brawl!

  2. Ted 01:39pm, 03/06/2014

    ‘As the bell rang the two squared up but Ward simply cupped his canary yellow gloves on the top of Neary’s head, flashing him an “ain’t this great?” smile before turning for his corner, a celebratory glove raised in the air’

    I’ll never ever forget this moment. It was special.

  3. Ted 01:37pm, 03/06/2014

    I used to watch him fight in Lowell as an amateur. We all knew he was special. Just a matter of time.

  4. G.E. Simons 01:26am, 03/05/2014

    It did end up pretty great for Micky in the end… I bet there was lots of screaming at their TV from viewers watching him fight in 90 & 91 and then probably on the set of The Fighter years later as Christian Bale was there!

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:45am, 03/04/2014

    G.E. Simons-All in all I guess things worked out pretty good for Micky….in ‘90/‘91 I was traveling a lot and I can remember sitting on the bed in those motel rooms and watching him lose to Brazier, Murray, Martin and Meyers in one Godawful row. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing….he couldn’t seem to pull the trigger, in fact it seemed that he didn’t even want to be there….my screaming at the TV didn’t help a lick either!

  6. G.E. Simons 01:03pm, 03/03/2014

    You’re not wrong there! You’ve got to ramp up the conflict in a movie about conflict!

  7. NYIrish 12:29pm, 03/03/2014

    That’s showbiz. Poetic license doesn’t always respect reality.

  8. G.E. Simons 09:20am, 03/03/2014

    Thanks a lot for the article compliment Ted.

    I totally agree with you, in fact that’s why I left out any closing reference to The Fighter.

    Shea Neary, as you say, was a tough, passionate fighter and a very well respected man of integrity.

  9. Ted 09:10am, 03/03/2014

    The movie—The Fighter—did a terrible job portraying what took place in this fight. They made Neary out to be a thug and that was pure bullshit. It was a firefight (closet classic) that could have gone either way in the early going but as soon as Ward got his rhythm, that was that.

    One of my favorite Ward fights.

  10. Ted 07:15am, 03/03/2014

    Excellent and enjoyable read of an unforgettable encounter.

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