When Brendan Ward went on a trip to New York to a family wedding he never attended in 1982, his life and the lives of so many others was altered forever.
No-one greeted the Wards at JFK Airport and, so, the journey, and life, took a different course – one that would lead to Ward setting up base in Philadelphia.
Ward boxed in Ireland for Letterkenny ABC and, as he wondered where to turn in New York he leaped that a friend, Tony McDermott, had gone to Philadelphia and was staying with his aunt, Bernadette McLaughlin.
In Philly, Ward was convinced to box locally as an amateur and turned professional, ending unbeaten in six bouts, but gaining many life and sporting experiences.
“There were a lot of kids who could fight, but vultures were always hovering, trying to snap them up and make money,” Ward says.
“I formed a Board of Directors with the idea that anyone who came into the gym was treated equally. You couldn’t just pick out the guy you liked. We set up a truancy programme, for kids who were borderline going to prison or on drugs or drinking, bad cases. They needed a place to go and hit the heavy bag, get stuff off their chest.”
Ward has recently been honoured in Philadelphia. He was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sport Hall of Fame and into the Upper Darby Hall of Fame while he was named as the Upper Darby Man of the Year.
His voice is croaky now, a product of the throat cancer he has been battling, but through a developed American accent, the tones of home are still distinctive.
The gym is no longer operating, but Ward aims to get it up and running soon.
“When I got sick, the gym was shut down…I got away from it and the wrong people came in,” he sighs.
“I’m working on getting it opened again.”
Back in the 1970s, while he was attending the ‘Tech’ in Letterkenny – the former Regional Technical College, now Letterkenny Institute of Technology – he learned of the Letterkenny Amateur Boxing Club.
Three times a week, along with his brothers, Conal and Kevin, he thumbed from home in Drumnacarry, Creeslough, to hitch for Letterkenny ABC.
“I thumbed it every night,” he says.
“We went separately. It was going to be too difficult to get a lift for three guys. Sometimes we went as two, but mostly as one.
“You always got a lift. Someone always came along to give you a ride. I’d get a lift from people often who were going to Milford. They used to question my sanity. They’d be going to the movies in Milford and I was walking to train in Letterkenny.
“Letterkenny was where it all started. Dunfanaghy had no club.”
He was coached by John McLaughlin senior in Letterkenny – and the club was well represented on Wednesday night at the Ozanam Centre, Dunfanaghy as Ward was honoured for his services to boxing.
The Mayor of Donegal, Seamus Ó Domhnaill, presented him with a scroll on behalf of Donegal County Council.
Former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Paddy Doherty made a presentation from the Donegal County Board, while Niall McLaughlin (Letterkenny ABC) and Eddie Harkin (Dunfanaghy ABC) made presentations on behalf of local clubs
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. “It’s great to see all of my old friends.
“I don’t think I deserve this, but it’s great. I’m honoured to be given this by such stand-up people.”
His mother’s uncle, Paddy, was to get married in 1982. At that stage, Ward had his heart set on moving on. Back from Germany, he had filled out applications to move to Saudi Arabia and Australia.
He left for New York, but the arrivals hall was missing a welcome.
“Paddy never came,” he says 36 years on.
“So, we went to visit a friend of my mom’s in Queen’s. We called a couple of times and there was no answer. We never went to the wedding.”
In Philly, Bud Aikens convinced him to fight under the banner for a gym in Upper Darby and introduced him to Jack Sharkey.
“Bud said he’d get me a trainer. I stayed and fought,” he says.
“Jack Sharkey was a Philly cop and he was my coach. When I first met him, I had never seen a handgun before in my life.The first night at training, he was putting it in his locker, I said: ‘What’s that for?’ He said: ‘If you don’t do as I tell you, I’ll shoot you!’.”
During his time as an amateur, he was offered a contract to sign by Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo, who was at the centre of a fixing scandal that has shrouded Muhammad Ali’s win over Sonny Liston to claim he world heavyweight title in Miami in 1964. Palermo was also linked to suspicious activity surrounding a fight between Billy Fox and Jake LaMotta.
Ward eventually turned professional and had a half-a-dozen fights.
“I won ‘em all,” he beams proudly.
But he quickly learned about the dark side of the sweet science.
“In my first fight I had a massive concussion,” he says.
“The doctor checked me out, did all the tests. A week later, I got handed a document that said everything was fine. My coach asked me what I wanted to do. I said: ‘Let’s fight’. He hands me the next document that said: ‘Massive concussion’. I went in, fought and won the fight.”
In the amateur gym, the ‘vultures’ he could sense and he sought a means of lessening their influence.
He comes back to Donegal every other year now, his heart still in Creeslough, but a legacy left for an age around Philadelphia.
“Boxing basically is my life and everything happened in my life because of boxing,” Ward said on Wednesday.
It was little wonder, then, that Peter O’Donnell, the Donegal Boxing Board President, described him as ‘a great legend and a great ambassador for boxing here and in Philadelphia’.Tags: