KILDARE COLUMN: A shot at boxing stardom for Kilcullen's Dennis Hogan

Dennis tells columnist Robert Mulhern about his journey

Robert Mulhern

Reporter:

Robert Mulhern

Email:

mulhernrobert@hotmail.com

KILDARE COLUMN: A shot at boxing stardom for Kilcullen's Dennis Hogan

Dennis Hogan

In 2008, Dennis Hogan was working as a carpenter and boxing in the light-heavyweight division of the Irish amateur circuit. 

He wasn’t heralded but he possessed talents that he didn’t know how to maximise. 

Nimble, despite his bulk, the Kildare man would arrive into fights with a steely focus and a busy work rate but there was one problem.

He was competing above his natural weight and below the highest level of domestic competition, and the highest level in his weight-class was Kenneth Egan — the Beijing Olympic silver medalist who then stood between him and an Irish senior title. 

They fought three times and Hogan was soundly beaten on the judge’s scorecard each and every time. 

“I’m not saying I won,” he concedes. “But the judges weren’t scoring me and he’d only have to move his shoulder and they’d score him,” he laughs.

Eventually Hogan had enough. The Irish economy was floundering and his boxing outlook appeared just as bleak, so he booked a one-way ticket to Brisbane on the back of half-a-promise from a contact in Australian boxing.

It was a gamble backboned by a flimsy savings pot of just $850 dollars and he arrived into the country on a holiday visa.

If his dream was to become something real then he’d have to lose weight, kick a drink habit and discard a mindset of self-impossed limitations. 

Within months, he’d become the most serious Irish backpacker  on Australia’s east coast.

Now fast forward to 2018 and Dennis Hogan is one fight away from a world title challenge. 

He doesn’t drink anymore, meditates daily and is a voracious reader of books about the power of the mind written by people like Dr Joe Dispenza. He’s not only a boxer but a father and a much in demand public speaker who delivers motivational talks to corporate Australia.

In the ring in recent months he pushed his way into the top of the world rankings after beating Yuki Nonaka from Japan and right now his team are busy negotiating what should be the final steps of that world title shot against Mexican Jamie Munguia.

It’s a remarkable story; a reimagning of an Irish sportsman out of sight on the other side of the world. 

But too few know the rise of Dennis Hogan.

YOU might not remember Billy Schwer, but to him the name is a tangle of intoxicating childhood memories. 

In the early 1990s, Billy was Luton-based, building towards becoming a world champion and his people hailed from just outside Kilcullen in County Kildare. 

Dennis Hogan was only a boy but already he was boxing. 

He can’t remember a time when his hands weren’t laced in a pair of gloves and his grandad, Paddy Burke, was one of the mainstays in the St David’s Boxing Club in Naas. 

In the musty hall of the old army barracks on the road to Limerick, they’d skip and tip-tap combinations on bags wearing oversized gloves.

For a time, Hogan would think of Schwer and the excitement he was generating.

He remembers being in a hotel bar in the thick, green countryside out the back of Ballymore Eustace one Sunday afternoon when people were handing out memorabilia about Schwer. 

“He was from Brannockstown which was just down the road from where I was from in Carnalway,” said Hogan. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘if he can become a world champion, then maybe I can too’.”

So in that old army building he honed his skills under the watchful eye of his grandfather until a doctor warned that standing around on nights so cold that clouds of sweat followed fighters was a bad idea.

So grandfather moved grandson to a small club just across the border in Wicklow. And his new coach Seamie Byrne, watched him grow into a man who by the mid-2000s had emerged into a golden era of Irish amateurs, headlined by names like the late Darren Sutherland, Paddy Barnes, Carl Frampton, John Joe Joyce, John Joe Nevin, Katie Taylor and Kenneth Egan, among others. 

Hogan won a gold medal at a multi-nations tournament in Israel and was exposed to a culture of professionalism introduced by the Cuban coach, Nicolas Cruz, and improved upon by then High Performance Director Gary Keegan and coaches Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia. 

“Nicolas Cruz had a massive part in developing Irish boxing,” he says. “I remember him him getting you to spin around, then he’d blow the whistle and your head would be spinning like you’d been hit, but you’d have to box.”

Despite being on the periphery of such excellence, Dennis Hogan wasn’t ready to be a student of the High Performance Unit. 

Instead, he trained with the Irish A team under the watchful eye of Austin Carruth, Michael Carruth’s father, in the Drimnagh Boxing Club every Saturday. 

“I remember going up there sparring and him telling me to go off and get fitted for a tracksuit and that I’d made the Irish team. 

“But I was still a carpenter at this point. I wasn’t on a grant or anything like that, I was working, lifting weights and boxing out of my weight class — I can see that now. 

"I was fit but if you can image that extra weight? It was like boxing with a bag of bricks on your back.”

With Egan and other up-and-coming amateurs like Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy set to move ahead of him in the pecking order, Hogan decided to seek out a new experience in Australia. 

He’d already passed that way with the Ireland A team, boxing on small hall cards in the stifling heat of Brisbane and in front of vociferous Irish support in Sydney. 

But a chance conversation while he was there saw him leave Australia with the kernel of a dream that might one day bring him back.

HE had to leave Ireland to reimagine himself. 

Dennis Hogan often makes realisations like that about his own development. Sometimes when he’s flying across Australia on his way to help business leaders develop positive habits.

He’s addressed global business conferences, business strategy events and still he feels the pinch of nerves before a presentation.

“I can stand up talk about my career and get people fired up,” he says. "But the next day that feeling will be gone for them.

“What I’m really trying to do is give people some tools to grow and develop."

Hogan says he learned how to communicate effectively when selling tickets for his fights, soon after he arrived. And those ticket sales were the oxygen necessary to propel his fledgling career forward. 

Through the sales, he started to discover people who were successful in business and with a mindset that left him seeking out their advice.

“I’m not that interested in small talk now,” he says. “I spent years doing that and over here, I wanted to ask profound questions. 

“I found myself around successful sportsmen and businessmen and they all shared the same mindset. I’d always ask them what advice they could give me and I started to learn that the quality of the question would determine the quality of the answer I’d get back.”

Hogan started to log all those learnings until it became a habit that continues to anchor his lifestyle.

“I’ve spent an hour meditating this morning and half-an-hour giving gratitude,” he says. “Already today, I’ve visualised myself winning the world title three times and I’ve seen myself defend the title in Ireland.

“I believe in the law of attraction.”

Dennis Hogan continues to lives in Brisbane with his partner Brideen and his  baby daughter Aria. 

His focus to go and win the world title is absolute. The clarity of what he needs to do to is  sharpened daily by his desire to improve upon his routine of professional and personal development.

“Everyday I need to do something towards my career that’s going to help me be world champion,” he says. “Even if that’s just looking after my accounts.” 

On the other side of the world and out of sight from Ireland, Hogan has steadily built a 28 fight professional career of 27 wins and one loss. 

That single loss arrived in 2015 when the 33-year-old dropped a points decision in Hamberg, Germany to WBA super welterweight world champion Jack Culcay.

By then, he was nearly 10 kilos lighter than the fighter that fought and lost three times to Kenneth Egan and almost 15 kilos lighter than the drinker who ballooned to nearly 85 kilos when he tried to pursue a pro career that continued to indulge a party lifestyle in his early months in Australia

Through that period he came close to being broke and teetered on breaching visa restrictions that could have forced him to quit the country. 

Instead he quit alcohol and immersed himself in boxing. If that sounds like the hard bit then he discovered an Australian boxing scene burning white hot with intensity.

“These guys are tough as nails out here,” he says. “I’m telling ye there is guys I thumped and thumped and thumped and they wouldn’t go down. It was just like ‘lads, Jesus!’”

He explains that the brutality of his new environment landed moments into his first professional fight in Brisbane’s Fortitude gym. 

“I was fighting a guy called Marlon Toby and I didn’t know what to expect.

“I was main event, I put these small gloves on and I could feel my knuckles piecing the fabric and when I got out there the crowd lifted me. I felt invincible. 

“When I hit him the first shot was a hook and I felt his ear crumble into his head and I thought Holy Jesus, these gloves are tiny. This is like a street fight. I thought ‘this is nuts.’”

Hogan won with a knockout in the second round and so began a steady march towards his world title fight with Culcay.

But that 2015 defeat brought a change of trainer and Hogan linked up with Glenn Rushton, who in 2017 guided Jeff Horn to a seismic world title win over Manny Pacquiao in Brisbane. 

“You get an energy off him,” explains Hogan. “He’s like a Sensei. You feel what he tells you. He’s like the Cubans with his drills and programmes and everything he tells you comes out in the ring. 

“I can talk about Glenn for three of four hours,” he confesses “But there’s a saying ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’"

BEFORE Hogan linked up with Rushton he took a training detour to Miami, Florida and the storied 5th Street Gym, originally set up by hall of famer, Angelo Dundee. The gym has been graced by world champions like Carmen Basilio, Willie Pastrano and Muhammed Ali, among others. 

Famously, Sugar Ray Leonard said he had to complete a trial period just to get accepted in the gym and this was after he was crowned Olympic champion. 

The historic venue with the low ceiling has always been considered to be something of a Cuban school of boxing excellence and there, Hogan retuned himself to the kind of coaching mastery he’d once sampled with Nicolas Cruz in Dublin.

“I was close to coaches who worked with world champions like Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux and José Luis Castillo,” he says. “All the South Americans would then meet up and have these big sparring days and you’d end up doing 15 rounds in this hot, little gym with sweat everywhere. It was quite the experience to be honest.”

Post Miami and Rushton, the Culcay defeat now appears like nothing but a correction to progress achieved largely beyond the view of an Irish audience. 

The winning resumed and in October  2017, the Kilcullen man delivered a career best performance to win every round and end Yuki Nonaka’s eight year unbeaten run, in front of a buoyant home crowd in his adopted Brisbane.

That fight feels like a fusion of learnings, not only in boxing but in a life reimagined. And Dennis Hogan is in the frame for a second world title fight in 2019. 

It’s been an awakening so dramatic and a reinvention so significant that it leaves you suggesting that no matter what happens in the ring in the future, Dennis Hogan has already won big.

“I know what you are saying,” he agrees. “But this is my journey. I see my family at ringside, I even have a speech written — and you want to read this speech — and I’ve gone over the whole world title scenario and the clearer my vision becomes and the clearer I am about it.

“You can hear it in my voice, I’m inspired, I have great energy.

“I don’t feel any fear, because you can attract fear too.

“Brideen knows that about me, that I believe we have to follow what we love and that really, we’re limitless.”

Robert Mulhern is a London based journalist contracted to RTE's The Documentary on One