In the sometimes seedy world of professional boxing, he enjoys the image of a “Mr. Clean.” At 23, Toronto’s Shawn O’Sullivan has emerged from his first 11 professional fights as an undefeated champion and a charismatic sports star. But according to his family, friends and increasing numbers of fans, success has not spoiled the personable son of an Irish immigrant. Although he has earned almost $500,000 from fights, advertising and personal appearances in the past 18 months, O’Sullivan still lives at home with his parents. The young welterweight has celebrated his victories with ice cream instead of champagne, and often takes public transit downtown to his boxing club. Said Michael Trainer, O’Sullivan’s business manager: “The sport stinks, because of the people you have to deal with. But after meeting Shawn, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t honest, bright and articulate. What is shocking is to find someone like that participating in boxing.” O’Sullivan’s nice-guy image has enhanced his transformation from a
promising amateur boxer who won the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics into a recognizable—and marketable—professional sports star. Some sports commentators have compared his personal visibility to that of hockey great Wayne Gretzky. O’Sullivan has received numerous offers to endorse products and has already made commercials for a restaurant chain. But even more important, his unbroken record of 11 wins—eight by knockouts—and no losses since turning professional in 1984 has made him a major potential contender for the world championship title in his welterweight class (136-147 lb.).
So far most of his fights have taken place in Canada, but Trainer plans to take him more often into the lucrative U.S. market after he has built a solid reputation. Said Trainer: “Shawn has proven to be very popular in Canada, and people in the United States are starting to take notice. He isn’t that ‘skinny kid from Canada’ anymore.”
The son of a Toronto bus driver, O’Sullivan was the self-described “runt” of a close-knit Irish-Canadian family, smaller than his older brothers and “even smaller than my twin sister.” When he was 16, his father, Michael, now 63, taught him the rudiments of boxing. For Shawn, the initial attraction of the sport was to spend
more time with his father. He recalled recently, “Boxing with Dad gave me a chance to talk to him one on one.” Together, they jogged in a ravine near their suburban Leaside home and sparred together. The elder O’Sullivan recognized Shawn’s potential and one Sunday evening in 1977 he decided to take him downtown to the Cabbagetown Youth Centre, a well-known local
boxing club. Said O’Sullivan: “It was closed but Dad said, ‘Now that you know how to get here, come back tomorrow and try it.’ I went by myself the next day.” Ten months later O’Sullivan won the Canadian junior boxing championship.
His personal coach and founder of the Cabbagetown Youth Club, Peter Wylie, helped to mold the young fight-
er into a champion. Under Wylie’s tutelage, O’Sullivan lost only six of 100 fights between his first fight in October, 1977, and the 1984 Summer Olympics, aquiring the Canadian, North American, Commonwealth, World Championship and World Cup gold medals. But the Olympics proved a major disappointment for O’Sullivan, despite cinching the silver medal after a bout with American victor Frank Tate. Even now, the decision remains controversial. Said O’Sullivan: “There were only five people in the arena who didn’t think I won the Olympic gold medal. Unfortunately, those five were the judges.”
Having risen almost to the pinnacle of amateur boxing, O’Sullivan drifted uncertainly after the Olympics. He recalled, “I’d wake up in the morning, tired, with nothing on my mind about what I wanted to do.” Then, within weeks, he decided to become a professional. He retained Wylie as his coach. Wylie last year resigned from his job with the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force’s bomb squad to devote himself full time both to O’Sullivan’s career and the Cabbagetown club.
The two began to search for a business manager to help with contracts, television rights and endorsements. In September, 1984, they settled on Trainer, whose experience at handling the
professional career of another former Olympic boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard, had impressed them. Leonard, also a welterweight, enjoyed a career free of the kinds of scandals that plague other boxing careers, including association with organized crime and rapacious managers. As well, he reaped the rewards of lucrative contracts for advertising and personal appearances. During the course of his eight-year career, Leonard reportedly made $45 million with Trainer’s help.
Like O’Sullivan, Trainer did not fit the sport’s traditional image of the corrupt and overspending manager. A former Silver Springs, Md.-based lawyer, Trainer entered the high-pressure world of fight promotion after he agreed to provide Leonard with legal advice. He broke new ground by allowing Leonard to promote his own fights, enabling the boxer to keep most of the proceeds for himself (after paying fixed fees to Trainer and his coach). In the past, most boxers had relied on specialized fight promoters who paid the boxers a small fee for fighting.
At the same time, O’Sullivan found solid support from his family. He lives in the basement of his parents’ home, surrounded by mementoes of his amateur boxing career. His mother, Margaret, 62, who has appeared in one television commercial with him, often prepares his meals. Michael O’Sullivan, who retired from his job with the Toronto Transit Commission last year, often takes eight-kilometre runs with his champion son.
O’Sullivan remains in almost constant training to meet his increasingly challenging opponents. Before each pro bout, Leonard personally serves as his sparring partner. The former world professional champion is clearly impressed with O’Sullivan. Said Leonard: “The only thing Shawn has to worry about is himself. He has to be patient in the ring.” Still, the adjustment from three-round amateur fights to the six-, eightand 10-round professional ones has been difficult. For one thing, ama* teurs—but not professionals—wear singlets (undershirts) in the ring—attire which the modest O’Sullivan misses. “The biggest thing I had to adjust to,” he said, “was getting in front of 5,000 people without a shirt on.”
Boxing experts say that O’Sullivan’s celebrity has given boxing a new respectability in Canada. O’Sullivan continues to rely on a combination of charm and confidence in his journey to international boxing stardom. Said O’Sullivan: “Throughout my career I have always been the champion, not> the challenger. I am not afraid. No one is going to hurt me.”
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