SPORTS WATCH

Silent requiem for a slugger

Now closing on 30 years of age, boxer Shawn O’Sullivan is still banging and thumping and, not to forget, getting hit.

TRENT FRAYNE April 6 1992
SPORTS WATCH

Silent requiem for a slugger

Now closing on 30 years of age, boxer Shawn O’Sullivan is still banging and thumping and, not to forget, getting hit.

TRENT FRAYNE April 6 1992

Silent requiem for a slugger

SPORTS WATCH

Now closing on 30 years of age, boxer Shawn O’Sullivan is still banging and thumping and, not to forget, getting hit.

TRENT FRAYNE

Everyone says that he has been hit on the head too many times, that his speech is now slurred, that he should quit the ring for good before his senses are permanently impaired—everyone says this but Shawn O’Sullivan, the brain’s owner.

Remember Shawn? One of those exceptional people in the fight game: a white guy throwing hand grenades, a young man modest and erudite with an earnest, wide-open face and an Irish brogue and this unusual way of speaking. Like, he would never call what he did fighting or the people he did it with fighters. No, they were boxers and their fights were contests. Also, he’d never say he beat up on a guy; he’d say he stopped an opponent. One day at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, I remember him standing calmly amid a hive of scribes after he’d quickly finished off a young fighter from Korea. He was asked how he’d describe himself.

“My style is pretty much predicated on what my opponents do,” O’Sullivan replied. “If they want to trade, I’ll trade. If they want to box, I’ll box. There’s no set pattern or game plan in my bouts. I adjust to what I’m facing.” How long would it take a movie director to throw out lines like that? No deez, no dems, no dozes.

But in truth, although I saw Shawn in five or six fights as an amateur and another half-dozen after he turned pro, I never saw him fight any other way than straight ahead. Bang, thump, grunt, whop. He traded furious punches with anything that stood in front of him. One time at the world amateur championships in Montreal he met the Cuban champion Armando Martinez in the gold-medal bout, and the picture that popped into mind then and does to this day is of two guys in a slaughterhouse whaling sides of beef.

That was long ago and far away but not much has changed in his style: now, closing on 30, Shawn O’Sullivan is still banging and thumping and, not to forget, getting hit. Most recently, he was back to Montreal to face another aging

slugger, one of the three fighting Hilton brothers, Alex, who had rarely been seen in public over the past half-dozen years, being in jail most of those years for various offences. Their encounter produced nearly 10 rounds of unadorned slugging terminated just six seconds before the bell would have brought a ceasefire anyway.

“The final blow was a left hook that came from way, way outside and rolled Shawn O’Sullivan’s eyes back in his head,” is how Stephen Brunt’s lead ran in The Globe and Mail the following morning. “All you could see were the whites.”

Were these rolled-back eyes a silent requiem to Shawn O’Sullivan? The brawl was his fifth loss in 24 professional fights, but no one knew if it was the end. Boxing reporters have been writing for a while now that Shawn’s head has been jarred too many times by too many punches, that his speech has been affected, that for him the aisle from the dressing room to the ring is a path to oblivion. Or worse.

Still, for the man himself, that path is endlessly seductive. He has spent his adult life treading it. The fight game provides his identity. He is a fighter—all right, a boxer. Give it up? “Boxing is what I do,” he said one day last

week, a note almost of pleading in his voice.

So he still calls it boxing, does he? “Yes, of course,” he replies. “Fight is an inaccurate term. Fights are what happen outside a bar. When you train and prepare for a contest in the ring it’s diminishing to call it a fight, even insulting.”

Similarly, the fascination of the game is not readily identified or even acceptable to people who have never deliberately risked a punch in the nose. But there’s no question that those elements are there. Ask any fighter. “Really and truly,” O’Sullivan says, “it’s a job I still enjoy. Yes, I still get butterflies of excitement before every contest as the culmination of long weeks of preparation is at hand.”

Shawn grew up in a large family in Toronto, where his father, Michael, drove a city bus and his mother, Margaret Mary, produced five boys and a girl named Maureen, Shawn’s twin. Michael came to Canada from Cork in 1948, following three years with the British police force in Palestine. He is a man, now retired, who can quote the classics as readily as most English professors, a man who wanted his five boys to know how to stand up for themselves and taught them to box when they were scarcely taller than a four-leaf clover.

Soon after he became a professional, Shawn’s managerial handling was taken over by a Baltimore lawyer, Mike Trainer, who had managed the boxing affairs of Sugar Ray Leonard, the former welterweight and middleweight champion. Trainer picked opponents carefully, bringing O’Sullivan along slowly, and Leonard made frequent trips to Toronto to spar with him and become something of his mentor. “I’ve been able to show him a few shortcuts based on my own learning experience,” Leonard said once. “I’ve always had pretty good balance and I’ve been able to help him get better leverage through balance.”

But the wheels came off for Shawn one Sunday afternoon in June of 1986, when a cool, deliberate, methodical puncher named Simon Brown turned up at the Toronto Coliseum and frankly unhinged him. After two minutes, 37 seconds of the third round, the referee stopped the fight.

Since then there have been more downs than ups, at least in the ring. In those six years he married, and he and his wife, Veronica, have two little girls, Emma and Egan. He says he is financially independent, the owner of five houses and now living on 125 acres near Catskill, N.Y., two hours north of Manhattan. He calls the United States “a fiercely positive nation—it overflows into all aspects of their lives.” Canada, he says, is negative. “Here, it’s why you can’t and why you couldn’t. In the States it’s, ‘Go for it, man.’ ”

So he is not likely to stop trading punches with people, and people are not apt to stop wondering about his speech.

All sorts of people. The other day the phone rang at my home and the voice said, “This is Shawn O’Sullivan. There is something I want to ask and I’d appreciate a straightforward answer. Do you, er, think my speech is slurred?”

“Yes,” I said.