Interview with Steve Collins, by Paul Zanon. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
The current super middleweight division could almost be compared to a 4×100 meter sprint relay in terms of the speed that world titles change hands. There was, however, a time in the 1990s when the gatekeepers of both the middle and super middleweight divisions were not only long-term but based in the British Isles. Part of that illustrious crop was a certain “Celtic Warrior” named Steve Collins.
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He had a granite chin, was a two-division world champion, was never stopped, and had a throwback style that entertained crowds. But how did it all start for the teak-tough Irishman? Collins explained. “My first fight was at eight years old. It was at the Corinthians Boxing Gym, which was in the basement of an old Georgian house in Dublin. My dad boxed in that gym, my uncles boxed in that gym. It was run by a great old trainer called Maxie McCullough [who represented Ireland at the 1948 Olympics].”
Despite winning twenty-six titles as an amateur, Collins almost brushes his early achievements under the carpet as he outlined his intentions from the moment he first laced up the gloves. “You know what, from day one I knew I was going to be a pro. I had that mindset. As I got older in the amateurs, I felt less at home in that style of fighting, because I always enjoyed having time to catch up on my opponents in the later rounds, time to sort them out, and I felt so many times in the amateur game that guys would steal decisions. I then decided I was a fighter, not a boxer, and pro was the way I was going to go.”
With his sights set firmly on the paid ranks, Collins detailed his plan to transition and how he ended up training alongside one of the best-ever middleweights in boxing history. “I wanted to win some titles and took some advice from my dad, who was old school. Get myself some qualifications and get a trade if I became a professional boxer because one fight could be my last and I’d have nothing to fall back on afterwards.”
Collins continued. “My last amateur fight was in Yonkers, New York, and I knew that Boston, Massachusetts, was the home of Marvelous Marvin Hagler and that he lived in Brockton. I also loved Boston because it had a good Irish contingent there. I had the name and address for someone to put me up when I got there and hopped on the Peter Pan bus to Boston. I then got myself a job, an apartment, a car, and drove down to Brockton and hooked up with the Petronellis [the famous boxing brothers, Guerino and Pasquale, aka “Goody” and “Pat,” who trained Hagler].
“At the time, Hagler was still in the gym and still world champion. I remember he was hitting a punchbag beside me and I was looking over trying to steal his ideas and moves.” The bald-headed assassin came with a reputation as being somewhat grumpy in public, perhaps even rude on occasions, but Collins was quick to dispel these views. “He was actually really cool. If he’d see me sparring he’d say, ‘Try this,’ or ‘Try that.’ I think he liked my mindset. He even came to my fight at Boston Garden, which was very rare for him to do something like that.”
Did the Celtic Warrior manage to spar with one of the best middleweights in history? “No. I never sparred with him, but I wanted to! I never understood why until many years later. I was in training camp in the Channel Islands, and we used to invite young amateur boxers into the camp who were thinking of maybe turning pro. There was one kid who I think was light heavyweight and would eventually go on to fight at cruiserweight, and he wanted to spar me. Cocky little sod! I turned to Freddie [Roach] and said, ‘I can’t spar him.’ The reason was, because he was cocky, I would have had to put him in his place, and you don’t do that to young lads. When I said it to Freddie, I had a sudden flashback: ‘That was me in Brockton with Hagler a decade ago.’”
Collins’s world title victories and defenses all occurred on British and Irish soil, but his first nineteen fights were actually on US turf. The Dublin favorite looked back at the early days. “Over there [US] I was nicknamed ‘The Irish Steve Collins,’ and I used to fight on the same shows as the ‘The Irish Micky Ward,’ among many other good Irish fighters based out there. There was a big Irish contingent in Boston in the ‘80s, and it was a very popular destination for the Irish guys. We had a great following, great support, and sold out a lot of stadiums. Good times.”
By his seventeenth fight, he had already won the Irish and USBA middleweight titles and at the age of twenty-five was presented with the opportunity to challenge Mike “The Body Snatcher” McCallum for his WBA world middleweight strap. Collins explained how the fight came about and how confident he was taking on the aging Jamaican.
“I’d flown back to Dublin for a holiday, and I got a call early January  saying Michael Watson had broken his nose in training. They said, ‘Do you want to fight McCallum?’ and I said ‘Absolutely.’ I was thinking, he’s an old man, he’s thirty-three, I can have him! I only had about three or four weeks before the fight, but that didn’t matter to me because I was always in shape and always in the gym. In fact, nobody ever gave me a title fight, I was always stuck in as a substitute and never had time to prepare. I jumped on a plane and flew straight back to Boston and left the wife and kids in Dublin while I got into training.
“In terms of the fight, I learnt more from him than I did against my previous six opponents. He educated me. Took me to school and taught me a lesson. On the upside, I wanted to prove to myself and everyone out there that I belonged at that level, and I did, but because I lost, it put me to the back of the queue again.”
He bounced back, won five fights, then in 1992 had two disputed losses against world-level opposition in Reggie Johnson and Sumbu Kalambay, for the WBA world middleweight and European straps, respectively. Collins reflected on what would actually be the last of his defeats as a professional boxer. “Two back-to-back losses at middleweight. It was a bad time for me. I had reasons, not excuses, as to why it didn’t go my way. Middleweight was a division I’d outgrown. As an amateur I’d won fights as a light heavyweight, so dropping down and then trying to make middleweight as I got older was really starting to affect me physically. I was becoming very drawn and really struggled. It was becoming unhealthy. That’s not the reason I didn’t win those fights, but making weight certainly didn’t help.”
For many, those defeats could have been the spur to hang up the gloves and get sucked into a vacuum of negativity. Collins was not part of that brigade, though. “Mentally, it was never hard to bounce back because I always knew in my heart and soul that when I was on form I could beat anybody. If I’d have lost these fights at my peak, I’d have known that perhaps this was not for me anymore. When you’re struggling to make weight, you can only fool yourself so long. These are only learning processes. Also, I mean this respectfully, Kalambay and Johnson are great guys, but neither came knocking on my door to give me a rematch, so that says a lot also.”
Collins made the bold move of relocating from the US and based himself in Belfast under the management of Barney Eastwood. Here’s why: “At that stage, the middle and super middleweight divisions were owned by British fighters. They were dead in America. The place I needed to move back to was the UK because Michael Watson, Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn—all these big names—were based there. I was not really established on that side of the pond, so I wanted to show everyone who I was and what I was.”
A couple of months shy of his thirtieth birthday, on May 11, 1994, Collins had his swansong at 160 pounds, stopping WBO world middleweight champion Chris Pyatt in the fifth round of their contest. His deep-rooted self-belief and vision that he would become champion of the world had become a reality and, in the process, he had proved a few people wrong.
Ten months later, on March 18, 1995, the opportunity to raise the bar and get the recognition he deserved was presented to him in the form of Chris Eubank. The eccentric, Brighton-based fighter was undefeated in eighteen world-title defenses at two weights since 1990 and was holding the WBO super middleweight strap. Collins described how once again the contest occurred by default. “I’d been chasing Chris Eubank for years. He was supposed to be fighting Ray Close, who failed his medical, and they wanted a substitute to jump in. They thought, Eubank will win the fight, Collins will go back down to middleweight and Eubank will carry on and keep making big money. I wasn’t part of those conversations and had my own ideas. I had a plan.”
When taking on an opponent in the square ring, there are various aspects to consider. How strong is he technically, physically, and mentally? At the time, Collins hit the headlines when he hired a hypnotherapist. “It gave him a scare,” Collins said. “Put him on the back foot. Upset him psychologically like he’d never been before. He was always the one in control, always the master of mind games and always had the advantages. I knew I could beat him as a fighter, so I decided to take away his security, that belief.”
Mind games or not, the underdog Collins went on to win a unanimous decision in front of a partisan crowd at the Green Glens Arena, Millstreet, in the Republic of Ireland. He reminisced about that moment that all fighters dream of as the newly-crowned champ. “It was amazing. It’s almost as if it wasn’t me. I’d have to watch it on video to relive it.”
Collins also won the rematch against Eubank six months later in Cork, defended his title a couple of times, and then took on Eubank’s nemesis, Nigel Benn, stopping him in four rounds. “That fight to me was more of a concern than Chris Eubank. My style was that I’d come to you and come to fight. My biggest fear was Nigel Benn’s punching power. I knew what was going to happen if he hit me. But I stuck to my game plan, put the pressure on him, and made him work. Let me tell you, he does hit very hard! I have a lot of respect for Nigel.”
Collins granted Benn the rematch four months later, won again, defended his title two more times, and then hung up the gloves at the end of 1997. One fight that he had wanted badly but didn’t get accelerated that decision. “I had great fights in my career. McCallum, Eubank, and Benn twice. At the time, these were great names and well-known champions who would scare you and make you go the extra leg. I had a defense against Cornelius Carr [on November 25, 1995], and he probably came closer than anyone to beating me in my title defenses because I underestimated him. I was thinking, I’ll fight Carr until another big name comes along, and sometimes that’s what happens in boxing. You start to think like that and it’s not good.
“In my last fight, I fought a guy called Craig Cummings, and he caught me on the chin and put me over in the opening seconds of the first round. The hunger wasn’t there at that level. When I fought the big names, the money was there, the interest was there, I wanted those fights. After Eubank and Benn, there was nobody left. Names kept popping into the hat, and all I wanted was Roy Jones Jr. Joe Calzaghe was a name at the time that was thrown in, but no disrespect, I’d never heard of him, saw no money in the fight, and had absolutely no interest. I was thirty-three years old by this stage and with Roy Jones not happening I was rapidly losing interest.
“After the Cummings fight, I was in training not sure what to do, and one morning I was in bed, the alarm went off, and I switched it off and went back to sleep. I woke up mid-morning, and I knew that it was time to get out. I always say to people, when you don’t go out to the cold and accept the pain of boxing, it’s over. I’d been away from home a long, long time, had three young kids who were growing up very quick, I was financially secure, happy, and successful. I went back to something I loved doing and always wanted to get back to, which was get back to my horses. I retired and went back to my passion, which I was very happy about.”
For that one elusive opponent, Collins would still jump in the ring. “You know what, give me four weeks’ notice and I’ll take on Roy Jones! I’m out here chopping logs, I’m still fit. People say, ‘You’re twenty years retired,’ and I say, ‘I’m still waiting for my last fight against Roy Jones!’”