From Dublin Ireland and having taken up boxing in order to stand up to playground bullies, few have lived a life quite as colourful as the much-adored ‘Big’ Joe Egan.
In his debut for BBTV, ‘Cinderella Man’ Peter McDonagh spoke to his compatriot Egan, who revealed what it was like to spar a 17-year-old Mike Tyson in the Catskills, following his move to America.
Egan’s boxing journey began when he was encouraged by his father to take up the sport as he sought to help him stand up for himself and his siblings against bullies – a group that Egan was keen to emphasise his disdain for.
“I wasn’t too bad at it to tell you the truth, it’s something that you’re born with – you’re born with courage,” Egan said of his early boxing career.
“I wasn’t very skilful, but I was just tough and like all fighters, we have to be tough. I got to win seven Irish titles – to win one Irish title is a fantastic achievement so to win seven was truly fantastic,” added Egan.
His domestic success led to the opening of doors across the pond, as he recalled travelling with the Irish team at 17 to take on a ‘big marine sergeant’.
Looking back on the fight, he said: “I got battered in Atlantic City, but I gave a good account of myself.”
Heavyweight legend, Floyd Patterson was a keen observer that night, specifically in the Irish team given his wife was from Ireland.
The former foe of Muhammad Ali took a shining to Egan and subsequently invited him to ‘work on his skills and stay in America’.
Continuing to impress in America, Egan was eventually invited to spar ‘a 17-year-old in the Catskills’ – Mike Tyson.
Three years prior to Tyson becoming the youngest ever heavyweight champion, Egan revealed he was just happy to be sharing a ring with someone that wasn’t significantly senior to him.
“When I met Mike (Tyson), not only was he smaller than me but he spoke with a bit of a lisp – I thought I’m gonna batter him. But I didn’t know that he was knocking men out left, right and centre.
“He was a really nice fella, he was fascinated by Irish boxing and the relationship with Mr Eastwood and Barry Mcguigan at the time – it was father and son relationship, similar to that of Mike and Cus. We had plenty to talk about because he was fascinated with Irish fighters and Irish boxing.
“We were getting on really well, we went to get food and we were watching footage of old fights and I was even starting to feel sorry for this kid – I was thinking ‘I’m gonna have to batter you tomorrow in sparring’. When we got to the gym, we were shadowboxing and warming up when Cus said ‘bandage up’, look around as we glove up for sparring and Mike is in the ring pacing the ring with his shirt off.
“I was looking at this 17-year-old boy, thinking that is not the same boy I met yesterday – he just looked ferocious, the big neck, the triceps, the back – he just looked so powerful. Anyway, Cus pointed at one of the men to get in and Mike knocked him spark out – I tell people, I ruined a good pair of underpants at that moment in time.”
He continued: “A couple more got in, they got knocked, I was number four. I got battered from pillar to post – but I stayed on my feet for three minutes, more than the other sparring partners anyway.
“I did two rounds with him that day and I’m very proud to say I stayed over there for nearly two years – I got battered and he made me cry many, many times. But it was an honour to share the ring with him. I shared the ring with one of the greatest champions of my era.”