Boston-based fighters promoted by Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey take the stage at House of Blues Saturday for a nationally televised card
Punk rock and boxing aren’t paired together often. Or at least not as often as they should be.
Which is interesting, since for Dropkick Murphys frontman Ken Casey, the Boston punk scene of the ’90s was the perfect training ground for starting Murphys Boxing, the legendary Mass musician’s growing fight promotions company.
“When the band started in the mid-’90s, the punk rock scene at the Rathskeller down Kenmore [Square] was so good and all the bands wanted to play here. We’d book seven bands from seven different cities and those bands owed us a show in their city. In building a live draw for boxing we can make other, bigger promoters come here. I’ve been able to use Boston and how awesome the people are for fights just like I did for shows.”
On Saturday, Sept 30, Murphys Boxing and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions will present a fight card at the House of Blues that will be televised live on ESPN3 at 9 pm, and on ESPN Deportes at midnight. This sort of thing doesn’t happen too often in Boston, and that’s what Casey has been trying to change since he co-founded Murphys Boxing with his friend and business partner Sean Sullivan in 2010. Prior to that, Casey had managed Danny “Bhoy” O’Connor, a Framingham-based two-time national amateur champion and 2008 Olympic alternate, and had the fire in him to hit even harder in the sports world.
“Dropkick Murphys is on autopilot, and I missed the do-it-yourself mentality and wanted to take on a challenge getting into boxing,” Casey says. “It was like the early days of the band—next thing I know I had a roster of 15 fighters.”
In the past seven years, Murphys has kept live boxing in Boston alive almost single-handedly, while also promoting fights at Madison Square Garden in New York and in front of 20,000 fans in the United Kingdom. Casey’s experience touring and playing countless shows with the Dropkicks means even local Murphys Boxing matches have the top-quality sound, lighting, and presentation that mark major boxing cards.
“There’s nothing worse to me than going to a fight in a gym and the lights are up the whole time,” Casey says. “I probably spend $4,000 on lights and the bells and whistles, and that might be the difference between making money and losing money. A lot of promoters might say, ‘Screw it,’ but coming from the entertainment side, that stuff is just as important as having a ring. We take the showmanship approach—even in Melrose, we want the fans to feel like they’re at the Boston Garden.”
Despite all his experience, Casey’s punk rock background doesn’t always brace him for the unpredictability of the ring, where all it takes is a split second for a fighter’s world to violently change. Not all injuries are equal—one boxer on a Murphys card had to cancel because he twisted his ankle on his walk to the ring. Some battle scars are deep, though; one major setback came in seeing O’Connor, Murphys Boxing’s first fighter, get beaten in 2015 on national television. Casey says that it was “heartbreaking,” with his fighter having a momentary lapse and throwing a lazy left-hand, thereafter getting knocked on the canvas.
And those are just some of the challenges inside of the ring.
Outside the ring, Murphys is continuously waging a war in the cutthroat business of boxing, where entrenched and powerful promoters often refuse to work with relatively new rivals. At the same time, an upstart company like Murphys additionally has an asset in its unique blue-collar fighters—from a boisterous, mustachioed Irishman with a granite chin to decorated amateurs and to North Shore tough guys.
When bare-knuckle icon John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight crown from Paddy Ryan in 1882, he put Boston on the sports map in a big way. For the next 60 years, the Hub remained an elite boxing city, according to Kevin L. Smith, author of the excellent pictorial history Boston’s Boxing Heritage. Boxing in this city is “a tale of heroes and villains, gangsters and mobsters, contenders and bums, trainers and newspapermen, straight men and cheats,” Smith writes.
The list of legends is long…
George Dixon was a photographer’s assistant who first became interested in boxing from the conversations he had with the many fighters who visited his studio for portraits. In 1890, Dixon, fighting out of Boston, became the first black world champion in any sport when he won the bantamweight title. He is also credited with inventing shadowboxing.
Perhaps the greatest fighter of all time, Sam Langford came to Boston as a homeless teen around the turn of the 20th century. One day, Langford was fighting a white boy on Washington Street, he said, “when a crowd gathered and became hostile at my accosting the white youth.” He continued: “When the crowd was close to mobbing me, a fine-looking gentleman came forward and silenced them.” That gentleman was George Byers, a veteran boxer who went on to teach Langford the advanced skills he used to win 180 fights, 128 by knockout, in every division from lightweight to heavyweight. Only racial discrimination kept the great Langford from challenging for a title.
And then there were the promoters who ran things…
From the 1930s through the ’60s, Boston boxing was essentially controlled by three men—Sam Silverman, Rip Valenti, and Johnny Buckley. All three had criminal records and could be described as “Runyonesque,” or from the underworld. Silverman lasted the longest, into the ’70s. As live boxing in Boston began to fade, he faded along with it.
SPIKE, STING RAY, AND THE VILLAIN
In May 2015, Murphys co-promoted the first world title fight in Boston in almost a decade.
Before the main event, an Irish fighter on the undercard, Spike O’Sullivan, one of the Murphys warriors, stole the show. Dressed in a kilt, the boxer scored a second-round knockout over a challenger who had won 29 of 30 fights. Following the victory, O’Sullivan broke into an Irish step-dancing routine.
None of this was a surprise for fans of the Irish fighter, who is easily one of the most eccentric characters in boxing today. O’Sullivan’s former sparring partner, Conor McGregor, recently captured the world’s attention with his trash talk and hype, but O’Sullivan can be equally outrageous and has built up a social media following of nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter with his antics. In one video, he sports a mankini and uses a Borat-style accent to taunt the feared middleweight champion, Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan.
“Spike is such a showman,” Casey says. “His style in the ring is exactly how he is outside of the ring. He’s exciting, but I think he does it a little more tongue-in-cheek and humorous than McGregor. Spike will just lean in and give his opponent who is trying to act so serious a kiss on the cheek.”
That’s exactly what O’Sullivan did against Irish rival Anthony Fitzgerald, a tough Dublin middleweight who had gone the distance against championship-level competition. In the pre-fight press conference, Fitzgerald shoved O’Sullivan, and O’Sullivan responded by giving him a peck, which only further enraged Fitzgerald. O’Sullivan also bet 100 quid at 50-to-1 odds that he would knock Fitzgerald out in the first round.
After one minute of the first round, O’Sullivan landed a devastating right uppercut and actually knocked Fitzgerald out.
“I went back to the hotel and kept the party going,” O’Sullivan told DigBoston in his distinctive brogue. “I bought everyone a round to drink and we had a helluva party.”
O’Sullivan is predicting a similar ending for Saturday’s main event at the House of Blues, where he will face Nick Quigley of Liverpool, England.
“I’m going to come to fight,” he says. “I don’t run around and pick off points. Guys who do that should go do sword fencing instead. I like guys who come to kill each other, and I’m sharpening my tools for war now … Quigley will come to fight, but I’ll knock him out.”
On the nontelevised portion of the undercard, another Murphys fighter will continue to build his own respective buzz. “Sting Ray” Ray Moylette is undefeated in six pro fights, and following his latest win two weeks ago, he climbed onto the ropes after a knockdown.
“Now I know I can come back.” he says. “You’re going to get hit, but what you do after that defines how you’ll finish.”
Moylette is one of the most decorated Irish amateur boxers in history, with more than 300 amateur fights. He won the Junior World Championships in 2008, and trains at the Celtic Warriors Gym with O’Sullivan in Dublin.
“The Irish heritage of fighting means a lot itself,” Moylette says. “We were a country that was taken over by England, so the fighting spirit is in everyone. But the boxers—we’re the ones who take the mantle.”
Not every Murphys fighter is an Irish transplant. Greg “The Villain” Vendetti is a rugged brawler willing to take two punches to land one. The Stoneham native turned to boxing after a rambunctious youth in which he traded punches in the street and at North Shore carnivals.
“I was always drawn to the challenge of combat,” Vendetti says. “I used to work out, but I didn’t really know how to fight, so I started to go to the Somerville Boxing Club, and I realized this is where the real fighters are. I was a gritty, mean guy who got into fights, but boxing added discipline and hard work … If it wasn’t for boxing I don’t know where I’d be.”
After some tough losses early in his career, some wrote off Vendetti as an elite prospect. Casey, however, saw something more in the licensed plumber.
“He’ll fight anybody,” Casey says, “and I love his style.”
“Inside the boxing community I always felt like I’m the outsider, the underdog, the one everyone expects to lose,” says Vendetti, who recently won the New England junior middleweight championship title. “But I’m not afraid to lose, get knocked out, or die—people appreciate that willingness.”
Vendetti fights undefeated Casey Kramlich on Saturday.
“He’ll be there for me to hit,” Vendetti says. “I’ll stop him within six rounds.”
As tough as in-the-ring action can be, the business side of boxing can also bruise.
Along with Casey, two other figures from the music industry have also tried boxing promotions of late. The difference—50 Cent and Jay-Z’s ventures in the fight game have faded or failed, with 50 Cent already bowing out and Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports struggling. Murphys, however, started small and is increasingly working with the major power brokers in the sport—many of whom refuse to work with each other.
“We can make fights because we do work with other promoters,” Casey says. “I’m like Switzerland … I have something they want: Boston, a viable city to put on boxing shows.”
He continues: “I don’t know if Jay Z and 50 Cent got their hands dirty on the business side like I did. I’m putting up posters and setting up chairs at the fight … It’s like the difference between a major record label and an independent record label.”
Casey has a lot of irons in the fire. In June, Murphys held its first of four fights at Plainridge Park and Casino. Two weeks ago, Murphys fighter Niall Kennedy won the New England heavyweight championship in an entertaining bout against a fighter with just one previous loss.
“When you have a good heavyweight, things open up for you,” Casey says. “These guys—Niall, Ray, and Spike—they’re the equivalent of a sports franchise in Ireland.”
A sports franchise in Ireland, but in Boston they more so resemble a local band—an often underrated, hardworking, hardcore outfit that would have fit in at the Rathskeller. The Boston punk scene has certainly yielded a whole lot of tough guys, but the Murphys crew is in a class of its own.
Get your tickets to the fights this Sat 9.30 at murphysboxing.com