Jamie Kavanagh, a Dubliner visiting the United States, was one of 16,000-plus fans crammed into the MGM Grand Garden Arena when Manny Pacquiao knocked out Ricky Hatton with a mammoth left hook on May 2 of last year. Six months later, Kavanagh exchanged punches with Pacquiao in a spirited sparring session in Hollywood, Calif.
Yes, the Irishman has come a long way in a short time.
The former star on the Irish national amateur team, who spent half his childhood living in Spain, went from a mere pro prospect back home to one of trainer Freddie Roach’s new pupils and now has an extremely promising future ahead of him if he continues to win.
“I’ve worked for everything I have,” said Kavanagh, speaking in his charming brogue. “I’ve also had a bit of luck, though. I’ve already had the dream. Now I just have to work on it.”
Kavanagh, who faces Ricardo Malfavon on the Fight Night Club card Thursday at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, will tell you that he has boxing in his blood.
He counts bare-knuckle boxers among his ancestors and followed his Uncle Paul, who is only two years his senior, into the ring at 10 years old. Paul quit after two years but Kavanagh made it his life’s passion.
Only a year after he picked up the sport Kavanagh’s family moved to Madrid, where the weather was better than Ireland and, his father believed, business opportunities were more abundant. Kavanagh, not thrilled at the prospect, made his father promise one thing.
“He said, ‘Yes, when we go to Spain I’ll find you a boxing gym,’” Kavanagh said.
That’s where met trainer Sedano Ruiz, with whom he now lives and trains (with Roach) not far from Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood.
Kavanagh made the transition to life in a different country, although it wasn’t easy leaving his friends and adjusting to a new school when he didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
He learned, though. He is now fluent in the language and, while he’ll always consider himself “100 percent Irish,” Spain is a second home. He also continued to grow as a boxer, competing regularly for Ireland in amateur competitions as he grew up.
In his final competition, a world championship tournament in 2008 in Mexico, he won a silver medal –- his best result as an amateur.
After that, he decided he was ready to give professional boxing a try. Little did he know that he would end up halfway around the world working with perhaps the No. 1 active trainer on the planet.
Kavanagh hadn’t thought about coming to the U.S. until he was introduced to boxing manager Steve Feder in Las Vegas by Dean Byrne, a friend and fellow boxer from Ireland who was fighting on the Pacquiao-Hatton undercard.
Kavanagh mentioned he planned to turn pro, they kept in touch and the next thing he knew he was flying to L.A. to tryout with Roach.
“Honestly, at first, I didn’t take it too seriously,” Feder said. “Dean told me he was really good and really serious, though. So I said to Dean, ‘We’ll find out how serious he is. Let’s see if he follows up with me.’ Well, he stayed on me. He kept in touch. He said he really wanted to come to the States and see if he could train at the Wild Card.
“… So I set up a time for him to come. I told him to come three, four weeks before Freddie was due to return from the Philippines with Manny to get used the surroundings.”
That’s what Kavanagh did. He went from training with his sole sparring partner at his home gym in Madrid to working with world-class fighters on a daily basis in one of the most-important gyms in the world.
He was ready when Roach returned.
“The whole thing was a bit of shock,” Kavanagh said, referring to the concept of working out for Roach. “When this first came up, I thought, ‘He's not going to mess around with a kid like me. He works with only the big names. Maybe one day I’ll actually get a chance to work with him.’
“Then I got the chance. And Freddie said he wanted to sign me. It was crazy. Everyone at home went crazy when they heard the news.”
The transition wasn’t easy. Moving from Spain to Los Angeles at 20 was harder than moving from Ireland to Spain at 11. At least in Madrid, he had his family.
Kavanagh does nothing but train. When he finishes his workout late in the day, he said, he always asks himself the same thing: “Now what am I going to do?” And he always does the same thing: He returns to his apartment.
He calls his family and friends in Europe regularly, although he is still getting used to time differences. Clearly, though, he is lonely.
And that’s a price he’s willing to pay. He has the same dream as all fighters –- he wants to win a world title one day -– and realizes he’s landed in an ideal environment to achieve his goal.
Feder and his promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, believe he has the tools to succeed as a pro. They love his personality and his work ethic. And the fact he speaks Spanish is a huge bonus in Southern California, where he already conducts interviews with Spanish-language media.
Robert Diaz, a Golden Boy matchmaker, couldn’t believe it when the Spanish words came out of Kavanagh’s mouth.
“Freddie said, ‘I want you to meet this kid. He speaks Spanish,’” Diaz said. “I looked at Jamie and said, ‘Bulls—t. This kid doesn’t speak Spanish.’ And then I had a conversation with him in fluent Spanish. I’m like, ‘This is cool. An Irish kid who speaks Spanish.’
“I know the Irish like boxing. I know the Mexicans like boxing. Now he can crossover to both cultures in his new home base.”
All Kavanagh (2-0 in his short career) has to do is to continue to learn.
How could he not? Roach works with him as much as he can given his busy schedule. And the sparring is like nothing he can get elsewhere. Specifically, he could never have dreamed of working one-on-one with Pacquiao.
From Dublin to Madrid to Hollywood. That’s quite a journey.
“I was nervous because there are so many people watching at the Wild Card,” he said, referring to his first sparring session with Pacquiao. “I remember (actor) Mark Wahlberg was there the first day. He introduced himself. I told him I knew who he was. I couldn’t really focus, though. I was about to get into the ring with the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter and I didn’t want to get knocked out.
“I did OK. I just tried to give him good work. I didn’t even have a pro fight at that time. It’s an honor to be in the ring with a guy like that.”
And he'll have many more such opportunities.