Steve Collins has always been about fighting and, at 49 years of age, that fire continues to burn within his heart and shows little sign of fading.
The unbreakable Irishman went 82-8 in the amateur ranks and learned much of his craft in the United States under Goody and Pat Petronelli, the Brockton, Mass., duo responsible for taking Marvelous Marvin Hagler to the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.
Collins turned professional in 1986 in Lowell, Mass., on a card he shared with his future trainer, Freddie Roach, and the city’s favorite son, Micky Ward. The young prospect never had the gloss of a celebrated new comer but his prevailing ethos was to work as hard, or harder, than anyone else.
“The Celtic Warrior” had his first standout victory over the late Tony Thornton, whom he outpointed against the odds in 1989. The following year, however, he was literally thrown to the wolves against WBA middleweight champion, Mike “The Body Snatcher” McCallum.
The Irish star had only competed 16 times as a professional and would be facing a future ring legend and one of the most avoided fighters on or around the middleweight classification.
Although Collins lost by unanimous decision it proved to be a significant learning curve. The Irish workhorse absorbed knowledge like a sponge, both in the ring or in training camp, and admits that his progress was mainly due to having so much variety in coaching.
“I developed a lot of my skills under the Petronelli brothers,” said Collins. “I also worked with Floyd Patterson, who taught me how to generate power and Freddie King, a London-based trainer, taught me how to cut a ring off.”
Collins continued, “Freddie Roach brought it all together and I managed to beat fighters who were better than me because I was so well schooled. I learned a bit at a time and it all added up.”
In 1992 Collins suffered back-to-back losses to Reggie Johnson and Sambu Kalambay, two superb fighters in their own right. He would never be beaten again and charted a course which would see him realize his dreams and earn the respect he so richly deserved.
“The Celtic Warrior” ventured across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom and, after capturing the WBO middleweight crown against Chris Pyatt, unleashed hell on Britain’s famed 168-pound warriors, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn, during the mid-1990s.
Here’s what Collins had to say about his illustrious career.
Best overall: That’s a hard question to answer. It would be easy to say Mike McCallum but I wasn’t at my best in 1990. I was at my peak when I fought Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn, whereas I met McCallum on the way up. It’s hard to answer that based on where I was at in terms of my own career.
Best boxer: The best boxer was definitely Mike McCallum. He was in his prime at 33 years old and I was 26 and still learning. Mike had beaten some of the very best fighters in the world at that point and guys like Sugar Ray Leonard wouldn’t go anywhere near him because he was so slick. I learned more in one fight with Mike McCallum than I did in my five previous fights combined, do you understand? He was skillful, a master at combination punching and he had everything at his disposal. He was the smartest guy I ever fought.
Best puncher: Nigel Benn hit the hardest. I don’t even think Benn knew how hard he hit to be honest (laughs). Nigel caught me flush in the first fight and I thought he had broken all of my teeth and this horrible taste filled my mouth. I actually felt sick to my stomach and nobody had ever hit me like that before.
Best defense: McCallum was so slick. He had the ability to ride punches and come back with his own. He would invite a shot, get past it and land quality counters. Defensively he was so cute and he was well schooled in every aspect of the game. It was great to share the ring with him and that experience did so much for my own career. In the first half of that fight I tried to box with him and that didn’t work, so I began chasing him in the second half. I had to use my strength, toughness and determination and I managed to win some rounds. It just wasn’t my time and I wasn’t ready at that point in my career.
Fastest hands: (Long Pause) I can’t really answer that. I fought guys who would hit and run away. If I had to choose it would be McCallum. Mike was pretty quick.
Fastest feet: I had the ability to cut the ring down so it didn’t really matter how fast someone’s feet were. Fast feet wouldn’t trouble me, and if you’re a professional then it never should. Fast on your feet or not I would be able to find you.I did spar a guy called Paul “Silky” Jones (former WBO junior middleweight titleholder) and he knew his way around a ring. He was a great fighter to work with because if you could cut him off there was nothing to worry about on fight night.
Best chin: It’s Chris Eubank. I hit him with huge shots to the head and he was going nowhere. When I dropped him it was a body shot that sent him over. He was so tough and durable and he was dangerous until the very last second of a fight. He didn’t have Benn’s power or McCallum’s combination work but he had incredible strength. You would be nailing Chris and think it’s all over and then he would just unload with power shots. He would get fancy during a fight and showboat which would keep opponents thinking plus his style was so unorthodox, you didn’t know what was coming next. That was his way of buying time but I would ignore that and jump all over him. I always wanted to be in punching range against Chris but he was the toughest most durable man I ever met – hands down.
Best jab: McCallum had the best jab. He controlled fights with the left jab and punished you if you made mistakes.
Strongest: Eubank was the strongest. His physical strength was incredible but the reason I gave him so much trouble is because I was even stronger than he was. Super middleweight was my division and my strength was second to none, whereas I lost something making the middleweight limit. At 168 pounds I could stand up to Chris and push him backwards and he had never encountered that before, so ultimately I broke his heart in the first fight. I fought all the way up at heavyweight as an amateur and my strength was my biggest asset.
Smartest: Mike McCallum was the smartest. I learned a lot from him and he educated me. Every once in a while you face a guy who is a bit special and they either finish you or make you. When Prince Naseem stepped up a level (to face Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001) he lost and that was basically the end of him.
I fought McCallum and although I lost it made me a better fighter because he was the best in his time. Sugar Ray Leonard told me personally that there was no money in facing McCallum and it was a fight he could lose. I asked him that during a Q&A and he admitted it to an entire audience. I stepped up to the elite level and traded with one of the best fighters around, so I knew I would get better and I knew I would become a world champion after that.
McCallum didn’t get the credit he deserved but just look at his record and you see the guys he beat.
Recently Collins and former four-weight world champion, Roy Jones, have been linked to an old-timer reunion which would presumably be held at the cruiserweight limit. The on again, off again clash was recently confirmed as a dead duck but Collins was anxious to quash that theory.
“Negotiations have not collapsed,” promised Collins. “It’s all about money but Roy and I both want the fight. I’m still ticking over in training and so is Roy.”
Collins was asked if Jones, who is now 44 years old, would have been mentioned on any of the above categories, had they met in their respective primes.
“I haven’t fought him so I’m not sure but he’s a brilliant fighter and it’s possible he could have appeared on every category.
“Roy’s ring wisdom is his best asset and he can adapt to different styles. Still, I’ve always known what his weakness is and I’ve told him that to his face. I would have to stop him to win and I would fight in a style designed to stop him. I guarantee it wouldn’t go the distance!”
So what chink has Collins noticed in the Jones armory?
“His flaw is that he would go flat footed. I’ve told him he wouldn’t stand with me and he said he would, so I’ve got him hooked already. He said he can mix it with me and I’ve told him that nobody can.”
The projected contest has been fiercely scrutinized and many see Jones vs. Collins 2013 as an obvious attempt to cash in on old glory. That said this is a sport which produced a 45-year-old heavyweight champion in George Foreman and former Jones rival, Bernard Hopkins, continues to defy time.
“The fight is late but we’re ages with each other,” acknowledged Collins. “I think the match would shock a lot of people because I for one feel as good as I did 10 years ago. I have never lost my toughness and I have never lost my power.”
Photos / Dave J. Hogan-Getty Images, THE RING
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing