While 2021 has not been a hive of fighting activity for Caoimhin Agyarko he has managed to relieve himself of some problems that have taken a weight off his mind.
The exciting and dangerous Belfast middleweight kept his unbeaten record intact in June when Ernesto Olvera called it a day at the end of the third stanza of their eight-round bout. The viciousness, which is becoming synonymous with Agyarko’s fledgling career, was too much for the unfortunate Mexican who was on the receiving end of it. And while a second outing of the year should hopefully come around within the remaining months Agyarko has been able to tend to other matters which will play an integral part in his career going from strength to strength.
Last month STN Sports, a relatively new sports management company, headed up by lawyer Sean O’Toole and former Matchroom employee Paul Ready, added Agyarko to their talented client roster which already features Callum Smith, Kal Yafai, Dalton Smith, Sandy Ryan and amateur star Delicious Orie. The decision proved to be a no-brainer for Agyarko who can now focus on his development under trainer Alan Smith while O’Toole and Ready, alongside promoter Frank Warren, focus on guiding the career of ‘Black Thunder’ and aiming for the heady heights that many believe the 24-year-old will reach.
“I knew that my management contract was up, and I felt like I needed a change,” Agyarko (9-0, 6 KOs) told Boxing Social.
“It was Dalton Smith that contacted me. He heard through the grapevine I was going to be a free agent and asked if I would be interested in having a chat with his management company. I met up with Paul and we discussed what would be the best way of moving [my career] forward.
“I’m someone who believes in someone who is genuine, and I know who isn’t pulling my leg. I’m not somebody that doesn’t trust anybody but hand on heart I can say I seen a genuineness in Paul. I knew that with his experience, who he’s worked with, the people that he has in his team, the way he was talking and what he wanted to do for me in terms of moving my career forward and what would be the main priorities that he was the right guy for me. It was an easy decision for me to choose him. I did have other options but I didn’t really give them the time of day because of how genuine he was and the plans that Paul had for me because it was the visions, he had which I had for myself. I believe in Paul and Sean O’Toole and STN getting my career to the top.”
Agyarko added that future plans include picking up a title soon then taking it back to Belfast for a defence in 2022. Northern Irish fans of ‘Black Thunder’ have become accustomed to travelling to England for all but one of his nine fights to date. Agyarko is fully aware of the efforts his fanbase have gone to and he believes the time has come to repay them.
“You look at Carl Frampton and that’s what he started doing in his career,” he said. “He did actually fight across the water for a bit but then he went back home and started building his career and building his fanbase and having big nights there and that’s my dream. I want to be headlining shows back home and repaying my fans. That’s the plan.”
During his 12-year career Frampton was a constant inspiration to his peers. ‘The Jackal’ and his loyal following basked in some glorious nights where success was delivered in Belfast, England, or America. His achievements will continue to spur on his countrymen and women for years to come and Agyarko would love nothing more than to follow in his footsteps.
“What a career Carl had,” Agyarko said. “He left the blueprint and the best way to do so. I feel like I can fill them boots even though they’re big boots to fill I do feel like I can fill them. I’ve got a great style, I’m a likeable guy, I’ve got a great fanbase, I have a fan-friendly style and a story to go with it. I think I have the whole package and I can definitely go back home and start bringing big nights to Belfast again.”
To conquer the world Agyarko will need his once problematic hands to be in good working order. Boxers say that often they go into a fight not in 100% condition. Niggles here and there seem par for the course, but Agyarko has had to deal with continuous hand injuries that have burdened him and dialled down the ferocity which, perhaps worryingly for his rivals, has never been at its most savage.
“My last two fights are the first time in about five years I’ve went into a fight without an injury,” he said.
“My first seven fights as a pro I had an injury. Torn ligaments or something wrong with my hands going into them fights. A bit of a nightmare.”
That would take us up to his win over Jez Smith then in July last year.
“Yeah. The Jez Smith fight was probably one of the bigger fights I shouldn’t have took. I hurt my hand two weeks out. So, two weeks out from that fight I tore my ligaments. I was in a hospital getting an x-ray, seeing a specialist. I was told not to fight and then I just fought anyway. If you watch that fight, I was left-hand happy because my right hand was so sore. The two weeks leading up to that fight I didn’t do any pads, didn’t use it, didn’t do nothing. Obviously, I’m always gonna carry power but I haven’t been able to show my full power, my full potential because I’ve had injuries in the past. Thankfully, touch wood, since my last two fights and even training now they’re fine, I have had no hand injuries which is a great sign.”
“My first two fights… they’re kids I should have stopped,” he admitted. “The second fight I dropped the kid twice and I did the ligaments in both my hands in that fight, and I just couldn’t put him away because my hands were so sore. I was happy enough getting a win on points. Then the fight in Belfast against Paul Allison, my left hand went in the first round and that’s the only performance – if you watch – which is more me showing my boxing ability than fighting because my hand was so sore, and he was a kid that just come forward non-stop. I couldn’t throw and put a dent in him, so I just boxed him and made him miss and stuff like that. I’ve had injuries in the past but thankfully they’re fine now.”
Years upon years of pain for a young man whether it was in the gym or in the ring. Adrenaline can only do so much. Hurting hands may be part and parcel of it all but mentally, to endure for so long, it can take its toll too. Agyarko had nearly reached his limit at one stage.
“I think it was up until the Jez Smith fight, I was so frustrated and sick and tired of it. I started questioning my boxing career and how far I’m going to go because of my hands. I’ve seen so many hand specialists in the last couple of years and got so many MRI’s and things like that. The next option, if they weren’t going to heal themselves, was surgery on both of them. I’m 24 now but at that stage I was only 22 and I was still very young and didn’t want to have to get surgery so early on in my career. Thankfully I’ve got a great strength coach and we’ve worked on strengthening my hands up because it’s just a matter of my ligaments and joints aren’t strong enough for how hard I punch. That’s the problem. We’ve worked on strengthening my hands and ever since my hand problems have kind of went away thankfully.”
Falling off a kerb while out for a run in July caused a chipped bone in Agyarko’s foot. It never rains but it pours, however accidents happen and thankfully he never landed on his hands! Even with that slip up relief is the overriding feeling for Agyarko nowadays. With a new management team behind him and the hand injuries seemingly at an end there is a weight off the mind and body.
“If everything runs smoothly the sky’s the limit,” he says.
Getting to the top for Agyarko will not include going down a domestic route where the British and Commonwealth titles are on offer. Rivals in the British 160lbs division are everywhere. Felix Cash, Denzel Bentley, Mark Heffron, Marcus Morrison, Linus Udofia and Danny Dignum are a half dozen that Agyarko would happily take on, but the prestigious Lonsdale belt isn’t in his plans as he explains.
“I’ve said many times before I’m not going down the domestic route. That’s why I’m not fussed on calling these domestic fighters out or even considering them because my plan is to get to world level as quickly as possible. We’re going to do that through the European route because I am an Irish fighter, I’m not a British fighter so domestically it doesn’t really make sense. I’ve no dreams or ambitions to be a British or Commonwealth champion. Not to discredit them belts because they’re unbelievable belts to win and it’s an unbelievable achievement winning them, but I got into this game to be a world champion and it’s as simple as that.”
One name not mentioned in that list of potential opponents is Nathan Heaney. The popular and unbeaten 32-year-old has had a bit of back and forth with Agyarko on social media. The Stoke ‘Hitman’ has dreams of headlining at the city’s Bet365 football stadium where the sizeable following which Heaney has would likely double and treble for one night. Promoter Frank Warren shares his fighter’s dream and is looking at that as a realistic option in 2022. Agyarko told Boxing Social that he knows for a fact he will never be in the opposite corner.
“I’ve nothing against Nathan. He’s doing what he’s doing, he’s selling a lot of tickets and that’s why Frank will keep him protected. I’ve been told I’ll never get the fight with him unless he wants it, and he doesn’t.
“He doesn’t fight anybody worth talking about. He said to me get yourself into the top 15 of the UK or something like that. Even though Boxrec rankings are a load of crap he said get yourself in the top 15 in the rankings and we’ll fight and that’s what I done. I was ranked 10, I was ranked higher than him and yet he still found an excuse not to fight me. All the best to the kid.”
Agyarko’s boxing ambitions run parallel along with his desire to spread the message about mental health in Northern Ireland. As he hinted at earlier in this feature, he has a ‘story’. It is part of the Agyarko package which he openly talks about whenever his past is brought up. In May 2017 he encountered a life changing moment at just 20-years-old when he was stabbed in the throat in Belfast city centre. The incident does not define him or act as an obstacle in the way of his dreams and ambitions. What it can do is serve as a source of inspiration. A reminder not only to himself that he bounced back from a horrific act of violence, but one which he hopes will help others too who may be struggling mentally and feel that life is closing in on them.
Agyarko recently posted on Instagram a series of images of him from lying in a hospital bed to his exploits in a boxing ring to where he is now which he says is in a great place mentally, enjoying boxing and life overall. But there is work to be done to help others, he says.
“I’m on this new journey with STN so everything is going well for me. I would say, mentally, I’m in a great place but sometimes something will just hit me, and I’ll be reminded about the incidents that happened four years ago and I’ll be in my emotions, and it led me to post that. It led me to post that not because I want sympathy or anything like that, but it led me to post it because I want to show my followers and everybody who supports me, that no matter what happens to you in life you can hit rock bottom and rebuild. You can have the lowest of lows and still achieve great things and that’s what I’ve done. With a positive mindset and the right people around me I was able to take my time, let it sink and affect me in a certain way. Then I realised that I want to do great things in boxing and I’m not going to let me being stabbed determine the outcome of my life or my career. That post was just a reminder for anybody that needs to be inspired a bit that no matter what tough days you face you can still achieve great things.
“The plans is to go back to Belfast, headline shows and achieve my dreams and things like that but it’s also to inspire the younger generation and show them no matter what, what background you come from or what’s happened to you in the past you can still achieve great things. Right now, and for the last two or three years or maybe longer there has been a bad stigma in Belfast with mental health. A lot of young people have been taking their lives, friends of mine taking their lives. It’s sad to see and I think I’ve got a great platform in boxing to help with mental health and that’s what I want to do because I’m someone who’s previously suffered from it. Some people ask me why they (the media) always ask in interviews about you being stabbed, you’ve moved on and I say I’ve got no problem with telling my story because me telling my story might help somebody else and that’s what I want to do. I want to help the people of Belfast. I love Belfast so much, and if I can help out in any way then I will.”
Things are falling into place for the Belfast man who says that anything less than fulfilling his dream of becoming a world champion would be an under-achievement. Pressure is on his shoulders and is placed there by himself and those in the sport who share a wide opinion that Agyarko has what it takes to go all the way. Inside the ring there are still elements of his style which could describe him as a bit of a rough diamond but despite the lofty expectations he has still only had nine fights.
The word pressure doesn’t make Agyarko uneasy or uncomfortable, instead he revels in it. Boxing has been his life since he was 7 years old and therefore, he can flip pressure on its head and turn it into a positive. After all fighting is something, he loves doing.
“No-one has bigger expectations of me than myself,” he says, aware of the hype that follows him.
“Pressure creates diamonds. I know how to deal with that pressure and being under the spotlight because I’ve been doing this for so long. Even though there are all eyes on you I’m going in there to fight and do something that I love. I focus on myself. Essentially, I’m not trying to please anyone but myself. Yes, I want to make a name for myself and make the fans happy and x, y and z but ultimately, I have to put myself first and as long as I’m happy then I’ll keep on improving, keep on performing, keep on pulling the wins out of the bag and hopefully putting on great performances.”