“The old saying is hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.”

Tommy McCarthy learned a painful lesson in 2019.

The March of that year saw the Belfast cruiserweight pitted against the raw talents of Richard Riakporhe for an Inter-Continental belt in Peterborough. Dillian Whyte’s protege was flying high after his win over Sam Hyde four months earlier. The Londoner had begun boxing at 19 so was way behind in terms of the experience gained by peers like Hyde and McCarthy. Very much a work in progress. McCarthy, a one-time Olympic hopeful and Commonwealth Games silver medallist, freely admits all he thought he had to do was turn up and win. 

With a minute to go in round four, McCarthy was nailed by Riakporhe’s right hammer. He took a knee, count given. The man down winked at his corner, ‘I’m okay’. He wasn’t. The head said yes, the legs said no. Right hand number two ended matters 40 seconds later. Sky pundit Tony Bellew had only just finished saying, ‘The next big shot ends this’.

“I went into that fight a bit undercooked, a wee bit arrogant,” said McCarthy (16-2, 8 KOs) to Boxing Social.

“I thought I was a level above him. I knew I had to sort my team out in terms of training. I thought I was better than him and I’d get away with it but after I lost it was a wake-up call. I’m at the stage where, at championship boxing, all the T’s need to be crossed and all the lower-case J’s need to be dotted. I had a reshuffle with my team, got with Pete Taylor and made sure that everything was of a world class level. Can’t cut corners in this game or you get found out, so Riakporhe was a prime example. I took that fight at two weeks’ notice, but I still thought I was going to get by on talent. The old saying is hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard so that’s what happened, and I started putting the work in.

“After that fight, I didn’t go away and lick my wounds and cry about it. It motivated me to get to where I am right now fighting for a vacant [European] title, knocking on the door of a world title. If I win this, it will open the door for me on to the world scene. After the Riakporhe loss, I had to go all in and make sure it never happens again and that’s what I did.”

McCarthy has turned his career around, via a trip to Italy, and as he mentioned will fight for the vacant European cruiserweight title this weekend on Sky Sports Box Office supporting the heavyweight encounter between Oleksandr Usyk vs Dereck Chisora. Belgium’s Bilal Laggoune (25-1-2 14 KOs) is the only thing that stands in the way of McCarthy becoming Northern Ireland’s first European champion at cruiserweight.

“To be honest, I want to get him out of there,” said McCarthy of his foe. “I know he’s a tricky, cagey operator but I’m punching hard and I’m fit as a fiddle. Once I hit him with a big shot, I’m confident I’ll get him out of there.” 

The European title would likely see his current ranking of 16 with the World Boxing Council take a small leap into the top 15 putting him in the frame for bigger fights and nights in the future. All of this he puts at the feet and brilliant mind of coach Pete Taylor (who he has known since the amateur scene) and the biggest win of his career against Fabio Turchi in Trento, Italy, last October. The Italian was unbeaten, at home and the locals treated him like he was a world champion already. This was a big deal for Turchi’s WBC International strap. 

“It was such a brilliant experience because I was out there, it was the main event, [I was] top of the bill and it was on Sky Sports and DAZN. It was like a world title fight to the Italians,” said McCarthy. “There was so much hype over there. Roberto Duran was ringside for the fight, [WBC President] Mauricio Sulaiman was there and some big-name footballers. It was a massive event. I was living the dream and to get the win was just so satisfying.”

McCarthy picked up the split decision victory (115-113, 112-116, 116-112). The WBC’s open scoring was in play. Every four rounds the scores are read out. However, someone had fallen behind so the cards were announced in round 9. The away fighter knew what he had to do once his ears pricked up. 

“All I had to do was win two of the last three rounds.”

That he did. After concerns he might get robbed, McCarthy heard those three magic words, ‘And the new…’. Time to celebrate. He and his team overjoyed. The risk was worth the reward. Amid the elation, McCarthy forgot about Mr ‘Hands of Stone’ at ringside but you can’t blame him.

“I never even went over. That’s a regret,” he admitted. “I should have gone over and spoke to him. I was so full of joy I didn’t think about Roberto Duran at that point. That’s the one thing, if I could go back, I would have gone over and spoke to him because he’s an absolute boxing legend.”

October then, October now. In between the 29-year-old, who turns 30 next week, has been in camp waiting for the call to fight. It was meant to be February, there was talk of April and there were quotes saying, “Maybe in a Fight Camp show”. Not to be. Covid-19 changed things on another level for McCarthy and his family. A man has got to eat and a man has got to provide.

“If you don’t fight you don’t earn and I’m a married man with four children, so I had to try my hand at a few different things to make some money,” he revealed. “When I left school, I never had a trade or anything, so I’ve never been on a building site or anything like that. I went and done a bit of painting for my father-in-law and I did some personal training work doing one-to-one boxing. Just turning my hand to anything I could to make a few quid. Trying new stuff to make ends meet. I get this fight won then normal service is resumed.”

Photo: Matchroom Boxing.