Kieran Farrell: The fighter remains

Declan Taylor
03/06/2015 10:25am

On 11th July, Terry Flanagan will box for the WBO lightweight title a short walk from his home in Manchester. A week later, just across the famous fighting city, Anthony Crolla takes on Darleys Perez for the WBA's title in the same 9st 9lbs division.

Meanwhile, around nine miles further north in the small town of Heywood, a 24-year-old intrinsically linked to both men continues his boxing career in a very different fashion.

“You see Terry,” says Kieran Farrell, leaning back on a chair in the reception of his community gym. “He's the same kid as me.

“And Crolla? Well, we all know what happened there.”

Farrell, whose talent and tenacity put him alongside those two local rivals as a fighter equally capable of challenging for world honours, will never lace them up again. At least not legally.

The man nicknamed 'Vicious' has not boxed since a desperate December night in 2012 when he collapsed at the end of a 10-round war with Crolla for the English lightweight crown. He was rushed to hospital and labelled a 'walking miracle' by the neurosurgeon who saved his life after significant bleeding on the brain.

His professional career, which begun on the very same show as Flanagan's – in Blackpool on January 24, 2009 – was over after 15 fights. Two and a half years on, short hair now covers that once-famous shaven head, dampening his ring moniker slightly, and he now calls the shots instead of landing them himself.

Six months after his forced retirement, struggling to come to terms with the absence of boxing in his life, Farrell decided to open The People's Gym not far from his home in Heywood. We meet on the second anniversary of the gym's launch, while a class of teenagers who have paid just £2.50 each for the session, work the bags inside the gym. He seems like he loves his new life.

“I'm enjoying it, don't get me wrong,” he says. “I just don't like spending a lot of time during the week with a kid only for him to get robbed on the Friday or Saturday at a show. It does my head in.

“At the minute I'm just going with the flow. I have all ages in here. We've got 4-9 as a group, then 10-17 which is this older group here. I've got new people coming in all the time.”

Right on cue, a dad and his young son walk through the door. “Can I help you, mate?” Farrell asks. The kid is there to take up boxing, his dad says. 11-year-old Preston wants to get started then and there.

“11? Sound. Good lad. It's £2.50 and you can fire away,” Farrell says before calling one of his lads in. “Look after him, bro,” he instructs. “teach him the little basics and I'll be in in a bit.”

He turns back to me. “I remember when I were that age. I'm only 24 now. 

“Two years today I opened this place, two and a half since I had to retire. I live for boxing and I've done it since aged seven so I don't know anything else. You always hear people say that: 'I don't live for nothing else' but with me it's actually true. I really don't. 

“I've got no GCSEs or anything because I didn't like school. I try and educate the lads here, tell them they need a back-up because I never had one. My back-up plan is what you see before you now, these four walls around us here. It's like I say, I'm doing a good job with everyone who comes and trains with me. They love it. 

“But it's such a shame I couldn't progress with my boxing career because I do genuinely believe, and I was never embarrassed about saying it, that I could have been world champion.”

Now two local lads, close to him for different reasons, are on the verge or realising his childhood dream. He harbours no ill-will.

“God, I hope Crolla wins his world title,” he says pointing a finger upwards. “It's like I always say, it wasn't Anthony Crolla who did the damage, I did the damage myself through dehydration and shit like that.

“I got away with it for too long. They were calling me the Brandon Rios of Manchester, I looked a bit chubby, I'd kill myself making the weight, get on the scales then feed up. I'd put 20lbs on after I weighed in, get in at 11st 4lbs and feel like I could walk through anything.

“But on that night, from round five onwards, my head was killing me. Anthony Crolla did nothing wrong, all he did was box his fight.”

But while thinking of Crolla may evoke dark memories for the former Central Area champion, thoughts of Flanagan are completely the opposite.

“We both started together,” he adds. “We both debuted on the same show, both turned pro on the same day, both at the same board meeting. I'm overwhelmed by what he is achieving and I'm really happy for him.”

But how much does watching his fellow lightweights challenge for honours make him miss it?

“Enough to try and get an Irish licence at Christmas time just gone,” he says with a grin.

“I emailed them but they just said 'Kieran you've had a good career...'. Fair dos I suppose. I kept it in the back of my mind, just to keep me happy, just to keep me sane that if I ever wanted to I'd be able to get an Irish licence. Even though, hand-on-heart, I think I knew anyway so when they turned it down it was no major blow.

“When they told me, I knew I had to move on. That's what my life has been about since I had to retire - moving on. Robert Smith from the board would tell you, he's got fucking numerous emails from me asking if I can have my licence back.

“I should really just thank my lucky stars I'm here today in a fit state. As much as it has done my head in, I am happy. I am more self-satisfied on a daily basis these days because I can get a cheeseburger if I want one.” 

Time has helped him to cope with the premature end to his boxing career, but even with his new role he admits it can still be a struggle.

He says: “I used to watch the Crolla fight back a lot, almost every day. I don't watch it so much anymore. I never get the time to because I'm always dead busy.

“Only a few weeks ago I was looking at articles on that night. It's one of those things that I don't think I'll ever get closure for, really. Some sad things pop into my head sometimes and I think 'fucking hell, I'm depressed here'. 

“I'll be sat there and then I'll just remember being on a stretcher and saying to my dad 'all I've ever wanted is to be world champion' and he just started crying, this 6ft 2ins big bloke.

“Going through all that, it changes the way you think about life. When I see people moaning I think 'fucking hell, what's up with you?' There are people much worse off than you.

“It's a bit selfish really and I don't like to be OTT about it but there are people in Africa who haven't even got water to drink. I look at myself and think my first career hasn't worked out, from aged seven to 22, so now I've got my next one.”

He has now had to assume the role of businessman, too, and he has been working tirelessly to get the small facility registered as a charity and rightly so.

As well as getting the youngsters in off the street to train throughout a wide range of dirt-cheap sessions during the week, Farrell has also converted the rooms above the gym into a mini youth centre, with pool tables, a games console and a flat-screen TV.

“I'm not getting paid for this,” he says. “The money I get goes out on rent and stuff. I had £600 in my account this morning, £450 went out for the rent, £80 for the phone bill, that leaves with me £70 to put back in. That's how I work on a monthly basis in here.

“Now we're in the process of turning this into a community sports club. It's a limited company because that's what I set up when I first started. Once we make the change we can go from strength to strength. People think I'm a millionaire in here but I'm charging £2.50 per kid!”

However, alongside playing a role in the community, Farrell has one burning desire for The People's Gym.

“I want a world champion,” he says without a second's hesitation.

“I want a schoolboy champion, a junior champion then I want a kid to turn professional and make a big impact. I think there's a couple of kids in there who can do that.

“I never got to fight for a world title myself and of course this is not the same. The only thing you can compare to that feeling of walking out in front of thousands of people is maybe by going to the Eiffel Tower and bunjee jumping off it. Even that won't even give you the same rush. It's something else.

“But this is my opportunity to do it my way. Boxing careers don't last long but this one can last forever. It's all natural progression for me, I had it taken from me but now I have to do my own thing.”

With that, he picks up his cup of tea and heads back into the bustling gym. Kids hit heavy bags, glide around the floor-to-ceiling ball and drum out that familiar speed bag tune.

Vicious Kieran Farrell's world title dream is back on.