'It's ok to talk': Caoimhin Agyarko interview
A trip to McDonald's two years ago changed middleweight Caoimhin Agyarko's life. Now he's on a mental health mission to make sure men know 'it's ok to talk'. Shaun Brown brings you the 22-year-old's remarkable story...
It started with a trip to McDonald’s in Belfast, during the early hours, one April weekend two years ago.
A night out for Caoimhin Agyarko and his girlfriend which included a stop off at the fast food restaurant for a bite to eat. Standing outside and waiting to get in as you do. Perfectly normal, perfectly innocent. Then someone, unbeknown to the young couple, threw a McDonald’s drink which hit Agyarko then his girlfriend.
“Maybe it was unfortunate, maybe it wasn’t,” said Agyarko.
At the time Agyarko was 20-years-old, boxing out of the renowned Holy Trinity club and had established himself as one of Northern Ireland’s top amateur boxers.
The incident saw Agyarko get into an argument, annoyed at what had just happened and keen to confront the idiot who threw it. What followed would change his life forever, something that he is living to learn with two years on, and something that he copes with on top of some mental health issues which he believes started before that night in 2017.
“I’ve then walked away from it,” he recalled “and they’ve come over and just started an argument again and I got attacked. I got hit on the side by a bottle and then it’s all kicked off. There was no real motive, I didn’t do anything wrong. I think I was maybe singled out, or maybe I wasn’t, I couldn’t tell you, but it happened and unfortunately the outcome was me getting stabbed.”
The boxer, accustomed to being hit in the face with fists, would instead be stabbed in the same area leaving him needing surgery to a wound that was about four or five inches long.
Recounting that horrific incident to Boxing Monthly Agyarko could only remember the beginning and the end. One critical detail which should appal anyone reading this or who witnessed the incident at the time was the fact he was set upon by about 30 people. Unprovoked, unnecessary and an act of cowardice.
“My girlfriend had pulled me off one of the guys and as she’s pulled me away, she’s noticed I’d got stabbed and she’s said, ‘What the hell’s happened to your face?’ Obviously I’m a boxer and I know I’ve been punched so I’m like: ‘Oh it’s just a little scratch’, like a black eye or a cut or something and I tried to run off and grab one of them and she’s give me a hug and I’ve noticed the blood on her.
"She whispered to me ‘Your face is in a really bad way’. I noticed the blood on her, and I thought it was hers. Then I’ve been told I’ve been stabbed because the police had showed up. I remember how it happened and briefly remember it was just a lot of people, a lot of fights breaking out, but I don’t actually remember getting stabbed or feeling getting stabbed.”
It is a story that the now (2-0) middleweight prospect, promoted by Frank Warren, has been asked about more often than not. It’s a subject he doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about but, to his credit, he doesn’t duck any question and is willing to discuss the event that changed his life.
“Obviously it’s a story to tell,” he said. “It’s happened to me, but I’ve learned just to live with (it) and get on with it. And as much as I don’t like talking about it, I don’t mind talking about it because everyone’s heard about it or knows about it, so I don’t really mind telling them. It can be emotional for me to tell… sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Two years on Agyarko, once of Croydon but now of Belfast after moving there when he was seven or eight so his mother could return home, has learned to live with is as he said, but in a time where mental health is rightly discussed more than ever, he has learned that it is good to talk about his own mental health issues.
“After the stabbing I had family issues and stuff. It kinda hit home then. After I got stabbed, I was always down and stuff like that, so I had to seek professional help and speak to my girlfriend about it.
“I do still struggle with mental health issues and stuff like that but as I’ve always said I get better by one per cent every day. Sometimes I have my bad days, sometimes I have my good days but it’s something I don’t mind talking about because I know if I can get it out there it might help someone else and if I’m getting it off my chest it’s helping me and benefiting me as well.”
According to 2017 statistics obtained from the Samaritans: in the UK, ‘Men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women.’
And in Agyarko’s adopted homeland of Northern Ireland 234 males took their own life in 2017, 13 more than the previous year. Statistics courtesy of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. While more and more men are learning that it is ok to talk, to discuss their feelings and to open up we can never stop beating the drum for mental health.
And thankfully we have young, fit, healthy and ambitious men like Caoimhin Agyarko telling you that it is indeed ok to talk.
Boxing Monthly asked him for his advice to those that are finding it hard to ask for help, to speak out and finding difficulty getting the words across to anyone who will listen.
“It is hard. For me, at the start, it was very hard and I’ve always been one of them people whose kept my emotions in but I think from my experience, speaking out has helped me, and the more I speak out the more I’m getting stuff off my chest and feeling it better.
“It is ok to talk, it really is. People don’t really want to put their private side out or say that they need help. Regardless of how good your life is someone might need help one day, so it is okay to talk out, speak to family, friends or seek personal and private help. There is help out there and it is okay to talk. So, for anyone who is going through it or really struggling with it, just ask someone for help or tell them how you’re feeling because they can give you advice and it’s always good to get a second opinion.
“I know what I’ve went through, and I know how hard it was. I know how it’s benefited me from speaking out. It is hard, and it doesn’t take something significant to happen in your life to go through mental health. Anything; studying, work, anything can cause mental health issues. If I can create a platform to get my message out to help more people, then I’d be doing something good.”
Caoimhin Agyarko, the boxer, continues his progression this weekend at Wembley Arena on the Daniel Dubois vs Richard Lartey undercard. A six rounder against Martin Kabrhel should, all going well, take the Belfast man to 3-0 after beginning his professional career last October.
Agyarko had always been looking to turn over after around 140-150 fights as an amateur. A night at Windsor Park sealed the deal, after an invite from Frank Warren, to watch his hero Carl Frampton. Before that he had been waiting around. The Irish Seniors, Irish Elites and boxing for his country ticked off some boxes but boxing in the World Series of Boxing for Milan-based Italia Thunder gave him a sniff of what it would be like to be a professional.
And Agyarko is loving the life and the challenges of being a professional boxer.
“It’s a lot different to the amateurs and I’m learning new things. It’s like a new challenge for me. I did everything I possibly could in the amateurs and did everything I wanted to do.”
A ring is a ring for any boxer, and Agyarko is no different. A well-schooled amateur he brought with him all the skill and talent to the pro ranks. But even with the pedigree behind him there are still a few things you need to get used to quickly when the three rounders are no more.
“In the amateurs it’s a lot more-high paced because you’ve only got three rounds to fight so I’m just trying to settle down and sit on my shots a bit more.”
On his debut against Ladislav Nemeth the novice had the pleasure of seeing his iBox gym mate Johnny Garton win the vacant British welterweight title on the same show. That came hours after his own victory one in which he had to control his adrenaline and excitement rather than a bout of nerves which might have been expected.
“I’m one of them fighters, everyone says they get nerves but I’m a boxer that doesn’t get nerves for some reason. I’ve fought on big stages in the amateurs. I was definitely more nervous for the second fight because the guy I was facing [Yasin Hassani] was unbeaten. I didn’t have a lot of nerves. I had a lot of adrenaline and excitement and couldn’t wait to get in there and fight, but I wouldn’t say I had much nerves.”
Like many other Northern Irish fighters Carl Frampton has played a big part in inspiring the career and development of Caoimhin Agyarko. A world champion at two weights ‘The Jackal’ brought big time boxing and occasions back to the city of Belfast.
“I think he’s one of the fighters that a lot of people in Belfast look up to but for me I look up to him because he’s shown fighters in Belfast and Ireland that he’s a fighter that’s come from nothing and reached the highs of the game.
"He’s a two-weight world champion and for me he’s given me a platform of boxing in Belfast on big shows that I can hopefully box on and build my fanbase and hopefully do what he done and bring more exciting fights to Belfast one day. I’ve set my sights high and I want to be a world champion, period.”