The world is yet to know Danny O’Connor, not at the level he hopes to be known, which would be to have his name up in lights, money in the bank, and a world boxing championship belt strapped around his hardened, tattooed belly.
But for now, Danny O’Connor is just a guy with a dream, an infant son, a loving woman he plans to marry, and a hope that his fight Thursday night at the House of Blues is a first giant step in the right direction. Is a nightclub just beyond Fenway Park’s center field wall finally where the world gets to know Danny?
At age 27, the southpaw junior welterweight from Framingham hopes so, because every fighter’s time in the ring is finite, and O’Connor is roughly a decade along a career path long in lessons and hope and short on fame and glory.
“I fight hard so my son won’t have to,’’ O’Connor said by telephone late last week while sipping black coffee in a Starbucks near Houston, siphoning free wireless service to review video clips of Daniel Sostre, his opponent. “I love boxing. I love everything about it, the history, all the hard work, the art of it. But it’s a really tough way to make a living.’’
To ease some of the burden, O’Connor in recent months joined hands with a somewhat unlikely partner, Ken Casey, leader of the Boston band Dropkick Murphys. The partnership of sweet music and sweet science led Casey to become O’Connor’s de facto manager and also the impetus behind Thursday night’s seven-bout card.
“Danny’s this well-spoken, humble kid and a pretty terrific fighter all wrapped up in one,’’ said Casey, who was introduced to O’Connor when the boxer volunteered for the Claddagh Fund, the band’s community-based charity foundation. “He’s been on tour with us a little bit, and we’ve put his name out there during gigs, telling the crowd, ‘Hey, say hello to the next great Massachusetts fighter.’ It’s just kind of taken off from there.’’
A sobering loss
Rocky Marciano. Marvin Hagler. Micky Ward. The Bay State has had its share of ringmasters, and O’Connor, 16-1 as a pro, ardently believes he can be the next. Of course, confidence is the invisible third hand of all boxers. Anyone who chooses fighting as a career believes that all the hard knocks are meant for others.
It was his only loss as a pro, though, that not long ago had O’Connor questioning whether to continue. Was it time to formulate a Plan B that didn’t involve a pair of well-padded gloves?
“I was devastated,’’ said O’Connor, recalling his April 2011 loss to Gabriel “Tito’’ Bracero, a unanimous eight-round decision that left him with a shattered nose that required surgery. “I’d put my heart and soul into this sport, and everything in that fight went wrong.’’
Truth be known, said O’Connor, he shouldn’t have fought that night in Laredo, Texas. Minutes before taking the ring, he began to spit up blood because of an undiagnosed bleeding ulcer that also left him anemic. But with the fight being broadcast on Showtime and the chance to build his name, he said nothing, entered the ring, suffered the beatdown.
“Shouldn’t have taken the fight,’’ said trainer Ronnie Shields, who weeks later took O’Connor under his wing and will be in his corner Thursday night. “He wasn’t right. He was sick. Sure, he felt the pressure to get in there because of TV and everything, but that could have been a career-ender right there.’’
Instead, it may have been O’Connor’s renaissance. Demoralized, he promptly parted ways with his previous trainer, and weeks later drove to Shields’s camp in Houston, temporarily leaving behind newborn son Liam and partner Diane Swartzwelder.
“We’re not married,’’ explained O’Connor, who is unable to afford health insurance. “We’d get married this second if I had any money, but I don’t. Like I say, boxing’s a hard life. Diane’s my rock. All I care about in this world is Diane and Liam and having a career to have a life with them.’’
Last week, Liam and Swartzwelder were back in her native Natick, visiting family, after spending the last few months in Texas with O’Connor. Swartzwelder, a 2003 graduate of Marian High, recalled those months after O’Connor’s loss, his recovery from surgery, and the diagnosis of the ulcer.
“He was really down,’’ she said. “We’d just had the baby, and here was this big break that didn’t go as expected, and he was like, ‘Oh, my God, everyone saw me at my worst.’
“That was a big point of his career, because he’s questioning, ‘Is it time to give the dream up? Do I just say that I tried and walk away?’ But together we said no, no way, because Danny’s too good and he’s too committed.
“He’s got the courage to go after it, chase his dream, and it’s rare to find anyone who’s got that true passion for anything in life, never mind the courage to follow it.’’
Eileen Neas-O’Connor, mother of the would-be champ, didn’t know where her only child was headed when she dropped him off for his first boxing lessons at the Danforth gym in Framingham in the late 1990s. He was in junior high school then, and when he was younger, she steered him away from football and hockey because she feared the risk of injury.
“Well, it was partially that,’’ she said from her Framingham home, where Danny grew up. “To be honest, with hockey I think it was that I wasn’t keen on getting up so early in the morning and standing in cold rinks.’’
She said her son became a handful during his high school years. Not much of a student, he left Framingham High and joined the town’s alternative high school, ultimately graduating in 2003. The adorable grammar school boy who learned to love boxing while watching Friday night fights on TV with his grandfather grew into the teenager who had regular run-ins with Framingham police.
“Oh, he was horrible - horrible!’’ recalled Eileen. “Oh, my heavens. Like, so horrible I’m surprised he lived. We had the police to the house more than once, and he was arrested a few times.
“Believe me, I was worried. Underage drinking. A couple of fights. You wouldn’t say it was life-threatening, I guess, but it was bad stuff that could have progressed to worse. Then, late in high school, boxing hooked him, diverted him, whatever it was - it really helped make him who he is today.’’
Neas-O’Connor has a hutch chockablock with her son’s trophies, from a variety of sports, as well as a stack of scrapbooks stuffed with clips of his boxing career. Of all his fights, she has missed only one, and she will be at the House of Blues Thursday night.
“Ideally, I sit a ways away from the ring,’’ she said. “If you’re at ringside, you hear all the punches and slaps. I don’t need that.’’
Trainer is a believer
When O’Connor arrived under his care less than a year ago, said Shields, his game was in need of deconstruction. He may have had a stellar amateur career (95-8), including a rare double - a national championship and a Golden Gloves title in 2008 - but he was still raw material and a weak puncher upon arriving in Houston.
“I had to find him a style, and he had to learn how to be confident in the power he possesses,’’ said Shields, noting that O’Connor “never really hurt anyone’’ with his punches prior to coming under his counsel. “He had to learn to sit down on his punches. By that I mean getting in on guys, getting down and landing shots that hurt. And he had no defense. He had to learn how to get out of the way, slip shots.’’
Shields is convinced that the O’Connor who will take the ring Thursday is a fighter with a decent shot at becoming a world title-holder. To do so, he’ll need to dispatch the Puerto Rican-born Sostre and keep eliminating better competition. Such steady progression, claims Shields, could have O’Connor wearing a belt in 18-24 months.
“He can absolutely do it, without a doubt,’’ said Shields, 53, who has trained the likes of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. “He’s willing to learn and he’s willing to try. I ask him to do the impossible sometimes and he does it.
“We are in the process of making him a world champion. If he gets the right fights, keeps listening and learning, no question in my mind that he’s going to get there.’’
The O’Connor-Sostre bout is the featured event on a night that will bring together music and mayhem like never before in the Hub of Hard Shots. The intimate setting will hold some 1,500 patrons, about 300 of whom will sit in floor seats while others will stand and watch from the mezzanine and third floor. Between fights, The Old Brigade, an Irish band that customarily opens for the Dropkick Murphys, will provide music.
“Sort of like boxing in a jailhouse,’’ said Declan Mehigan, the operating partner of the House of Blues, which last Thursday night staged charity bouts to benefit the Jimmy Fund. “So this will be jailhouse rock, I guess you’d say.
“I think people are excited. It’s something different. If boxing is your thing, other than going to Atlantic City or Vegas, you’ve got little choice out there. So we’ll see how this works.’’
As the weekend approached, O’Connor was gathering his things that needed shipping up to Boston, ready to be reunited with Liam, with Swartzwelder, and with his dream.
“The only way I can put it into words,’’ said O’Connor, reflecting a final time on the loss to Bracero, “is that Tito took my life away, and now [Shields] has given me my life back. Now I’ve got to keep it.’’