Olympic Ambition From Upper Darby, Irish Boxer Setting His Sights On Seoul

Posted: August 30, 1987

Sometimes, Paul Fitzgerald feels the luck of the Irish just isn't with him.

When he was representing Ireland in the 1984 Olympics, he got to the third round of the featherweight division. He was fighting Ugandan Charles Supolowa. The ringside judges said he won the bout; the jury said the Ugandan did. The jury won - as did the Ugandan.

Fitzgerald now resides in Upper Darby. He is still an Irish citizen, though, and hopes to represent his country again in his quest for a medal at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He has a lot of supporters on this side of the ocean.

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Fitzgerald came to America in 1985 as a member of the Irish boxing team. He had cousins in the Upper Darby area and an opportunity arose for him to stay in the country.

"I like everything about the place. There was a lot of work opportunities. Every kook leaves the nest once in a while," he said with a laugh.

After settling in, Fitzgerald found the Upper Darby Police Athletic League gym and went to work out. It was there that he met the gym's trainer, Bill Hollingsworth, a man they both agree has changed the way Fitzgerald boxes.

The two developed more than just a fighter-trainer relationship. "We're friends, too," Hollingsworth said.

The trainer himself used to be an amateur boxer, and the two worked together to change Fitzgerald's style, which was to counter punch.

"He didn't know how to bob and weave. We worked on his jab. He used to fight with his right hand by his side. Now he fights with arms raised," Hollingsworth said.

"I get him psyched up for matches. In the ring, I'm always telling him he's better than everybody else. I get him mad when he should be and I get him to calm down."

Under Hollingsworth's tutelage, the 125-pound, 5-foot, 7-inch Fitzgerald has fought 18 fights since he's been here, and he's won them all. He was the 1986 and 1987 Southern New Jersey Golden Gloves champion as well as the 1986 U.S. American Boxing Federation champion for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. He also is the Philadelphia Diamond Belt champion.

Fitzgerald, 24, now is ranked second in the Middle Atlantic American Boxing Federation ratings. "He'd probably be first but there's a lot of competitions we can't enter because Paul's still an Irish citizen," Hollingsworth said.

Fitzgerald's Irish citizenship prohibits him from competing in any match in which the winner represents the United States in international competition, and he has not been in this country long enough to apply for citizenship - a requirement for the U.S. Olympic team. He relies mostly on intra-club matches to get in shape.

The fighter and his trainer went back to Ireland in March as one of the first steps of Fitzgerald's quest to go to Seoul next year. They went to regain the Irish Amateur Boxing Association's championship.

Before this year, Fitzgerald had won the title eight times, the last being in 1984, before he went to the Olympics in Los Angeles.

He didn't go back in 1985 because he had just emigrated, and lost the title to Bobby McCarty, who defended the title cup again in 1986.

"Nobody in Ireland was expecting much from me," said Fitzgerald, who started boxing at age 9. "They hadn't seen me for two years and they all expected Bobby to win. I beat him in a unanimous decision in the quarterfinals. Then the crowds started going over to me."

The crowd spirit stayed with Fitzgerald as he fought through to the 1987 finals, defeated John Kilroy and took the cup out of Ireland.

The cup says "Paul Fitzgerald, Upper Darby/Transport Club."

Fitzgerald won a spot on the Irish team, which competed this past summer in Torino, Italy. It was at this match that his Irish luck struck again.

Fitzgerald's first problem was that his trainer could not be with him during the competition. The Irish team had hired Throdman Dalley, a Cuban boxer instructor, to help the team.

"I was with him for two months and he tried to change everything Bill and I had worked on for two years," Fitzgerald said.

Still, the fighter did well enough to get all the way to the bronze-medal match, using the mighty jab that Hollingsworth had taught him. He was fighting a man from Finland, Jermo Esikilan, and things looked pretty good in the first two rounds.

Esikilan kept ducking his head and the referee kept giving him warnings. In boxing, after three warnings, you lose a point, which is tantamount to losing one of the three rounds. But after giving four warnings, the referee never gave the penalty.

Fitzgerald concedes he was losing in the third round when Esikilan again ducked his head. "I hit him in the side of his head. The referee penalized me and I lost the match," he said.

The referee was booed by the crowd and later admitted he made a mistake and meant to give the penalty to Esikilan, according to the Irishman. He apologized to Fitzgerald and to the Irish team. But for Fitzgerald, it was too late.

It costs a lot of money to be an amateur fighter. While Fitzgerald's expenses for the European championship were paid for by the Irish delegation, airfare to Ireland for Hollingsworth and himself was not. He also lost two months from his roofing job while training for the European championship.

Friends and members of the PAL gym sponsored a beef and beer night last year to pay for Fitzgerald's expenses to return to Ireland to train for the European championship. Chances were offered on a basket of cheer and the proceeds from that were used to pay their airfare to Ireland for the nationals.

This year, Hollingsworth said, the two will try to raise money for all the competitions.

For now, the two are concentrating on next boxing season, which begins in September. Fitzgerald is scheduled to return to Ireland in February to defend his title. If he wins, he will represent Ireland in a bout against the United States in March.

After that, he hopes to be in training for the Olympics in Korea. Hollingsworth estimates it will take $5,000 to meet all expenses.

"I really want Bill to be with me. I think I can win if he's there," Fitzgerald said.

Hollingsworth and Fitzgerald are hoping to get some good matches before the Irish National Championship in February, although it's been difficult.

"Paul's gotten so good that very few fighters are willing to meet him," Hollingsworth said.

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