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The fight of his life

Conqueror of Tyson battles alcoholism on comeback trail

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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Another day of his boxing life slipping away, Kevin McBride asked for a little help from a baker who cooked him oatmeal porridge every morning five years ago, before he battered Mike Tyson, the self-styled “baddest man on the planet,’’ into retirement.

Across from their window table at Greenhills Irish Bakery glistened the golden logo atop one of McBride’s dangerous temptations: Dorchester’s Eire Pub.

At 36, McBride was planning a comeback, his last chance to cash in on the fortunes that eluded him after he shocked the boxing universe on that June night in 2005 by knocking Tyson off his axis.

“I’m going to need a lot more porridge,’’ he told the baker, Dermot Quinn, one recent afternoon.

Quinn glanced across the street and said, “Just don’t go over to the pub for your porridge.’’

McBride, the former heavyweight champion of Ireland who settled in Dorchester with an Irish-American nurse, is a big man (6 feet 6 inches, 280 pounds) with a heart the size of Galway Bay and an affliction as powerful as the sour scent of a pub the morning after.

“I’m an alcoholic,’’ he said in an interview at the bakery, nine months into a hard-won sobriety. “I beat the most feared man on the planet, but the drink? It can knock you out.’’

Nearly 2 1/2 years after his last professional bout — a defeat that left his career in shambles — McBride has won some early rounds in his battle with the bottle and reawakened his inner boxing assassin. He has cleared his head, shed 50 pounds, and rejoined a sport that has sustained him since he was a boy in Clones, County Monaghan, running the village streets to the “Rocky’’ theme.

“He knows this is his last chance,’’ McBride’s trainer, Goody Petronelli, said during a workout at Petronelli’s Boxing Club in Brockton. “He’s got the experience, the power, and the potential to be a world champion. Now it’s up to Kevin.’’

One for his father
After muddling through too many lost nights and missed opportunities, McBride has returned to the sport he joined at 9 to silence the schoolyard bullies. As a teenager, he brawled his way to the 1992 Olympics under a trainer who was later convicted of sexually abusing seven young boxers while he worked with McBride. Later, McBride seized the Irish title and challenged Tyson to honor his father, who had died of cancer at 51. Now, as an aging boxer, he is confronting his personal demons.

“I want to fulfill my dream of becoming the first Irish-born heavyweight champion of the world. It was the shock of the last decade, me beating Tyson, and it will be the shock of this decade when I become the new Cinderella Man,’’ said McBride, referring to James Braddock, an Irish-American boxer in the 1930s whose career appeared dead before he waged a stunning comeback and captured the world heavyweight title.

McBride’s manager, Jerry Quinn, said he expects to schedule a bout after McBride recovers from a minor wrist injury. By Quinn’s estimation, a few solid victories would catapult the Clones Colossus into contention for a title fight.

“It was disappointing that he never had a chance at a good payday after Tyson,’’ Quinn said. “He definitely has one more shot at it.’’

There will be naysayers, as there were before the Tyson fight. The critics called him “a tomato can,’’ “a doormat,’’ “a nobody,’’ “a dead man walking.’’ He was ranked 154th in the world, and the odds against him reached 20-1. Tyson vowed to “gut him like a fish.’’

As McBride entered the ring at the MCI Center in Washington, an ambulance stocked with his blood type was said to be idling at the ready. Then the bell rang. And the dead man proved himself a boxer.

Unable to shake McBride for five rounds, Tyson unleashed a withering volley in the sixth. (“It felt like leprechauns were playing drums in my head,’’ McBride recalled.) Then the Irishman gathered himself and muttered to Tyson, “If that’s all you got, you’re in trouble.’’

At that, Tyson snapped. Already infamous for chewing off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, Tyson launched a dirty, last-ditch effort to steal the fight. He head-butted McBride, bit his nipple, and violently wrenched his arm. Then the baddest man on the planet suddenly went powerless. McBride leaned on him, and Tyson dropped to the canvas, laying there splayed against the ropes.

Punched out, Tyson failed to answer the bell for Round 7, his career kaput.

McBride had dedicated the fight to his father, Kevin Sr., a butcher from Clones, who was buried with his son’s Olympic medallion. Years earlier, the son had confided to his father, “Lord have Mercy, I’d love to fight Tyson one day.’’

“If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can make it happen,’’ his father had told him.

A liquid opponent
McBride had his father’s name stitched into his boxing trunks the night he stood over Tyson, triumphant.

In the arena afterward, Muhammad Ali paid McBride a surprise visit.

“This is the greatest night of my life in boxing,’’ McBride told Ali, hugging and kissing him. “I beat one legend and now I’m meeting the greatest of all time.’’

Ali threw a few playful punches and said, “I’m the greatest. You’re the latest.’’

A giddy McBride, visions of a big payday dancing in his head, said he wanted “to fly over Clones in a helicopter and drop out a bag of a million dollars.’’

Trouble was, he earned only $150,000 before expenses for the Tyson fight. Then his management (pre-Quinn) did him no favors.

Unlike little-known British heavyweight Danny Williams, who went from knocking out Tyson a year earlier to striking it big with a pay-per-view fight against World Boxing Council champion Vitali Klitschko, McBride went nowhere.

He said he was promised a world title fight, first against John Ruiz, then champion of the World Boxing Association, and later against Lamon Brewster, champion of the World Boxing Organization.

Instead, McBride languished for 10 months, larding on 15 pounds, before he fought again and stopped palooka Byron Polley for a small paycheck. Even then, McBride said, he was told he would get a shot at 7-footer Nikolai Valuev, then the WBA champion.

Yet again, he went nowhere.

“After that, I couldn’t get myself up for the fights,’’ McBride said. “I didn’t have the same hunger because they weren’t for a world title.’’

There was another problem. He had joked before the Tyson fight about celebrating a victory by drinking Ireland dry. Afterward, it seemed as if he also wanted to drain Dorchester.

Drinking more and caring less, McBride fought twice more after his mediocre outing against Polley, enduring an embarrassing technical knockout in the second round against the relatively unknown Mike Mollo in 2006 and getting stopped in the sixth round by a former contender, Andrew Golota, in ’07.

“I lost the fights because I wasn’t in top condition, especially with my drinking,’’ McBride said.

His focus was blurred, his ambition blunted.

“He was drinking until two or three days before the Mollo fight,’’ said Tommy White, a South Boston concessionaire who is helping McBride maintain his sobriety. “He’s fighting the undisputed champion of the world, bar none: alcohol.’’

Injuries aggravated matters, but McBride ultimately decided to face the truth. With White’s help, he made a mission of forsaking the bottle. As part of the commitment, he temporarily joined a paving crew, pushing a wheelbarrow, to build self-discipline.

“The drink, you have to keep fighting it every day,’’ McBride said. “It’s one of the great struggles of life.’’

On a mission
Troubling, too, were questions he fielded about his former trainer, Frank Mulligan, 64, who is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence in Ireland for sexually abusing youths he coached while he tutored McBride as a teenager. McBride repeatedly was asked by Irish reporters about his personal experience with Mulligan, and he gave them the same answer he gave the Globe: “No comment.’’

One of Mulligan’s victims, a former acquaintance of McBride, testified that Mulligan preyed on him by assuring him the sexual abuse was God’s will.

McBride, while protecting his privacy, made no secret of his disdain for the convicted pedophile. With Mulligan training him, McBride, at 18, became the youngest super heavyweight to reach the Olympics (he lost his only bout in the 1992 Barcelona Games).

“A man like that, a very sick man who hurt people the way he did, he should be put away for life,’’ McBride said.

White said McBride’s commitment to sobriety is inspired in part by Mulligan’s crimes. McBride and his wife, Danielle, have a 5-year-old daughter, Grainne, and 2-year-old son, Caoimhin, two great joys of his life.

“Now that I have my own kids, I watch out for people like that,’’ McBride said.

Absorbing a punch from McBride is “like catching a freight train,’’ Petronelli’s assistant, Skip Jones, said as McBride worked on his timing in the Brockton gym.

Petronelli, remarkably spry at 87, held aloft a pair of bag gloves as McBride pounded away. The gym walls were plastered with vintage posters, most honoring Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the former undisputed middleweight world champion who trained there under Petronelli. The most prominent image of McBride depicts him standing over the defeated Tyson. The caption reads, “The picture paints a thousand words.’’

McBride, hoping to inspire thousands of more words, has intensified his training. Some nights he steps into his size-19 sneakers, descends from his apartment in a Dorchester three-decker, and runs 5 miles through the city. Other days he jogs twice around Castle Island from the L Street Bathhouse. He participates in spinning sessions at L Street and regularly visits a strength coach in Brookline, where he lifts weights and kettle balls, his heart set on redeeming himself in the ring.

Once again, McBride could be the pride of Ireland and its New England diaspora, entering an arena, as he did for Tyson, with a bagpiper playing “The Fields of Athenry’’ and supporters waving the tricolors. He has boxed around the world, from Belfast and Berlin to New York and Vegas, winning 34 bouts (29 by knockout) and losing only six but never striking it rich.

Now, his time is short, and his will is strong.

“I believe if I stay sober and focused, I have the punching power to change a chapter in boxing history,’’ McBride said. “I can fulfill my dream. Then I can move on and be there for my wife and kids.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.