UCD Boxing Debate

Michael Flatley at the Celtic Cafe

Michael Flatley participates in UCD Law Society debate on boxing

On St. Patrick's Day in 1998, sports writer Pat Bigold stated in an article that when Michael Flatley exploded onto the scene, he personified a link between two of an Irishman's greatest passions: Sports and the Arts.


Flatley possesses an undeniable appeal as a throwback to a simpler era when men were men, and they weren't so worried about their identity that they couldn't express themselves with style and artistry.

Flatley does it with gusto and you can see the boxer's body english every time he steps on stage. Any kid who's ever had the word "footwork" drilled into him time and again ought to watch the Riverdance or Lord of the Dance videotapes in which Flatley performs to see how a boxer's feet can move. Check out the fight choreography in Lord of the Dance where Flatley, at 40-plus, makes you believe he could still go a strong five or six rounds. Right down to the antagonistic facial expressions he casts at his arch-rival, the guy still looks every inch a fighter.

Read the full column by clicking here.

Champion Irish dancer Michael Flatley was also a Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing champion in his youth, and often attends the matches of those he admires in the sport. Boxing is not without controversy, due to the encouragement of intentional violence and the high risk of brain injury in the sport, and was the subject of a debate at the University College Dublin's Law Society.

We thank Ann Keller (AnnMargaretKeller.com) for the following report of the evening.

• • •

On Thursday, January 15th, 2004 I was at UCD (University College, Dublin) to see Michael presented with Honourary Life Membership of the Law Society and take part in their boxing debate. Before the house was the proposal 'This house would ban boxing!' and about six or eight students spoke, plus guests Michael and a member of the British Boxing Board, Simon Block. He was a very dignified and eloquent gentleman and spoke very well and very informatively. Another guest, a doctor, was supposed to speak also, but didn't get there.

The evening was not what was suggested by all the advertising, as I imagined a large crowd after all the hype through the week, several snippets in the press, even a TV announcement that morning, but the lecture theatre remained not filled and I doubt there were more than 50 people present, including about ten press photographers clicking away - not great for my little old tape recorder as one was right in front of it! I did miss an odd word that Michael said because of that, and also because he speaks so softly the audience had to almost hold its breath to catch all he said - and that they did! I don't think they were at all informed about him beforehand, maybe they had rashly invited him thinking he would never come! But if they thought that, they had no idea what a soft touch he is with the aspirations of young people! He just loves to help them and support them, and in fact he and Lisa had flown in specially for the evening and were flying straight on the New York early next morning. It was a lovely gesture that they both came, and I think that had sunk in to the organisers once they had met and talked to them, as the host of the evening came in to apologise for the delay starting (due to a 'media circus' in the hallway!) and said very warmly that he has just met and talked to Michael and what an extremely nice guy he was! Obviously he was not what they expected. Perhaps they expected him to be flamboyant and boisterous, as if he were onstage!

When the event started, Michael walked in, no "minders" in evidence, and sat with Simon Block at the back of the platform, and Lisa took a front seat in the corner, also unaccompanied. Michael was all in black, looking very well, fit and tanned - I think he gets younger by the year, not older! - and Lisa looked very elegant in a shiny black suit with belted jacket and pencil skirt to the knee, very dainty high-heeled shoes, and of course the wonderful tumble of blonde hair around her shoulders. I especially admired her pendant, a beautifully simple, classy little diamond studded puffed heart on a short white gold (or platinum?!) chain. She is very tall and incredibly slim - in a contest, I think the Supermodels would run her a poor second! She looked lovely. And although I'm sure the evening was really very boring for her, she remained attentive throughout, and joined in the laughter as much as Michael, who seemed to genuinely enjoy it all thoroughly.

Michael spoke at the end of the evening, after the other speakers, and was the only one no one interrupted as they could by the rules! The form was that the speaker was left alone for three minutes (a bell marked the time), then he could be questioned or commented to, and he spoke for a further five minutes altogether. All were interrupted save Michael, who had the house spellbound within seconds, though he appeared to be just casually talking, delivering the speech as smoothly as though it were regular conversation, and with no notes of any kind. He gave, in my view, a superb demonstration of really professional public speaking, very quiet and calm, speaking slowly enough to be followed by everyone, and forming complete and natural sentences. Yet he conveyed his passion and energy just the same. He only got one thing wrong as far as I was concerned - he referred to himself as 'uneducated compared to you youngsters'. He may not have a college degree, but he is without doubt one of the most educated and cultured people I have ever met.

After the speeches, the vote was taken and the motion to ban boxing defeated beyond doubt! Then the presentation was made, Michael receiving the simple scroll as graciously and warmly as though it were an Oscar! After that the audience were invited to ask questions, not just on boxing, and only then I think they began to open up, realising this man had a lot more to share than they had thought! Again, he was self-effacing, murmuring that he liked to "play a little chess" (that had been suggested as one better channel for young people's diversion!), and I was itching to jump up and tell them he is a Chess Master, but of course I didn't!

The most interesting part of that section of the evening, for me, was when the Las Vegas casino project came up, because when Michael spoke about that it was very revealing. It became clear immediately to me 'why' he is doing it, which I think puzzles many people. This is not about personal gain, business growth of his empire, or celebrity, this is for the worldwide profile of Ireland. He is so passionate about promoting Ireland well, and giving its people new opportunities on the world stage in every area. He has seen many other countries represented by their magnificent hotel/casino projects on the Strip, and it has become his 'almost impossible dream' to put Ireland there too, so all the Irish companies and artists can be showcased there with the world's best. His real joy is opening new worlds for upcoming generations; he has done it in dance, and now he is moving on to other areas. I came away from that evening thinking that even most of his most loyal fans have only partial concept of what an extraordinary and wonderful, giving man he is. And I truly believe he has only just begun to show the world what he can achieve.

At the end, the audience came down to have posters of the Law Society, scraps of paper, anything, signed, just to get to talk to him close-up! He and Lisa both chatted to all who came to them, and they must have been there near half an hour, totally informal and delightfully relaxed. I had the pleasure of chatting to Lisa while he was signing, and she was so sweet, very natural and softly and gently spoken, radiating the same warmth and sparkle from her eyes as Michael does. When I spoke to Michael I told him I was sorry not to be able to go to New York for the PBS show, but friends of mine were going and I knew he would have good people there. He thanked me for coming to that night, and said he was looking forward to meeting everyone at the PBS show. I asked if they had had a nice Christmas and they said yes, it had been lovely, very relaxing, and it was so good to just stop and pause after all the travel of 2003, when they just seemed to be constantly jetlagged.

Finally, after one more photo call, the theatre emptied, Michael and Lisa left with the evening's host and one or two other people, and I and the friend who had come with me, headed out into the hideously windy, dark and wet Irish night and found our way to the car park to go home! It had been a most unusual evening, which I had to play the tape of to believe it really happened!

• • •

Transcript of Michael's remarks:

Thank you very much. I appreciate you asking me here to speak, although I'm not sure after hearing everything I've just heard that I can add anything valuable to help you make your decision; but I'll do my best.

I'm very uneducated compared to you youngsters. I grew up in Chicago, in a tough neighbourhood. I didn't really give much thought, when my father dragged me off to boxing lessons, whether or not it was going to be harming me or helping me, but I do know that going to school every day I was in fist fights, and they're no fun! And they exist today the same as when I was a kid, whether you like it or not you're going to be involved in some of these things from time to time, or you're at least going to be around that kind of thing.

Boxing gave me confidence. I was a small, skinny white kid in a mostly black and Mexican neighbourhood, and I got picked on. I learned how to fight, and it gave me a little confidence on the inside, and I daresay it saved me in a lot of different situations. I look back on that time as being a very good time in my life, and you know, there's a lot said about the dangers of boxing, and you're right. I mean, I've really argued with myself on this point.

It is a dangerous sport, but there's a lot of dangerous sports. When you decide to step into the ring against another man, and you know that when you're there you're going to cause some damage, so is he, he's trying to take your head off, that's part of it. As you jump out of that plane [sky-diving] you've made that decision then, that you may get hurt. You could have to face something a lot more dangerous than just somebody's right hand when you hit the ground. If you're in business, you look at this - look at the sheer numbers; it doesn't matter that one guy is hitting the other guy or how the death occurs, the death occurs. And if the numbers are more in one sport than the other sport, then we need to back up and ask ourselves, why are we not looking for a ban in those other sports? And why do we isolate boxing?

I tend to agree with things that were said on both sides tonight, certainly; but the truth is, people have basketball to turn to, or chess, but they didn't turn to that, because they really wanted to box, and freedom of choice is freedom of choice, and that's a really important thing to remember. They didn't turn to basketball - they wanted to box, and if we didn't have boxing we wouldn't today have Muhammad Ali in that position, because he chose that because he loved it. He did try other things, but he ended up in boxing and he was poetry in motion, in the sport that he loved. Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the greatest businessmen in America today, was a champion, superstar boxer, and there's nothing wrong with his brain, he's a sharp guy. We wouldn't have Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough, Michael Carruth, Steve Collins, and other of other Irish heroes, people that I would certainly consider to be Irish heroes. I was there when McGuigan fought Taylor in King's Hall in Belfast, and, you know, my parents are Irish and I had so much pride bursting out of me I couldn't contain myself!

Now, boxing, like other combative sports, has been around since the Greeks and the Romans and the Games, and it's still around today. The difference is today they have to wear sixteen-ounce gloves, they don't fight with their bare fists, there is precaution, there are doctors there - I know it's not 'Oh, the doctor's going to save everything!', obviously not, but we're all adults and we all understand that that can't be the case, you know.

But I will say, from a young man's point of view - and I particularly admired Nicholas here, because here's a young man who's actually had the experience - he's been there, he can actually talk from [the point of view of] a man who's been in the ring and knows the feeling. He's put in the hours, he's done the training. When you're in the boxing ring, the hardest, most difficult climb in the world is the steps into that ring, it's the biggest mountain you will ever climb, the first time you do that. And when you're in there, your manager isn't there, your Mom and Dad aren't there to rescue you, and you quickly learn that you must prepare if you're going to get into that boxing ring. It is so important that you're prepared.

So yes, you experience pain, that's the choice I made. I didn't quit after my first fight, most fighters don't, of course - but there's pain in life, there's pain in everything. If you run away from pain you can go quit right now. There is some great quality to boxing, and whether you admit this or not, it does serve the minorities well. There were a lot of Irish people who had no money that made their name, back to Jack Dempsey and people like that who made great names for themselves, and made it to the top of the world with boxing. It's not all bad.

I can understand why some people would want to ban boxing, because of the way it's perceived and the way it looks. Certainly the match-making in America, in my opinion, is suspect - I mean, I'm not a big fan of Don King, for instance, and those kind of fellas. I think the most chances ever taken in boxing is when you have eighteen or nineteen different governing bodies - as a result you've a great fighter who's got a fabulous record, wants to pick up a few titles, goes down to this UBFF and he fights a guy who maybe had nine fights and no real competition, so he's mismatched; but the promoter, in that particular instance, maybe doesn't care. He wants to pick up the belt and get the big money fight. I know, that's the danger of the game.

It would be a much fairer game, as far as I'm concerned, if we brought it back to one governing body, and we had more weight classes. I certainly think there should be a super-heavyweight division today, and I certainly think as well there should be an over-thirty class, and an over-forty class for older fighters, rather than throwing them in with the young tigers, just to get eaten alive because they've a got a big name and they're good pay-in. That is certainly, you know, the wrong thing to do, so I did take - I listened very carefully to what all the speakers had to say, and I would tend to agree that there are changes to be made, but please, I think it would be really wrong to consider banning boxing completely.

I mean, I'm sure there are a lot more dangerous sports, even in martial arts that I heard you talk about earlier. I looked at the stats myself, and just what you said about the people in the thousands in the different sports and how many lives are lost, you're absolutely right, I looked at that myself, but there's eighty deaths every single day in the United States from handgun murders, and certainly that should take a lot more of our time. I know that's not specifically why we're here today, but there are more important things than this sort of sport, and I think, all in all, if you weigh up the balance, boxing has done a lot more good than it's done bad.

I believe it's much better today than it was before, even with a few bum promoters, and I would shudder to think what Mike Tyson would have done in his life had he not had boxing to turn to, and Cus D'Amato, the guy who pulled him off the street and helped him out ...

I wonder where I would have been today if I'd just held grudges against the guys who used to bloody my nose going to school, if I didn't face the music, go in and learn from a professional how to defend myself against someone who was bigger and stronger, and come out and feel like a champion. Would I have even tackled any of the stuff I tackled? I don't know, I can't say. But for my money, I think boxing is good!

• • •

Questions & Answers at UCD debate:

Q: I'm curious about how you made the changeover between boxing and dancing?

Michael (with a mischievous grin): Well, at the time it seemed a lot safer!

(Much laughter from the audience. He added something else but the laughter drowned it out.)

Q: Did boxing help you with contract negotiations for dancing at all?

Michael (still with a twinkle): No, I seemed to come out on the losing end of those mostly - (Again, much laughter!) - but I have other qualities!

Q: I was just wondering, in terms of everything, you take an interest in all the aspects of performing and show life, dance, choreography, direction, production, what's your favourite part of it?

Michael: I think the whole picture. You know, we did a lot of talking tonight about chess, and I like to play a little bit of chess, and even though I can't do it very well I've learned an awful lot about it, I've learned a lot about life. It's not just about one piece, or two pieces, and the same is true of boxing. You have to have offence and defense, and the same thing is true in my shows.

There's that old saying that you have to share, everyone needs to have their input into the show, and the truth is it would be a dog's breakfast if I'd let that happen. You need to focus and you need to have the picture in your head, and whatever you decide in your own mind about boxing, or about your own careers, if you hear of some young man today that has a dream to become the next middleweight champion of the world, you should never deny him that dream because he may not know any other dream, and whatever your dream is, it's something that you should pursue to the end.

Take the time, learn about it, every aspect of it - I love every aspect of my business, you know, I've had the hard times, I've been knocked down a few times as you all know, and I've made a lot of mistakes, probably more than all of you together will ever make ... (chuckles from the audience) ... but I learned from them, that's the key. Dumb and all as I am, I learned from them, and I got back up and I figured a way through it.

I don't know anything about debate; obviously these other lads are much more proficient than you and I are (looking at Simon Block, from the British Boxing Board), but I like to take the advice of people who know - but this young man (indicating student speaker Nicholas, the amateur boxer who spoke in the debate) is a fighter and I would take his viewpoint, certainly on this particular subject. And in my business I'll take advice from people, but I think it's important that you try everything, learn how it is, make sure you know your business, anyone that's going into the arts. You're a fool today if you don't understand the business side of it as well; you need to protect yourself and believe in yourself, and only follow what's in your heart.

(Big round of applause for this response)

Q: I've heard stories you're building some sort of casino and I just wondered how that's going, and does it mean that you're giving up the dancing and it's a new phase now?

Michael: Thanks for the question. Yeah, we're ... it's kind of almost 'an impossible dream', but you know nothing is impossible. It's not the business I want to get into - I'm not a builder, and I'm not really a businessman per se, although I can fake my way through most of it; but it's a dream, and even though it's a daydream, it's a dream that I've had for a long time.

I think that with any luck there'll be younger, smarter minds than me that will help bring it to fruition, but Ireland deserves a place on that Strip in Las Vegas, and ... you know, it deserves that spot. All the other nationalities seem to be represented there, and I don't see why we shouldn't be represented there and my thought is that people are going to gamble anyhow, they're going to go there for fun anyhow, and I think it's not wrong that Ireland should have a part of that and play for it.

I don't know if I'll be giving up dancing, you know; time will tell, I'm sure, but it's closing up.

Q: Will you do a dance for us? (Much laughter!)

Michael: I don't know how to dance, I never learned!

Audience member: Maybe Sean (the host) will do it?

Sean: I don't like to ... I mean, it would be rude to upstage one of our guests. (More laughter, and a round of applause, not least from Michael!)

Q: Have you any news about the show in South Africa?

Michael: Yes, we've sold out to the last ticket, in advance, record time, so I'm delighted about that.

Q: And what about the invitation to participate?

Michael: Yeah, you know my schedule doesn't permit for me to go down there right now, I've to go to New York tomorrow morning and do a lot of stuff. The next three months will be very trying, but if we can sneak a day I'll go down there and do what I can, but at least we're proud that we're giving some of the profits to the right causes down there. And we opened in Taiwan this morning, and we'll be in Dubai by the end of the week, so we're opening new territories, and you know, bad and all as we are, we're bringing Irish culture to parts of the world that haven't experienced it.

Q: Which was the greatest fight you've ever seen?

Michael: Oh, that's a great one! Ahh, well, I loved - there's many great fights, from my point of view, Hagler/Hearns is one of the most exciting fights I've ever seen, certainly ...

One fight that intrigued me was the last fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, mainly because it made me wonder about the mindset of both men, and the distance they had come in their lives and their careers, as fighters and as men. They fought, really, incredibly well over the fourteen rounds, but when the bell rang for the fifteenth round, only one fighter got off his stool, so what was the difference? - whether it was boxing or whatever it was for, what was the difference between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? Why did one guy stand up to fight that one last round and the other guy just said 'No, I can't.' And it wasn't a matter of boxing, they both took, you know, in fairness, a good beating that night, but one guy had something special inside, and I for one am glad that I was alive to see that moment, to see so much courage coming out of one person. He would emerge as a champion in any given role that he did, but thank God he had somewhere to make use of his talents, and I think that was one of the greatest fights ever.

Dublin Correspondent: Ann Keller
Feature: Bernadette Price

Michael Flatley, a one-time Golden Gloves Boxing Champion!

Michael and Simon Block, the Secretary General of the British Boxing Board


Michael with UCD students
Michael with Lisa Murphy
First three photos copyright by Unicorn Entertainment, and the next two by Ann Keller.
The following three by Jeremy Craine.