Robert Harkin had a respectable career in the ’80s, challenging for British and commonwealth belts and topping numerous bills around Britain. He even co-headlined the show that featured the debut of ‘The Dark Destroyer’, Nigel Benn.
“I started boxing properly when I was 10 years old but I basically grew up with it. I would watch my dad going to the gym every night – sometimes go with him, everything in me just now is just learned behaviour from him. I would love to sit with him and watch tapes of his fights, I collected all his photos, cutouts and fight posters, which even now is great to look back at”.
My meeting with Martin Harkin was on the eve of Shawn Porter fighting Danny Garcia, whose own fathers are as well known as the fighters, arguably having both a positive and negative impact. I was interested to hear how Martin’s relationship with his dad influenced his decision to go into boxing and what role he played in his development.
“I grew up around it, it was all natural and instilled in me from very young but he never forced me to get into it – I just loved it straight away. If anything he’d maybe rather I didn’t box because he knows first hand the dangers of getting hurt. Too many emotions can get involved with father-son teams but my dad has never interfered with anything – he’s always there for tips, pointers and advice but he fully trusts my trainer, Danny Lee ”
One thing that was evident from my meeting with Martin was not only was he dedicated boxer but also a big fan of the sport. When you hear boxers talk about their favourite fighters, you are often met with the cliché names of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. However that was far from the case with Martin!
“I’ve always really looked up to John Simpson, he was a warrior and done it the hard way. Had to travel to get his shots and got some bad decisions but he still managed to win the Lonsdale belt outright and really should have won a European belt. I always look at him as what I could be… I still go back and watch his fights on YouTube… But people won’t believe this but my favourite fighter is Tommy Morrison. He was one dimensional but he had the best left hook. One of the first fights I watched with my dad was Tommy against Razor Ruddock. He got put down and came back to turn the fight around with a monster left hook out of no where and the crowd were going mad chanting ‘Duke, Duke, Duke’… I was only young but I remember being so excited, I just loved it.”
Martin went on to have around 70 amateur fights, winning the Scottish National title in 2010. Unfortunate in a few close decisions meant he never made the commonwealth team. He wasn’t the only one to get the bug for boxing as his younger brother, Robert Jr., followed suit winning Scottish Championships and then went onto win British Championships in Cardiff in 2011, a success neither his dad or brother had managed. Although having the slightly more successful amateur career, it would only be Martin who would follow his dad’s footsteps into the professional game.
With limited options in the Dumbarton area, Martin was travelling to Clydebank to train at the Osprey Gym for most of his amateur career. However, with his high aspirations and the club only being open twice a week, a decision was made to look for a new full time club.
“My dad took me around a few gyms to try out but when I came to Danny Lee’s we just clicked. I felt he suited my come-forward style and we gelled straight away… I always knew I wanted to turn pro but I never pushed it, I just waited for Danny Lee to tell me I was ready.”
‘St. Andrews Sporting Club – the home of Scottish boxing’. A club with a deep root of history going back decades. It was under this banner that Robert Harkin made his pro debut and where Martin would do the same. ‘Nobbins’ was an old term referring to money thrown into the ring by a grateful crowd after an exciting bout. Former club owner, Tommy Gilmour, reckoned Robert’s fight with Sugar Gibiliru, which ended in a draw in November 1987, “probably held the record for nobbins”. “It was unheard of in black tie events, but such was the contest they had, the boxers actually made more in nobbins than from the purse.”
Martin’s professional debut was set for September 29th 2016, and all was looking promising. He was set to be on the undercard of a British title eliminator and Scottish broadcasters STV had picked up the card, a fantastic opportunity to burst onto the scene and impress on national television. But the best laid plans don’t always work out as he was met with the very harsh realities of the sport on his first night. As he sat preparing himself in the dressing room, at the very last minute he was told he would no longer be on before the main fight. Not ideal for your first fight as you’ve sat mentally preparing yourself for a specific start time.
“I was gloved up, due to go in but with restricted scheduling for TV, I was then told I would go after the main event, which was frustrating ”
However, this would pale in significance with what was to follow. The main event that night, the British title eliminator was Mike Towell v Dale Evans. As most readers will probably be aware, that was tragically the last time Mike Towell was in the ring. After two knock downs in the fight, The Dundondian slipped into a coma and was stretchered from the ring. Unfortunately, Iron Mike wasn’t able to recover and passed away the next day. Martin’s bout never went ahead that night, instead he had to face the terrifying reality of the dangers of the sport. I was interested to see how that affected him and whether it could have lead to any second thoughts about his new career.
“When my fight got cancelled all together I was gutted but realised it was completely understandable when we had heard what happened. My mum and girlfriend had never even been to any of my amateur fights, as they couldn’t watch me get hurt but decided as it was my professional debut that they would come and support. Then they saw that happen to Mike Towell, I don’t think they’ll be able to do it again. It really affected my mum, totally freaked her out and now she gets really nervous when I have a fight coming up. She probably doesn’t want me to do it anymore but wouldn’t stand in my way as this is what I love, it’s part of who I am. I know the risks and dangers, I’ve probably gone into all my fights with niggles, aches or pains but you won’t see me near a boxing now if I have a sore head leading into a fight. That’s a no go now for sure.”
Two years on and the majority of his fights have been part of dinner shows under the prestigious ‘St Andrews Sporting Club’ banner. As with many boxers, the ticket selling side of the business can often add stress. Opportunities arose to fight on a Josh Taylor card, but under no false illusions and expectancy from promoters so high he realised that would be a step too far and didn’t want to put himself through that. So for now he’s aiming to let his fighting do the talking and hopefully create the opportunities.
“I aim to be a come forward fighter and throw combinations; that’s what I like to watch so I know others will. If I’m fan friendly, hopefully the fans will want to see me again and the ticket sales will follow… If I need to just build up the hard way and impress on small hall shows, I will. I’ll focus on getting myself into a mandatory position like Lewis Ritson. He was fighting on small shows up here, then when he got his chance he took it, now look at him – one of the biggest names in British boxing at the moment”.
Drive down Main Street via ‘The Old Vale Bar’ in Alexandria and you’ll see the local support is catching on. With plans for a mural on the side of his pub, the owner and family friend wanted to show he admires ‘true sportsmen’ and asked local artist ‘Barry the Cat’ to make sure a homage to Martin and his dad featured in the collage.
“No-one even told me about it until it was done! For him [Frank Reilly, Owner of the ‘Old Vale Bar’ ] to think of me a local sportsman and talent, makes me feel amazing that he would want to do that. I cant thank Frank enough, to think people are getting behind me is really humbling and really spurs me on to go and make everyone proud!”
Martin would like to thank his main sponsor Mark Shields of ‘Stewart and Shields’ in Helensburgh for all his continued support. Also his trainer Danny Lee for the constant effort and time he puts into him.
By Allen Payne