A career rebuilt, Darragh Foley returns for the biggest fight of his life

Darragh Foley went half way across the globe to restart his boxing career. Now faces the important bout of his life against Jack Catterall

On Saturday evening, Dubliner Darragh Foley will face Jack Catterall in the biggest fight of his career in Manchester. In the eyes of most boxing fans, Catterall should be the undisputed super lightweight world champion after losing a dubious decision to Josh Taylor in Glasgow. Foley feels comfortable and energised as the underdog. In March, he stepped in as a late opponent with three weeks’ notice and defeated former European and British title holder Robbie Taylor Jr in front of his home crowd in Liverpool. Foley has been upsetting the form book his whole career. His amateur career in Dublin reads 10 fights and one win. He is now one fight away from a world title shot.

To understand Foley, you need to start at the beginning, back home in Blanchardstown. He was born in Kent, England, and his strange accent meant he had to sharpen his tongue and fists when he moved to Dublin. He learned how to defend himself fast in the playground. He started boxing at 15 in Phibsborough at the CIE club, under the tutelage of the late Peter Perry. Foley boxed with him for two years without having a single fight.

“Pete must have been around 83 years old,” says Foley. “He’d just sit there and tell you what to do and you wouldn’t dare put a foot wrong or disrespect him. I remember Pete wasn’t in great health, so couldn’t really travel and that’s why I never had a fight under him. I think he just got great pleasure out of watching his boys in the club sparring and beating the head off each other. He couldn’t be arsed with the outside world. I remember there would be guys in from the Irish team coming into spar, and Pete would be telling them that I could batter anyone on the Irish team. I’d be so embarrassed. He would tell anyone that would listen. I moved around clubs again and ended up at St Saviours in Dublin. I ended up having 11 fights as an amateur, I lost 10 and won one. That was the start of the doggedness in me I suppose.”

Foley’s undistinguished amateur career in Dublin ended, and after completing his Leaving Certificate he looked for work. He started as an apprentice electrician, hated it, and then started working as an estate agent, using his charm to rent houses out all over the city. His teenage boxing days were long in the past when he decided to take a career break in his early twenties and travel across southeast Asia. Arriving in Thailand, he sat and thought about what he wanted to do with his life and decided on the spot to change his life.


“I’m going across southeast Asia thinking, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’,” Foley says. “It hurt me that 10 people had beaten me as an amateur. I’m a proud man and I knew that I’d always win the first round, but I would then lose and it was down to a lack of dedication and work. I was in Thailand and I just thought, this doesn’t sit well, how I ended boxing. I decided I’m going to be a professional boxer. I got this tattoo on my hand which said ‘no fear’, and that was the way I was going to approach my life from then on.”

Foley arrived in Perth with his partner Lauren from Dublin. Like many Irish migrants before – and after – him, he started work on the city’s building sites as a labourer. Summers in Perth are tough in the building trade, with the sun burning down on workers all day at temperatures of over 30 degrees. Foley knew that he needed to formulate a quick plan for professional boxing. His options were slim – he had his 10 defeats as an amateur and nobody knew him in this isolated city.

“I had no boxing gym to go to. I was googling everywhere. Eventually, I found this one with good reviews as a pro gym. I arrive at this place, and there’s an armoured door, saying ‘Harry’s Gym’. I’m banging on the door there’s no answer, so I leave. I come back the next day, still banging. This huge guy covered in tattoos comes to the door, like a prison door opening. He says ‘You Irish?’ I say ‘Yeah, I am’. The door swings open. He asks, ‘How many fights have you had?’ I tell him 70. ‘How many did you win?’ I tell him 50. I had to get my foot in the door, literally. I can’t tell this guy I had 11 fights and lost 10 and can I come in. He told me to come back. They send me into the ring and tell me I’m sparring. I see the guy I’m facing, Chris John. He held the WBA Super Featherweight title from 2004 to 2013, he’s their fighter of the decade. He’s been in with superstars, he’s 46-0 at the time. I haven’t been training, I’ve been on the piss and labouring. I felt like jumping out of the ring, but I didn’t. I put in three good rounds with him. After that, they told me I can train there. They knew I had no quit in me, there was this dog in me.”

Foley won the professional Western Australian title within three fights and knew that he needed to search for better quality opponents in bigger cities. He and Lauren moved to Sydney to start again, arriving in the Bondi boxing gym, slotting in seamlessly with compatriots like Gearoid Clancy and former world champion TJ Doheny. Foley didn’t have the benefit of commercial backing – indeed, he had to pay his first opponent out of his own pocket. He wouldn’t have the benefit of a carefully managed career – instead, to earn money, he would need to accept fights anywhere at any time.

“I was always trying to get fights, I was fearless. Frank Warren always said that the first 20 fights are wins, give the boxer a southpaw, give him a brawler, test and teach him. It’s like an apprenticeship. I didn’t have that luxury, I was thrown in with anybody and everybody. I’d watch these Japanese fighters who were thrown in at the deep end, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I was never afraid of losing, or protecting an unbeaten record. Life as a boxer is funny, because when you win you’re as high as you can imagine, but when I lose, I’m deeper in despair than the bottom of the ocean. I sometimes wonder, ‘Why do I do this?’ I know because of my mindset, I’m going to lose. I’m always looking to push myself beyond what people think is possible. I have a twisted mind, I know what pain a loss is going to do, but then equally, I’m like: ‘Throw me in with a Josh Taylor or a Jack Catterall, I want to be against the very best.’”

Foley built up a loyal Irish fan base in Sydney and headlined a show in 2016 at Sydney Olympic Park on St Patrick’s Day against world-ranked Brandon Ogilvie. It was a rare opportunity for Foley to showcase his skills to a big audience, but a disastrous weight cut left him weakened before the first bell went. He was beaten convincingly, but curiously, he knew that this loss was a turning point in his career.

“The weight cut against Ogilvie was terrible, the worst I’ve ever done. I knew getting into the ring that I was in trouble, and it was over. I was basically a punching bag for 10 rounds, and I’ll tell you, as weird as it sounds, that’s when I really knew I could do something special in boxing. In the third round, I was sitting there on the stool exhausted and exasperated. There was nothing left. I see the girl holding the round card. I’m thinking please god, let it say seven or eight. My brain is saying just say your hands hurt, stop the fight, say anything. I don’t know what it was, but I stood up. I stood up knowing I was going to take a beating for the rest of the fight. I had a way out, but I didn’t take it. I had that mettle to never give in.”

After that defeat, Foley didn’t lose for two years, before a being beaten by Akeen Ennis Brown at London’s York Hall for the European title in 2018. The next year, he was beaten by Belfast prospect Tyrone McKenna at a packed Ulster Hall. He came back with two comeback fights, but felt that his left shoulder was significantly weakened by 2021. Foley is a southpaw fighter, so jabs with his right hand, using his left hand to throw his hardest punches. Take away a fighter’s powerful hand, and you are taking away a paintbrush from an artist. They can’t work effectively.

“I’d always had problems with my left shoulder. It started on the building sites I think. I always got through it, just doing lots of exercises. It got to the stage where I couldn’t punch, a bone was popping out. I had no big shot any more, I’m southpaw, so I could jab and that was about it. I went to the physio, got scans, and they told me you need surgery. There was complete instability, the ligaments at the end of my collarbone were dying off. I hadn’t earned money during the pandemic, I was doing personal training to supplement my income. The surgery was going to cost 10 grand, I had 12 grand left in the bank. Literally, that was it. I was thinking about what to do. I was saying to my missus, I’m going to get the surgery, and she says it’s all the money you have. I told her I’m going to get it back and some, trust me. It’s not going to end here. It’s the story of the gambler maybe.

“I got the surgery, I was six weeks in the sling, six weeks of gently moving my arm. I wish they’d told me the real prognosis. I was doing two hours of rehab every day and I absolutely hated it. You’d feel every single joint in pain and clicking. It ended up being three surgeries I needed, it was that intricate. It was my power hand, this was how I knocked people out. I had learn how to use it again. I’d go to the underground car park of my apartment, and I’m just doing hours and hours alone shadow boxing. This was me alone, everything was on the line. I could have used that 10 grand for anything, bought my tools back, whatever, but I knew I had a destiny. I had the operation on the 23rd of August, and my little baby was born on the 22nd, so at least for one day, I was able to pick her up and cuddle her. The next day I was in surgery. I could barely hold her during rehab the pain was so bad. After eight months, the shoulder started to feel okay.”

In late February, Foley was leaving the casino in Sydney when he got a phone call from his manager that changed his life. Unbeaten Australian star Liam Parro was due to make his debut in England against Davies Jr but sustained a facial injury. They needed a durable and respectable opponent who would put up a good show on short notice. The opponent was not there to win, he was there to keep Davies Jr warm before a world title shot.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m John the Baptist, but I am dedicated. If you keep doing the right thing and training hard, eventually you will be rewarded. My manager rings and tells me Liam Parro has dropped out, and it’s one in, one out. I was coming out of the casino, and I’d lost me bollocks in there. I was walking out dejected. I’m thinking please don’t make this bad news when my manager rings. He says you will not believe what’s landed on our lap. He says do you want to fight Robbie Davies Jr in Liverpool in three weeks? I said let me process this. I’m driving home, and I’m thinking karma has come and let’s do it. I went over there, did what I did, and here we are now.”

Foley dropped Davies Jr in the second round which eventually led to the Liverpool fighter retiring with a badly hurt ankle in the third round. The boxing world was surprised, but Foley wasn’t. “I knew I was going to beat him. I got great pleasure at how much they were overlooking me. I was watching their interviews, and I was smiling at how little they knew. They were facing the devil who was fighting for his life. I was fighting for everything. I remember when I finished training, I threw out all my wraps, my sweatsuits. My trainer is like what are you doing? I said, I’ll never need this again, because I’m going to win and I’m buying it all new. I had to win this. Nothing else mattered.

“There was a lot of pressure on me as if I lost I was done. I knew I needed to win it. I’ve always backed myself, but the chips were really in. I didn’t even really have a good hand, but I just hoped that my hand was better than his. I respond better as the underdog, I want to be thrown into their hometown. I get just as much pleasure from being booed as cheered, it’s this energy that can change the way you feel.

Foley is facing the fight of his life against the awkward Catterall. The long flight from Australia to England will give him plenty of time to think over what awaits him in Manchester. Carl Frampton defeated Scott Quigg in the same arena for the IBF Super Bantamweight title seven years ago, but Foley understands that he is facing a different challenge. He will be alone, against the judges, the promoters, the fans and a gifted fighter.

“I feel like a fighter of no nation at times, it’s just hard to get the opportunity to fight at home. But listen, there are no sob stories here, I’m blessed to be living my dream, I am walking on clouds. Catterall is the household name, he’s the British boxing darling after the robbery against Taylor. Everything is against me, and it’s just the way I like it. I know I need to go for the KO, there will be increased spotlight with the judging after the Taylor fight, but two wrongs don’t make a right, because he was robbed does that mean I should be? It’s his first fight back and everyone is going to be ultra-sympathetic. All I want is a level playing field, I don’t want anything else. I have everything else against me. When I win this, there are huge names there, Taylor, (Regis) Prograis, if they’re saying Catterall against all of these guys, then why not me? Katie Taylor will be back in Croke Park in September, why can’t I fight for a world title there? That would be the Holy Grail.”

Ten years ago Foley arrived in Australia with a rucksack and a dream of becoming a professional boxer. Next month he is fighting in front of 21,000 fans for a world title shot and financial security for life. It’s been an unforgettable journey for Foley, and it’s not over just yet.