Dubliner Luke Keeler (17-2-1) can complete an extraordinary turnaround when he faces world champion Demetrius Andrade (28-0) next week.
Miami, where the fight will take place, is a far cry from Keeler’s upbringing in Ireland and even just a few years ago when he laboured to an Irish title win, ‘Cool Hand’ wasn’t remotely certain of continuing on as a professional boxer.
Now, having blasted highly-rated American Luis Arias (18-1-1) aside in Belfast last summer, the 32-year-old could become WBO world middleweight king in front of a huge American audience and the Sky Sports cameras. Collecting Celtic and Irish middleweight titles along with the WBO European strap has earned him the No.3 spot in the WBO rankings.
Unbeaten in his last eight fights, Keeler hasn't suffered defeat since April 2016, so what changed? #MTKInsideAccess sat down with one of Dublin’s leading lights...
#MTKInsideAccess: Are you the most improved fighter in the world?!
Keeler: Well, that’s a big statement! I suppose I’m a completely different fighter to what I was before I fully committed to the sport and joined up with my trainer Peter Taylor. The Luke Keeler who struggled in an Irish title fight in June 2017 would get stopped by the Luke Keeler I am now, so that tells its own story.
I fell back in love with the sport thanks to Pete and I owe him a lot for this turnaround in my career. He’s a joy to work under and with each camp he’s improving me as a fighter so it’s exciting for me to stay in the gym these days. I really feel the sky is the limit now.
Were you close to actually giving up boxing after you’d won the Irish title?
Keeler: I was struggling with a shoulder injury which I needed surgery to repair, I was in the process of moving to a new house with my two young twin boys and as a result, I was under a lot of pressure with work. I was thinking about setting up my own company in the building industry, which was booming in Dublin.
I realised I’d have regrets if I didn’t fully focus on boxing and give it my all. The choice was to either retire from boxing and focus on working and home life or take a huge leap of faith and commit to boxing properly for the first time in my life. Huge thanks to MTK Global. I was lucky enough to sign with the them and be guaranteed regular fights with a clear plan ahead. It would’ve been hard to give up a well-paid job without that. I had a start-stop career in my first four years as a pro but since I signed with them, it’s been plain sailing.
Sounds like you were pretty good as a builder?
Keeler: I always worked on building sites when I was young during the summer holiday. That was with my uncle Liam and I earned some good money. Then, after college, I took up full-time work with Building Services – an engineering company – and I worked with them for the next eight years before I went into boxing full-time. In those years, I did well and was able to save enough money to buy my house. I also travelled to places like Texas for work, so the whole thing was a great experience.
I was lucky in that my secondary school gave me a grant of a couple of thousand euros for having the highest level of results that year. I split it with my brother and I went to college to study structural engineering while he stayed back to get enough points to study architecture. He is now an architect and has his own business. It doesn’t matter where you come from; if you put education, hard work and discipline together on any path in life then it’ll lead to success.
I’ve always known the value of hard work since I was young. My first job was in the local pub Downey’s when I was 14. I collected the glasses, took drinks orders and learned some lessons about money. I made good tips but I remember I’d lied about my age – I said I was 15 and was then caught out when telling them I’d won an Under-14s boxing title!
What about your childhood – presumably you fought from a young age?
Keeler: My uncle Stephen boxed for St Saviour’s Boxing Club and he was my idol growing up. My Da would’ve had gloves around the house and even from a young age, me and my brother Tony would use them to punch the heads off each other! I then joined St Matthew’s Boxing Club when I was just eight years old and I haven’t stopped since.
I had a great childhood in the Ballyfermot neighbourhood. My older brother Tony was like a second father to me – he kept me out of trouble. Ballyfermot is a close-knit community and it was very safe because everyone used to look out for each other. People would babysit each other’s kids, there’d be keys left in doors and it was generally a group of people who really trusted one another.
As for fighting in the playground and all that stuff, I wouldn’t say I was a tough kid. I was friendly and happy but if I’m honest, I loved fighting even then! I hated any bullying though. We’d always fight after school to see who the best fighter was and I came out on top despite being outweighed by most of the kids.
How has your motivation for winning fights changed over the years?
Keeler: My motivation was always to win a world title. I have dreamed of that since I first started boxing at the age of eight. Now, getting to this level of the game, becoming financially free is another motivation because using these pay-days and investing them wisely can secure my family’s future. I know winning this fight brings life-changing money and I look forward to being able to provide for my family and those closest to me.
It’s a big inspiration to have such a close family. I always wanted to make my uncle Stephen proud and now my twin boys Alphie and Archie have come along, giving them a comfortable life is another big factor.
Challenger Keeler takes on champion Andrade in the US on Thursday, January 30 – live on Sky Sports Main Event.