Taking a Look back at what made ProKick great in 2007
Murray is not the boastful sort, writes
William Bruce - But the veteran Billy Murray’s new year resolution is going to be the same this year as every other year – to take kickboxing to more people than in the 12 months just gone.
For the man they call Mr Kickboxing this is no easy task.
If you look at 2007 the statistics will leave you reeling more readily than one of veteran Murray’s famous body-shots. There have been upwards of 1200 classes taught in his ProKick gyms; there have been at least 10 foreign trips by fighters he coaches (and as Murray’s organisation looks after travel arrangements for the fighters, these are logistical nightmares). There have been four major shows in Northern Ireland promoted by Murray and countless smaller events. And there have been the champions to train to defend their titles, new-comers to show the ropes and dozens and dozens of junior members who all need looking after. Oh, and he’s found time to produce and edit a live event DVD. This is before you consider Murray’s role in various sporting steering committees in his native Belfast. Murray is not a man who likes to idle doing ‘normal’ things like sleep.
“I love the sport, just love it,” he says. “If I could, I’d immerse myself in it 24 hours a day. But if there were 24 hours available obviously they wouldn’t be enough!”
A road accident in February forced Murray to slow down – it meant he couldn’t accompany a team to an international event (this time in Norway) for the first time in the 20 years he has been taking Northern Irish kickboxers around the world. And the memory annoys him.
“There was a catalogue of problems and bad luck with that one – lost luggage, not being allowed to board flights, missed connections,” he says. “Me being there probably wouldn’t have changed things too much… but I still think it would have changed something.”
Trying to sum up the highs of 2007 in a few lines is a tough task, says Murray.
“It’s hard to know where to begin,” he insists. “The new young talent coming through has been exciting and it gives me a boost and it gives everyone in ProKick a boost. There are young men like Stuart Jess from Saintfield. He defended his British super welterweight title and moved on soon to a European title shot. There is Barrie Oliver from Killinchy, who is now seven fights into his ring career unbeaten, he’s a certainty for titles.
Next Generation at the Park Avenue Hotel January 2007
“There are more experienced men like Ian Young, the footballer turned kickboxer, who had a few good fights, a few bad decisions against him but he is reigning European super welterweight champion. Mark Hennessy who defended his middleweight European title and Magherafelts Darren Dougan who lifted a super Middleweight title in September. And there’s Gary Hamilton who remains world featherweight champ. He is an inspiration to every single young fighter who comes through the gym doors.”
Murray says the roll-call of glory is long for ProKick this year. Aside from the above, he picks out Belfast’s Gary Fullerton, and new kid on the block teenager Mark Bird, super heavyweights big James Gillen from Portadown who is now back in line for a tilt at a European title and last but not least – is Giant Miro Herda another name for the future.
“It’s also been about great events right here in Northern Ireland,” says Murray. “We had the Italian Job II in Belfast, bringing in the very best in European talent to meet rising Irish names.
“We had the Falls Road event which brought young athletes from the Falls and Shankill together in kickboxing to join a united team against all-comers. The event I’m most proud of this year is the Brawl On The Wall, in September in Derry City’s Millennium Forum. That part of the country has an incredible appetite for kickboxing but it wasn’t being served at our level by anyone up there. So we promoted a wonderful event, sold it out and took the sport to them. They loved it; the DVD of the show demonstrates that and also the high quality of fights on show. We’ll definitely be back there soon – and I’m in advanced talks to open a franchised club there soon.”
Joining Murray on his kickboxing adventure in 2007 have been a succession of welcome guests – without whom, he says, he wouldn’t have carried everything off with such gusto.
Much loved local TV personality Joe Lindsay arrived at ProKick in February to make a programme about Murray for his BBC show Inside Out. Ten months later, he’s a fully fledged member (he’s taking a series of belts) and recently travelled to Switzerland with the ProKick team as the bucketman (he literally collected spit in the corner)
Murray also paid tribute to Brendan Thompson, General area manager for hair company Schwarzkopf who brought sponsorship to a number of Prokick promotions.
And he also wanted to give mention to some new, very powerful friends of ProKick – officials from theBritish Consulate in Geneva. Links between Northern Irish kickboxing and the international politicians were forged in Switzerland last year when the British ambassador was so impressed by Murray and his close Swiss friend, Carl Emery a former world champion - both pioneering work with kids – Emery in Switzerland whist Murray from both sides of the Northern Irish divide, that she held a gala evening at the British Embassy in their honour – also attended by the Irish and US ambassadors and a host of Swiss dignitaries.
When the ambassador heard Murray was in Switzerland again in late November – taking a team to an event in Martigny - she arrived in an official convoy to greet him at the airport and take him to another reception in his honour.
And it doesn’t end there. She plans to head to Northern Ireland in 2008 for a meeting on a pan-European development of a kickboxing programme to help deprived children - a plan that will have the British consular Dr Carole Presern from the UK Mission to the office of the United Nations, rubber stamp it.
“It’s a remarkable link to have forged,” says the kickboxing king. “The potential for development is enormous and I’m delighted the ambassador has taken such a special interest.”
The ambassador moves to the side when Murray offers special words of praise for Lydia Braniff, the reigning WKN World Atomweight champion who announced her retirement in the autumn.
“She is without question one the best kickboxers I’ve ever had the honour to coach,” says Murray. “Her skill, her dedication, her focus, her drive, her love of the sport – she was an inspiration. She’s the reason kickboxing has taken off amongst women in this country. They see that you can be a terror inside the ring but can remain a lady outside of it. And she takes no nonsense from anyone. She’ll still be around the gym, but competitive kickboxing will be a poorer place without her.”
Murray says for 2008 there, as ever, are many plans. In February there is the annual formal ProKick Awards ceremony – set for the Belfast Hilton Hotel, and this time on the menu there is a serving of Bash with the Mash. The cream of kickboxing will attend, all eager to get words of encouragement from Murray.
Then, there are plans for what Murray is tentatively calling the Seven Wonders – seven world title fights on one bill, all set for Belfast. It’s a huge task.
That said, for Murray, the greatest achievement has been not with the champions of today but the champs of tomorrow.
“We offer a way to get kids active, to get them off their sofas and to enjoy running around and jumping about. It teaches self-discipline and self-respect. It combats bullying. It’s an amazing tool for bringing kids out of themselves. And every time I open a new class for juniors demand for places leaves me stunned.
It’s a real growth sport amongst the young of Northern Ireland. For some, it’s about having fun, for some it’s about taking first steps towards a ring career. We have a space for everyone.”
It is certain, says Murray, that 2008 will keep him busier than 2007. It is also certain that his students and fighters will have to go some to keep up with their inspiring leader.
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