The Irish sportswriter Kieran Cunningham belongs to a small group of investigative journalists who are entitled to feel proud of their resolute courage and persistence in exposing Daniel Kinahan and his damaging control of boxing. Last Tuesday, at an extraordinary press conference in Dublin, US government officials stressed their determination to bring down the intimidating drug cartel allegedly run by Kinahan and his family.
“I would never think of it in terms of vindication,” Cunningham says after stressing that the journalistic heroes are the Irish crime reporters who investigated Kinahan long before he turned to boxing. “I just felt relieved, because it’s taken up so much space in my head for years. It felt like banging your head against a brick wall. Everyone who works in boxing would just say: ‘That’s boxing. It’s always been like this.’ As long as the fights are made they don’t care.”
Cunningham acknowledges that the omertà is partly driven by fear. In a similarly insidious way there is no corner within boxing which is not linked in some way to Kinahan. I have spoken to many fighters and trainers, most of whom are good people, and they remain unwilling to talk on the record for fear of reprisals or being shut out of the sport. Kinahan has undoubtedly been generous to the boxers he advises but in exchange they had to ignore or dismiss the allegations surrounding him. It has become a source of embarrassment and shame for boxing. For this reason it is instructive to hear from Cunningham and Stephen Dempster, another investigative reporter who produced last year’s BBC Panorama documentary which brought Kinahan’s involvement in boxing to mainstream attention.
“I’m not this great moral compass,” Cunningham says as he explains how boxing crisscrosses the deadly feud in Dublin between the Kinahan and Hutch gangs. “Where I live in Dublin is 15 minutes from the north inner city. That’s boxing country. There’s a street called Champions Avenue where so many boxing champions came from. Kellie Harrington, who became Olympic champion last year, is from there. It’s near where Muhammad Ali fought Al ‘Blue’ Lewis at Croke Park 50 years ago this summer. Just down the road you find the Point Depot, as it used to be called, where Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed and Tyson Fury all fought.
“Seven of the people killed in the Hutch-Kinahan feud died in these same streets. Boxing is Ireland’s international sport by a mile, and it’s the one closest to the Irish psyche. I like boxing people because there is a rawness and truth to them. Many of them are abused by boxing and it really gnawed at me that Kinahan was seen as one of the good guys. I always knew he was going to be toxic. Professional boxing south of the border has already been killed.”
In February 2016 the Irish Gardaí believed that the Hutch gang aimed to kill Kinahan at the weigh-in for a European lightweight title fight. Instead, in a case of mistaken identity, they allegedly shot and murdered David Byrne – who was associated with Kinahan. Revenge killings followed and, since then, there have only been small-hall boxing shows in Ireland.
Dempster, a boxing fan as well as an investigative journalist, comes from Belfast, where the sport still thrives. His reaction from him to last week’s announcement of US sanctions against the Kinahans, and the offer of a $5m (£3.8m) reward for information leading to their arrest, echoes the response of many. “I was shocked,” Dempster says. “I’ve never seen a press conference where government and law enforcement officials are so open. They are usually so cagey about naming names and potentially prejudicing future legal action. For years the Irish Gardaí wouldn’t even say the name ‘Kinahan’. They would talk around it. This was a total game changer. You can now see how the dominoes are slowly falling one by one.”
Kinahan remains exiled in Dubai and denies all wrongdoing. But it was revealed that the United Arab Emirates has frozen the assets of the Kinahan family. Cunningham explains that “Ireland has been pressing the UAE for years to extradite Kinahan. But Ireland is a tiny dot on the edge of Europe. America is the global superpower and the UAE are keen not to fall out with the Americans. So last week everything changed.
“What surprises me most is that it took so long. Why wasn’t there this kind of reaction to the Panorama documentary? Barry McGuigan was the only person from boxing to appear in the programme. He spoke out and he was very brave. The reaction was just to attack Barry from within boxing rather than address Kinahan. There was no follow-up to say: ‘How is Kinahan involved in the sport? How do we get rid of this guy?’”
Kinahan was an adviser, rather than the official manager, of all the fighters who defended him so passionately. He could not be banned or stripped of his influence by the British Boxing of Control because “advisers” – unlike fighters, trainers, managers and promoters – do not require a license to operate. And so Kinahan became one of the most powerful men in boxing as he brokered world title fights and negotiated huge TV deals with other promoters. No one could avoid dealing with him.
While Kinahan’s fighters taunted McGuigan on social media, thinly veiled threats were made against those involved in the Panorama documentary. “We all had to think about our safety but I personally wasn’t affected because we were more in the background,” Dempster says. “It was directed at Darragh MacIntyre [who presented the programme].”
Cunningham also considered the dangers: “My wife, Peigi, asked me a couple of times not to cover this story. I sat down with her and said I have to stick with it. I told her lots of journalists on the crime beat cover this story. They don’t have invisible suits of armor and they’ve managed.”
Boxing, meanwhile, trundled on. “I remember the day after Panorama was screened you spoke to Robert Smith from the British Boxing Board of Control,” Cunningham says. “I have made it clear how limited their powers are to stop somebody like Kinahan. That should be a priority. Boxing has to put some process in place to stop another Kinahan coming into the sport.”
Neither Cunningham nor Dempster hold out lasting hope that boxing will ever be regulated and they expect the rival sanctioning bodies to still focus on chaos and profit. Some insiders voiced concern to me that Kinahan might even be able to control boxing from a prison cell.
But this week the landscape of boxing has clearly changed. MTK Global, the management company Kinahan set up in 2012, insists that they have had no links with him for five years. Yet they announced that they will cease trading at the end of April as other organizations now refuse to do business with them. Probellum, a separate company, have also refuted allegations that they are linked to Kinahan, but the Discovery Channel and Eurosport still decided this week not to screen their fight promotions.
“Kinahan’s finished in boxing,” Dempster says. “If the Americans really want to get him, they will.”
Cunningham, who is working on a four-part podcast series on Kinahan and boxing, agrees: “It’s the endgame for Kinahan. The Americans’ powers are so far-reaching they can freeze the bank accounts of any business seen to have a connection to Kinahan. Lots of people within boxing would be nervous because it’s a crisis for the sport. At the press conference they named some of the companies they’re investigating. The implication was that more will be named.
“What really needs to change is the governance of boxing. The WBC in theory are the main governing body but their president, Mauricio Sulaimán, was singing Kinahan’s praises last month. This week he’s done a couple of U-turns. If these are the people we’re looking at as the guardians of the sport, what hope does boxing have?”
Cunningham and Dempster hope that, somehow, boxing will change in the wake of this month’s seismic events. “During the Panorama investigation,” Dempster says, “we had a list of boxing gyms in England and we door-stepped professional trainers and fighters, as well as people in the grassroots. There were real salt-of-the-earth people who welcomed us in. But the first thing they said was: ‘We’ll talk to you, but we don’t want to go on the record.’ They were frightened of Kinahan and they didn’t want to rock the boat because he had so much power. These were good people who were disgusted, dismayed and depressed at his malignant influence. I’ve been in touch with them over the last week. They’re relieved. I feel vindicated for them.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism