When you meet Ruth O’Sullivan you’re immediately struck by how small and delicate she appears. Her strawberry blonde hair is pulled back from her face, her blue eyes are striking with both beauty and fierceness. Her movements are controlled and elegant, it’s hard to believe that she is a three time winner of the Golden Gloves, an amatuer boxing contest that begun in 1923.
She picked New York for her J1 visa experience because, ‘it seemed exciting and I needed to get away from Dublin.’ Her entrance into the world of boxing happened out of chance, ‘I was working in a restaurant and there was a German girl working there. I found out that she fought in Madison Square Gardens for the Golden Gloves. I thought, oh my God that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard I want that!’ She asked the German fighter to take her to her gym and it was from that moment that she fell in love with boxing, ‘it became my obsession’.
The gym that she started in was owned by an old Italian man called Tony, you are encouraged to say that name in your best New York accent, ‘he saw that I was really into it so he charged me next to nothing to use the gym.’
During this time O’Sullivan was still not living full-time in The States, she still had her degree to complete which she did in the University of Glasgow traveling back to New York every summer. She also continued to box in Glasgow, ‘I was the first girl to box in this little gym in Dennistoun, they even built a separate changing room for me!’
When she graduated her only, ‘intent was to get back to New York to box, my career was secondary to me at the time. I got a job with a not for profit and they sponsored my H1-B visa. My whole agenda was to be here to box.’
‘I bumped into Alicia Ashley and her brother at Gleeson gym, I had moved there from my first gym as it closed down.’ Gleeson gym has been open since 1937, it’s rests a block from the Brooklyn waterfront, Mike Tyson has trained there.
It was that serendipitous meet with the Ashleys that helped propel O’Sullivan into her successful fighting career. ‘I first saw Alicia box at the nationals, she’s incredible. I wanted to be able to box like her, she was my idol. Her brother trained her.’
O’Sullivan’s goal was to win the Golden Gloves and she was intensely determined. ‘It took me three years to get my first Golden Gloves. I would train every morning before work from 6 AM and then go to work, I also went to college at night to get a more focused degree. That was my timetable when I won my first three Golden Gloves.’ Her night course would finish at 10 PM. It’s exhausting to even think about that grueling schedule never-mind doing it. But as O’Sullivan puts it, ‘I was a machine.’
‘Boxing gives you confidence especially if you are a woman. It teaches you to handle yourself, it makes you street smart. You hold yourself differently. People don’t tend to pick on you even if you’re little, it’s because there is a calmness inside you, you don’t feel that fear. You become very self contained,’ she says with soft New York Irish hybrid accent.
O’Sullivan beat Susannah Warner in the Metros several months earlier but as O’Sullivan was not an US national she could not go on to box at the nationals, Warner could and she won. However for the 2005 Golden Gloves final O’Sullivan would face Warner again. ‘She was getting a lot of publicity as she was the only girl from New York to win the nationals. I didn’t care about the publicity but I overheard her being interviewed by the Daily News, they brought up with her about me beating her already, she said oh that was political or something silly like that. It infuriated me because I had beaten her well and I thought to myself, you can be the national champion but I’m going to be the champion of New York, I’m going to win this fight.’
O’Sullivan used to suffered from severe anxiety leading up to the fight, ‘oh my God it was terrifying and awesome, I had such tunnel vision. I was working so hard with boxing; then there was my full time job, school in the evening and I did not want all that to have been in vain, I was going to win those gloves.’
As she made her way to the ring the anxiety faded and her adrenaline kicked in, ‘the whole ceiling was set up with lights, thousands of people were looking at me. It’s the most crazy feeling in the world!’ Her hours of training meant that a mental calmness settled in then suddenly, ‘you’re on your own, no one can save you.’
A friend that she used to spar with said that she found O’Sullivan so intimidating, ‘because I never blinked! I mean of course I blinked! But I was just so focused, you learn to anticipate people’s movements. I think that’s why I loved it so much, the whole world disappears. In boxing everything is in the moment, if you get distracted you’re done.’ It’s no surprise then that her boxing nickname was Ruthless.
As the crowds screamed and cheered for O’Sullivan she heard nothing, ‘it’s funny people would come to my fights and they would ask whether I heard them but I never heard a thing!’ As the bell rung she launched out of her corner with a vigor that could not be quelled, ‘even though it wasn’t my best technical fight it was my favourite fight because I did not stop from start to finish. There was nothing that she could do I was going to win that fight.’ That was the day that she won her first Golden Gloves.
O’Sullivan had her son Liam in 2007 yet she still continued to fight but eventually it became impossible, ‘my life felt very imbalanced. When my relationship with Liam’s father broke down I had no family support to look after this little baby.’ She decided to quit boxing which was very difficult for her to do, ‘being a single parent in New York without my family around me was the scariest thing but I knew there was no alternative, I wasn’t going home. Boxing was such a conviction of mine, it helped me through the hardest times in my life but soon it became less of a help because my child needed me. I decided to embrace motherhood and I was very lucky that I did not suffer from postpartum, I was so in love with this baby. If I didn’t have Liam it might have been harder for me to make the break but everything happens for a reason.’
When you are part of something that defines your sense of identity it’s always hard to walk away but for an athlete it’s always harder especially as your body ages. ‘I just quit boxing, people asked me to keep training for fitness but it would have been too difficult to see people that I was better then pass me out. I had to find my self confidence and self identity somewhere else.’
Now O’Sullivan is the clinical director of Brooklyn’s mental health court. The court helps defendants with serious and persistent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These people would usually would be sent to prison, the court helps them get long term treatment as an alternative. ‘Prison is a big industry and it can be over used. In the 1960’s there was a big movement to take mentally ill people out of institutions and send them back into the community, the issue with that was they did not put enough resources aside. As a result homelessness and drug abuse took seed.’
As clichéd as it sounds this is O’Sullivan’s new fight, ‘it’s a fulfilling job. I believe in what we do. It’s so rewarding when you see someone get their life back together and succeed in a way that they never thought that they would succeed.’ The same could be said for O’Sullivan, she didn’t think that she would win so many boxing accolades when she signed up for the J1 visa in Dublin all those years ago. When pressed she admits that she is proud of herself and her achievements.
Liam examines her boxing trophies. O’Sullivan and her boyfriend look on smiling, she takes a sip of her coffee and says, ‘I feel really blessed right now.’