Caoimhin Agyarko: “I was hurt, I was angry, I obviously didn’t know who had stabbed me.”
By Oliver McManus
Three years ago a visit to McDonald’s saw life change in an instant for Caoimhin Agyarko. The promising Holy Trinity fighter had been set upon by a group of men in the wee hours of the morning. Stabbed and ‘lucky to be alive’, Agyarko spent time in Ulster Hospital but carries the scars to this day.
Now fighting out of iBox, in London, and promoted by Frank Warren, it has been a remarkable return to doing what he does best. At 23 years old, Agyarko is keen to put his story on the record and began by explaining his motivations for speaking out.
“When I got stabbed I struggled with mental health issues and I do obviously still struggle with them now so it’s something I’m very keen to talk about. There are a lot of young people in my community taking their own lives because they don’t feel as though there is help out there. I experienced it two, three years ago when I got stabbed and realised how hard it is to manage those issues on your own.”
Those feelings have had time to develop since that horrifying act of violence and, as a 20 year old man at the time, it was inevitable that Agyarko would struggle to reconcile with those thoughts. He reflected on his early emotions and insisted that, whilst they still exist in the background, time has helped him to regain that sense of control:
“I was hurt, I was angry, I obviously didn’t know who had stabbed me so as a young man with a lot of pride that chipped away at me. Those emotions are still there but I’ve learned to deal with the anger side of things and understanding that I’m not going to know who it was but obviously it hurts how things panned out in the aftermath with the justice system and everything put together.”
And a large part of that resumed “normality,” though you’d be hard pressed to call it that under the present circumstances, and routine was his love for boxing.
To be able to lean on the sport when he needed it the most has surrounded the amateur standout with structure and support. In the immediate aftermath his initial eagerness did cause him a couple of issues, as he discussed.
“In terms of getting stabbed I was meant to take three months off boxing but I was back after six, seven weeks and then I had to pull myself back because, obviously, that was far too early. I would get terrible headaches from where I was just so eager to train again. That is when you start to think about what affects it could have long term. Boxing has kept me on a steady path though, because I don’t know what I would have done without it: I was a young man who really wanted revenge after what happened.”
Of course that hinterland of boxing as a means to personal development is one that many fighters recall. Not every change in circumstance is as sudden and unaccountable as that of Caoimhin Agyarko and, because of that, it does present unique challenges for the middleweight on a daily basis.
Despite boxing, and the iBox Gym, being a safe haven away from the comforts of Belfast his free time can often cause Agyarko’s brain to revisit territory he’d rather leave in the past.
“100% it hurts more when I’ve got that time to think and I find my mind going back to those thoughts. Whenever I’m back in camp and I’ve got so much time, between sessions, to sit and just ponder things I do find that that is when I struggle the most. Whenever I’m home I’ve got family around me that can support me, can keep me busy and it’s a lot easier to drift away from what happened.”
The benefits of the sport are clear for all to see and Agyarko shouts loudly as to the importance of boxing in his continual recovery. Going back to those growing up in his hometown, and further afield, with a sense of loss and hopelessness, the 23 year old was keen to outline the advantages of spending time at the gym:
“Whenever I’m not having a good day I can go to the gym and release that energy and those built-up frustrations and it’s just something as simple as that. It channels those negative thoughts and that can really help keep kids off the street and give them that platform to live a healthier life but help them deal with whatever issues they may be facing.
“Going to the gym and being part of that atmosphere adds self-worth”, he continued, “and for those two hours of training you’re not thinking about anything else other than just developing your skills. You’re completely focussed on boxing alone and it can be a good escape: it’s really easy to set yourself goals that you can physically work towards, as well.”
Less than a year and a half after getting stabbed the former WSB fighter was making his professional debut at the Brentwood Centre. That in itself was testament to just how far the youngster had progressed: but his goals remain as ambitious as ever, there’s no wallowing or lowering of expectations for the fighter known as Black Thunder. Over the course of 2019 Agyarko racked up four wins and took his record to 6-0. All going to plan, thus far.
“I think 2019 was a good year for me because I’d moved over to England and it felt like a new chapter of my career. I was really looking forward to it and I feel like more people began to talk about me and notice me so, for six fights in, it’s not been a bad start. Ulster Hall, for atmosphere and opponent, was the perfect night: an unreal atmosphere and unbelievable to fight in front of a home crowd. I’d rather fight someone like Paul (Allison) everyday because I know he’s going to have the bit between his teeth and really make me think.”
With each win in the paid ranks the Irish Senior champion returns to that confidence that flowed in abundance as an amatuer. He explained that, despite his considerable success as an amateur, internal questioning still remained.
“I’m getting more confident with each fight and I feel as though I’m learning more about the pro game with each camp. Even just when I got that first knockout, I’d been questioning whether I could carry the power into the pro game, and it was a nice confidence boost at the time. We go through the camps at iBox and the spars are getting better, my conditioning is feeling better.”
That confidence and growth rubs off on his approach to everyday life and it was noticeable how keen Agyarko was to continually return to the people around him. To the communities he knew he could have an impact on and to the stories of substance abuse and health issues that are all too common in the media today.
“Right now there are a lot of people taking drugs and taking their own lives and obviously, as a kid, you don’t tend to notice that sort of thing but the last few years it’s become more and more apparent. Especially with social media these days you’re seeing the fake lives, the best bits and the manufactured highlights, which everyone is chasing after and it can be impossible, almost, to be happy when that’s all around us.”
There is no sense of 21st century filtering from Agyarko: he is painfully honest about the ups and downs he has faced in his experiences with mental health. There are no cliches because he is aware that some days will be worse than others and that is the harsh reality of living with personal demons. What Agyarko does, though, is air those thoughts and give them a voice outside of his own head: letting them breathe with a refreshing honesty to himself and to those around him.
That’s why he is so determined to be heard because, from his experience, getting those struggles voiced is the most powerful start to recovery.
“I didn’t talk to anyone about my problems, I was very much keeping it to myself, and a lot of men, particularly, find it hard to open up about their problems. I remember the first time I spoke about how I was feeling it honestly just was the biggest weight off my shoulders: you never realise how much talking about it genuinely helps before you actually do it. It doesn’t seem like much but, for a first step, it’s powerful.”
“It’s something that I think I’ve found my voice in because I’ve realised how bad things can be. It does make me want to use my position in my community to kind of put my story out there. I’d hope people might see me as a professional boxer, and all the stereotypes around being a boxer, and realise that if it can affect me it can affect anyone but you can get through the other side.”