On September 14th 2009, Frank Maloney said what he had witnessed in Sutherland’s apartment would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Some deaths hit you. The type of death that you always remember where you were. I have had a few of those and the day Darren Sutherland died I was confused. It seemed to make no sense as to why a young boxer with such potential would choose to end his life.
It was the first time in my life I can recall a sportsman taking his own life. Sportsmen were superheroes in my eyes; the dream. The suicide of Sutherland rocked me, as I scrambled to confirm the news, showing me that sportsmen were not invincible.
Britain currently dominates the super-middleweight division. George Groves, James DeGale and Callum Smith were all highly decorated amateurs whilst John Ryder, Rocky Fielding and Chris Eubank Jr have excelled as professionals. Unfortunately, there is one name missing. Darren Sutherland was arguably the greatest prospect of all, another high-class amateur who looked like he had adjusted incredibly to the professional ranks. His dream was always to become the first black Irish World Champion. Dreams are hard to reach though and for some, the idea of missing that dream is world ending.
Born in Dublin to a West-Indian father and Irish mother, he would spend time as a child in England, Saint Vincent and Ireland. When he was seven his Mother called time on his boxing career after an exhibition bout left him with a nosebleed. It kept him away for eight years before he returned to St Brigid’s boxing gym.
Six months later, he headed to Brendan Ingle’s gym in Sheffield. He spent three years there but fell out of love with boxing. After his three years with Ingle, he returned to Ireland to study and resume boxing. Ireland was growing a strong cadre of fighters; he lost to John Duddy and Andy Lee in amateur finals. When boxing for the Irish national team, a freak injury almost cost Sutherland the sport when the thumb of Russian B squad member, Dannil Shved, fractured Sutherland's eye socket in two places. He required a plate in his eye, which he fretted would cause him to look cross-eyed. Looking at a life without boxing, he fell into depression.
Throughout his career he was referenced as someone who would be a better professional than an amateur. His punches were naturally heavy-handed; they all seemed to land with a real thud. Most of his work began with the jab, another punch he landed with real force.
Although he could box, he preferred to mix it up on the inside, Sutherland himself proclaimed,
“I’m just a nice lad who fancies a scrap now and again.”
He picked his shots well, with all the punches in his repertoire. His natural charisma and affable nature would surely have led to him being a popular figure. The big fights were clearly there to be set up, the James DeGale bout was an obvious headliner that would have made a lot of money in both Ireland and England.
Six months after the damage to his eye, Sutherland was told he could resume boxing, where he would return to familiar winning ways. He won three national titles, the final one in a riveting bout in 2008 against Darren O’Neil, captain of the 2012 Irish boxing team,
Sutherland battled the jeers of the crowd and when he was announced as the winner strutted around declaring he 'was the champion'. It was part of the charisma that made people so sure he would be a success at the professional level. He became the European Champion in 2007 thanks to 23-19 victory in the final over James DeGale. He would repeat the feat a year later, extending his winning margin to six points.
According to Billy Walsh, he had been unsure of joining the High-Performance Unit, but after an assessment he believed he could benefit from the improved level of training. He was different from his teammates, with an energy that wore them out. Billy Walsh also spoke of texting him every day whilst he was on the team, however the close relationship was not a guarantee at the professional level.
As an amateur, the main event is always the Olympics. After no medals for 16 years, thanks to Sutherland, the Irish boxing team was resurgent. A bye in the first round saw him make his way to a clash with Alegerian, Nabil Kessel. He was three points down in the opening minute, but his left hook began to land and after four standing counts the fight was stopped.
He then routed Alfonso Blanco in a patient manner that belied his naturally aggressive style. In the semi-final he would come up against James DeGale, his old British rival who he had won four out of five. DeGale would turn the tables, winning 10-3 before going on to win the gold medal. Billy Walsh believed he settled for the bronze. Sutherland was favourite heading into the fight and many were baffled when he chose to sit back and let DeGale fire off. This left Sutherland with a bronze, adding to the silver of Kenny Egan and the bronze of Paddy Barnes. Contrary to the frustration of Paddy Barnes, Sutherland had a booming smile on his face after winning bronze.
The Olympics had always been a stepping stone for him and he wanted to soak up the moment before moving onto his next goal.
The offers came in thick-and-fast after the Olympics, including offers from Frank Warren and David Haye's Hayemaker Promotions. He ended up signing with Frank Maloney, who claimed,
“From the minute I watched Darren in the Olympics he was the only fighter I wanted to sign.”
At his introductory press conference, the self-confidence Sutherland was clear as he proclaimed himself to be a future world champion, whilst Maloney encouraged him to take one step at a time. Maloney offered him a £75,000 signing-on fee along with a £100,000 yearly salary, rent allowance and a car. According to some reports Maloney re-mortgaged his home to make the signings of Sutherland and Tony Jeffries. He also had Sutherland living at his house until a place was sorted.
The first bout for Sutherland came up against the Bulgarian Georgi Iliev, whose only win had come in Ireland against Keith Cresham. Decked in ‘Irish’ green, he was accurate and Iliev was soon backtracking. A superb left hook around the minute mark had him wobbling and soon his jabs were forcefully sending Iliev back. The finish came at the end of the first round, with the referee jumping in after vicious punches began an attack to the body.
He described fighting in front of the raucous Irish crowd as his 'Christmas'. After Iliev he returned against Siarhei Navarka, a durable Belarusian who Gennady Golovkin had stopped in three rounds two years earlier. Sutherland dominated behind his strong jab, picking his shots well.
He returned a couple of months later, fighting Vepkhia Tchilaia who had taken James DeGale the distance before. Sutherland looked impressive, stopping him in four. Against Gennadiy Rasalev, the bout was stopped due to a nasty cut over the eye of the Ukrainian in the fourth round after some big right hands. Rasalev would do damage of his own, gashing Sutherland on his cheek in the second, re-opening a cut he suffered in training.
That cut would be the beginning of his descent. It had become infected and was a major concern for Sutherland who believed his career could be over. He had almost postponed two fights and was scheduled to fight on October 16th. Sutherland believed himself to be “damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
He expressed great concern about having to pay Frank £75,000 if he could not continue his career. A handwritten note was left in his flat by ‘adviser’ Declan Brennan and subsequently found next to his body claiming,
'£75,000 + VAT to Frank. Give car back. Give flat back. £100,000 a year in salary lost for the next two years. Frank will destroy you and your family in the media. They will hunt you down, take photographs of you and do articles about how you f----- up. He will destroy you for the rest of your life and he’ll be right, you were given a God-given talent. You think you feel bad now, you just have no idea how bad it’s going to get. I will help you if you help yourself. Declan, your pal.'
Immediately after the death, the family questioned it. Maloney said that the father of Darren Sutherland had called him that night “shouting and screaming at me, accusing me of things, about how he gave me his son's trust, how he trusted me with his son.” Maloney spoke about the soured relationship between him and the family and was not invited to the funeral.
The family ordered an inquest which saw a large number of people describe the circumstance of the death. Dr Natasha Haugh had seen the boxer three times and spoke of his low mood as well as the lack of a support network, which led to her prescribing sleeping tablets. A DS from Met Police said he believed Sutherland killed himself because of depression, loneliness and concerns about leaving the sport. Frank Maloney reported Darren’s psychologist Joe Dunbar had called him to show concerns over Darren, whilst his trainer Brian Lawrence reported he had been told by Darren that he did not want to box anymore.
On the other hand, his Mother described him as anxious but not suicidal. His Father spoke of conversations with Darren before his death where he described him as “feeling low” and “losing confidence in his boxing”, the hearing was told. “He said he wished he had given up boxing when he came back from the Olympics,” and was concerned about his training as he believed “Brian Lawrence was getting him to do things that would not benefit his boxing and had a bad attitude, towards Darren’s training.” The conclusion of the inquest saw an open verdict, with neither side pushing the verdict beyond reasonable doubt.
Missing a competitor, James DeGale has continued to pay respects to his Irish rival. Immediately he expressed his shock and sadness calling it a “tragedy” and describing his heart going to the floor when he heard. A year on he recalled believing it was a “sick joke,” and instantly researching what had happened. He described Sutherland as “just like me.” DeGale has had ‘DS’ on his shorts in every bout since his passing. He explained his tribute,
“We were rivals as amateurs, but we had a lot of respect for each other. When I'm going to be World champion, he is going to be World champion. We are going to lift this together. Maybe it is just his initials on my shorts, but we will do it together.”
The initials were there with him when he won his world title against Andre Dirrell, which he then dedicated to Darren Sutherland.
What happened to Darren Sutherland was a tragedy, one that in hindsight may be seen as avoidable. We will never know exactly what happened in the mind of Sutherland over those final few days. Frank Maloney described him as someone “so desperate to get to the top,” and perhaps that desperation got the better of him when that seemed like an impossible goal.
What many took as the main lesson from the death of Sutherland was the support mechanisms many boxers enjoy in the amateurs should be replicated to a greater extent in the professionals. As to whether that advice has been heeded, we will never know for sure but can only hope that we never have to talk about the suicide of another boxer.
Sutherland was immensely talented, not only as a boxer, but many also talk on his charming manner and intelligence. To lose him so young was a tragedy.