Ithaca, N.Y. — Slivers of green peek from behind stale piles of snow. It’s a windy afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day in Ithaca, as Patrick O’Connor pulls up at Lowe’s to shop for a stove with his family. Later, it will be time for Guinness and dinner with loved ones.
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With olive skin and a sturdy, muscular frame, O’Connor is no ordinary 61-year-old. The owner of the local Black Irish Athletic Club trains boxing great UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones. He has also trained Middleweight Willie Monroe Jr., from Rochester, who has a 19-1 record and six knockouts.
But he stresses that his athletic club, launched in November 2014, is not exclusive.
“I train just people from doctors to lawyers to housewives to everything,” O’Connor said.
Located at 241 Cherry Street, the athletic club is named after O’Connor’s “black Irish” father. The term describes people of Irish origin who have dark features, black hair and a dark complexion. (Former professional boxer Muhammad Ali is one of the most well-known black Irishmen.)
O’Connor said he was inspired by the bravery his father showed in coming to the United States.
“At 31 years old, trying to change your life, going to a completely different country — you couldn’t even make change because you didn’t realize what a dollar and five dollars looked like,” he said.
O’Connor recalls having friends over at his house who would remark that his father spoke funny.
“I never thought he talked funny because he talked in Irish brogue,” he said.
O’Connor met the world-renowned Jones in Ithaca. Monroe Jr. was having lunch with friends at Wegmans and discussing his trainer. A 20-year-old Jones, who was unknown at the time, overheard and inquired.
“The next thing I know, Willie is bringing him to my gym at 5 o’ clock in the morning,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said he saw potential in Jones from the beginning. He recalls not being able to walk into restaurants with Jones without drawing crowds to the table. O’Connor added one of the most important lessons he has learnt through training the UFC champion was that athletes have the same needs.
O’Connor still trains Jones sporadically, but the Black Irish Athletic Club is his main focus.
The club offers personal training, BoxFit training and small group training.
“We do one thing: we train people,” he said. “We don’t have an open gym where you can come and take a sauna or take a yoga class.”
Born and raised in Ithaca, a chubby, teenage O’Connor tried for his high school wrestling team.
“I did make the team, but I wouldn’t cut my hair so they wouldn’t allow me on the team…Then I got into Karate; for Karate, you didn’t have to cut your hair,” he said.
Later, O’Connor found boxing. He has also owned several businesses in Ithaca, including taverns, restaurants and art galleries.
It was when he was running one such gallery that he met Mary O’Connor. Four years ago, there was just a street between the two of them while she worked at a salon at 114 North Cayuga and he had a gallery at 114 South Cayuga. O’Connor crossed the street, asked Mary to coffee; the two were soon married.
“One of the more important reasons that I fell in love with him was that I saw what a mentor he was to young men,” Mary O’Connor said. “They just looked up to him and he had a gift to just be a really excellent role model in their life. I fell in love with him when that happened with my son.”
O’Connor has both admiring mentees and faithful clients, said Joey Durgin, 28, who co-owns the Black Irish Athletic Club.
“I aspire to be as wise and to have the same backing from all my clientele,” he said. “What I have noticed is that Patrick has really faithful clients that will follow him regardless of where he trains.”
One such client is Thu Lin, a sophomore at Tompkins Cortland Community College. He trains with O’Connor at 5:30 a.m. five days a week. Lin planned and paid for his spring break this month, but eventually decided to stay in Ithaca and train.
“[O’Connor’s training] has me really focused on my life and keeps me sharp,” Lin said.
O’Connor himself has no role models. Instead he chooses to focus on what is within.
“I have always been a driven person and I really haven’t needed anybody to drive me to be what I want to be,” he said.
O’Connor said he is looking forward to see former trainee Monroe Jr. compete in the May 16 middleweight championship on HBO. The business savant also said he plans to open another training facility in Ithaca.