THE KING of the Kilkenny kickboxing scene was treated to a royal celebration in honour of his success on the global stage.
Fresh from winning a world title, the red carpet was laid out for Vinny Di Ruscio, who was guest of honour at a special bash thrown at the James Stephens army barracks.
Di Ruscio, a soldier based in the city, became kickboxing’s middleweight champion of the world when he beat English fighter Fran Zuccala in front of a frenzied crowd at the O’Loughlin Gaels centre recently.
“Winning the title was a dream come true for me,” Di Ruscio beamed. “I’ve trained all my life for this. I won Irish titles, turned semi-pro and won European titles and pro-amateur world titles, but this is the pinnacle of my career.”
Di Ruscio combined a gruelling training schedule with his day job in the Defence Forces. It was tough at times, he admitted - a typical day started at 6am with sprintwork on the treadmill and light bagwork to loosen up and ended at 10pm after a lengthy and intense training session - but, holding on to the champions’ belt, he felt it was all worth it.
It wasn’t just the training that was regimented - Di Ruscio also had to adhere to a strict dietary schedule.
“After my first training session I have a green milkshake (half a cucumber, half a pear, 100ml of wheatgrass and vitamin C tablets) to get energy and replenish the electrolytes in my body for the day ahead. After a shower it’s a breakfast of 30g of porridge - the measurement is that exact! - with a protein shake.”
A typical lunch for Di Ruscio could be scrambled eggs, soup or tuna, while dinner is chicken or fish with salad or sweet potato. After the evening training session, another protein shake.
“When you come home you’d be starving,” he said. “However, you can’t eat all those foods full of carbohydrates so my wife Emily would have an omelette made up for me.
“I had one every night for the 10 weeks I was training for the fight,” he added. “I never want to see another egg again!”
Winning the title was the final step in a long journey that began more than 20 years ago.
“I started kickboxing when I was eight,” Di Ruscio recalled. “I remember my family going for self-defence classes and I tagged along. After getting into the sport I quickly found a hunger for it; I knew I was good at it and as I picked it up I started winning fights. I didn’t play hurling or soccer in school so it was my number one thing. Some people play a number of sports, but I gave all my time to kickboxing.”
Having worked his way through the various competitions, the Kilkennyman finally got his chance to compete for a world title this Summer. However, it wasn’t just a case of turning up in the ring.
“The fight was in the pipeline for a while, but it takes a lot of work to organise one of these events,” he said. “To host a professional fight costs money. You have to pay the fighters, look after their flights and accommodation and then try and raise sponsorship. That’s the hardest thing - preparing for the tournament is where the real work is.”
There was a huge bonus after the work - the fight was in his own back yard.
“Having it in Kilkenny was incredible,” he said. “The crowd in O’Loughlin’s were amazing that night, just brilliant - I don’t think they ever stopped cheering. Having that behind me kept me going.”
After a tough 12-round bout, Di Ruscio was declared winner by the three judges. The hard work had paid off.
“I got a bit emotional at the end,” he said. “The stress in the build-up meant that I had to win this fight; I couldn’t lose it. This had to be it - I didn’t know if I’d ever get such a chance again. That’s what pushed me on.”
The champion has plans to defend his title, but admitted that it will be early 2013 before he steps into ring again.
“I’ll attract more fights now that I’m a world champion,” he said. “I have Army courses to complete in the next few months first though, so I’ll hold off until early next year for fights.”
Kickboxing may be a lonely sport, but the champion was quick to praise everyone who helped him get to the top.
“I also train O’Loughlin’s, as well as doing sports rubs and physio from home. Trying to train on top of that is a real juggling act, but I couldn’t do it all without the support of family, friends, coaches and work-mates,” he said. “I know when you’re in the ring it’s just you, but outside that it’s all these people who have helped make this happen.”
Di Ruscio was one of two Kilkenny kickboxing champions who were proudly showing off title belts in the barracks. Joining him was teenager Connor Doyle, who fought on the undercard of the Di Ruscio bout, beating Spaniard Luis Antonio Vega Sanchez to capture the ISKA amateur European title.
“It was a big step-up and a huge achievement to win a European title,” he said. “Now I want to carry on, to see how far I can get in the sport.”
Much like Di Ruscio, Doyle was full of praise for the fans in what was his first fight on home turf.
“I had never fought in Kilkenny before,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to describe the atmosphere. The crowd were cheering me on and singing songs about me - I thought the place was going to collapse! They were making so much noise, banging on the railings and shouting so much. I think it was because of the crowd that I did so well. They really spurred me on.”
Going up against an unknown fighter, the teenager adopted a careful strategy.
“I went out in the first round to suss him out, to see what his (Sanchez’s) plan was,” he said. “I was a bit wary of going in after him, but I caught him with a left hook and he fell. After that I had no fear. He was awkward to fight, so I didn’t go toe to toe, preferring to pick off my shots and get out again.”
The tactic clearly worked. Like Di Ruscio, Doyle ended the night by getting his hands on a belt.
“Having trained so hard it was well worth it,” he said. “All the sacrifices have been worth it, but I want more. I’m not sure when my next fight will be - I have my Leaving Cert now, so it might be next year before I get back in the ring, but hopefully I can win a world title soon.”
The two champions were praised by a stalwart of their sport, who was on hand to shine the spotlight on local fighters.
“Kilkenny has always been a great spot for kickboxing - the county has had some great fighters going back over the last 20 years,” said Paddy Toland, president of the ISKA (International Sport Kickboxing Association). “People like Vinny should have been fighting for world titles years ago - having an Irish president of the ISKA means our fighters can get the title shots they deserve.
“My job as president is to try and recognise the talent that’s in Kilkenny and to get them the fights - not just here but all over the world - to showcase their skills and represent their country,” he added. “That’s the plan, to get them on the world stage and help bring the sport to another level.”