GERRY CREIGHTON knew how to handle lions and gorillas at a young age — so handling himself in a boxing ring was no big deal.
A second-generation zookeeper, Creighton grew up in Dublin’s north inner city but was always drawn towards the Phoenix Park.
The pull never left him, which is why he has no regrets over picking his career with animals over a potential shot at the Olympic Games in 1988 when he was at his boxing peak.
Creighton — who was All-Ireland Under-18 champ in 1986 — told The Rocky Road podcast: “I had boxed at senior level but it was a crossroads then for me.
“The zoo, you nearly worked every weekend at that age and it was hard to get time off.
“You needed money so it was a decision on how much I could do and how much I couldn’t do. I was doing so well in the zoo and getting great opportunities there.
“In the zoo you could have a sick animal born and then boxing training goes out the window for that night.
“And the commitment needed for me to be a full-time successful boxer, I just couldn’t give it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. My career was progressing, from a keeper, I became a team leader, then operations manager, and it was just taking up so much time.
“You’d go into the zoo in the morning and it was never a job where you could say you’d finish at 4.30pm, go home and put your feet up, have a cup of tea, and go to boxing.
“It was, ‘Gerry you’re needed here or there’ particularly in summer time. Eventually I had to say, ‘OK you need money for living’, and I put myself into the zoo.”
He spent 36 years at Dublin Zoo until he left in 2020 to set up Global Elephant Care.
His company took on a world first this year — preparing 13 elephants from zoos across the UK to be rewilded in Kenya.
And the role has Creighton flying all over the world every other week — from Dubai to Denver and everywhere in between.
Hanging up the gloves, and leaving Seoul in the rear-view, was a must to get to where he is now. He added: “I’d often look back and towards the end of it, my ability to do the training became diluted, and I’d say, ‘Jaysus if I was able to do the training for another year or two, I should have given it everything’.
“But now I can look back and say, ‘Look where I am now, I have an international recognition for the work I’m doing, my reputation is really good in zoos throughout the world for the work I’m trying to do’ , and I’m at the beginning of a new journey now.
“My consultancy role is already being embraced globally. I’ve people ringing me every day from all parts of the world saying, ‘We need you on board’.
“There’s a chance now to influence my son’s and my daughter’s future.
“Boxing played a huge part in forming the person I am today and how I view people, life, the confidence, discipline and opportunities it gave me.
“To have the choice at that stage of my life — I want to be a boxer or I want to be in the zoo — was actually very beneficial when I look back.
“I didn’t just drift on to the zoo because my old man did it.”
LIFE & SEOUL
Creighton may have left boxing, and Seoul, behind — but the sport is in his soul.
His son, Zac, is a promising young fighter while he remains close with several of his old coaches and team-mates — including one he bumped into while on one of his trips away.
He recalled: “I’m in a bar in Colorado about three or four years ago. I’m over there at a workshop about elephants. I’m looking at this fella down the bar and he’s looking at me.
“And he says, ‘Gerry Creighton!’ and I say, ‘Jaysus, Billy Walsh!’ So Billy comes running up the bar to me, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I knew he was over there with the American team. A good few years ago they had a thing called the Boxing World Cup — and Billy boxed for Ireland in India.
“Myself and a really good middleweight at the time, Dennis Galvin from Moate, were brought down as Billy’s sparring partners. We stayed in Wexford town at the B&B for a couple of weeks.
“Nicholas Cruz was running us hard every morning, by Jesus it was tough. We’d run the beach at Curracloe and then be sparring with Billy, putting him through his paces, and man he could hit.
“Nicholas used to torment us but Dennis Galvin was a bit of a messer. We were saying, ‘He’s killing us, we need to get at least one day off, how are we going to do it?’
“They used to give us laxatives to try get your system all moving and everything, and we broke up about three or four laxatives and put them in Nicholas Cruz’s breakfast.
“By 11am that morning training was called off and we were all winking at each other, myself, Billy and Dennis Galvin!
“We managed to get a day off training. Nicholas was great, ‘It’s OK boys, you take a little bit of a rest’ — and Nicholas was never too far from the toilet.
“He’ll probably kill me now if he sees me again but that is a true story.
“I was talking with Billy in Colorado, ‘What are you doing over here Gerry?’ I said, ‘I’m at a workshop talking about elephants and their welfare, how we can improve it, and how things can change’.
“And I said, ‘You’re never going to guess what’s going to happen now — tomorrow you’re going to talk at it because the talk you give on high performance and motivation would be brilliant’.
“All of a sudden the very next day, Billy is up in the Denver Zoo, the Cheyenne Mountains, 7000m up, and he’s looking at me saying, ‘Creighton, how am I here talking to a room full of elephant people?’
“He was absolutely brilliant. They loved it because Billy’s a great communicator.
“He talked about his own career, high performance and motivation, and even the elephant people who were there from all over the US were saying, ‘Jaysus Gerry, this guy is great’ and it was a wonderful talk, but plucked out of nowhere .
“The great thing with boxing is the people and you don’t have to see them for a few years but when you do, nothing else matters, let’s sit down, have a beer and a chat.”
BEST OF THE BEST
He boxes out of Corinthians in Dublin, Harrington’s first club, while Gerry started out with Avona before moving to Phoenix Boxing Club – right beside the zoo.
Creighton added: “I can see it in my own son, the confidence a 10- or 11-year-old can get in boxing, how he carries himself, how he behaves or reacts to situations.
“He’s been boxing since he’s three or four now and you can see what it does for him in terms of the confidence.
“I think any year or any month or any day spent in a boxing club is never wasted.
“Tough days too! There were times when there’d be 20 of us in the back of a Hiace van going up to Belfast for a boxing match. We’d go into areas where it just transcended the political divide — like up the Shankill Road.
“I remember going up to one club up there and the whole place was boarded up. You were knocking on the door to go in but in there, the atmosphere, how we were treated and how it was able to break down the barriers was something else.
“Boxing is a unique form of communication.”
But he knows he grew up in a different world, too, and in 1970s Dublin you had to protect yourself.
In Creighton’s case, ‘It was great but I was always in the middle of the fights in a good sense. I always went after the bullies and protected the kids they were after’.
He added: “I was only a young fella, 14 or 15, when I started in the zoo in the pets corner, and any of the squad training we used to do with the Irish team was in the Garda depot so I used to only have to walk out the back gate of the zoo and walk over to do our training. It was a wonderful childhood and you were kind of always the center of attention. I brought lion cubs into school to show them what’s happening in the Creighton house today.
“It was such a positive thing to be growing up with. Animals are good for you and they’re good for you at that age — physically and psychologically because you learn sentiment and emotion that is not good normally for boys to do at that age.
“The more I think back . . . I love when kids get involved with animals and love them, and would always encourage people to get them involved.
“For young people, it’s easier for them to love an animal than it is to love a person at that age — or express it.
“A dog will always wait at the door for you, 365 days a year, very uncomplicated. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an Armani suit or in the nude, you’re going to get the same response.
“I didn’t have a perfect childhood. I think back now and say, ‘Jaysus my ma and da 23 and 24 having me’, and I think back to when I was that age and say, ‘how did they ever cope?’
“What animals did for me is they allowed me that bit of emotional stability. It also gave you that responsibility because you wanted to see how they are, you wanted to go to the zoo next Saturday to see how the sick or the new animal was.
“There was always a draw towards positivity. Even now we have three snakes, three geckos — three of everything. I said to my daughter Mia one time, ‘Why do you always want three of everything?’
“And she says, ‘Da, if one of them dies, they’ll always have a friend’. Try answer that logic from a child — deal done.”