independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Stars' talk of turning pro should set IABA alarm bells ringing

New CEO Carruth has tough decisions ahead to match world-class ambitions of Irish elite

Paddy Barnes celebrates victory in his last 16 bout at the World Championships in Almaty in October

Paddy Barnes took to his favourite medium, Twitter, this week to deny stories he was turning professional. He didn't entirely rule the possibility out of hand, just sought to clarify that -- as of now -- no great change in his boxing status was imminent.

The stories had arisen from an RTE interview in which Paddy articulated frustration at finding himself, a double Olympic medallist, routinely boxing in front of pitifully threadbare audiences.

His friend, Carl Frampton -- a professional -- sells out the Odyssey in Barnes' hometown of Belfast these days. But Paddy? Well, he took to speaking of himself in the third person, reflecting that Frampton now fought in front of 9,000-strong attendances and "Paddy Barnes in front of a hundred."

Some months ago, Katie Taylor also mooted the possibility of a move to the professional ranks, though she -- too -- was communicating exasperation rather than intent.

The Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) did little to promote Taylor or the other Olympians when they returned as national heroes from the London Games and there has long been a palpable sense of disconnect between the remarkable work being done by the sport's High Performance Programme and the odd stasis of its governing body. Katie's inherent grace invariably directs her away from expressions of criticism, but she -- pointedly -- makes an exception when it comes to the IABA.

Quite apart from not having any coherent post-Olympic plan, the Association then chose to erect what bureaucratic barriers they could when a professional promoter, Brian Peters, stepped in to arrange fights for Taylor six months after her gold medal win.

Earlier this year, London silver medalist John Joe Nevin switched to the professional ranks, leaving Taylor unequivocal in her view as to the reason why.

SHOWCASE

"He's not turning pro for the money, because we are getting good money from the Sports Council," she told this column recently. "But when you turn pro, you know the shows are going to be run professionally, you're going to be boxing in packed stadiums and showcase your skills in front of a big crowd. I think that's the attraction to the professional game really."

Current European champion and world silver medallist Jason Quigley has indicated that he, too, might now be enticed in that direction given recent expressions of interest from the professional ranks.

Is there not a red light flashing, then, when, of our four Olympic boxing medallists from London, one has already been lost to the pro game and two others recently indicated that frustration with the IABA might make them follow suit? When, arguably, the best male amateur boxer in Ireland today might not even stick around long enough to try qualifying for Rio?

Last month, Fergal Carruth was appointed new CEO of the IABA. If a family's DNA counts for anything, this could prove an inspired, watershed appointment for boxing in this country. Fergal is brother of Olympic champion Michael, and -- of course -- son of the late, much-loved Aussie.

But his most pressing challenge now is a daunting one. Carruth must demand of the Association precisely the same world-class standards that Billy Walsh, Zaur Antia, Pete Taylor and Co have long been demanding of boxers on the High Performance programme.

Ireland, remarkably, finished fifth in boxing's medal table at the London Olympics. An internal review of High Performance after those Games identified the next target. It was to go from fifth to first. In other words, to be the best in the world.

That is how an authentic High Performance mindset works, but it cannot happen without appropriate investment and support. The IABA has, hitherto, leaned exclusively on Sports Council funding to bankroll that programme out of a gym on Dublin's South Circular Road that is in need of renovation. This cannot continue.

SPIRIT

Now surely is the time to proactively source added streams of funding to supplement that Sports Council money and begin building the state-of-the-art facilities Ireland's most successful Olympic sport should own.

Now is the time to build regional centres of excellence, manned by full-time coaches. Now is the time to take the spirit of that extraordinary academy in Dublin and make it boxing's broader culture, striving to be the best in the world.

This year alone, Irish boxing has plundered a staggering 43 medals from major international competition.

Yet, historically, there has been a philosophical gulf between amateur boxing's heroes and its governing body. The IABA, frankly, is seen in Irish sport as something of a dinosaur, thrashing wildly against modernity and progress.

In appointing Carruth at its head, the Association may have taken a step away from that caricature. But some tough decisions now need to follow.

Get those right and Irish boxing's already heavy debt to the Carruth family will become incalculable.

Rodgers proving to be real deal at Anfield

SO Liverpool look to celebrate Luis Suarez's new deal by moving top of the Premier League today.

What can possibly go wrong? There is such a positive vibe around Anfield just now, it is surely time for those of us who doubted Brendan Rodgers after that cringe-inducing 'Being Liverpool' TV series last year to recognise the remarkable transformation he has brought to the club.

Liverpool under Rodgers look like they can become a genuine force again. Get through the next three games unbeaten and they might even have to be considered title contenders.

Just months ago, the club stared down player-power and won. In doing so, Rodgers, John Henry and Co showed themselves to be the real deal.

Irish Independent

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