Boxing: Quigley earns place among golden generation
Youngster joins Nevin on podium as 'medal factory' rolls out gold, writes John O'Brien
IT hardly seemed fair but a considerable weight sat on the young shoulders of Finn Valley fighter, Jason Quigley, as he took to the ring in Minsk yesterday for his European middleweight final against Bogdan Juratoni, the No 2 seed from Romania. By then the Irish team had John Joe Nevin's bantamweight gold in the bag but, from four finalists, a single gold would have been regarded as slim enough pickings. Only Quigley could improve the harvest.
It took three rounds and nine gruelling minutes before the verdict fell his way and the greatest fairytale story of these championships was complete. Quigley never reached the heights of his thrilling semi-final defeat of Ukrainian Ievgen Khytrov, the reigning world champion, on Friday and required a split decision to prevail for the first time all week. Given what was at stake, however, and his chronic inexperience, that was entirely understandable.
Quigley arrived in Belarus an unknown quantity at this level. When he pipped Darren O'Neill at the national finals in February, it was regarded as the shock of the tournament. Yet, at the team's warm-up camp in Kiev, Quigley had sparred the Ukrainian light-heavyweight and acquitted himself superbly. Before yesterday he had won his previous 25 senior bouts and the confidence that instilled help nudge him over the line against Juratoni. But, boy, was it a hard-earned gold.
"I've been through a hell of a week," a breathless Quigley explained afterwards. "I boxed the No 1 yesterday, the No 4 before that and the No 2 today. I got nothing easy in the draw. But I was thankful for that. The plan was to beat the best. Avoid nobody. Just take them all out of it."
Quigley knew winning the first round was crucial and he expended considerable energy in the process. Juratoni imposed his physical superiority in the second and, entering the final round, Quigley knew he was in a dogfight. "No matter who you're in with," he said, "you know these boys are going to give it hell for leather. And that's what I had to do at the end. I knew he'd nicked the second. And the last was close. It could have gone either way."
As he tired in the third, Quigley's accuracy noticeably diminished and the cries of Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia from the corner grew more frantic as the seconds ticked down. At the death Quigley unleashed a flurry of punches and caught Juratoni with a lunging right and that, perhaps, proved the difference. "As I said all along," Quigley explained. "Nobody wanted it more than me and the judges seen that."
Up to that point, it had been a mixed day for Walsh's team. Paddy Barnes had learned the night before that the nose he had broken during his first fight against John Williams would preclude him from his gold medal flyweight bout on medical grounds. "I would have fought on," a devastated Barnes said yesterday. "But it was the right decision. I can't afford to damage it further."
It would have upset him further to see his friend Michael Conlan fall to Welshman Andrew Selby in the 52kg final. Conlan had twice unsuccessfully faced Selby at major tournaments before and for all his desire for revenge yesterday, it was clear that Selby, a terrific boxer, remains that bit too strong for the Belfast fighter.
"No complaints," was Conlan's reaction. "I felt good. I was up for it, but it just wasn't my day. He's the world No 1 so I knew it would be tough. I could've done more, but I'm happy with my week."
Nevin, by contrast, is regarded as one of the best amateurs in the business on a pound-for-pound basis and it would have been a shock if he had failed to cope with the power of Ukraine's Mykola Butsenko in the bantamweight final. Butsenko is a powerful fighter, but Nevin was far too nimble and evasive to present a plausible target. Nevin comfortably claimed the first two rounds and coasted through the third and it will probably annoy him that he ended up losing it.
It took nothing from the scale of his achievement, though, and atoned somewhat for his defeat in the Olympic final last year. "Feels good," Nevin said, on being declared European champion. "I've the whole collection now. Gold, silver, bronze. I'm happy. My first gold at a major championship. Delighted. I was five to two on with the bookies, but odds mean nothing. Anyone can over-ride the script. I just go in there and perform to my best. On the day it was good enough."
With it, Nevin scooped the best boxer of the week award and, this evening, a hugely decorated team will land in Dublin Airport having cemented its status as the highest-achieving Irish team on the international stage. Consider too the freak knee injury that befell Joe Ward, the fact that Tommy McCarthy and Sean McComb lost to eventual silver and gold medallists respectively and there are rich signs that the Irish "medal factory" might not yet have reached peak production.
In terms of medals, it didn't match the five won in Moscow in 2010 and, in scale, it couldn't compete with the four Olympic medals clinched in London last year, yet Minsk 2013 still represented a landmark achievement for Irish boxing's high-performance set-up, 10 years old this year, consolidating Ireland as the second best team in Europe, behind Russia, and evidence, if anyone needed it, that the hunger remains to keep extending the boundaries.
"It's a testament to the team we have around us," Walsh reflected afterwards. "John Cleary, Siobhán Madigan, Johnson McEvoy. They have these guys superbly conditioned. And without funding from the Sports Council none of it could happen. The IABA deserve credit too, the coaches and clubs who bring these lads up as kids and hand them over to us to put the finishing touches into making them world and European champions."
And none of it likely to end any time soon.