Tuesday 25 July 2017

Children of the revolution

Eamonn Sweeney

Eleven years ago, Kenneth Egan won his first national senior title. Joe Ward was six years old. But he was coming for Kenneth Egan.

Three years ago, Egan became a national hero. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that he virtually kick-started the remarkable surge which has seen Irish amateur boxing become the jewel in the national sporting crown. Egan's performances in Beijing set the tone for an Irish team performance which sent confidence coursing through the sport at all levels. Joe Ward was 14 when this happened. He hadn't lost a fight since he was 10. As he watched Egan's Olympic heroics, did he think that he would be the first Irish fighter to beat Egan since the Neilstown man was 18 years old? Hardly. Destiny was arranging a date between them all the same.

Two years ago, Ward won the world under 17 light-middleweight title, overwhelming the best that Russia and Cuba had to offer. As Egan coped with the pressures of sudden and unexpected fame and a drink problem, the kid was gaining on him. Last year Ward, just 16, won the world under 19 middleweight title. Light-middle, middle, the boy was growing. By the turn of this year he would be light-heavy, the same weight as Kenneth Egan.

Irish boxing is not short of wunderkinds but they'd never seen anything like their young double world champion. Like Ciara Mageean in athletics or Gráinne Murphy in swimming, Ward is a once in a lifetime talent, a phenomenon.

That's why there was so much anticipation on Friday night in the National Stadium as the old hand took on the young pretender. Yet it appeared unlikely that Ward would prevent Egan from winning a record 11th national title in a row. Egan was 1/5 with the bookies, Ward 3/1. For all his promise, Ward still seemed a child in comparison to one of the greatest amateur boxers this country has ever produced, a man with very real prospects of winning a medal next year in London, a man good enough last year to win a European bronze even while not at his best.

Yet, with remarkable candour and confidence for a teenager, Ward insisted all week that he could win this one. And from the opening bell it was remarkable to see the younger man setting the pace, bullying Egan physically and showing absolutely no respect for the reputation of his illustrious opponent. Perhaps the most powerfully built boxer on show, Ward fights with a single-minded intensity which threw Egan off his stride. The Moate man was showing that he could win. Whether he would win remained to be seen. A warning against Egan for dropping the head cost the champion two points and left the scores 4-4 going into the final round.

And what a final round. When Ward put Egan down with a terrific left hook, the Stadium erupted. It was a noise which contained a degree of wonder, an amount of amazement and above all a realisation that this was one of those magical moments in sport when history was being made. The momentum had shifted, the torch was being passed and Joe Ward, visibly growing in confidence now, was coming into his kingdom. His followers, the most passionate of the night, were jumping up and down in the aisles and throwing every punch with Joe, as though they were not so much supporting their man as controlling him on Nintendo Wii.

Long before the bell went and the referee raised Ward's hand, it was obvious that we had witnessed something very special. Because we will be looking at Joe Ward for a long time, not just as an amateur but I suspect as a major figure in pro boxing too. That's how good he is. He can punch, he can box, he can move, he has great defence and, the real mark of a great one in any sport, he can think.

Egan brought the experience of over a decade at the top level into the ring with him. It should have made a difference. But it didn't because Ward fights with the wisdom of a much older man. Chances are that those of us who were in the Stadium two nights ago will be telling our grandkids about the night we saw Joe Ward make the breakthrough. He can go as far in this game as he wants to.

Yet, remarkably, Ward wasn't the only 17-year-old to win on Friday night. Lightweight Michael McDonagh, from the St Mary's club in Tallaght, raised a few eyebrows at the recent national under 19 championships when he handed Dylan Carr of Ryston, himself one of the country's most promising youngsters, a 13-0 defeat in the semi-final. Yet, even after that, he went into his senior semi-final bout with European bronze medallist Eric Donovan as a massive outsider. McDonagh shocked everyone by eking out a victory on count-back.

All the same he was an even greater long shot against David Oliver Joyce, reigning EU champion and a boxer who would have ambitions of not just making it to London but of medalling there. And all looked to be going to plan when Joyce built up a first-round lead. It seemed a bridge too far for McDonagh even if the youngster's remarkably slick moves and quick hands caught the eye.

In round two, however, the Dubliner moved inside and started to take the fight to Joyce. Going into the final round the outsider led 5-4 and the Stadium once more buzzed with the anticipation of an upset. And in that last three minutes McDonagh, growing bolder by the second, was going toe to toe with a visibly rattled Joyce. Trailing 6-5, the Athy man floored his opponent with a low blow and was disqualified. The decision made little difference as the fight was obviously going McDonagh's way by this stage. Another young star had been born, another big gun spiked.

Ward and McDonagh's victories tell a fascinating story about the condition of Irish amateur boxing. The successes of the post-Beijing era have led to the notion that the current crop of national champions are part of a golden generation. But while the rest of the sporting world marvels at the feats of boxers like Egan, Donovan and Joyce, there is a group of youngsters coming up who see those guys not as heroes but as targets. The feats of their elders have given these kids the confidence to take on the world but instead of gratitude there is a hunger for emulation. They want it all and they want it now.

Consider this. Of the five European medallists who graced so many sports reviews of the year, only two (Darren O'Neill and Paddy Barnes) managed to retain their national titles. Three of the seven boxers on the Sports Council's maximum Podium funding of €40,000 (Egan, Donovan and John Joe Joyce), were defeated in the championships, as was David Oliver Joyce, who is on €20,000 World Class funding.

Yet this doesn't reflect badly on the funding system: all these men are excellent fighters with top-class international records. Rather it shows that in Irish boxing nobody can rest on their laurels. The welterweight division, where an EU champion Roy Sheehan, a Commonwealth Games champion Paddy Gallagher, a European medallist John Joe Joyce and a world championship quarter-finalist Willie McLoughlin couldn't even make the final which was won by an enormously impressive outsider, the rangy Adam Nolan of Bray -- with Katie Taylor's father Peter in his corner -- is perhaps the clearest illustration of just how deep the pool of talent currently is.

In defeat, Egan acknowledged that Ward's victory means that the youngster will represent Ireland in the world championships in Azerbaijan in September. This idea of the nationals functioning as an automatic qualifier for the worlds was also echoed by the championship sponsors in the programme and by a senior IABA official I spoke to during the week.

However, there is also a possibility that there might be a further series of 'box-offs' to decide who goes to Baku. If so, this might well be seen as resulting from the idea that the 'right boxers' didn't win at the nationals. It would be a retrograde step by the IABA. The national champions deserve to go to the worlds. After all, last time round, our first two qualifiers for the Olympics were the unfancied Paddy Barnes and John Joe Nevin, who'd only had a handful of senior bouts at the time. Those who proved themselves in the cauldron of the Stadium on finals night deserve first crack at Olympic qualification. This might be cruel for the likes of Egan, Donovan and the Joyces but it's only fair. Come the Olympics, when our boxers will carry our main medal hopes in London, the sport will be back in the limelight. But on Friday, as the boxers took their first steps on the rocky road to London, it was very much a family affair.

The Stadium, that wonderful, rackety old Stadium, remains one of the great venues of Irish sport. The phrase 'spiritual home' often gets bandied about in relation to sporting venues but you can't miss the deep, almost mystical, connection between the boxing fraternity and the old arena. At moments of maximum excitement, when Ward was going for broke in the third, when Ross Hickey was beating Philip Sutcliffe in an all-out war at light-welterweight and when Crumlin teenager Evan Metcalfe was bravely but vainly carrying the fight to Barnes in the light-flyweight decider, the joint rumbled and rocked and even the walls seemed to be sweating.

Yet generally the atmosphere is one of quiet connoisseurship, as though the ring is the venue for a form of working-class theatre. The air rings with shouts of detailed instruction and there is the undeniable sense that the crowd know what they're on about.

The woman who fought every second as Belfast's Cathal McMonagle won his super-heavyweight bout with Athlone's Kenneth Okungbowa and then turned to me with a grin to say, "I'm sorry but Cathal is my wee cousin," was typical. On finals night the crowd don't just support their favourites, they are implicated in their fortunes, good and bad. Few other sporting events transmit the same feeling of mutual affection between spectators and competitors. This is a community.

The applause which greeted Katie Taylor as she took to the ring to receive her national title after a walkover would have warmed the heart of the most grizzled cynic. These people, more than anyone else, know what Katie is worth. Trophy bagged, she went back to her seat and watched the fights, not just a champ but a fan as well. They're not flash these fighters; you can't help being struck by the low-key way in which they greet victory, the discipline and sportsmanship which means their first thought at the moment of triumph is to seek out and commiserate with the loser. There's a lot of nobility packed into that small square.

For now, the present as well as the future belongs to the likes of Joe Ward, Michael McDonagh and 19-year-old flyweight champ from Belfast Michael Conlan, as well as the proven world-class performers like John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes, Con Sheehan and Darren O'Neill, who all had to battle hard before turning back hugely promising opposition on Friday night. But, in gyms all over Ireland, there are hungry kids who looked at the finals and saw not the trophies in those champions' hands but the target painted on their chests.

That's why Irish amateur boxing, pound for pound, is the best in Europe. London here we come.

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