independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Nevin's golden days lie ahead

In Olympia, only those wearing gold side-step the ambush of regret.

The clock was hurtling towards midnight on Saturday by the time John Joe Nevin escaped the ExCel Arena, his talking done. Silver would feel better in the morning, he knew that. But, when you come up just a foot-fall from immortality, the human thing is to wonder. To wish you could rewind to morning. If John Joe had the day again would he come at it any differently?

Everything gets whitewashed by the last thing you do in an Olympic town. On Friday, Nevin set off so many fireworks in the Olympic ring, he could have burnt the whole place down. Billy Walsh reckoned he was favourite for the Val Barker trophy, denoting best boxer of the Games, after that exhibition of ring poetry against world champion Alvarez Estrada.

But the genie never came out of the bottle against Luke Campbell. Why? Maybe no reason. Only a fool breaks this stuff down into an engineer's shorthand. The USA judge scored Saturday night's second round 9-5 in John Joe's favour. The man from Belarus had it 6-4 to Campbell. Same fight, different eyes.

From where we sat, Campbell seemed to land the cleaner punches. He led 5-3 after the opening round and, in a contest of counter-punchers, that amounted to grim news. For John Joe likes to draw people on and pick them from distance so that they end up looking look like naturists in a mosquito swarm. Chasing the fight, it was John Joe who now needed a net.

He walked into trouble at the start of the second, but then rallied, roller-coasting back into the contest with combinations so clean, so perfect, they should have been scored for artistic impression. John Joe was deemed to have won the round 5-4: he had three minutes just to make up the tiniest deficit.

We could spin the lie that, in any other town, against any other nationality... but Campbell did more than John Joe in the third, even putting him down for a standing count. And the final minute became a frenzied reversion of all both men had been schooled in. Just two men swinging.

Both corners knew the verdict before they heard it. We all did.

For John Joe, it was time to unbuckle from the fairground ride. "If it's meant to be it's meant to be," he sighed later. "Look, coming out here, I'd have given my right arm for a bronze medal.

"A month ago, I was talking about not even coming, and now I'm going back with a silver. That means the world to me: I'm bringing a silver medal back to my country, to my home town and my boxing club and, especially, my family."

He has rediscovered something of himself this past fortnight that a lot of people feared was lost. The performance against Estrada will live long in the memory. To see a Cuban made look so clumsy by a man from the Irish midlands offered one of those eccentric moments in sport when you could believe that the issue of a genetic footprint is overstated.

And Nevin's silver is the first Olympic medal brought home to the Travelling community. In time, he will surely understand the scale of the peak just crossed.

For, two months ago, he was over-weight and under-confident. Of three fights Nevin fought at a four-nations tournament in Calais, two had to be against opponents outside the bantamweight division. He lost both and came home with his self-esteem in small pieces. Not for the first time, Walsh and Co slipped into crisis mode.

John Joe explained: "Since I won the bronze medal (at the World Championships) in September, I hadn't been performing well. I took a bit off before I went into the nationals. Even after that, I came down with an injury, fractured jaw in the World Series. I hadn't been performing well at all.

Tough

"So I approached Billy about a month before we left. I couldn't do it. I didn't feel up to it. And him and Zaur (Antia) just sat me down with Gerry Hussey, the psychologist. They got around me. Then we went into a tough training camp and I came out flying. I got my head right and it's moved on since then."

Moved on at the pace of a shooting star. Suddenly Nevin finds himself on the same pedestal as Kenny Egan. "Kenny was my god, so now maybe he doesn't have to be my god no more" he grinned. "No, I still look up to the likes of Kenny and he was talking to me before the fight and wishing me luck the whole way through on Twitter.

"Kenny is someone lads look up to and the likes of Barry McGuigan, Andy Lee. All these big names, going in to represent their country. I wanted to do the same thing. Of course I'm fighting for myself but it's for my country as well."

He said that his mother had the medal booked for "her little trophy press" and, jokingly, that he wasn't able for any more fights.

But Nevin now has a decision to make. The defeat of Estrada will have registered with tingles through the ranks of professional promoters and he must decide where his immediate future lies.

"I want to build a future for me and my son and, no matter what decision I make, it will be because of that," he told us. "I've beaten the world champion here and I think that was my best performance ever. So I won't be retiring, not yet anyway!"

Nor should he, not with silver around his neck, and the worries of the past herded safely over the horizon.

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