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Joy and pain for John Joe

Wearing his fringed tricolour poncho, John Joe Joyce bounded into the ring at the National Stadium on Friday night in his usual flamboyant style.

The man who boxes out of St Michael's Athy was clearly on a mission at the IABA's National Elite Finals. And it was never going to be about soft furnishings.

Joyce, who represented Ireland at the Beijing Olympics, had suffered a sensational defeat in last year's finals when he was stopped in the first round by a Philip Sutcliffe blitzkrieg.

This year he'd moved up a weight to 69kg. And as he hit the centre of the ring the one-time light-welterweight champion pawed the ground with his right foot like a bull preparing to charge a hapless matador. This routine has long been part of John Joe's pre-bell ritual. He makes the sign of the cross on the canvas with his boxing boot.

"I've always made the cross," he tells me later. "I'm superstitious. I'm not going to stop now."

As he slugged it out with Willie McLoughlin (Illies GG), it looked like John Joe might need all the help he could get. The first round ended 3-3. Both fighters kept a tight defence, guard up, elbows tucked in, making themselves a difficult target for the opposition.

Round two saw both boxers score another three points each. It was all square at 6-6 going into the third, and final, round. McLoughlin shook Joyce with a power shot but John Joe responded with a furious onslaught as both men went toe-to-toe. According to the five scoring judges, McLoughlin put on another three points to his tally. Joyce, however, added six and was declared the winner at 9-12. I've rarely seen a boxer so overjoyed at winning.

Clearly this title means a hell of a lot to John Joe Joyce.

"I wanted this more than the Olympics," he declares, struggling to contain his excitement. "When I qualified for the Olympics I didn't feel half as good as I feel right now. This is absolutely brilliant because last year I lost. And the way I lost. I don't know what happened. I had weight problems. I also had problems outside the ring and inside the ring. I was struggling to make the weight before the Championships and I didn't enjoy it."

His loss in last year's final was compounded by the jeers and taunts of a people who weren't true boxing supporters.

"It was a sickener," he says. "When I lost in the final last year there were a lot of people out there laughing at me but that just motivated me more. I just wanted to get back. Me and Dominic (O'Rourke, coach) got down to business and we trained hard.

"We knew it was going to be tough. Styles don't suit me. Three, three-minute rounds don't suit me. But what the heck. I'm through."

Another reason John Joe is ecstatic is because he wasn't sure he'd reach top form for the finals. "If someone told me three months ago I'd be in the Senior final, I'd have said, 'Maybe next year but not this year'," he reveals.


"But I got there. I trained hard and I had to believe that I could beat anyone on the day. I stuck it out. This tight guard stuff now, I don't like it but it's got to be done."

As the realisation of his victory begins to sink in, John Joe knows those he has to thank.

"I want to thank Dom (O'Rourke)," he says. "He got my tactics right and he worked me very hard in the last few weeks. We've got great sparring at the club."

To reach the final, John Joe beat club-mate Roy Sheahan 8-2 in the semi-final. "Roy has been brilliant," he enthuses. "We didn't go in there to beat one another but at the end of the day it had to be done. My father trained me hard as well."

"Last year was tough," he admits. "With the pressure of the Olympics and the Europeans behind you, it's very hard. We struggled but thanks be to God we got back on track. I took a break. My first break. I never took one for five years. I took a break because I lost and I felt a bit miserable. I motivated myself when Darren (Sutherland) passed away. God bless him, I got motivated from there. I wanted to do something with my life. I didn't want to go down like the rest of my cousins and say, 'Fair enough, I had a good run'. There's more in this young Joyce. I'm only 22. Please God I can go again."

In paying tribute to his late friend and Ireland team-mate, it's easy to see that John Joe is still grieving.

"I don't know how to describe it," he says. "It's very hard to talk about it, you know what I mean. With Darren passing away, I wanted to do something for him as well. I wanted to keep going."

Everyone involved in boxing in Ireland will always remember the day they heard the news that Darren Sutherland was dead. John Joe Joyce heard the news as he was going home from a training session in the boxing club.

"I was shocked," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I don't know what to say. I still can't talk about it. Darren was a brilliant friend of mine. And he helped me in the Olympics. I motivated myself to get something out of my life as well. I want his name to live on as well.

"Darren was a true champion. He'd have been a world champion. I don't know how to talk about it. I'm still sad. It had a big effect on me. Darren was my friend. I can't understand some of the things that have been said. Darren was never depressed."

Coach Dominic O'Rourke was pleased with John Joe's result.

"Johnny was really down last year," he recalls. "We pulled him out of a Four Nations tournament soon after that and sent him away for three months' rest. Then we brought him back in and talked to him about where we can go. We convinced him that he was still as good as he was because he took a lot of hassle here that night. There was a crowd who weren't boxing supporters having a go at him. That hurt him a lot as well. People were laughing at him. Fair play to Brian Kerr. He stepped in at the Ringside Club and put these guys out, saying: "Leave the young lad alone. He's traumatised enough without you (adding to it).

"We had a lot of work to do with Johnny but in fairness to him he gradually came back to himself," says the experienced O'Rourke.

"The break did him the world of good. The lead up to these Championships has been tremendous in the club (St Michael's Athy) with all these lads sparring and we got a couple of contests in as well. We were fairly confident coming here. We entered five.


"Johnny was devastated here last week after beating his club-mate Roy Sheahan," continues Dominic. "I explained to him this is what the draw throws up. One of you can go on and win the title. Roy is down a bit now but he will be back better than ever again for next year. We're really building now again for next year after tonight.

"They talk about psychology but the best psychologist in the world is your own coach," says Dominic. "When these lads lose everybody is against them. We, as a club, try to explain to them that it's not the end of the world. We have a good team around us. We sit down and talk to these lads and build them back up gradually. That's what it's about."

The European Championships are being held this year. But O'Rourke cautions, "Next year is the most important year because you'll be hitting the World Championship and this is where you'll qualify for the Olympic Games. So that's important. Hopefully we'll have our boxers right at the right time."

In the aftermath of the final, Joyce re-lives a torrid bout. "I was out on my feet," he admits. "There were times in the fight when I thought, 'Aw, let it go'. But I wasn't letting it go. Willie (McLoughlin) is very strong. And he's very good.

"He's hard to beat because he's got a very tight guard. I knew I had to get in close to him and try opening him and counter-attacking when he throws punches. This is a better feeling than the Olympics but I was only young at the Olympics and I hadn't a great Games.

"But when you've had a bad year like I've had then you start to appreciate things more. I've come to 16 Irish finals at this stage and I've won 15. This is my 15th Irish title and it's probably the best one of all. It's good to be back."

Despite having defeated Tetyana Ivashchenko from Ukraine 10-2 on Friday, Katie Taylor was unhappy with her performance. "I was very rusty," she said afterwards. "I haven't boxed for a few months and I wanted to put on a good display."

Offered the opportunity to box again on Saturday, both Katie and the plucky Ivashchenko readily agreed. Both women want as much experience in the run up to the 2012 Olympics as possible. On Saturday, Taylor dominated the first three rounds and while Ivashchenko went for broke in the fourth, the bout ended 19-4.

"It only takes a couple of fights to get sharp again," explained Katie later. "Although I was very sore today from last night's bout, I felt a lot better in the ring tonight. She's tough and she kept coming. She's a European silver medallist. It was a great contest."

Katie's coach, her dad Peter, was equally pleased. "Katie needed a good workout and that girl (Ivashchenko) has only ever been beaten by a world champion," he said.

"She's a good bit heavier than Katie as well. Even though Katie was 14 points up going into the last round, she never let up. Katie's very honest. Most people run when they're ahead in the last round. Not Katie. Even when she's ahead, she'll fight to the end."