Monday 18 November 2019

Vincent Hogan: Red-hot Nevin had the moves to smoke out Cuban

John Joe Nevin gestures to the crowd after his Men’s Bantamweight semi-final victory over Cuba's Lazaro Alvarez Estrada in London yesterday
John Joe Nevin gestures to the crowd after his Men’s Bantamweight semi-final victory over Cuba's Lazaro Alvarez Estrada in London yesterday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Suddenly, John Joe Nevin is a speeding train here. Step back from the platform folks. This is the high energy that comes off an athlete who feels weightless, maybe invincible.

Tonight in the East End of London, John Joe will fight a British opponent for Olympic gold. That's right, just two months after trying to take a fire escape out of this assignment. Yesterday, he had too much boxing, too much flair for the Cuban world champion. Read that line again. Maybe get a scissors, cut it out.

Because Irish boxers have been filching the strangest thunder here.

If you've never watched men box in your life, you could still have appreciated the sheer beauty of what John Joe did in the ExCel yesterday. During the third round, he seemed to come over all tingly and free, breaking into a little dance that you'd expect to see from kids with boom-boxes blaring the latest interpretation of ghetto poetry.

"Sure put a name on it," grinned Billy Walsh later. "Call it the Mullingar Shuffle!"

Nevin is a settled Traveller from Mullingar who felt the town had its back turned as he gathered his things for London. He said a few things about that, about having a specific place in mind where they could stick their civic reception if he happened to win an Olympic medal.

If he beats Luke Campbell tonight (8.45) and, technically, you could say he has never lost to the British bantam, well then the midland town had better get someone to word a nice telegram.

"One round at a time," he grins, sweeping through the mixed zone, an Irish scarf around his neck.

"Just cos you're up in the first round doesn't mean you've the fight won. You've to go out and carry on, doing the same thing. I did better as the fight went along. I was more patient.

"And I think he kind of gave up halfway into the last. He kind of knew he wasn't getting to me and he just kind of handed it to me then."

And the Mullingar Shuffle?

"Ah, I don't know what happened, but what's done is done now," he says sheepishly. "Hopefully we can do it again in the last 10 seconds tomorrow."

Tonight's opponent, Campbell, lost last year's World Championships final to a man called Lazaro Alvarez Estrada. And, yesterday, it was Estrada who found himself chasing around an East London gym after what was, effectively, a blue gust of wind. Nevin was wonderful.

Boxing the Cuban at range, his shots were clean and palpably heavy. He'd come to the auditorium with Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town' blaring out and, once in the ring, he repeated that little ritual he follows of backing across to his opponents' corner and -- with a scuffing of his shoe -- essentially marking the territory as his.

Estrada, with his electric hair, watched it all with the expression of a man who considered this behaviour eccentric and, maybe, just a little sad. He was mistaken.

Just 36 seconds into the first round, John Joe caught him with a perfect right. Seconds later, another. Rat-a-tat-tat. The arena exulted and John Joe went dancing. At the end of the round, he led 5-3.

It should have been more but, to carp, might have been an act of greed.

In Estrada's corner, his seconds could be seen slapping the side of his head-gear, angrily beseeching their boy to remember the colour of his flag. He stared straight. He looked like a man with a head full of ghosts.

We expected a response, but it came from John Joe. Ding Ding. Two more sweet rights. Then, suddenly, a short left and Estrada is down on one knee. He gets up, comes with a barrage, then Nevin pins him back with a sweet right. It's exhibition mode though the judges haven't noticed. With their concentration issues, they give us the round 7-6.

appreciate

The third? You had to see it. You had to be in the hall, maybe, to appreciate the wild somersaulting of all we know, as a man from an Irish midlands town turned into Sugar Ray Leonard. A left upper-cut jerked Estrada's head back like a daffodil caught by a gust. This was over. And that was the moment John Joe got a little light-headed and decided to invite the Cuban on. Decided on his shuffle.

He charged forward, caught John Joe on the ropes and a few shots landed. Just a few mind. Within seconds, Nevin caught him sweet again and, at the bell, fell a bear of an embrace from the normally undemonstrative Zaur Antia. No judges' verdict required.

"Hopefully I'll go in and perform in the final now and let the best man win on the day," he smiles now. "That's the attitude I've taken from the start. Go in, do my best and come out smiling."

He beat Campbell 13-2 at the European Union Championships in Odense three years ago and, if the Englishman avenged that at last year's Worlds in Baku, it was a countback verdict after the bout had been tied 12-12. Someone mentions stealing a little of Katie Taylor's limelight and he grins back. "Well we're still not done yet. Hopefully I can join her for the gold tomorrow. It was amazing to see Katie do so well. No one deserves it more."

For Billy Walsh, having another boxer shoot for gold takes these Games to an extraordinary place. Privately, he'd wondered if, maybe, Paddy Barnes' defeat had signalled some change in fortune. "The difference in emotions within half an hour of each other, it's crazy stuff," said Billy Walsh.

"It was doom and gloom, but then you've got to change your face for him, be up for him and get him ready. Make him believe that he can deliver. This was as good as I've seen John Joe fight. He was boxing a world champion and he made him look ordinary. Played with him." And now that shot for the mountaintop.

"There's nothing better than a British boxer and an Irish boxer," grins Billy. "It will be fantastic. I think it will be mouth-watering. Both nations will be watching it. There's no pressure on John Joe and he'll go in and give it everything he has. Whatever happens, we'll hold our heads up high and be proud of everything we've done."

Down near the mixed zone, Darren O'Neill's face is wreathed with a perfect smile.

To the team, he has become Nevin's 'wife', they spend so much time in one other's company. The captain knows the wonder of what we've witnessed. "He was on fire, wasn't he?" O'Neill smiles. "He was absolutely electric and he even had time to give us a bit of a showboat there at the end, which was great to see. Pete Taylor did pads with him and I just said I would stay with John Joe no matter what it is. I came on the bus and into the dressing-room with him -- we're very tight like that.

"He wants me around and I don't know if it's just superstition at this stage or if it's just someone to have a bit of a laugh with. I just keep talking to him, keeping him distracted.

"I'm telling John Joe since we've been teaming up together that if he performs as he can, there's no one in the world will beat him."

In Mullingar, a rather big penny is -- we trust -- beginning to drop.

Irish Independent

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