Sunday 18 March 2018

Boxers launch three-pronged push for Rio

New routes for medal hopefuls as boundaries with pro game blur

Olympic medallists Michael Conlon and Paddy Barnes are preparing for Rio 2016
Olympic medallists Michael Conlon and Paddy Barnes are preparing for Rio 2016

Bernard O'Neill

IRISH boxing, which has accounted for seven of the country's eight medals in all sports from the last two Olympic Games, will be battling on three fronts over the next 14 months for a share of the 286 tickets on offer for Brazil.

The qualifying routes to Rio 2016 are through regular amateur boxing - which is now officially called AIBA Open Boxing (AOB) after the International Boxing Association (AIBA) declared that the concept of amateur boxing no longer exists and instructed all federations to drop the word amateur from their titles - the World Series of Boxing (WSB) and AIBA Pro Boxing (APB).

Belfast's Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and Wexford's Adam Nolan are signed with Italia Thunder in the WSB, while Ballymena welterweight Steven Donnelly is with the Hussars of Poland. Tipperary's Dean Gardiner and Galway's Gary Sweeney are contracted to the Mexico Guerreros.

Barnes, Conlan and Donnelly are contenders for the 31st Olympiad through the WSB, particularly Barnes, who claimed bronze at Beijing and London. Barnes is in pole position on 30 points in the WSB light-flyweight rankings after winning six fights on the trot. Uzbekistan's Hasanboy Dusmatov is two points adrift. Both have one fight each left.

The top-ranked light-fly at the end of the regular WSB season this month will qualify for Rio, so if Barnes wins his last fight against an opponent to be confirmed in Venezuela on April 18 on a unanimous decision, KO or TKO, which yield a maximum of five points, or a split decision (four points), he will be on his way to his third successive Olympics.

Conlan and Donnelly are in top-three positions in the bantam and welterweight rankings, respectively. Conlan will also have his last fight in Venezuela on Saturday week.

Joe Ward, who has beaten all the medallists from the London Olympics, and David Oliver Joyce have signed contracts with APB. Having progressed from the inaugural APB phase, the Irish duo are two wins each away from qualifying. Basically, they need to reach the APB finals. The finalists in each weight class qualify.

The Westmeath pair will be in action in May/June: Ward faces French light-heavy Mathieu Bauderlique, who has returned to APB from the pro ranks where he remained unbeaten after nine fights, and Joyce takes on Uzbek lightweight Hurshid Tojibaev. Both fights will be over eight rounds. If the ex-European and current EU Elite champions win those bouts, their next outings will be for the APB finals, and places at Rio 2016.

The presence of APB fighters at Rio 2016 will mark the first time that pro boxers - under the auspices of AIBA only - have competed at the Games since boxing was introduced at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis.

Meanwhile, the first AOB qualifier for male boxers is the 2015 World Elite Championships in Doha in October, but European hopefuls will have to qualify for that at the inaugural European Games in Baku in June.

The World Championships offers the narrowest window of opportunity for Olympic qualification in the history of the tournament, with just 23 places available across the ten weight categories.

For Olympic champion Katie Taylor and Ireland's other female boxers, the target is the AIBA World Women's Elite Championships in Kazakhstan next February. Women are restricted to three weight classes - flyweight, lightweight and middleweight - at the Olympics. Taylor, who will aiming for her sixth successive title, has to at least reach the semi-finals to qualify. An additional qualifier for Europe's male and female boxers will be held in 2016.

Irish head coach Billy Walsh believes that qualifying from Europe, the continent from which amateur boxing emerged in the mid 19th century because of ethical objections to pro boxing - which is now being embraced again through APB - is testing. "Europe is the strongest continent. Thirty per cent of the places at London (2012) went to Europe, and Europe won the majority of the medals," he said.

Europe has won 48 of the 96 medals at the last two Olympics, equal to the total won by Asia (28), Americas (19) and Africa (1) combined. Walsh, Zuar Antia, Pete Taylor, John Conlan, Eddie Bolger and Gerry Storey will be working Ireland's corner through the qualifiers.

Walsh added: "We've always said that if we get five or six into Rio, as we did at the Beijing and London Games, we'll do damage."

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