Thursday 14 December 2017

Boxing: Egan steps up to the mark in style

JOHN O'BRIEN, at the National Stadium

The action was fast and unrelenting at the National Stadium yesterday. No preening or grand announcements. Just fighters into the ring, decisions made and the next pair waiting eagerly in the wings.

A breathless afternoon shed some light on the shape of the Ireland team that will contest next month's World Championships in Azerbaijan though, in many respects, darkness still remains.

The controversy that has surrounded this IABA Unseeded Open Elite Competition didn't end once the bell sounded on yesterday's finals. The association's stated position that the winners would automatically earn the right to a World Championship spot, and with it a shot at Olympic qualification, was never a starter given the absence through injury of four national champions as well as two European gold medallists. "Nothing is written in stone," conceded a senior IABA official.

Some positions are clearly less contentious than others. Kenny Egan virtually booked his place to Baku by comfortably despatching Ulster fighter Stephen Ward, though the Beijing silver medallist looks palpably on the small side to be contesting the heavyweight division.

David Oliver Joyce followed his epic victory over his Athy clubmate, Eric Donovan, with a comfortable victory over Michael O'Hara and with Michael McDonagh, the reigning 60kg champion, focussing on the European Youth Championships, the path to the Worlds seems to have opened perfectly for Joyce.

Ditto for his Athy colleague Roy Sheahan, who suffered the heartbreak of two broken hands in the last three years and a slide down the pecking order.

Yesterday he battled past Portlaoise boxer Michael O'Reilly, despite trailing after the first round, and having taken care of Adam Nolan, the 69kg national champion, on Friday, Sheahan has a persuasive argument that he should get the nod for Azerbaijan.

That was as certain as it got, though. Ross Hickey, like Sheahan, came from behind to beat the spirited Sonny Upton 19-12 in the 64kg division and Ray Moylette, the European gold medallist who withdrew through injury, will have to sit tight and worry for his immediate future.

The suggestion was raised of a further box-off between the pair although it is getting perilously close now to the Worlds for this to be arranged.

Darren O'Neill, the 75kg champion and 2010 European silver medallist, will be in the same position after Jason Quigley's victory over Stephen O'Reilly. The other absentees should be less fearful. Tyrone McCullagh wasn't impressive enough in beating Danny Coughlan 8-4 to imagine John Joe Nevin could be discarded in the 56kg weight division while 81kg national and European champion Joe Ward shouldn't feel threatened by Davy Joyce's win over Patrick O'Shea. Yet they can assume nothing with any great degree of certainty. The team for the world championships is due to leave for a training camp in Italy on Friday and Billy Walsh, the high performance director, was anxious that it be finalised this weekend so that final arrangements could be made.

Instead, no announcement is expected before the 20-man central council meets next Saturday to ratify the team. It is believed that an earlier date could not be scheduled because a key member of the officer board is currently away on holiday.

And as the fog remained, a cloud of anger and frustration still hung over the high-performance unit across the lane from the stadium. "It's ludicrous," said one senior fighter who didn't want to be named.

"Nobody has a problem with box-offs but the timing of these open championships is ridiculous. Before we even headed off to the Euroepan championships we were talking about these box offs. They've been a complete distraction as far as many of the boxers are concerned.

"They're 100 per cent negative energy which isn't needed in any team. As a boxer, as an athlete, you feel undervalued. You feel there's no confidence being put in you by your own association. Sure, how are you meant to perform in those circumstances?"

Until the team is finally announced the speculation as to who will go and who will lose out will continue. The feeling yesterday was that dire consequences would prevail in the event of Ward or more of the absentees being denied a place on the team. "It could easily end up in the courts," said the fighter. "At the end of the day we all just want to see the best boxers going. That's what the public want as well.

"It has to be fair. But this isn't the way. They expect you to peak now, physically and mentally, and then do the same again for the Worlds in a few weeks. That's just crazy. Our system is supposed to be the envy of Europe and the world but where else would you see something like that?"

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