Saturday 16 December 2017

Boxing: Fighting Irish target tickets to Olympics

Qualification for the London 2012 is the driving force for Billy Walsh's World Championship team this week, writes John O'Brien

Another major tournament, another hovering dark cloud. Hold the smelling salts. It's getting harder to conceive of a major sporting occasion nowadays without the whiff of scandal surrounding it. A big broadcasting corporation or teams of reporters diligently following the money trail, uncovering bagfuls of dirty needles, whatever. Unveil the results of your investigation on the eve of competition and watch ruling bodies squirm and viewing figures soar.

Claims on BBC's Newsnight on Thursday that secret payments had been made in exchange for gold medals at the London Olympics are as embarrassing for amateur boxing as the allegations of match fixing that preceded this year's World Snooker Championships or the bribery claims that clouded the awarding of the 2022 World Cup. Watching Dr Ching-Kuo Wu, AIBA president and avowed anti-corruption campaigner, respond unconvincingly to tough questions wasn't what the sport needed three days before the World Championships gloved off in Azerbaijan.

At the heart of the claims lies the World Series of Boxing, a semi-professional tournament in which amateurs fight without headgear or vests and receive financial reward for their efforts. With the tournament struggling financially, an investment of $9m was sourced from an Azeri national and lodged in the WSB's Swiss bank account. That much isn't disputed. If two Olympic gold medals were promised in return as alleged, however, then the sanctity of the sport will suffer a devastating blow.

Privately, many amateur boxing officials will rue the day the WSB came into being. At first the concept of teams representing cities as far-flung as Miami and Milan in a kind of Champions League format seemed attractive but, two years on, it has failed to ignite. "If an investor comes into this scheme with $10m I can only think he's arrived from another planet," Barry Hearn told the BBC, pouring scorn on the notion that the WSB was ever financially viable.

Speaking to Irish boxing people around the time of its conception, their lack of enthusiasm for the venture was clear. They wouldn't stop their own fighters from participating and making extra money, but the potential disruption to the high-performance programme was a nuisance and, worse, it went against the ethos of amateur boxing and all they held dear and precious about the sport.

Not that they pretend amateur boxing is above sharp practice. Irish fighters will tell you how hard it can be to gain tight verdicts in certain countries and when the subject of judging impartiality is raised mention is invariably made of Roy Jones Jr being robbed of a gold medal in Seoul in 1988. The odd judging scandal can be easily absorbed, though. The alleged trading of gold medals for millions of dollars is a whole new ball game.

If the BBC allegations sink a knife into the heart of the fledgling WSB, how many will mourn its demise? The AIBA is fond of claiming that the series was designed chiefly to interrupt the flow of talent from the amateur to professional ranks -- a sort of half-way house between them -- but that claim appears disingenuous when you consider that these World Championships received a record entry of 685 boxers from 127 countries. Amateur boxing has never seemed in ruder health.

Perhaps if they were in need of inspiration they could send a delegation to Dublin to observe the IABA's high-performance programme in action. Since its inception in 2003 the system has shed fighters to the pro ranks -- Carl Frampton, James Moore, Andy Lee, Darren Sutherland among them -- but consider that in Baku Kenny Egan, remarkably, contests his sixth World Championships and that head coach Billy Walsh leads a team that is top-heavy with medals and experience, talented boxers not rashly seduced by the hype and glitz of the pro game.

You don't have to overstate the nobility of it all. In the gym the boxers are driven hard, receive expert guidance from Walsh and his backroom staff and, in hard times, receive strong financial backing from the Irish Sports Council as long as they deliver results in the ring. And when a boxer does decide to make the leap forward, there's a growing swell of contenders among the junior and youth ranks eager to take his place.

They've had their well-documented troubles, of course, but the system has been vibrant and robust enough to survive. In Azerbaijan this week, the allegations of corruption won't be of concern to Walsh or his team. They flew in from Cologne last Wednesday after a 10-day training camp with five other teams and it is a sign of how far they have come that Germany was only Walsh's third choice.

"To be honest, Russia was our number one but they won't allow us in since Beijing. Ukraine is the same. Before they never saw us as a threat. Now they see us finishing second to them at European Championships and challenging them at youth level. We still have a good relationship. We'll be pushing to get there before London, please God we qualify. We'll sit down with them here and try to get them to invite us for camp before London."

For Walsh, the ultimate target is to match Beijing and get five boxers to London. In Baku, the top 10 fighters in each weight division will make the Olympic cut, except for the heavy and super heavyweight categories where the number is six. It augurs well that five Irish boxers are currently ranked within the world's top 10 in their respective divisions although the fact that they will be required to win up to five fights just to reach the quarter-finals somewhat tempers expectations.

"If we got three lads through this week and picked up a medal that would be a good tournament," Walsh says. "It's realistic. We have 10 lads here capable on their day of qualifying. By the law of averages, we won't get 10. You need luck. The draw is crucial. There'll be seeding here so hopefully that might help a few of our lads avoid the big guns early on."

They are honed for big performances. According to Walsh, Egan has "blossomed" since moving up to heavyweight and, of the four who haven't previously boxed at this level, it will help that Joe Ward was a frequent visitor to Baku with Jim Moore's youth set-up and it is where he won gold at the World Youth Championships last year. The appearance of the precocious 17-year-old light-heavyweight from Moate is one of the talking points of the tournament.

Yet history suggests caution. Since the high-performance system was established in 2003, John Joe Nevin's bronze in Milan in 2009 has been the sole return at World Championship level. Last Saturday they sat down and watched the Ireland rugby team put a dismal World Cup record behind them to crush Australia in Eden Park. When the first Irish boxers enter the ring tomorrow, they know it will be their time to follow suit.

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