Wednesday 17 January 2018

Belfast battlers depart the amateur ranks but don't expect them to leave centre stage

Boxers Paddy Barnes, left, and Michael Conlan set off for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Boxers Paddy Barnes, left, and Michael Conlan set off for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

By Eamonn Sweeney

There will be mixed emotions about the news that Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes are turning pro. While it's extremely exciting to see such a significant infusion of Irish talent into the professional ranks, these departures do seem to signal the end of an heroic era for amateur boxing on this island.

Let's focus on the positive side first. Carl Frampton's achievements in the pro ranks must, you feel, be at the forefront of Barnes' and Conlan's thoughts right now. Double world champion, ranked in the top ten of the Ring Pound for Pound rankings, the man from Tiger's Bay currently enjoys a standing in world boxing unmatched by any Irish boxer since Barry McGuigan.

Impressive though the heights Frampton has reached are, his putative heirs are unlikely to regard them as unattainable. Frampton's amateur career was good but hardly glittering, his most significant achievement a silver medal at an EU Championships in 2007 when Kenneth Egan, Roy Sheehan and the late Darren Sutherland all won gold.

The alacrity of his rise will also give Barnes and Conlan hope. Frampton was a Commonwealth champion within two years of turning pro, a European champion after three-and-a-half years and a world champ after five. Some fighters get fast-tracked even quicker. Frampton's rival for pre-eminence at super bantamweight Guillermo Rigondeaux won the WBA title in just his ninth fight. Vasyl Lomachenko, currently ranked number seven pound for pound by The Ring, fought for the WBO featherweight title in his second bout, lost a split decision and won the title in his next fight.

As two-time Olympic champions Rigondeaux and Lomachenko are both special cases yet there can be no doubt that Conlan, a world champ, is capable of a pretty rapid ascent if he hits the ground running in the pro game. Sometimes that's a bigger if than people think. For every Frampton, Rigondeaux and Lomachenko, there's an Audley Harrison or a Henry Tillman who won an Olympic heavyweight title and twice defeated Mike Tyson as an amateur but ended his pro career with no title bigger than the North American Cruiserweight crown.

Closer to home the travails of John Joe Nevin and, tragically, Darren Sutherland show the pitfalls which can lie in wait for a boxer leaving the more structured world of amateur boxing. And for all the talk of fast-tracking the four world bantamweight titles are currently held by boxers who have 111 professional fights, and only six defeats between them.

Yet you feel that Conlan should prosper. His ability is undoubted and his willingness to shout the odds will do no harm in a world where self-promotion is no drawback. Boxing purists may disdain Conor McGregor but his immense popularity will surely have sparked a search for other larger-than-life Irish fighting heroes.

There is also the tantalising prospect that Joe Ward may turn professional. The big man from Moate has always seemed hemmed in to a certain extent by the constraints of the amateur game's three-round limit which gave negative opponents a chance to dodge him just long enough to get a shot at a decision. Ward has always seemed to have what the Americans would call a tremendous upside. It would be fascinating to see him as a professional.

Barnes, on the other hand, is a less explosive performer and one whose technical wizardry seemed tailor made for amateur boxing. Though maybe I just think this because the little Belfast man has come to seem like the emblematic figure of our heroic amateur era.

He began it, after all, when at the 2007 World Championships he became the first Irish boxer to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, making it to the quarter-final though team manager Billy Walsh had wanted him to be excluded on the grounds of inexperience before being over-ruled by the IABA.

He went on to surprise everyone again when winning a bronze in Beijing and four years later his semi-final performance against Zou Shiming of China may well have been the finest Irish display of the era.

True, Barnes lost but he did so on countback after an enormously brave showing against an opponent considered invincible. There were Commonwealth and European titles in there too. It was one of the finest amateur careers in Irish boxing history, which is worth remembering now that it has come to an end.

As amateurs, Barnes and Conlan gave us an awful lot. I suspect there's a lot more to come.

Sunday Indo Sport

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