Classy Cuban ends Joe Ward's dream of world gold
Joe Ward's dream of emulating the achievements of Michael Conlan 24 hours earlier and taking home a gold medal from the World Championships in Doha ended in disappointment last night.
The 21-year-old Moate southpaw had to give way to the Cuban captain Julio La Cruz, who completed a hat-trick of world titles.
Even though the scoring - 30-27 on all three judges' cards - was a tad harsh on the European champion, there was no doubting the merit of the Cuban's victory.
He is a class act and while it might be scant consolation to Ward right now, he did ask serious questions of La Cruz who is five years his senior.
The Cuban, who is known as the 'Doctor' in his native country crucially won the first round which allowed him to dictate the fight and force Ward to come forward which left him exposed to the Cuban's lightning-fast right hand.
By the end of the second round the contest was effectively over as La Cruz led 20-18 on all three judges' cards, leaving Ward needing a knockout to have any chance of turning his silver medal into gold.
A cut opened up over La Cruz's right eye in the final round - possibly caused by a clash of heads - and resulted in the final being temporarily halted as the wound was attended too.
When the action resumed, Ward sensed that his opponent could be vulnerable and went all out to land the killer blow.
But La Cruz proved elusive and safely made it to the bell to become the fourth Cuban boxer to secure a gold medal at the championships.
"Overall this championships has been pretty decent for me," said Ward afterwards. "I came out here to qualify for the Olympic Games and I achieved that.
"It was a tough fight, the first round changed a lot. I thought I done enough to win it. But then I had to push on a bit and he showed his class by keeping out of range.
"Overall, it's been a great championships for me. I'm going back [to Ireland] with a silver medal and going to Rio.
"I'm going to learn from this now and all I can do is get better and improve with that fight and see how we go in the Olympic Games.
"It was a big ask for me, he's not three-time world champion for nothing, he's a very, very talented boxer, but I showed in there I can mix it with the best," said Ward, who also lost to the Cuban in the World Championships semi-final two years ago in Almaty. But although the score was the same Ward did ask questions of the superstar of the world amateur boxing on this occasion.
Team coach Billy Walsh conceded afterwards that the better boxer had prevailed on the night.
"We thought this time around that we could nail him and get to him. But his movement and speed is phenomenal. Joe tried everything in his artillery to try and nail him. He gave a really good account of himself in there but the better man on the day won. It is his third world title in a row and you don't win those too easily," Walsh said.
"The first round was nip and tuck but the Cuban landed a couple of right hands near the end of the round which might have swayed the judges if they hadn't made up their minds already. The Cuban had an aura around him going into the ring having been voted Boxer of the Year a couple of nights ago. That tells you something. Once Joe went behind, he had to chase him.
"We thought of throwing caution to the wind from the start but that's playing into this guy's hands because of his speed and movement. We tried to sit on him and make him punch and then counter or meet him beforehand. It didn't really work but then we threw caution to the wind when we saw the cut in the last round.
"If the Cuban was stopped with a punch then Joe would have won it," added Walsh.
Essentially the fight was decided in the first round; a Ward combination had La Cruz on the canvas in the first minute but the referee ruled that it was a push and once the three judges gave the Cuban the round, Ward faced an uphill battle.
But he lacked nothing in effort and really went for it in the final two minutes but La Cruz comfortably survived to become the fourth Cuban boxer to secure gold at the championship which re-establishes the country as the top nation in amateur boxing.
While there was disappointment in the Irish camp immediately after the fight, Walsh pointed out that it had still been a fantastic championship for Ward. "He was only the third Irishman to reach a World Championship final. He got a silver medal and has a great future ahead of him," said Walsh.