Thursday 14 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Irish boxing has hauled itself off the ropes and battled its way back into the medals

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Joe Ward. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Ward. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Irish amateur boxing may have been down after the Rio Olympics but it wasn't out. The team performance at the European Championships is the equivalent of a fighter getting off the canvas, shaking the cobwebs out of his head and returning to the fray with renewed vigour.

There has been a tendency to regard the disastrous Olympic campaign as representing a kind of twilight of the gods moment. The failure to even contend for a medal followed by the departure of Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan for the professional ranks was portrayed as drawing the line under the glorious era which began with the surprise triple medal performance at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

The performances in Kharkiv showed just how wrong this kind of reasoning is. Only England, Russia and Ukraine, the host nation, won more medals than Ireland. Our three-medal haul was the same as was achieved in 2015, one less than in 2013 and one better than the 2011 total. In different ways, this year's medallists show why you shouldn't give up on Irish amateur boxing.

The departure of Barnes and Conlan made plenty of headlines but Joe Ward arguably represented an even more tempting target for the professional managers and promoters. A big man who can punch like Ward would be an enormous draw, yet the Moate light-heavyweight has opted to remain an amateur for now. It almost beggars belief that Ward won't be 24 till October. He seems to have been around forever and, after yesterday's success, is now a three-time European champion and a two-time world medallist. He remains a performer of enormous potential.

Brendan Irvine's failure to shine in Rio was not particularly disappointing because simply reaching the Games had been a big achievement for the Belfast youngster. Now, with Conlan and Barnes having departed, the flyweight, who just turned 21 last month, has the opportunity to come into his own.

Bantamweight Kurt Walker's trajectory shows the solid foundation which means the amateur game should be capable of absorbing losses to its professional counterpart. The Lisburn boxer was a European silver and world bronze medallist as a youth before winning two Irish titles in the absence of Conlan, who had opted to concentrate on the World Series of Boxing. This year he made it a hat-trick and has now made the move into the international elite.

Add in the performance of light-welterweight Sean McComb, who defeated world champion Vitaly Dunaytsev of Russia before losing a split decision to England's Luke McCormack in the quarter-finals, and things look extremely bright for the future. However, there is a danger that McComb might well be lost to the Irish team. In the aftermath of his defeat he declared himself to be "fed up with amateur boxing".

The fighter received funding from Sport Ireland after winning a European medal in 2015 but that ended earlier this year. McComb seems to believe his failure to win a medal this time will leave him without funding and declared: "Between now and the World Championships I'll not be able to afford to go to Dublin and train every week without a job - that's a fact. I should be training full-time like all of the rest of the athletes from the major countries at the Worlds, but I'll not be able to."

Given that McComb has now beaten the world champion twice this year and missed out on a medal by the narrowest of margins, you'd hope Sport Ireland might use some common sense here and give the lad a break before he quits the amateur game. After all, they once funded Kenneth Egan when he'd actually retired from the sport.

Irish amateur boxing may have fallen off the general sporting radar but come 2020 it will represent one of our main chances for medals in Tokyo. The great thing about the performance in Kharkiv is that the rot has stopped and the roof hasn't fallen in.

That doesn't mean people can get complacent about the administrative failings of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association. It's precisely because the IABA represents a sport with so many talented performers that its officials have a responsibility to get things right. We'd all prefer to be writing about what happens in the ring rather than what happens in the committee room.

The accession of King Leo I means that yet another sports minister will have to cope with the internecine battle within the IABA. Kerry South TD Brendan Griffin replaces Patrick O'Donovan, who seems to have gotten right up the noses of some of the principals in said battle. Is it too much to hope that the arrival of a new face might help with a resolution to the current impasse? It will at least provide a quick and telling test of the new man's abilities.

Irish boxing has turned over a new leaf in Kharkiv. It's time the same thing happened in Dublin.

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