Friday 23 March 2018

Reformers land heavy blow in fight for Olympic boxing's soul

Proposed reforms could see boxers like Katie Taylor turn pro and still retain their Olympic status Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Proposed reforms could see boxers like Katie Taylor turn pro and still retain their Olympic status Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Bernard O'Neill

The home of Manchester United was the unlikely setting for the latest round in the battle for the soul of Olympic boxing between the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and traditionalists on Wednesday last. Dr CK Wu, president of the AIBA, speaking at the meeting at Old Trafford, said that pro boxers would be allowed compete at the Olympics.

The radical reforms, if implemented, could see Ireland's top boxers, including Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan, turn pro and bypass their national federation and the High Performance Unit and retain their Olympic status.

The general consensus is that Wu was referring to Tokyo 2020 when he made his statement mid-week, but the Chinese-Taipei architect already has one eye on August's Olympics in Rio.

He said: "We want the best boxers to come to the Games. It is the AIBA's 70th birthday, and we want something to change - not after four years, but now."

However, traditionalists, who want the sport to retain some element of its amateur status, believe that the reforms will wreck the ethos of their sport.

Pro boxers have been banned from Olympiads since the sport made its Olympic debut in 1904 in St Louis.

Wu's statement could be construed as an admittance that the World Series of Boxing (WSB) and AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) is struggling financially.

WSB and APB boxers are paid and fight to pro rules. But the ultimate objective of the WSB and APB, which is to retain top amateurs under the AIBA umbrella - pro promoters raid the amateur scene after each Olympic and world cycle - has had only limited success.

Basically, the top amateurs are still attracted to the lights of Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, traditionalists more or less lost the argument when they signed up for the WSB and the APB. They also ostensibly accepted - at national level - Wu's assertion that the concept of amateur boxing no longer existed and the AIBA edict to refer to the sport as AIBA Open Boxing (AOB) and not "amateur" boxing. The purge continued when national federations were "advised" by the AIBA to remove the offending word 'amateur' from their titles.

However, at grassroots level, clubs throughout Ireland and the world, a lot of whom pre-date the AIBA by decades, have no intention of erasing the word 'amateur' from their names.

Meanwhile, an AIBA extraordinary meeting scheduled for May could announce that pros will be allowed compete in the final AOB world qualifiers in Azerbaijan in June. The WSB versus APB qualifiers in May is another possibility. Or maybe they might not have to qualify at all?

The Tripartite Commission hands out eight invitation places at each Olympics. These places are usually distributed to developing nations. Will some of those wild cards go to pros?

Beyond Rio 2016, it is expected that amateur boxing will have sold the only trump card it ever had over the pros (the Olympics) well in time for Tokyo 2020.

But the implications for boxing if, say, hypothetically, Wladimir Klitschko "qualifies" for the Olympics and badly injures a fighter from a developing nation, raises all sorts of ethical, moral and possible legal questions.

Are - again hypothetically - Klitschko, Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather, none of whom have won Olympic gold, supposed to quite literally pull their punches in case they hurt an opponent who is basically a rookie fighting for the pride of his family, country and club?

"Boxing is not a tickling contest," said former world champion Ricky Hatton. It is not a tickling contest at Olympic or international level either.

Olympic titles are fought for with red-hot intensity and are the stuff of immortality.

Muhammad Ali won and lost pro belts, but no one can ever take away the Olympic title he won against Polish southpaw Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the 81kg final in 1960 in Rome.

Ali, who was at that time called Cassius Clay, will eternally be the light-heavyweight champion of the Games of the 17th Olympiad.

The AIBA would do well to recall its history before completely abandoning the traditions of a sport which evolved in England in the mid 18th century because of moral and ethical objections to prize fighting, or pro boxing.

Sunday Indo Sport

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