Tuesday 21 November 2017

Ward seals silver and crack at La Cruz

Joe Ward sends Bektemir Melikuziev reeling during their light-heavyweight semi-final bout at the World Championships in Hamburg. Photo by AIBA via Sportsfile
Joe Ward sends Bektemir Melikuziev reeling during their light-heavyweight semi-final bout at the World Championships in Hamburg. Photo by AIBA via Sportsfile

Seán McGoldrick

'No show like a Joe show' was the catch-phrase created to celebrate another Westmeath legend, the late Joe Dolan. But his fellow county man, Joe Ward, is doing a good job at making the moniker his own with his swashbuckling performances at the World Championships.

Still six week shy of his 24th birthday, Ward guaranteed himself a second World silver medal and a tilt at winning the elusive gold when he beat Uzbek light heavyweight Bektemir Melikuziev (21) last night on a split 3-2 decision after cracking contest.

The Moate marauder now meets triple World champion, Julio Cesar La Cruz - who has comfortably beaten the Irishman in their two previous encounters at the World Championships - in tonight's much-anticipated showdown in the 81kg category.

The Cuban will be the favourite, but Ward is a different animal to the one La Cruz beat two years ago and four years ago respectively.

Ward is definitely more focused nowadays; he look fitter and has an overwhelming desire to finally end his losing sequence against the brilliant Cuban.

Irish coach Zaur Antia revealed that Ward is now bench-pressing 110kg in the gym - compared to 80kg prior to last year's Rio Olympics when he crashed out in the preliminary round.

"Look, it was a very close fight. It was a very tough fight. Both of us had our moments in it, but I felt like I was doing enough.

"I was catching him with the cleaner punches and I deserved to win it," said Ward moments after sinking to his knees in celebration when the verdict was announced.

"I caught him with a few clean right hooks. Zaur (Antia) was telling me from the corner to throw right hook, left hand.

"I was catching him nice and clean. Look his head was going back every time I was hitting. I was always in control.

"But as I say he had his moments as well." said Ward, who became the first Irish male boxer to guarantee himself two silver medals at the World Championships.

But tonight he will bid to turn the 2017 silver into gold.

His best efforts may not be good enough against La Cruz who, pound for pound, is arguably the best amateur boxer of his generation and looks hell bent on equalling the achievements of his fellow countryman Felix Savon who won six World titles. La Cruz already has three.

Comfort

But one suspects Ward will finally take him out of his comfort zone in tonight's three-round showdown and, interestingly, the Cuban picked up a nick over his eye in his semi-final win last night. For the moment, however, Ward can momentarily enjoy the latest victory in his illustrious career.

Of the 13 medals that Irish male boxers has won at World Championship level, he holds three of them at the age of 23. Performance-wise he has travelled a long journey even since last year's Rio Olympics.

He looks fitter and more focused now than ever before in his career, and he again acknowledged that changes in his diet and more concentration on his strength and conditioning work under coach John Cleary has made a significant difference.

"The Olympics (in Rio) went really bad for me due to a lack of preparation and a lack of competitive fights. It was one of these things that happen. But we regrouped," he said.

"The rest of the guys went pro but I wanted to stay and bring Irish boxing back to where it was at the top level.

"And that's where I have brought it too and as the captain of the team it is a pleasure representing Ireland in major championships and coming home with medals It's something special for myself and my family. But now I want to go for the gold."

As expected, the contest was a tactical affair between the two southpaws. Melikuziev looked the more aggressive fighter in round one but Ward scored with an eye-catching right-left combination near the end of the stanza which probably caught the eyes of the judges.

Both fighters went to war in the second though Ward's defensive skills kept him out of trouble for most of the three minutes.

Melikuziev's eye wound began to seep but there was still a feeling that Ward needed a big third round and he delivered with a volley of scoring shots as the gash on his opponent eye opened up and though one judge gave the verdict on a 30-27 score to the Uzbek, three judges backed the Irishman, two by margins of 3-27 and one by 29-28 to get him over the line and into tonight's final.

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