Wednesday 13 November 2019

Boy wonder can't wait to answer the Olympic call

Joe Ward's unstoppable rise through the ranks of Irish amateur boxing has astonished everyone except himself, writes John O'Brien

J OE WARD looked out over the sea of faces and smiled. It seemed as if half of Moate had crammed into the National Stadium to cheer him on: uncles, cousins, friends, supporters. Kenny Egan stood clad in red in the opposite corner. The reigning champ gunning for his 11th straight national title. Three rounds away from one of the most brutal and emphatic defeats of his storied career.

Egan could see the runaway train heading in his direction, but what could he do to stop it? Ward had set his eye on Egan's light-heavyweight crown in December and sensed everything falling into his lap. If he made the final, all the pressure would be on Egan. You could acknowledge Ward's huge potential and still figure Egan would have the guile and experience to hold him at bay. For a 17-year-old taking his first steps among the grown-ups, defeat would be easily excused.

Joe Ward thinks back a few weeks and grins broadly now. "Lot of fans for a young fella," he says. It is mid-morning in the Stadium gym. Music blares from the sound system. Boxers lift and grunt, the clink of heavy weights hitting rubber mats punctured by the ripples of laughter that bounce constantly off the walls. Ward loves the banter here. The Belfast lads with their strange accents and cheeky grins are especially good for a laugh.

Even in a tightly-packed space he is easy to pick out. In the middle of the action. Talking and laughing the loudest. Bearing the heaviest weights. At 17, he carries an imposing physique and years of growth lie ahead. Still getting stronger, he says, still getting better. He is four weeks a national senior champion. Egan calls him the main man now. To Ward it doesn't seem strange or inappropriate to own a crown worn with such distinction for so long. After all, he was 11 when he first imagined it.

These are the kind of things he says: "I've always believed in myself. If I go for something, I always believe I'm going to win. I wouldn't do something just for the fun of it. If I'm in it, I'm in it to win. That's always the way I've been. So I knew I'd probably win it [senior title]. If I didn't think I'd a great chance, I wouldn't have entered. Why do something like that if you don't think you'll win?"

If he surprised himself, it was how comfortably he swept to the title, how much he enjoyed every second of the journey, how relaxed he felt at each step. He'd won gold at the World Youth Championships in each of the previous two years and it had got to the stage where, like Katie Taylor, nothing less was expected each time he went abroad. And now here he was, not in some far-flung destination, but in the Stadium, packed with so many friendly faces, in a fight he wasn't expected to win. How liberating it felt.

He remembered fighting his first competitive contest here. A kid called Michael Andrews. The ref stopped it in the first round and, at 11, he'd won his first national title. Six years on, he still doesn't know the feeling of not being a national champion. Or what it is like to lose a fight on Irish soil. Now Egan and Davy Joe Joyce have joined the list of those who have tried to work him out and failed, sought to contain his power and come up short.

"I can box any way I feel like," says Ward. "It depends on the opponent. When I boxed Davy Joe in the semi-final, I stood back and let him come on to me and waited to catch him. I can adapt my style for each fight. It's why I've won so many tournaments. If he moves, I can stay back. If he holds back, I'll go forward. It's just the way I fight. I can do anything."

Maybe it's no exaggeration to suggest Ward is changing the boxing narrative here. All those years ago when Billy Walsh and Gary Keegan set out to build a team that could take on the best in the world, they had a stable of fighters like Egan and Darren Sutherland who were passionate and talented but came too with heads full of doubts and anxieties that needed to be controlled and ironed out.

Ward, though, is young and untainted by doubt or fear. If there are anxieties, they are buried deeper than the earth's core.

He appreciates the support structures around him, but prefers to keep his mind as free from psychological clutter as he can. One of Keegan's inspirational ideas was for every boxer who achieved distinction on the international stage to divine a few pearls of wisdom to adorn the stadium walls. Ward isn't sure if he could come up with anything profound enough to merit inclusion. "I'd have to read the Bible first," he jokes.

He is driven by the anticipation of victory and the primitive fear of walking away a loser. Last August, he lost to Damien Hooper in the quarter-final of the Youth Olympics in Singapore and the memory still stings him. He had broken his left hand -- his most dangerous weapon -- during the first round and it annoyed him particularly because he had summarily despatched the Australian when they'd met in the World Youth final in Azerbaijan only three months earlier.

In all, he has tasted defeat on five occasions and at least two of them still rankle. He was 14 when a Russian beat him in the European schoolboy championships in England and it still angers him any time he replays the tape and sees himself turning to his coach Tony Davitt, shaking his head when the decision is announced. "One of the biggest daylight robberies you'll see," he says now. "But didn't I go on to win bigger things?"

When he joined Jim Moore's cadet programme at 13, they were well aware of his talent. As a kid, Ward would accompany his uncles who were part of the high performance unit to the Stadium and soak up the atmosphere from the corner of the gym. All the kid needed was time. This time last year, Moore assured Walsh that Ward would make this year's senior championship and win it, just as he'd predicted with John Joe Nevin back in 2007. He'd been right then too.

Although he would never have said so explicitly, Moore always saw the upside of Ward losing. How else, he reasoned, would Ward learn and develop? In Ireland things came way too easy. Once he lost to a Russian in the European Cadet Championships in Germany and Moore told him he'd have won if he'd stripped fitter. Ward listened and then smiled, Moore remembers, as if it was all a game. But those defeats were precious. The next time Ward would invariably come back stronger and more determined.

"He was a great guy to be in a corner with," Moore says. "When you talked to him his eye would never leave your eye. Some fellas would listen to you but they'd be looking away, no eye contact. But Joe never did that. Then when you were finished he'd nod and you knew he'd copped it. He has a great brain and is a great listener."

Ward listens because this is his life. When he fights he wears a headguard and a blue or red singlet, as the draw decrees, but it is the only thing amateur about him. Boxing is what he does and the only thing. Two years ago, he quit school in Athlone after one year of secondary education. He'd never much liked it anyway and, if he was soon to be a senior boxer, then it would require all his attention.

So four days a week he stays in a hotel on the Naas Road, within easy reach of the gym and handy too for Moate where he heads home to his mother on weekends. He comes from a settled travelling family and is proud of his heritage though not in a way that he feels any sense of responsibility or pressure to be a spokesman for his people. He just does what he can to the best of his ability and hopes that nothing but good flows from it.

"I just have a dream and I follow it," he says. "I wanted to be a national champion. And I want to be at the London Olympics. I said it when I was very young, 10 or 11. People said that's crazy talk. But I'm getting closer and closer now. Just a few fights away. Five or six fights away from going to the Olympics."

In New Ross last Sunday, he fought his first senior international and comfortably beat Fanlong Meng of China. The fights can't come quickly enough really. Poland visit Dublin for an international next month, then there are the European Championships in Turkey in June followed by the World Championships beginning in September in South Korea, the first and most critical step on the way to 2012.

He knows there are no guarantees. He sees Egan working hard in the gym every day, determined to rewrite the script one last time before it gets too late. And he knows talk will rear its head before South Korea: of form and merit and possible box-offs. Not much he can do but keep his head straight and continue climbing. "Can't really do anymore than I've done so far," he says smiling. "Beat an Olympic silver medallist. What more can people ask?"

Joe Ward is a force of nature, though. And nature never stands still. He thinks of that 42kg waif who started out all those years ago and sees the strapling he has become. It was enough of an ordeal to make the 81kg mark for last month's championships to wonder how heavier he'll be by the time London comes along. So be it, he thinks. It is one fight he knows he will never win.

"Who knows what will happen? Last year I was light-middle. Then up to middle, now light-heavyweight. I can't stop myself growing. Heavyweight, super-heavyweight. Doesn't really matter. But look, one step at a time. I'll be 19 in London, 23 in Rio. Two Olympics sounds good but you don't know what can happen. You just hope everything goes well.

"All I need now is a good couple of months. Start to win a few senior fights. Do more things. That'd make a big difference to me. I can't see anyone beating me in Ireland for a number of years. I'll be senior champion hopefully for a number of years." Ask him to define a "number of years" and his response comes as swiftly as the left hand through the middle that is his trademark punch.

"Whenever I give up."

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