They'll be playing for very high stakes indeed next Friday at the National Stadium. Given the possible rewards for victory, the finals of the national boxing championships should be one of the most compelling events on Irish soil this year. There's certainly no other competition which will have such profound implications for our Olympic effort.
Three boxers, John Joe Nevin, Darren O'Neill and Michael Conlan, have already qualified for London. The qualifying tournament in Trabzon in April offers a final chance to add to that number. We should nail down another three berths there. And, given our recent record, any Irish boxer at the Olympics will have genuine medal hopes.
But first they've got to battle their way out of the Stadium. Given the shenanigans over box-offs prior to the World Championships, you can't say that a win next Friday guarantees a champion a final crack at Olympic qualifying. But it will put him in pole position. Win a national title in 2012 and the world opens up.
The IABA proudly declare that theirs is "Ireland's most successful Olympic sport." They have every right to boast. You can measure the outstanding quality of this generation of fighters by looking at the guys who haven't made it to the finals. Ray Moylette might be the European light-welterweight champion but for the second year in a row he's been turned over in the early rounds of the nationals.
Tyrone McCullagh looked an outstanding prospect when taking bronze at featherweight in the 2010 European Championships. The Belfast boxer would be a leading contender at any major championships he'd contest. The only problem is he can't get past powerful domestic opposition. Last year he was defeated by double world medallist John Joe Nevin in the bantamweight division. This year, back at featherweight, he bit the dust at the hands of Michael McDonagh.
Then there's welterweight Adam Nolan, perhaps Ireland's unluckiest boxer in 2011. The Bray fighter must have been very close to winning the boxer of the championships award last year (it went to light-welterweight Ross Hickey). But he didn't manage to compete in a major championship after that, injuries ruling him out of the Europeans and a box-off loss costing him a place at the worlds. This year he's back in the final of a division which is loaded with world-class talent.
There is also the prospect of a light-heavyweight rematch between Joe Ward and Kenneth Egan. A European champion taking on an Olympic silver medallist. Where else in Irish sport would you get the like of that? The strength in depth of Irish boxing is such an awesome thing that no one can rest on their laurels, something our finest fighter John Joe Nevin found in Friday's semi-final when he scraped through 13-12 against Belfast up-and-comer Sean McComb. There's no such thing as a soft title in Irish boxing.
It'll be quite a night next Friday. The amount of major medallists on view will be a striking monument to our ability to punch over our weight in this sport. As winter turns to spring, the heroes of the summer to come will begin their march on London. Seconds out.
Sunday Indo Sport