Saturday 16 December 2017

How tragedy followed the triumphs of Beijing heroes

ALTHOUGH the achievements of Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough sparked a renewed interest in boxing, it would be 16 years before Ireland would produce Olympic medals in the sport again.

With the introduction of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association's (IABA) High Performance Unit giving young hopefuls the benefit of full-time coaching and other resources, all the hard work bore fruit in 2008 as Ireland sent a strong five-man team to the Games in Beijing.

It soon became clear that the Irish lads were targeting top honours in the ring. John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce had decent campaigns, but could not quite secure semi-finals spots which would guarantee medals.

Darren Sutherland, an exciting middleweight from Meath, lost out in his semi-final to British boxer James DeGale and had to settle for bronze, as did Belfast's light-flyweight Paddy Barnes. Barnes now returns to the Olympics as part of another strong squad.

Dublin's light-heavyweight Kenny Egan went all the way to the final in Beijing, and though he narrowly lost out to China's Zhang Xiaoping, a silver medal was to prove life-changing. Not for all the right reasons, however. With his new-found fame, Egan made a quick transition from the sports pages to the gossip pages due to womanising and drink-fuelled binges.

He went off the rails, but eventually faced up to his alcohol problem and reckless behaviour, getting himself off the drink and coming clean about it in his 2011 autobiography 'My Story'.

Though Egan managed to get focused on his boxing again, things had moved on. He lost the Irish Elite title final to teenage sensation Joe Ward in both 2011 and this year, and will not be competing in London. Unfortunately, European champion Ward also misses out, denied qualification by a controversial decision to a home fighter in Turkey.

The story was to prove even darker for Sutherland, however. He turned pro under English promoter Frank Maloney after Beijing and made an impressive start, winning his first four fights.

Sutherland was found dead at his flat in Bromley, south-east London, by Maloney in September 2009. An inquest has since been opened into the circumstances of his death, and the hearing revealed that he told his father the day before his death how he was "feeling low" and "losing confidence in his boxing".

The inquest also heard how Sutherland wanted to quit the sport, but evidence revealed significant pressure from Maloney's camp to go ahead with an upcoming fight. Whatever the truth about his death, it was a sad end for a 27-year-old who seemed to have the world at his feet.

Irish Independent Supplement

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