Wednesday 18 September 2019

John Joe stepping into a starker, meaner world

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You have to hope that only good things come John Joe Nevin's way out of the shark-infested waters he has chosen to make home. John Joe will confirm his decision to turn professional to a television audience tonight and the human thing is to fret for a beautiful talent that, just two months prior to the Olympics, seemed suddenly, fleetingly fragile.

That Nevin recovered to showcase the very best of himself in London was, he would himself acknowledge, down to the awareness and intuition of men like Billy Walsh, Zaur Antia and psychologist Gerry Hussey.

No question, it was quite a recovery. Nevin's glorious semi-final exhibition of ring poetry against Cuban world champion Lazaro Alvarez Estrada was emphatically the finest performance this writer has witnessed from an Irish amateur during duty at five Olympiads.

John Joe is gifted. He becomes a picador in the ring, scoring on the retreat, setting subtle traps for his opponent with footwork that could make Nureyev look clumsy.


Personally, we'd like him to hold his hands a little higher but, when in the mood, he is harder to hit than a darting swallow with a shovel.

Everybody knew that the pro game would come calling after his silver medal win and, to be fair, John Joe had the wisdom not to consign his future to a hasty signature.

He took his time before concluding that the possible distinction of representing his country at three Olympic Games wasn't sufficient to postpone his professional dream for another four years. But he will know he is throwing himself into a starker, meaner world now.

Darren Sutherland was John Joe's room-mate and mentor during the Beijing Games and, long before his tragic passing, had taken to communicating to his old team-mates the harsh distinction between life within the sheltering ecosystem of boxing's High Performance unit and the relative isolation of surviving as a pro.

All of the support structures Nevin has become accustomed to through two Olympic cycles essentially fall away now.

True, I can't imagine there will ever be a day when the likes of Walsh, Antia or Hussey won't take John Joe's calls. That's just not how boxing works and it's certainly not how the academy on the South Circular Road does its business. Friendships made there will survive far beyond the day Nevin climbs out of a ring for the final time.

But one certainty of the path he has now chosen is that John Joe will encounter days of despondency, days perhaps when the implications of defeat or injury make him ache for that busy gym beside the National Stadium.

At a four-nation tournament in Calais last June, he found himself overweight and under-confident after a season disrupted by the fracturing of his jaw in a World Series contest. John Joe lost two of his three contests at that tournament, prompting him to tell Walsh that he did not feel "up to" competing at the Olympics.

The process that kicked into operation at that moment was one referenced, above all, by an understanding of the man behind the boxer. It was also parsed by the knowledge that, if John Joe wasn't for London, so be it. He wouldn't suddenly have ceased to exist in the eyes of High Performance.

Professional boxing will transport him to a colder place.

He will find himself in a world where so many careers end up as melancholy one-liners, where a single defeat can pitch a young man right off the face of the earth, where momentum is king and friendship often illusory.

And that's a worry because John Joe is eminently decent, a credit to the Travelling community for whom he represents a first Olympic medallist. The night he lost to Luke Campbell, without prompting, he expressed condolences for the families of those killed that day in a horrific car accident in Tullamore.

He has come to represent the very best of Walsh's philosophy, the culture of people proving themselves, not just good competitors, but good humans.

Whatever the pro game has in store for John Joe now, here's hoping it never thieves that.

Irish Independent

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