Sunday 25 March 2018

Keegan blueprint bearing fruit as Irish gear up for assault on Rio

Joe Ward and Michael Conlan shows off their gold medals following their exploits at the European Championships
Joe Ward and Michael Conlan shows off their gold medals following their exploits at the European Championships
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In the run-up to the London Olympics, Michael Conlan took to training in a T-shirt bearing the message 'Believe The Hype!'

It was a gesture born as much of playfulness as self-belief cultivated on drives south from Belfast in the company of Paddy Barnes.

Conlan actually idolised Barnes but quickly came to realise that life on the road in his company would be one of hopeless subordination if he did not intercept the Beijing medallist's notoriously wicked humour with mischief of his own.

So the two became a kind of cabaret act, bouncing wicked one-liners off one another like handballs off a wall.

Conlan and Barnes would both claim bronze in London and, as of now, are the first two Irish boxers qualified for next year's Games in Rio.

Yet it is a measure of Ireland's place in the world of amateur boxing today that Olympic qualification will not necessarily guarantee Olympic selection.

Brendan Irvine's light-flyweight silver at the European Games in Baku last June secured him a place in October's World Championships, at which Olympic qualification will be on offer.

If the Belfast 19-year-old secures that qualification, then the IABA will have a rather awkward puzzle on its plate.

Do they ask Barnes, bidding for an unprecedented third Olympic medal, to box off for the right to a boarding card?


Then again, it might not have to come to that. Irvine is considered such a talent, he could simply move up a weight during the Olympic qualification process - a move that those in the High Performance Unit do not believe would necessarily diminish his opportunity of getting to Rio.

Such considerations would have been unimaginable in the world of Irish boxing that Gary Keegan was parachuted into in November of 2002.

Invited to create a blueprint for the sport's future, Keegan encountered a mix of scepticism and faint hostility when delivering an ambitious presentation to the IABA's Central Council.

He would recall ten years later: "I felt people were very uncomfortable with it. It was as if they were saying 'Who do you think you are?'."

Yet Keegan's vision for Irish boxing is the one now reverberating across the international boxing landscape.

The medals won in Bulgaria by Conlan and Joe Ward mean Ireland have claimed gold 12 times at the European Elite Championships since the inaugural tournament of 1925. Seven of those have been claimed in the last five years.

Add in the fact that Dean Walsh's bronze meant that Ireland finished second only to Russia in the final medals table for the third time in the last four European Championships and you begin to absorb just how different life has become for Irish boxing since Keegan's setting of the High Performance Constitution.

The two constant overseers of that constitution, Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia, were again working the Irish corner in Samokov.

Keegan believes Antia to be "the best technical coach in the world".

When recruited to the Irish cause, the Georgian could not speak a word of English, yet his technical understanding of the sweet science was instantly discernible.

But it is Walsh, himself an Olympian in Seoul, who has become what Keegan calls "the glue that keeps the High Performance Unit together".

In Bulgaria, Walsh and Antia worked seamlessly alongside John Conlan (Michael's father) and Eddie Bolger (lifelong coach and confidante of Ward), striking that perfect balance between application of unwaveringly professional standards and careful emotional nurture.

Conlan and Ward have two different stories to tell, yet their journeys haven't been dissimilar. Both have been steeled by hard days and disappointments.

Having watched his older brothers, Brendan and Jamie, thrive in national competition, Michael initially struggled to break through into Jim Moore's cadet squad.

As Walsh put it recently: "He was there, but never sparkling and shining."

It was Antia who recognised something in his technical range, however, the bewildering ability to almost instantaneously switch-hit between southpaw and orthodox.

On Saturday, Conlan brought that range to bear clinically against his British opponent, Qais Ashfaq. He counter-punched beautifully from an orthodox position, building his lead over two rounds, then reverting to southpaw in the third to consolidate it.

By his own admission, he went to Bulgaria with just two weeks of serious training banked, so to emerge from the Championships as 'Boxer of the Tournament' offers an indication of Conlan's startling potential.

Ward, too, carries a sublime breadth of technical ability. That said, he can be an enigma even to those closest to him.

He became a European senior champion at just 17 (something that would not be possible today) and, prior to the commencement of qualification for the last Olympics, would have been seen as perhaps our best male medal hope in London.

However, Ward did not get to the Excel Arena, his Olympic hopes ended by controversial defeat to a Turkish opponent in a Turkish ring.

Amateur boxing is an increasingly ambiguous concept today and Ward has been plying his trade this year with AIBA Pro Boxing, whereas Conlan has been competing under the World Series of Boxing umbrella.

Ward missed his first shot at qualification for Rio last spring when suffering a stoppage defeat in what was effectively a final eliminator under AP Boxing rules.

That defeat freed him up to compete at the Europeans, where he became the first Irishman to win a second Elite Championship gold.

It might have been a third but for the dislocated kneecap that ended his bid to retain the title in Minsk two years ago.

As European champion, Ward will now go to the World Championship in Doha in October (one of seven Irish already qualified) chasing that precious Olympic ticket.

His impressive physical conditioning last week suggested the Moate southpaw, who was just 17 when bringing an end to Kenneth Egan's ten-year light-heavyweight reign as national champion, has now found the focus to fully express his talents at the highest level. His final defeat of Dutchman Peter Mullenburg was impressively comfortable and assured.

So, as another haul of medals came through Dublin Airport arrivals hall last night, it was becoming increasingly difficult to suppress giddy thoughts of the arsenal Ireland might yet bring to next year's Olympics. And yet. . .

Come the World Championships in October, the majority of weight divisions will offer automatic Rio qualification only to gold and silver medallists. And Jason Quigley is the only Irishman ever to make a final bout.

So the culture of endless self-improvement must inevitably continue in the boxing academy on Dublin's South Circular Road, where that 12- foot by 12-foot painted yellow square they call 'The Wall of Honour' is now struggling to contain the fruits of a process begun by Keegan's blueprint 13 years ago.

Irish boxing today is a small eternity removed from that which he placed in the care of Walsh and Antia.

On Saturday, Michael Conlan remarked with a smile: "I came here for gold - I always do."

In the environment of High Performance, it sounded a doctrine, not a boast.

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