Wednesday 22 November 2017

No room for error as boxers face final shot at London

Tommy Conlon

Ireland's best amateur boxers were fighting for national titles at the Stadium on Friday night, but everyone knew there was a whole lot more at stake.

In this Olympic year they were fighting for passports to an altogether grander event. The pressure and expectation hovered in the atmosphere as years of hard labour were compressed into the nine minutes that would decide everything.

All of the fighters gathered there had reached a fork in the road. Some of the best, European champion Ray Moylette among them, hadn't even made it that far, already eliminated in the preceding weeks. For him and all the other beaten contenders there would be no London 2012, no shot at the dream of an Olympic medal. They will have to wait another four years, if they have the stomach and the heart for such a long road with so few guarantees.

And even among the winners on Friday night there will be further casualties before London. They now have to take their chances at the final Olympic qualifiers in Turkey in April.

Among them will be Joe Ward. Twelve months ago, Ward shocked everyone with his brutal demolition of the one amateur boxer who had transcended his sport to become a household name. Kenneth Egan's Olympic silver medal, his 10 national titles and his natural charisma counted for nothing against an opponent who was too young to care. Ward was a 17-year-old with preternatural levels of power for his age. He was an adolescent behemoth, still carrying traces of teenage flab around his torso, and still growing into his physical frame. Egan could've given him lessons in technique, ring craft and experience. Ward instead delivered a lesson in raw power, loosening Egan's headguard with the force of his shots.

The National Stadium was a sell-out on Friday for the rematch. Egan was forewarned now; he presumably would have a strategy and there could be no doubting his motivation. Again it counted for nothing. The fight, in truth, was a procession. Within 30 seconds the template had been established, Ward moving Egan around the ring with his heavy, concussive punches.

By the end of the first round he had established a 9-5 lead. "He's one big gosson alright," said Jimmy Magee on commentary, a minute into the second round. And no sooner had he said it but the big gosson was toppled by a swinging right to the head from Egan. The referee ruled it a slip rather than a knockdown and almost immediately Egan was back on the receiving end. He got a standing count late in the second and sat on his stool knowing the game was up with a round to go. The fear now was that this proud, likeable champion wouldn't even get to finish the fight.

Ward picked him off several times in the third to win outright by a 29-10 margin. Egan afterwards announced his intention to fight on but, at 30, it's hard to see where he can go now. At least he will always have Beijing. The silver medal, with the troubles that followed him in its wake, became a well-publicised burden. He struggled to cope with the celebrity that followed and admits that a fair amount of the turmoil was self-inflicted. One hopes that in time the achievement will become a source of comfort. This country has had few Olympic medal-winners; there is a wellspring of warmth and respect that can last a lifetime for those who win one. One hopes that he will come to enjoy the glow it brings in the years ahead.

As for Ward, he still has it all to do. On Friday he looked more of an athlete than he had a year earlier: fitter, faster, more muscular and streamlined. It is hard to conceive that there is a more formidable 18-year-old amateur boxer anywhere in the world. Which is dangerous talk, because there is always someone somewhere with similarly potent levels of talent and ambition.

Last October he was beaten at the world championships in Azerbaijan by an Iranian opponent who came with a plan and implemented it. It means he now has only one chance left to make the London games. There are three slots remaining in the light-heavyweight division -- Ward will have to make the final in Turkey to guarantee safe passage. He needs luck and he needs to stay healthy.

The depth of talent in the amateur ranks means that most Irish champions are nowadays well-drilled and battle-hardened for international competition. The peer pressure is highly productive: they are competing with domestic rivals who have brought home medals at all levels of the international game. It has raised standards and expectations. They know they are operating in a world-class environment at home; it has given them the confidence to perform against world-class opponents abroad.

Three boxers have already qualified for London: Darren O'Neill, Michael Conlan and John Joe Nevin. Ward has the form and the talent to join them. The likes of Paddy Barnes, Adam Nolan, Michael McDonagh and Ross Hickey, among others, will also be looking to get through the eye of the needle in April. Katie Taylor, meanwhile, will be travelling to China in May for her last chance of qualifying. She was a spectator in the Stadium on Friday.

If the country gets to celebrate a few Olympic medallists in July/August, they will probably come from this chosen few.

thecouch@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

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