Wednesday 17 January 2018

Nevin and O'Neill put a smile back on Irish faces

Boxers get their campaigns off to winning start, says John O'Brien

They are the closest of friends and room together when they travel abroad with the Irish boxing team so it seemed entirely fitting that Darren O'Neill and John Joe Nevin should be the first Irish fighters to step into the ring in the ExCel Arena in the heart of London's docklands yesterday, carrying the torch for their proud team-mates and, quite possibly, for Irish Olympic hopes too.

And after a week that has been dogged by talk of CAS appeals and betting scandals, it took Irish boxing to put a smile on people's faces again, Nevin dismantling Dennis Ceylan of Denmark 21-6, while O'Neill had a harder time, although only relatively speaking, against the Nigerian, Muldeen Akanji, before advancing to the last 16 of the middleweight division on a 15-6 scoreline.

No disrespect to the admirable O'Neill, but it was Nevin who stole the show. The Mullingar-based bantamweight has always been regarded as a classy and intelligent boxer and, with the experience of Beijing in 2008, where he reached the last 16, behind him, he arrived in London widely viewed as a strong medal contender. Yesterday's performance will only have enhanced that perception.

"I'm delighted with the performance," a noticeably fresh Nevin said in the mixed zone afterwards. "I have got my country off to a winning start. It's nice to get off to a winner on such a big occasion. I bossed him four years ago but I figured he'd all changed."

Nevin was referring to the European Union Championships in Poland in 2008 when he had beaten Ceylan 17-9 in the quarter-final and, clearly, the gap between them hasn't narrowed in the meantime. Including Nevin, Ceylan had fought a total of three bouts against Irish boxers and been comfortably beaten each time. So it would have been a surprise if Nevin had experienced much trouble easing himself past first base yesterday.

It was the manner of victory that caught the eye, though, the way Nevin oozed class and authority all through. Although clearly superior from the opening bell, he finished the first round just three points in front, but he gave the impression of a boxer merely feeling his way into the tournament, the way an accomplished tenor might clear his throat before delivering an aria.

Keen to flex his authority in the second, Nevin simply raced clear and finished the contest playfully toying with Ceylan whom he classes as a good friend. "The first round was a bit dodgy," Nevin said. "I came out for the second and I got back to what John Joe Nevin does best. I can beat anyone and I gave him a bit of a lesson I thought."

Earlier this year, Nevin broke his jaw competing in the World Series of Boxing and, with good timing, appears to be approaching peak form again. "I just need sharpening up," he said. "More jab work and feinting. I was kind of a bit down in the first round but it all came back. Caught him with one or two right hooks and he didn't want to commit then. I felt them myself. They gave me the shakes hitting them."

In Akanji, O'Neill found himself up against a tall, awkward opponent who required a bit of working out before the Co Kilkenny fighter's greater strength and superior boxing skills powered him clear. Just one point ahead after the opening round, a crushing right hook sent Akanji reeling in the second and underlined O'Neill's authority. In firm control, he took his foot off the pedal, steering clear of Akanji's long reach, consolidating his lead for a tidy and very professional victory.

"Cagey enough in the first round," O'Neill agreed afterwards. "He was a long, rangy opponent. We were going to find it hard to get distance and range and all the rest of that. In the second round we implemented the tactics a bit better and we got our points, thankfully. The third round was just about being careful and picking off a few scores here and there."

It was a day for quiet satisfaction, though, not too much more than that. Ireland head coach Billy Walsh was pleased but understandably circumspect. "It was average," he said of Nevin's victory. "I wouldn't go beyond that. It was average." O'Neill didn't fare much better. "It wasn't one of his better performances," Walsh said, "but it was good enough for today."

Nevin will fight next on Wednesday afternoon, the Kazakh southpaw Kanat Abutalipov standing between him and a place in the quarter-finals. Abutalipov has a victory this year over reigning world champion and No 1 seed, Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba, although Nevin hammered him 15-2 in a fight in Baku in 2009 and will likely start a warm favourite.

O'Neill is next up against the German, Stefan Haertel, a day later, and will see no reason too why he can't edge closer towards a medal. This evening sees the Olympic debut of Bray welterweight Adam Nolan, who faces Carlos Santos Estacio of Ecuador for a place in the last 16. Round one done, though, and everyone still standing. All told a decent day's work by the Thames in east London.

Sunday Indo Sport

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