Ringmasters distract us from sad comedy of our national circus
We really are in danger of running out of superlatives for the magnificent Irish amateur boxers. Because every time you think things can't get any better for them, you're proved wrong.
When the news came in that only two of the squad had qualified for the European Championship semi-finals in Ankara, it was hard not to feel somewhat disappointed. Okay, if Paddy Barnes hadn't been injured he'd have been a pretty certain medallist. And John Joe Nevin appeared to have been robbed in his single-point quarter-final defeat.
All the same after last year's heroics in Moscow, when the team brought back a gold, a silver and three bronzes, it looked as though this year would be slightly underwhelming in comparison. And then what happens? Our two semi-finalists, Joe Ward and Ray Moylette, decide to push on all the way to gold. So for the first time since 1939 Ireland have won two gold medals in a European Championships. We have outdone ourselves again. Barnes's gold last year in Moscow was the first for an Irish boxer in these championships since Paul Griffin in 1991. But now, in one fell swoop, the achievement has been doubled.
What can you say about Joe Ward? Perhaps only that he is a phenomenon, a force of nature in the Rory McIlroy mould who defies sporting logic. The new European light-heavyweight champion is still only 17 and when he faced the highly-rated Russian Nikita Ivanov in Friday's final was contesting just his tenth senior fight. The 24-year-old Ivanov on the other hand had won several top international tournaments, was regarded as one of the stars of the Russian team and went into the final as hot favourite.
Except, as Kenneth Egan found out at the national championships, Joe Ward doesn't seem to check the odds before he fights. He dominated his more experienced opponent to score an easy 20-12 victory and cement his status as perhaps the most exciting prospect in world amateur boxing.
The victory was also a slap in the puss for Egan whose decision to run to the media with complaints about Ward a few weeks back displayed a pettiness which was both surprising and disappointing. The papers duly lapped up Egan's 'stinging' attack on his conqueror and didn't note the incongruity of a 29-year-old complaining that a 17-year-old wasn't being nice enough to him in training. We might now reflect that one reason Ward has a European gold medal is that, while he might be a teenager, he's mature enough to avoid that kind of rubbish.
When Ward won a world under 19 title last year, he was the second Irishman to do so. The first was Ray Moylette who triumphed memorably in 2008. Light-welterweight Moylette's rise to the top has not been quite as meteoric as Ward's and he actually suffered a shock defeat by unheralded James McDonagh in the quarter-finals of this year's national championships. In mitigation, the Mayoman had just recovered from a broken hand suffered when he slipped on last Christmas's bumper crop of ice, and probably shouldn't have been in the ring at all. But he wouldn't have even made the Europeans had the Army not refused to release national champion Ross Hickey.
Moylette made the most of his second chance. In the final he faced England's Thomas Stalker, a Commonwealth Games champion and European silver medallist, and won 18-10 before performing a spectacular handstand to celebrate his victory. Only two other nations, Russia and Wales, won multiple golds. As usual we finished the championships at or near the top.
Chances are that Moylette is the first European champion from his home village of Islandeady. It's likely that Ward doesn't have many rivals for the position of Moate's most successful sportsman either. But at a time when towns and villages in places like Westmeath and Mayo are taking big hits from the recession and we watch through our fingers as Michael Noonan totes his begging bowl around Europe like a crusty busker trying to make spare change in Galway, we can console ourselves that there is something which makes us the envy rather than the laughing stock of the continent. They did us proud again. They always do us proud.
Cherish the boxers.
Sunday Indo Sport