Tuesday 23 January 2018

Ward forces Egan to roll with punches

Eamonn Sweeney

On Friday morning, the money started to go on Kenneth Egan. The ten-time champion's odds shortened until he and Joe Ward were more or less the same price. There was a feeling out there that the Neilstown warrior was ripe for resurrection.

You could see the reasoning behind this. The impression had got around, and Egan did nothing to dispel it, that his struggles with drink had distracted from his focus last year. It was suggested Joe Ward had not beaten the real Kenneth Egan. Egan won the Olympic test event in London and brushed opposition aside on the way to the final with a ruthlessness he hadn't displayed in years. He seemed a new man.

There were whispers too that maybe Joe Ward wasn't all he'd been cracked up to be. That slip-up in the World Championships made people wonder if the big 18-year-old from Moate had come too far too soon. The possibility of Egan clinching a record-breaking 11th title with his most remarkable victory of all was mentioned. We didn't hear so much about or from Ward. All he said was, "I still have the big shots."

It took about 30 seconds for the first of those big shots to land, about 30 seconds before Kenneth Egan's priority became not victory but survival. Egan may be in better shape than he was last year but he needed to be just to get through the second round. You see, the Joe Ward who beat him on general election night 2011 was a raw kid with just half a dozen senior bouts. A year later, he's the European champion, the guy who blew his way through the continent's best with ease, taking at first crack a title Egan, despite all his talent, never got near.

Kenneth Egan is a great boxer. But Joe Ward is a phenomenal one, a fighter the like of whom Irish amateur boxing has never seen, a guy whose talent is such that he'll rise as far in this game as he wants to. Only Joe Ward can stop Joe Ward.

Last year in the Stadium you could see how surprised Egan was with the power of the shots hitting him. This year, after his 29-10 defeat, he admitted that he can't live with that power. It took 30 seconds for us to work out that Ward had no fear of Egan's punches, that the veteran couldn't keep the youngster away from him and that the boy from Westmeath possessed the ability to severely punish the Dubliner. Game over.

Ward wasn't the only fighter to confirm the verdict of last year's championships. Another 18-year-old, Michael McDonagh from Tallaght, had to endure many a sniffy comment when he took an unexpected featherweight title 12 months ago. This time he repeated the victory over David Oliver Joyce. He's here to stay.

Last year, Adam Nolan was an unfancied winner in the powerful welterweight division. This time he repeated the dose. Their victories were a retrospective judgement on the box-offs they were subsequently forced to endure. Turns out the national championships are the best way of judging fighters after all.

And now to the final Olympic qualifier in Trabzon. Where Ward should get through. And so should light-flyweight Paddy Barnes, though he had to battle like hell to defeat Ryston's Hugh Myres. Light-welterweight Ross Hickey looks a good bet for qualification too. After that, McDonagh and Nolan's inexperience at international level might be a drawback, though Nolan beat Olympian John Joe Joyce in his final.

You'd love to see super-heavyweight Con Sheehan, knocking on the door for a while now, get his ticket to the big show. Should new heavyweight champion Tommy McCarthy make it, Kenneth Egan will kick himself all the way to the Chelsea Hotel.

Who knows? The probability is three. The dream is six. The nightmare is zero. As Joe Ward found in Baku, nothing is guaranteed. The draw will be crucial. But at least they'll be there. Because the heartbreak of John Joe Joyce, three points shy of a shot at the Olympics, and his cousin David Oliver, who came up four short, was striking. On another night they might have got the decision.

But for them Olympic dreams have to go on ice for another four years. Boxing might be our greatest Olympic sport, but it's also the cruellest.

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