Sunday 18 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Irish boxing is in a sorry state and the IABA must take a hard look at itself

Eamonn Sweeney

Has this been the worst week and a bit in the history of Irish amateur boxing? Very probably.

Let’s face it, if at the height of the Billy Walsh controversy one of the Wexford man’s partisans had suggested that Michael O’Reilly, Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward between them wouldn’t win a single bout in Rio, he’d have been laughed out of court. “Come on,” we’d have said to him, “We know you’re upset but there’s no need to exaggerate.” Yet that is exactly what has happened.

More seriously, leaving individual performances out of it, in the space of less than a fortnight Irish amateur boxing has lost the reputation as the jewel in the crown of Irish sport, our Olympic standard-bearer, the epitome of high performance efficiency, which it had won over the past decade. Instead it has cut an increasingly bedraggled and bemused figure. This is a sorry state of affairs.

How sorry can be seen by the fact that you had to go back to 2004 for the last time an Irish boxer lost his first bout at the Olympics. Overachievement was the order of the day in both 2008 and 2012. This time there were three one and dones, more than in the previous five games combined.

The Michael O’Reilly affair was hardly, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, conducive to good morale but it was Paddy Barnes’ defeat by Samuel Carmona last Monday which seemed to set the tone for the miserable week which followed. In both the literal and the metaphorical sense Barnes was the standard bearer for not just Irish boxing but Irish sport as a whole at these games.

The most favoured Irishman to win a gold medal and a proven championship performer, his early departure, and the tame nature of it, was a shocking body blow. 

Back in 2007 a young and unfancied Barnes’ achievement in reaching a world championships quarter-final and qualifying for the Beijing Olympics ushered the golden age of Irish amateur boxing. His defeat at the hands of a young and unfancied Spaniard could well presage the end of that golden age.

It was somewhat remarkable in the aftermath of Monday’s defeat to see it portrayed as a kind of tragic inevitability, something which could not have been helped given the fighter’s struggles to make the light-flyweight limit. Yet the near unanimity on this matter begged a couple of questions. Firstly, why did no-one think of mentioning this before the event? I read more Olympic previews than is healthy, all of which predicted medal glory for Barnes and not one of which suggested he should be discounted on account of weight issues.

And more importantly, if Barnes was having such struggles even as he was qualifying at light-fly in the World Series of Boxing, why didn’t he move up a division to flyweight? There was ample time for him to qualify in that division at the world championships in Doha.

The idea that Barnes was just a helpless victim, drifting towards inevitable defeat, beggars belief. Surely in the 16 months since he qualified, a period in which he didn’t have a single competitive fight, someone could have addressed the weight issue. Not to do so seems a very slipshod way of doing business. This was a man with potential to win an Olympic medal, maybe even an Olympic title. Those chances should have been maximised.

Similarly, for all the talk about how Joe Ward faced an impossible task in trying to overcome the negative tactics of the Awful Ecuadorian, Carlos Mina, the fact remains that Ward was second favourite for gold. This was the kind of bout all top class fighters have to overcome at some stage. Yet Ward too looked strangely subdued as he crashed out.

Watching Brendan Irvine get about as comprehensive a trouncing as is possible in the amateur game from an opponent he’d actually been favoured to overcome when the initial draw was made, you couldn’t escape the conclusion that the Irish boxers have looked completely off their game in Rio. Even Steven Donnelly, whose progress to the quarter-final was the one bright spot of the week, was fortunate to come up against two opponents he would in normal circumstances have been favoured to defeat.

The IABA will probably be upset to hear what they will regard as the grinding of a Billy Walsh shaped axe. But when there is such a drastic drop-off in performance levels, the obvious thing to do is to look at what is different from this major championship and the others at which Ireland has performed so well since 2008. The big difference is the absence of the Head Coach who was in the corner at the previous tournaments but this time round was in the corner of US light-flyweight Nico Hernandez as he became the first American medal winner since 2008. That could be a coincidence too of course. But it’s unlikely.

What’s striking watching any Olympic event is how ruthless they are. The work of a lifetime can be destroyed in a few minutes. This being so, and the competition being so tough, it behoves those responsible for our Olympic competitors to refrain from making foolish mistakes.

Sadly the exiling of Billy Walsh looks like one of those mistakes. The IABA will have to take criticism for it on the chin. After all, had things gone well last week they’d have been entitled to turn round to their detractors and say, “Now, do we miss Billy Walsh?”

There is still the chance that Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor will medal but even that won’t entirely dispel the scent of disaster currently wafting over the boxing programme. Taylor, after all, is sui generis and seems to a certain extent to operate at one remove from the national squad.

Her dominance precedes the revival of boxing’s fortunes at the 2008 Olympics. The fact that just one win will suffice to earn her a medal sums up the attenuated nature of the competition where she will be doing her stuff.

The lesson for Irish boxing is that there is nothing inevitable about success. Just over a decade ago it was rowing which seemed poised to become our leading Olympic sport.

There were final appearances and world titles and bright young stars on the way up. Instead mistakes at the top stalled that momentum, rowing went into decline and it was boxing which provided the Olympic heroics.

Now rowing is on the way back. Boxing, on the other hand, will have to face up to some hard truths. The sport has been here before, the performances of Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough in 1992 seemed to show that Ireland could become a kind of rainy Cuba. Instead, just eight years later, we had only one boxer in the games and he went out in the first round.

That kind of thing can happen again. It will happen unless the IABA admits just how bad the Rio campaign has been.

Online Editors

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