Wednesday 24 January 2018

Meet the magnificent seven who can restore Ireland's pride at the Rio Olympics

The eight Irish boxers who qualified for Rio, from left, Paddy Barnes, David Joyce, Michael Conlan, Michael O’Reilly, Steven Donnelly, Brendan Irvine, Joe Ward, and Katie Taylor, at the National Stadium last month. O’Reilly’s Games look to be over after yesterday’s news about his positive drugs test. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
The eight Irish boxers who qualified for Rio, from left, Paddy Barnes, David Joyce, Michael Conlan, Michael O’Reilly, Steven Donnelly, Brendan Irvine, Joe Ward, and Katie Taylor, at the National Stadium last month. O’Reilly’s Games look to be over after yesterday’s news about his positive drugs test. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Seán McGoldrick

Though the fallout from the controversy over Michael O'Reilly's alleged failed dope test continues to gather momentum both in Ireland and Rio, the focus will eventually return to the challenge facing the other seven members of the Irish boxing team competing at the 2016 Games.

Twelve years ago only one Irish boxer competed at the Olympics; in Beijing the boxing team secured three medals. Four years later in London, they won four with Katie Taylor capturing a historic gold medal. So what can the team of 2016, without the services Michael O'Reilly, who was a medal contender in the middleweight category, achieve?

Paddy Barnes

(light flyweight)

The double Olympic bronze medallist escaped his worst nightmare - the possibility of having to fight in the first session of the boxing tournament tomorrow morning just hours after carrying the Irish flag in the opening ceremony.

Seeded fourth he received a first-round bye and goes into action on Monday next when he will make history by becoming the first Irish boxer to compete at three Olympics. The bad news for Barnes is that he is on the same side of the draw as the world champion and gold medal favourite Joahnys Argilagos from Cuba.

The 29-year-old Irish team captain is still capable of at least equalling his efforts at the Beijing and London games. The big worry about him is that since he qualified for the Olympics by winning the WSB title in Venezuela April 2015, he hasn't boxed any top-class light-flyweights in competition.

While the gold medal may elude him again he is likely to finish on the podium.

Brendan Irvine


Better known as the 'Wee Rooster' in the boxing community, he is the baby of the squad at just 20. He made a sensational start to his international career when he won a silver medal at the inaugural European Games in Baku last summer in the 49kg weight division.

Unlucky to drop a split decision to a Turkish fighter at the World Championships in Doha, he then opted to move up to the flyweight category. He is ahead of schedule by qualifying for these Games which he did at the first European qualifier in Turkey earlier this year. He has to wait until Saturday week to make his debut and he faces a tough opponent from Uzbekistan.

Michael Conlan bantamweight

The number one seed in the bantamweight division he is the gold medal favourite and he goes into the tournament as the reigning Commonwealth, European and World champion. Likely to turn professional after the Games, winning the gold medal would boost his profile and earn him a lucrative signing-on fee. One concern for the 24-year-old Belfast star is that he sustained a serious cut at the Commonwealth Games in 2013 and again in a tournament in Lithuania after a clash of heads earlier this year. For the first time since the Los Angeles Games in 1984 the boxers will not be wearing protective headgear which increases the chances of being cut.

He has his first fight on Sunday week and if the draw works out will face Murodjon Akhmadaliev from Uzbekistan in the final which will be a repeat of the World Championship final in Doha last year.

He looks on target for the gold.

David Oliver Joyce (lightweight)

David Oliver Joyce will have the honour of being the first Irish boxer in action when he meets Andrique Allisop from the Seychelles in the 60kg class in the morning session on Sunday.

Thirteen years ago the Athy boxer won a European bronze medal at a junior. He was unlucky not to qualify for both the Beijing and London Olympics - particularly the latter when he came within seconds of beating an Indian boxer only be harshly penalised by the referee.

He subsequently nearly quit the sport but changed his mind and was later signed up by the newly-launched AIBA Professional series of boxing. While he didn't qualify for the Olympics through the APB he made an impact and finally reached the Promised Land at the qualifying tournament in Turkey earlier his year. He did it the hard way - securing a majority 2-1 verdict over a Turkish fighter in a box-off.

The Rio draw wasn't particularly kind to him - if he wins his first round his next clash is against the number two seed Albert Selimov from Azerbaijan - who is the second favourite for the gold medal. So realistically Joyce is unlikely to medal.

Steven Donnelly (welterweight)

The 27-year-old Larne native boxes out of the Ballymena-based All Saints club where actor Liam Neeson learned his pugilistic skills when he was growing up. Donnelly is the classic rags-to-riches story in sporting terms.

He was sent home from the Commonwealth Games for a breach of discipline in his early twenties and, by his own admission, went 'off the rails' for a couple of years afterwards. But he got back into the sport and impressed in the World Boxing Series in 2015.

He secured his place in Rio via the back door. Two Russian welterweights qualified through different routes - but countries are only allowed one boxer per weight division so the two Russians had to box off which allowed Donnelly take up the vacant place.

Seeded eighth, his first fight will be against an Algerian boxer on Sunday. But the gold medal favourite from Morocco, Mohammed Rabii, is on the same side of the draw as the Irishman which probably scuppers his chances of a medal.

Joe Ward (light heavyweight)

A cousin of David Oliver Joyce, 22-year-old Ward was unlucky not to qualify for the London Games. He has had a glittering career and is expected to turn professional - though might delay his departure to the fully paid ranks if he misses out on a medal in Rio.

He is seeded fourth which looks likely to pit him against the gold medal favourite Julio Cesar La Cruz from Cuba in a repeat of their World final in Doha last autumn. A classy southpaw boxer, Ward won't lack confidence if he faces the Cuban. He is a double European gold medallist and has silver and bronze medals at World level as well as two underage World titles. A definite medal prospect but might have to settle for bronze.

Katie Taylor (lightweight)

Bidding to become the first Irish athlete to retain an Olympic title since hammer thrower Pat O'Callaghan in 1932, Katie Taylor's first fight in Rio will be for a bronze medal on Monday week, August 15 in which she faces either a Finnish or Brazilian lightweight.

She is the most decorated boxer in the Games with 18 championship gold medals. But her form is patchy going into the tournament after defeats in the European qualifier in Turkey and then in the semi-finals of the World Championships. The absence of her father Peter from her corner appears to have adversely affected her form in the last year.

She is the number one seed and ought to make the semi-final where she is almost certain to face Yana Alekseevna representing Azerbaijan who beat her in that European Olympic qualifier.

Born in the Ukraine, Alekseevna boxes from an unorthodox southpaw stance which troubles Katie and the Bray girl was fortunate to get the decision against her at the European Games in Baku last year. This will be a mission of revenge for Katie and if she were to retain her gold medal it would represent her greatest ever achievement in the sport.

Irish boxers' Olympic draw

π K Taylor (1)* quarter-final v M Potkonen (Finland) or A Araujo (Brazil) on Aug 15 (morning session)

π P Barnes (4) second round v A Hovhannis (Armenia) or S Carmonda Heredia (Spain) on Aug 8 (morning)

π B Irvine first round v S Zoirov (Uzbekistan), Aug 13 (morning)

π M Conlan (1) second round v A Morisaka (Japan) or A Avagyan (Armenia), Aug 10 (morning)

π D O Joyce v A Allisop (Seychellas), Aug 7 (evening)

π S Donnelly (8) v Z Kedache (Algeria), Aug 7 (morning)

π M O'Reilly (3) v M Rodriguez (Mexico) or W Karaawi (Azerbaijan), Aug 12 (evening)

π Joe Ward (4) v M Serge (Germany) or C A Mina (Ecuador), Aug 10 (evening)

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