HAWKINS HAPPY TO HELP
Mozambique would be considered as something of an outpost in the boxing world, but Harry Hawkins sees plenty of potential after training their team at the Commonwealth Games...
"IS that Harry Hawkins?"
Jim Neilly's eyes didn't deceive him. As Mozambique's Augusto Mathule made his way back to the red corner, the veteran BBC boxing commentator did a double-take.
There was Hawkins, doing what he does best - what he's been doing for years. But why was he working the corner of what most would consider a boxing backwater at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow? The simple answer: he was asked, he said yes, and that was that.
Initial contact came in April when enquiries were made about the possibility of Holy Trinity's light-welterweight prospect Bernaldo Marime - who moved to Coalisland at the age of 12 - representing the country of his birth.
Within weeks of that first email correspondence with the Mozambique sports ministry, Hawkins was asked to take the four-strong team from the southeast African country under his wing. And as 19-year-old Marime stepped up to full-time training at the end of May, he was joined by compatriots Juliano Maquina and Mathule. They arrived with no gear, and no English.
In a career that has taken him to all four corners of the globe and the upper echelons of both the amateur and professional game, pulling a rabbit out of the hat in Glasgow would surely represent Hawkins' greatest challenge yet.
The end result, though, was a first-ever boxing medal for Mozambique as Maria Machongua - a late-comer to the Belfast training camp - took bronze at 60kg. And although visa issues had delayed her arrival, Hawkins could see potential straight away. "She was completely unknown to us, but you could tell taking her on the pads that she wasn't bad - and she listened intently to what you were saying," said the Belfast trainer. "We were drawing up plans for each girl she was going to be fighting at the Games, and she was able to put that into action. When you were speaking to her in the corner, she was taking it all in. "She lost the first round in both fights and if I was telling her to go out and do more work, or to step back and pick her shots, she was able to do it. She's an intelligent girl."
Machongua normally campaigns at 54kg and, while other boxers struggle to get down to their chosen weight, she had to bulk up on food and drink on the morning of the weigh-ins in order to be allowed to fight at 60kg.
Put in that context, her bronze medal achievement is all the greater. "Most fighters are boiling down before the weigh-in but she was having a cup of tea and a muffin for her breakfast. One morning she had to drink two bottles of water to get her over 57 kilos - anything under 57 and they won't let you fight [at 60kg]. "It's not what you normally expect, but she did very well. She had two good wins but the Indian girl she met in the semi-final [Laishram Devi] normally boxes at 64 kilos and came down to 60 - you could see they were really two weight divisions apart. "But to win a first boxing medal for Mozambique was some achievement. She was over the moon, and the sports minister and a few other Mozambique government representatives took us all out into Glasgow the night she received her medal. "The ladies' World Championships are coming up in October and she'll be fighting at her natural weight, so she'll be a handful."
Maquina, Marime and Mathule all fell at the first hurdle, but the experience of a full-time training camp, working alongside other international teams during a 10-day stint in Jordanstown, and the Games themselves will stand the young fighters in great stead for the future.
As for Hawkins, his journey into the unknown may not have ended after leaving Glasgow for home last Monday. The Belfast trainer has been in touch with Mozambique's sports ministry, and the president of the country's boxing federation is expected here next month to see how the good work done thus far can be built upon. "Their next big tournament is the African Nations Championships in the spring of next year but I've told them I can't change anything in four or five weeks. You're talking years really," said Hawkins, who revealed there is a possibility that he could take a Holy Trinity team out to the Mozambique capital of Maputo in December as preparation for the Ulster and Irish Senior Championships. "They need to learn the technical aspects of it - knowing when to fight, when to spoil, and when to catch the eye of the judges," he said. "Augusto, Bernaldo and Juliano all gave good accounts of themselves - Bernaldo was very unlucky, I thought he dominated the first two rounds of his fight. But if there was a 50/50 decision, they weren't going to get it because there aren't too many African referees and judges. "The next Commonwealth Games has got to be their target - the team at the minute are all 19 and 20 so they're young and they have plenty of learning to do. You see the likes of Paddy Barnes and how he dominated his division - that's years of experience. You can't buy that."
And even though Holy Trinity had two fighters - Ruairi Dalton and Sean Duffy - on the Northern Ireland team, Hawkins insists he didn't feel like a fish out of water working the corner of a rival nation. "Not at all," he says. "This kind of thing is happening in boxing now, a bit like in football. One of the Australian coaches was from England, there were Scottish guys in the New Zealand corner. "I've worked with the Mexico team in the World Series of Boxing when Conrad Cummings was with them - I can work with any boxer in the world, and to me it's all the same."
* BREAKING NEW GROUND: Mozambique's Bernaldo Marime lands a left jab on Zambia's Charles Lumbwe during their Commonwealth Games clash in Glasgow; (top right) Mozambique team trainer Harry Hawkins, from the Holy Trinity club in Belfast where Marime trains, celebrates with Maria Machongua after she claimed a bronze medal; (right) Augusto Mathule trades blows with Mandeep Jangra, who would eventually go on to claim welterweight silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; (below) Machongua (blue) mixes it with tough Indian Laishram Devi in her 60kg semi-final before ultimately coming up short of a final place