Conrad Cummings, Jason Quigley & Tommy McCarthy: the men who couldn't wait for Rio
THE largest Irish team since Olympic qualification was introduced headed out to Rio de Janeiro last Tuesday - but the make-up of the squad could have been much different had some top names not decided to turn professional midway through the four-year cycle.
Jason Quigley, Conrad Cummings and Tommy McCarthy could have been about to embark on their own Olympic journey, but all three switched over to the paid ranks before the qualification process for the Games got under way.
As yet undefeated, all three are making progress in the pro game. But with the Games around the corner, is there any part of them that wishes they were gearing up for ‘the greatest show on earth’?
Long before Portlaoise stylist Michael O’Reilly burst onto the middleweight scene, a tasty rivalry was brewing between Quigley, Cummings and Darren O’Neill.
O’Neill was Ireland team captain at the 2012 Olympics in London, thanks largely to a controversial victory over Coalisland native Cummings in their 2011 Irish Elite semi-final clash. Cummings had looked to be on the brink of a possible shock victory over the defending 75kg champion when, with 30 seconds left and O’Neill having just edged ahead for the first time, the bell rang for the end of the fight. Dream over - just like that.
A son of renowned amateur coach Patsy Cummings, Conrad, then fighting for Holy Trinity in Belfast, had always wanted to represent Ireland at the Olympics. Understandably, the manner in which he missed out on London left a sour taste.
“I remember looking at the calendar and thinking 'what age will I be by this Olympics or that Olympics? Will I be too old or too young?'," he said.
“I thought ‘London will be perfect’ - and it would’ve been perfect. But I didn’t get to go and whatever happened is history.”
Cummings switched his goals, turned his attention to the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and got back at it. But all of a sudden, Quigley was flavour of the month amongst the High Performance coaches and the Olympics felt further away than ever.
Barry McGuigan had been monitoring Cummings’ progress and, when the call came in late 2013 to see if he would be interested in joining his Cyclone Promotions team, a decision had to be made: “Rio just seemed a long way away,” addd the 25-year-old.
“I was hot on Darren O’Neill’s heels and then they thought Quigley was going to be the next one. Then there was word that Quigley might not stay amateur and Billy Walsh phones me and says ‘Conrad, you need to not go pro’. I thought ‘you’ve never said that once to me in your life, but now that Quigley’s gone, now I’m getting a call?'
“My father trained me as an amateur - he was saying ‘son, wait at least six months until the Commonwealth Games, you’ll be a household name after it’. That’s fair enough, but my dream was to be a world champion.”
That dream led to Cummings joining the Cyclone stable and the 9-0-1 pro is currently preparing to fight on the undercard of Carl Frampton’s world featherweight title showdown with Leo Santa Cruz in New York this Saturday night.
“There’s no certainty in amateur boxing, but that wasn’t my problem," he said.
“I felt I was unfairly done [against Darren O’Neill] and I got sick of it. I just said ‘frig that’ and made the best decision for Conrad Cummings. I’ve had 10 fights as a pro now, undefeated, I’m boxing on the undercard of Carl Frampton’s fight in New York. You can’t really argue with that.”
Irish head coach Billy Walsh was delighted when Jason Quigley won a silver medal at the 2014 World Championships, but was also overcome by a sense of impending doom in the weeks and months after.
Seen as a guaranteed Olympic medalist, Ireland couldn’t afford to let the likes of Quigley slip through the net - especially with Cummings already gone. Yet, the Donegal banger wasn’t without suitors after an impressive show in Kazakhstan.
When Quigley didn’t weigh-in for the Irish Elites the following March, Walsh and Zaur Antia knew the writing was on the wall: “I always wanted to turn professional, but not once through the World Championships did I think ‘I’m going to turn pro after this’ because I was so focused on what I was doing,” said the Ballybofey native.
“But after, I had a bit of time and, obviously, offers started coming in. It was a big decision I had to make. Of course, Billy and Zaur wanted me to stay, I was part of their team to go the whole way. They helped me grow as an amateur.”
However, the lure of Los Angeles and a contract with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions proved too good to turn down. Had the Olympics been within the next 12 months after his World silver, he may have bided his time, but Quigley wasn’t for hanging about too long.
“When I looked at things, the way the championships were going without the headguards and boys getting cut early on - boys that were maybe favourite to win the World Championships - it made me think: 'am I going to hang about here for another couple of years and try and make the Olympics?'
“Next thing, you could get a cut and you wouldn’t be able to make it anyway. Growing up, becoming a professional world champion was always the goal - to be an Olympic gold medalist only became a goal of mine when it became a realistic possibility. It wasn’t like it was something I always wanted to do.”
Now 11-0 and ranked among the top 15 middleweights by the World Boxing Association, Quigley - like Cummings - has no regrets: “At the end of the day, it was the right decision to turn over and I’m delighted with the decision I made.”
There is no heavyweight on the Irish team in Brazil, but that is likely to have been a different story had Belfast banger Tommy McCarthy not turned pro in January 2014.
McCarthy was sounded out by the Irish Athletic Boxing Association about entering the professional qualification tournament in Venezuela earlier this month, but politely declined. After a breakthrough victory over the veteran Jon Lewis Dickinson last time out put him well on the road to a British cruiserweight title shot, the 25-year-old’s career is going in the right direction.
Like Quigley, his dream was always to be world champion, not an Olympic champion, but McCarthy (9-0) admits part of him would love to be in Brazil with friends and former team-mates Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan.
“The only reason I would be going would be just to have the craic with Paddy and Mick,” he said.
“They’ve been sleggin me since London, saying things like ‘I’m feeling very Olympic today’, all that, so they wouldn’t be able to sleg me any more if I did go to an Olympics! Ultimately though, my main goal is to be a world champion as a professional."