Boxing

Seconds Out: Sean McComb is aiming to rise to the top after a disappointing year

Holy Trinity's Sean McComb is aiming for a big 2017 after the disappointment of the past 12 months
Picture by Hugh Russell

‘Anyone in the north between 60kg-64kg fancy any sparring this Friday? Professional or amateur?’

DESPERATE times call for desperate measures and Sean McComb is desperate to get his career back on track after lacing up gloves for just one competitive fight in the last 12 months.

This Twitter plea didn’t exactly open the floodgates from fighters queuing up to spar the Holy Trinity stylist until former amateur star turned pro Michael Conlan stepped up to the plate.

Despite just returning from a fortnight in Los Angeles working with new trainer Manny Robles, Conlan suggested the going had been tough with his former Irish team-mate when he tweeted McComb: ‘My head’s sore now lad, it was a speed ball for you today. Definitely winning the light-welterweight senior title this year’

“It was a great spar,” said McComb.

“I’ve been on social media calling out for sparring but nobody seems to want to do it. Michael Conlan was in LA last week, he’s not long home, and he was the only one who stepped up and said he’d help me out because I do need it. There are loads of people out there who are my weight in the pro game and the amateur game but no-one wants to spar.

“I’ve only boxed once in a year now, but I’m starting to be a bit more active. I fought in Florida a few weeks ago, I’m fighting in Germany next week and then I’m out for Ireland against England at the National Stadium the week after. That’s exactly what I need.”

Professional featherweight James Tennyson could be available in the coming months, while reigning Irish bantamweight champion Kurt Walker has also offered his services as both he and McComb prepare for February’s national elite championships.

As a two-time Irish champion already, McComb knows the terrain and knows what it takes to finish top of the pile. Yet, having moved from lightweight to light-welter earlier this year, he is hoping to break new ground.

Wexford’s Dean Walsh has won the last two Irish titles at 64kg, but McComb feels he is up there with anybody at his new weight class.

He said: “I’ve sparred them all so I know what they’re all capable of.

“I know who’s going to be there or thereabouts by the semi-final and final, and they’ll only be there or thereabouts if they don’t meet me earlier on because I know for a fact that when I’m at 64 kilos, comfortable at the weight, that’s when I’m at my best.

“Tiernan Bradley’s up to 64, Wayne Kelly, Dean Walsh, they’re all very beatable to me. I’ve had some good spars with Dean, they all went in my favour, but that’s sparring. It’s completely different.”

With European and World Championships taking place next year, McComb is determined to make his mark on the international stage for the first time since landing bronze at the 2015 European Games.

He lost out to Joe Fitzpatrick in a box-off for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and it is understood Irish head coach Zaur Antia was keen for McComb to be the Irish light-welter heading to the final Olympic qualifier last June before Walsh was sent instead.

Those setbacks are firmly in the past now, and the west Belfast man is determined to make 2017 a breakthrough year in his career.

He said: “I’ve sparred with some of the best in the world at this weight.

“Some people might move up in weight and wonder if they’re strong enough - I know I am. I have everything to offer at 64 and I’m going to show it next year.”

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It was confirmed last Friday that Zaur Antia would be remaining as Ireland's head coach until 2021

THERE’S no doubt that securing the services of head coach Zaur Antia until 2021 is great news for Irish boxing, but it still doesn’t address elephant in the room.

Despite confirmation of Antia’s new permanent role, the large Billy Walsh-shaped hole in the High Performance unit’s coaching structure remains. This is a matter of major concern.

After months of negotiations and financial wrangling, Walsh and the Irish Athletic Boxing Association parted ways in November 2015, with the Wexford man moving to Colorado to revive the fortunes of Team USA.

His exit broke up one of the most successful coaching partnerships in world boxing - one that worked because both men, Walsh and Antia, brought different skills to the table and complemented each other perfectly.

As a former Irish champion who qualified for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Walsh is a top-class coach who knows the ins and outs of Irish boxing like the back of his hand.

However, he is also a superb organiser and a strict disciplinarian who enforces a hard line on whatever team he heads up, as Sean McComb explained last week: “Billy wasn’t afraid to cut people’s funding or throw people off the team and that’s why he got so much respect from the boxers.”

Even when he arrived in the US, he found a system that was in need of a radical overhaul. Just eight months out from an Olympics, he found himself butting heads with Claressa Shields, the golden girl of American boxing.

She wanted to do her own thing, on her own terms. A gold medallist in 2012 and a strong favourite to make it a double in Rio, Shields believed she was the power-player.

Not so. Walsh called her bluff and, with the backing of his employers, told Shields she was off the team until she was prepared to tow the line. Soon she returned and in August was stood on top of the podium in Brazil having enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Walsh.

The part Antia has played in the revival of Irish boxing since the 2004 Olympics in Athens has been every bit as important his former partner in crime.

The Georgian is one of the most highly respected technical coaches about - ask any boxer who has passed through his hands and they will speak in glowing terms of his coaching ability, as well as his likeability.

However, considering English is not his first language, dealing with administrative and disciplinary issues does not come as naturally as demonstrating how to slip and counter or adjust your feet to the correct position.

Alongside fellow High Performance coaches Eddie Bolger and John Conlan, the hard-working Antia is doing his level best to bring Irish boxing back to the top table after a disappointing summer - but he needs more help.

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