Boxing

History made as Irish Athletic Boxing Association opens door to professionals in elite championships

Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan would be eligible to return to the amateur ranks, as they haven't had more than five fights as pros

THE Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) has opened its doors to professional boxers for the first time, with this weekend's national elite championships marking the first opportunity for fighters to return to the unpaid ranks.

In a milestone decision in the 106-year history of the IABA, president Pat Ryan and secretary Al Morris confirmed that pro boxers can return to the amateur game and enter the Irish elites and future tournaments.

Professional fighters entering the elites, which begin at the National Stadium tomorrow night, must be registered with an IABA-affiliated club and must have had no more than five fights in his or her pro career.

Among those Irish fighters who would meet the criteria are Derry pair Tyrone McCullagh and Connor Coyle.

Super-bantam McCullagh has recently signed a management agreement with Mack The Knife (MTK, formerly Macklin's Gym Marbella) and is unlikely to consider a return to the amateur game, while middleweight Coyle is attempting to forge a professional career in the United States.

Others who could conceivably return to the amateur ranks are Belfast Olympic medallists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, though that won't happen.

Barnes, also with MTK, is due to box for the second time as a professional at Frank Warren's Waterfront Hall show on February 18, while Conlan hasn't even made his debut.

The 2015 World gold medallist, snapped up by American promoters Top Rank after last summer's Olympics, will be the headline act when he makes his pro bow at Madison Square Garden on St Patrick's Day.

2012 Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor, five-time Irish senior champion Eric Donovan, Florida-based Derry featherweight John Cooley, Tyrone lightweight Fergal McCrory, light-welter Sean Creagh, Belfast light-middle Ciaran Healy, heavyweight Con Sheehan and cruiserweight pair Steven Ward and Gary Sweeney would all be eligible, but it remains highly unlikely that any would consider giving up their pro status.

The historic IABA move follows on from last year's groundbreaking rule change by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) to allow pro boxers, if they qualified, to compete at the Rio Olympics.

Prior to the AIBA rule change, boxers who had turned professional were banned from competing in any amateur tournaments or returning to the amateur ranks.

“It's important that we open the door to Irish boxers who have decided to turn professional but found pro boxing was not for them and want to return,” said Ryan.

“Our elite High Performance squad are professionals. They are trained by professional coaches at a designated state-of-the-art training facility in Abbotstown and they are supported by a full-time qualified staff and support system.

“Irish boxing is following the lead of AIBA at the Rio Olympics. We are all part of the one boxing fraternity. It's important that we don't close the door to Irish boxers who have distinguished themselves in our ranks in the past.”

Meanwhile, the National Elites will have a double or even treble significance for Ireland's male boxers this year as the champions will be in the driving seat for selection for the European elites in the Ukraine this summer.

The top eight boxers in each weight in the Ukraine qualify for the World Championships in Germany in August.

OLYMPIC QUARTET NAMES FORWARD FOR IRISH ELITES

RIO Olympians Brendan Irvine, Steven Donnelly, David Oliver Joyce and Joe Ward have all put their names forward for the forthcoming Irish Elite Championships.

Neither Ward or Joyce have fought since their Olympic exits and it had been speculated that Joyce was considering a switch to the professional ranks, with a number of American outfits reportedly interested in his signature.

Donnelly boxed in an exhibition match against England before Christmas but it is far from certain that he will box at the national elites, where he claimed the welterweight title in 2014.

Former middleweight kingpin Michael O'Reilly, sent home from Rio in disgrace after failing a drugs test on the eve of the tournament, unsurprisingly doesn't on the list of entries.

The Portlaoise fighter is expected to learn his fate from the Irish Sports Council in the coming weeks, and remains provisionally suspended from all “sports activity” by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

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