Boxing is back at the Ulster Hall - but who will come up trumps on the big night?
With the Ulster Elites returning to the Ulster Hall for the first time in seven years, Neil Loughran casts his eye over the runners and riders in tonight's finals – and considers who might move a step closer to next year's Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast...
Amateur boxing: Ulster Elite Championship finals (tonight, 8pm, Ulster Hall – live on BBC red button, or via BBC Sport website)
Female 48kg: Kristina O’Hara (St John Bosco) v Chloe Fleck (Canal)
O’HARA goes into the unknown against Irish U22 finalist Chloe Fleck but, at this weight, the Bosco woman will take some stopping.
Male 49kg: Ricky Nesbitt (Carrickmacross) v Blaine Dobbins (St Joseph’s)
DOBBINS laid down a marker at the start of the year by winning the light-fly title at the Irish Elites. It looked like Ireland might have a long-term successor to Paddy Barnes at 49kg, but he has been fairly inactive since. However, he should still have too much class tonight.
Female 51kg: Carly McNaul (Ormeau Road) v Ceire Smith (Virginia)
THIS is a really tough one to call. McNaul has made huge strides in recent years, but veteran Smith is one of most experienced women on the Irish scene and you have to give her the nod.
Male 52kg: Brendan Irvine (St Pauls) v Conor Quinn (Clonard)
ONE of several ‘established force v up-and-comer’ battles tonight. Irvine is only a couple of years older than Quinn but holds the upper hand in terms of experience having been to the Rio Olympics as well as picking up European Championship and European Games medals. Expect it to be tight, but the St Paul’s man should have his hand raised.
Male 56kg: Eamon McNally (St Michael’s) v Conor Kerr (Glengormley)
A HUGE opportunity for both men following the withdrawal of heavy favourite Kurt Walker with a thumb injury. Highly-rated McNally is expected to win, but whoever comes out on top may have to face Walker in a box-off down the line.
Female 57kg: Michaela Walsh (Monkstown) walkover
Female 60kg: Alanna Nihell (Eastside) walkover
Male 60kg: James McGivern (St George’s) v Sean Duffy (Holy Trinity)
THE southpaw stylist against the all-action pressure fighter – this could be a cracker. 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Duffy had been out of the ring for three years prior to defeating Gerard Matthews in last week’s quarter-final but looked like he had never been away.
Dropped McGivern’s fellow 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games gold medallist Stephen McKenna en route to victory last time, and is strong as an ox at 60kg, having campaigned in Glasgow at light-welter.
McGivern’s semi against another Duffy – fellow southpaw Dylan – was a much cagier affair, but the St George’s ace might just have the skills to stay out of harm’s way tonight while catching the Keady man on the way in. Very tough to call.
Verdict: Duffy. Actually McGivern. No, Duffy. Ah this is brutal... McGivern by a nose
Male 64kg: Sean McComb (Holy Trinity) v Caoimhin Ferguson (Gleann)
FERGUSON has boxed really well en route to victories over two fighters with completely different styles – the tall, rangy Vinny Esler and the in-your-face Bernaldo Marime. He came through both tests with flying colours but, in McComb, faces one of the best light-welters in Europe, if not the world. A huge ask.
Male 69kg: Aidan Walsh (Monkstown) v Brett McGinty (Oakleaf)
AN intriguing clash of styles between the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games team-mates. Walsh would put you in mind of Ken Egan in his pomp – an alert, accurate counter-puncher who did well to overcome the dangerous Gerard French last time out.
McGinty, meanwhile, is a strong, come-forward fighter who is an established force at welterweight having reached the Irish Elite finals earlier this year. The St Johnston man won’t give Walsh a second but if the Monkstown man can stay on his toes and keep the fight long, he can edge home.
Along with Duffy v McGivern, hardest fight of the night to call.
Female 75kg: Sarah Close (Holy Family) walkover
Male 75kg: Steven Donnelly (All Saints) v Fearghus Quinn (Camlough)
SOME observers have wrongly suggested last week’s semi-final between Donnelly and Caoimhin Hynes was the real Ulster final, but that is to do defending champion Quinn a huge disservice.
The Camlough man - a former Armagh minor and currently in the Queen’s University Sigerson panel - is supremely fit and tough, and will stalk Donnelly all night.
Rio Olympian Donnelly has carried his weight well from welter to middleweight, while Quinn is not the biggest 75kg fighter about, so they should be fairly equally matched in the physical stakes.
But, as he has proven time and again, when Donnelly is switched on there are few who can live with him. He used his experience to edge out Hynes last week and, with his quick counters, long jabs to the body and clever footwork, the Ballymena man can claim a sixth Ulster title at a fourth different weight.
Female 81kg: Caroline Connolly (Raphoe) walkover
Male 81kg: Conor Wallace (Holy Family, Drogheda) walkover
Male 91kg: Jason Barron (Holy Trinity) v Dee Sullivan (Emerald)
BIG-HITTING Barron has gone slightly off the radar in recent years but announced his return with a bang when he edged a tight semi-final against Monktsown’s Charlie Boyle. Perhaps unlucky to have been overlooked for a spot on the 2014 Commonwealths team, he might get a second chance after tonight.
But Sullivan is another man who has made massive improvements in recent years, and has benefitted from his involvement with the Ulster High Performance unit in Jordanstown. Hard to pick a winner, but Sullivan might just nick it.
Male 91+kg: Joe Joyce (Erne) v Denis Borskins (Sacred Heart, Newry)
LITTLE was known about Joyce before he entered the ring to face Holy Trinity’s Stephen McMonagle last Friday night but by the end of the three rounds he had set tongues wagging.
He might not be in peak physical condition but Joyce looks like he is in his natural habitat between the ropes, unleashing lightning quick combinations in the first and second rounds to lay the foundations for victory. Despite a drop in pace in the final round, he still had his hand raised.
Borskins, meanwhile, was involved in an all-out war with Joe Downey. The Newry fighter forced the Mac man into several standing counts before the fight was stopped, and dealt well with Downey’s heavy artillery coming the other way.
Joyce is a different proposition though and would be my tip.
Male 81kg: Conor Wallace (Holy Family, Drogheda) v Johnny Joyce (St Michael’s, Athy)