Boxing on the ropes as politics takes away from talent inside the ring
As the year draws to a close, Neil Loughran takes a look back at an eventful 2017 for amateur boxing both inside and outside the ring...
THE year after an Olympic Games always marks the start of a new cycle and a time for cool, calm reflection as eyes switch focus to four years down the road. A time for souls to be searched, talent nurtured and goals recalibrated.
When all that gets lost amid of a sea of bitterness and back-biting, however, you have a major problem on your hands. This is where the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) finds itself heading into the New Year.
If 2016’s disastrous outcome at the Rio Olympics wasn’t bad enough, new depths have been plumbed as the fall-out continues.
From Michael O’Reilly’s failed drugs test on the eve of the Games to a medalless return when so much was expected beforehand, Rio was an unmitigated nightmare. Irish boxing was at a crossroads, and the path chosen was always going to be critical to future ambitions.
With the likes of Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes – all medal fancies in Rio – turning over to the pro ranks within months of their return from Brazil, it was clear that a huge rebuilding job was required.
Yet the publication of the much-anticipated Rio Review document in April made for grim reading, concluding that Ireland’s hopes of re-establishing itself as a powerhouse in time for Tokyo 2020 were being undermined by an under-performing high performance system.
The review, conducted by Brian MacNiece of Kontinos Partners Limited and put together after 39 one-to-one interviews that included Billy Walsh, did accept that the loss of the Wexford man to the US head coach role was one of a number of factors that had to be taken into account.
One of the main bones of contention that led to Walsh’s departure was the fact he was effectively carrying out the role of high performance director alongside his designated head coach position.
The IABA confirmed Zaur Antia as permanent head coach, and in early 2017 advertised for a high performance director. In what was the worst kept secret in boxing, former super-bantamweight world champion Bernard Dunne was eventually given the nod at the end of April.
However, even that announcement turned into something of a PR disaster.
While a beaming Dunne stood outside a side office at the national sports campus at Abbotstown waiting to face the media, IABA director Fergal Carruth was being grilled inside those walls.
There were claims of a split among the association’s board of directors, the ultimate decision-making body in the organisation, of behind the scenes meetings and two men both claiming to hold the chairman’s post.
Welcome to the job, Bernard.
Away from the politics of the association, one of the main issues dumped on Dunne’s doorstep was the huge funding cut Irish boxing had sustained as a result of failure in Rio.
On the same day as the Rio Review was released, the Sports Council it was confirmed that IABA’s funding would be slashed by 200,000 euros - from 900,000 euros to 700,000 euros, making boxing by far the biggest loser across all sports.
As a result, the number of boxers receiving individual grants fell from 14 in 2016 to six. World silver medallist Joe Ward was the only boxer to receive the ‘podium’ level grant of 40,000 euros but while others have seen their funding cut in half, while most were left with none.
Dunne did his best to fight their corner, securing funding for the likes of light-welter Sean McComb to try and keep the Holy Trinity stylist on board, but he was dealt a tough hand to start.
And even in the lead-up to the European Championships in Ukraine, his first major competition as high performance director, there was a fall-out over plans to send Dunne to Kharkiv as team manager.
On and off record conversations with some of the leading boxers in the country indicate that morale is at a low, with some up-and-coming talents dropping off the panel altogether while others considered their options.
Highly-rated light-heavyweight Conor Wallace, a 2015 Irish elite finalist at middleweight, summed up the situation so many found themselves in.
“They were looking me back down but there’s no point me going to Dublin,” said the Newry southpaw, who boxes out of the Holy Family club in Drogheda.
“It doesn’t pay me to go to Dublin – I have my own personal training business at home, I can train full-time at home and get wages. If I go to Dublin, it actually costs me money.”
Big challenges lie ahead in 2018, with more cohesive planning and a setting aside of egos urgently required to steer the good ship Irish boxing back on course.
Thankfully, between the ropes, there were some reasons to be cheerful despite a year dominated by boardroom wrangling rather than boxing. Here’s a look back at some of the highs and lows of 2017 inside the ring…
ULSTER HALL RETURN CAPS OFF YEAR OF GOOD, BAD AND UGLY
FROM being shelved at the start of the year to finding itself as the showpiece of the provincial boxing calendar once again, it was an eventful year for the Ulster Elite Championships.
A scheduling mix-up in the early part of the year saw the Ulster Elites, originally slated for February, postponed with a view to forming part of the selection process for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
In the period between, an at-times ugly battle for power broke out in Ulster as president Paul McMahon and secretary Sadie Duffy sought re-election during the summer months. This time, they found Kevin Duffy and Charlie Toland in the opposite corner.
The election date was set for August 13, and McMahon and Duffy were returned. However, there was huge controversy as over 25 clubs were not allowed to cast a vote after failing to affiliate with the IABA before May 31.
IABA head honchos Pat Ryan (president) and Fergal Carruth (chief executive) got involved but, in keeping with the ongoing power struggle at the top of the organisation, were pulling in different directions.
Duffy and Toland immediately called for a re-election, and three weeks later the original vote was declared null and void by IABA’s board of directors.
Second time around, Duffy claimed a landslide win - 71 votes to McMahon’s 13 - while Charlie Toland received 60 to Sadie Duffy’s 24. The Ulster Boxing Council now had two men claiming to be its president and, with a high court action ongoing, the end of the matter has yet to be heard.
However, the Ulster Council of Duffy and Toland quickly set about making their presence felt as they secured the Ulster Hall for finals night of the Ulster Elite Championships – the first time senior boxing would be back at the famous old venue since 2011.
The likes of Sean McComb, who had previously refused to box in Ulster under the previous regime, announced his intention to compete. And with places up for grabs at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast next April, a healthy entry containing plenty of top-class operators was expected.
The week before the competition, the Ulster Council also confirmed that the BBC had come onboard to stream finals night – the first time it had received any sort of television coverage since 1994.
Inside the ring, and away from the politics of the sport, the boxers didn’t disappoint. Some of the quarter and semi-finals at a packed Dockers Club were of the highest quality.
The last four lightweight contest between Sean Duffy and Stephen McKenna was a joy to behold, upstaged only by the grudge match between Steven Donnelly and Caoimhin Hynes later in the card.
Organisers insist they could have sold out the Ulster Hall twice over, such was the demand for tickets, and finals night lived up to its billing. Donnelly, a bronze medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, came on strong in the last round to see off a game Fearghus Quinn in the middleweight final.
Other highlights included James McGivern’s masterful performance against Sean Duffy and a quality clash between Rio Olympian Brendan Irvine and Conor Quinn.
After a difficult year for the sport boxing – thankfully - was the big winner on the night.
MAGIC MICHAELA IS COMEBACK QUEEN
OFF the scene for 18 months - in terms of competitive action anyway – Michaela Walsh announced her return in stunning fashion with the biggest win of her career at August’s European Union Championships in Italy.
And what made it all the more remarkable was the fact Walsh wasn’t even included in the initial Irish squad bound for Cascia.
Despite being two of the most talented female boxers in the country, the Monkstown fighter and St John Bosco’s Kristina O’Hara were initially overlooked before being drafted in weeks before.
And while O’Hara bowed out at the quarter-final stage, 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist Walsh reminded everybody that she hasn’t gone away you know with a series of classy, measured performances to take the gold medal.
“I went over there with my mind set on gold,” she said. “I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong, especially because I wasn’t even supposed to be going in the first place.”
With the next Commonwealth Games just around the corner next April, it would take a brave person to bet against her going one better than last time out.
Immaculata pocket rocket Caitlin Fryers also served notice of her talent during 2017, landing European silver and World bronze in a year to remember for the teenager.
The all-action light-fly - a bronze medallist at the 2015 European Junior Championships two years ago - showcased her skills at the Europeans in Bulgaria back in June, just missing out on gold after losing to home favourite Mari Todrova.
And at the Worlds in India last month, Fryers shocked Russia’s Karina Tuvakova en route to the semi-final and has built seriously solid foundations for the rest of her amateur career.
Definitely one to watch in 2018.
EURO JOY FOR JOE AND BELFAST BOYS
IRELAND’S first major senior competition after the disaster of Rio at least saw some pride restored, with a gold medal and two bronze brought home from Kharkiv last June.
Perhaps unsurprisingly at this stage Joe Ward landed top honours in the Ukraine. The Moate southpaw justified his pre-tournament favourites’ tag by coasting through to the final before overpowering Russia’s Muslim Gadzhimagomedov to take the light-heavyweight title.
It was the third time Ward has won European gold, following on from 2011 and 2015. Considering he is still only 24, that is a remarkable achievement.
The bronze medals came courtesy of Kurt Walker and Brendan Irvine – though there should have been a hat-trick of Ulster successes after Sean McComb was cruelly denied a place on the podium.
The Holy Trinity light-welter turned in one of the best performances of his career to stun reigning world champion and top seed Vitaly Dunaystev at the last 16 stage, and looked well on course for a medal.
However, his run was halted at the quarter-final stage when he dropped a controversial split decision to England’s Luke McCormack – despite appearing to make easy work of the final two rounds.
And even that victory over Dunaystev counted for little in the end, by McComb’s own admission: “That’s worth f**k all to me. I didn’t come here to get to the quarter-finals.”
For Walker - bidding to become the third Irishman in-a-row to land bantamweight gold at the Europeans - it was the first time he has made a major splash on the international stage as a senior.
The Canal stylist impressed everybody with his performances before bowing out against home favourite Mykola Butsenko in the last four, while flyweight Irvine added another medal to his growing collection despite losing out to England’s Niall Farrell.
WARD PROVES AGAIN HE’S NO ORDINARY JOE
THE 2017 World Elite Championships may not live long in the memory from an Irish point of view, other than the fact Joe Ward once again displayed his quality at the top level.
Brendan Irvine, Kurt Walker, Sean McComb and Dean Gardiner all exited before the medal stages, but Ward remained on course for a showdown with the man who has proved his nemesis so often in the past – Julio Cesar La Cruz.
Ward tried everything in the final but you could throw a handful of rice at the classy Cuban and fail to catch him with a single grain, and in the final two rounds he landed some telling shots of his own to take a unanimous decision.
However, there could be some good news for Ward heading into 2018 as, at the Cuban national championships a fortnight ago, Olympic gold medallist La Cruz entered at 91kg instead of light-heavy.
Not that the challenges ahead look too much easier – the new kid in town is Osvari Morrel, a 2016 World Youth champion.
WEALTH OF TALENT SHINE IN BAHAMAS
THE success of the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games team was always going to be tough to follow, but the class of 2017 gave it a serious go in the Bahamas back in June.
Light-fly John Moran (Illies GG) and bantam Colm Murphy (St George’s) brought back bronze, while Gleann welter Anthony Johnston and Holy Trinity middleweight Kane Tucker just missed out on gold, both losing via split decisions.
Errigal’s Dominic Bradley and Holy Trinity’s Kian Bittles both fell before the medal stages but left it all in the ring.
“I’m disappointed they all didn’t get gold medals, but I set the bar high,” said coach John Conlan.
“They’ve trained really hard, they’ve been a great bunch of kids to work with.”
BRADLEY IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
NO matter what you thought of the ‘fight’ itself, McGregor-Mayweather was one of the biggest sporting events of the year – and right in the middle of it was Tiernan Bradley.
The Omagh boxer, on the recommendation of former ‘Notorious’ sparring partner Conor Wallace, was drafted into team McGregor down in Dublin and made such an impression that he was brought out to Las Vegas for the entire camp.
During his time in ‘Sin City’, Bradley had a weekly column in The Irish News which gave the inside line on McGregor’s build-up.
Indeed the 20-year-old also found himself embroiled in a war of words with Paulie Malignaggi over leaked sparring footage which claimed to show the former world champion being dropped by McGregor.
Almost five months on Malignaggi can still be seen flailing about on Twitter claiming he was pushed rather than punched, long after everybody stopped giving a damn.