Clonard trio set for jet-setting month on international duty with Ireland
IT will be a month to remember for the Clonard club in west Belfast as three of their boxers get ready to clock up the air miles in the coming weeks, jetting off for international duty to different parts of the globe.
Irish elite flyweight champion Conor Quinn will be part of the Irish U22 squad that goes to Romania for the European Championships from March 22-April 2, while club-mates Caoimhin Ferguson and Gerard French head to Boston with the elite squad on Thursday.
They are three of the most talented young boxers in Belfast at the minute, and Quinn has an opportunity to keep the pressure on Commonwealth Games-bound Brendan Irvine as he eyes the 52kg number one spot.
For Ferguson and French, meanwhile, the trip to America's east coast represents the chance of a lifetime. They are part of a 16-strong squad bound for Boston and a three-fight series against an American national team led by former Ireland head coach Billy Walsh.
News of his selection for the Irish panel couldn't have come at a better time for Ferguson, who had not long left the ring after losing out to Wayne Kelly in the light-welterweight final of the Irish Elite Championships at the end of last month.
And he was even more delighted when he got wind that French, beaten by the hugely-talented Michael Nevin the middleweight semi-final, had also been called up.
“That just made it 10 times better because it's great having somebody from your own club, somebody you know, going as well. We both can't wait,” he said.
“I was gutted because I thought it was a close fight, but when I got out of the ring and was told I'd been picked for America, I sort of felt like the winner in a weird sort of a way. It picked me right back up.
“That has been my goal for as long as I can remember – to represent Ireland, and now it's happening. My other goal is to win an Irish elite title, but this will be one of those boxes ticked off anyway.
“It's a massive opportunity for everybody going. To represent Ireland for three fights, the elite team too, is a massive chance for me. Over in America, if you box well, you never know. It could open a lot of eyes.”
Had things been different, Ferguson could have been part of the Northern Ireland team preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Australia next month.
The talented 19-year-old would have been fancied for the 64kg spot initially because Sean McComb had previously indicated he had no intention of putting himself forward for the Gold Coast.
However, following a change at the top of Ulster boxing last year, McComb had a change of heart and decided to enter the Ulster Elites, beating Ferguson in the final at the Ulster Hall to book his spot on John Conlan's team.
McComb has since been made joint captain of Team NI, and Ferguson is philosophical about how events transpired.
He added: “I was focused on going to the Commonwealths, though I knew I was up against it when I fought Sean. I still believed in myself because I always think once you're in the ring, you can beat anybody.
“That made me a better fighter because I got out of that ring saying to myself ‘I just fought the number one in Ireland there, an elite level boxer'.
“After fighting Sean, it showed me I can compete at that level. It's just about believing in yourself and doing it.
“You know, I never fought at intermediate, I just went straight into elite level, so it's a bit of a risk to see where you are. Thankfully it has worked out for the best because sometimes, when you go in against guys who are much older and stronger, it can go against you big time.
“It showed me I belong boxing at elite level.”
ASIDE from the Clonard pair, there are three other Ulster boxers currently throwing clothes into a suitcase and hastily searching for their passports ahead of the Ireland team's three-fight tour of Boston.
Caoimhin Hynes has opted to put his pro ambitions on hold for the time being at least as he is the 81kg selection on the team after taking the light-heavyweight title at Irish Elite finals night.
Considering the Holy Trinity banger is a natural middleweight and only opted to make the step up in weight class at the last minute, it is a serious achievement to have been drafted in for his first taste of senior international experience.
The same goes for Mullaghbawn native Eugene McKeever, who was involved in one of the fights of the night at the National Stadium when he just came up short against Oughterard's highly-rated Kieran Molloy.
Brett McGinty is the final Ulster boxer to have been named in the provisional squad, which will be confirmed today.
The Oakleaf middleweight, a beaten finalist at the Ulster Elites last November, could count himself unlucky not to have his hand raised against Michael Nevin after an extremely close 75kg final.
For all involved, it promises to be a trip to remember, with ring legends Kevin McBride and Mickey Ward selected as honorary Ireland and USA captains for the triple-header. They meet in Springfield next Monday and then New Hampshire on March 21.
Former Irish head coach, Billy Walsh, now chief seconds with the USA, has named a top team for the series while his successor in Dublin, Zaur Antia, and High Performance director Bernard Dunne are bringing over a panel bursting with talent too.
The New England internationals are the first direct meetings between the countries since Walsh departed as Irish head coach in acrimonious circumstances in 2015 before taking up residence in Colorado.
‘Clones Colossus' McBride, a 1992 Olympian who famously stopped Mike Tyson in 2005, keeps a close eye on the Irish boxing scene, and said: “I'm honoured to be carrying the Irish flag for these fighters.
“I know some of the Irish coaches and I still support boxing in Ireland as well as America.”
Ward, who was involved epic trilogy with the late Arturo Gatti in 2002/03, said being named honorary USA skipper versus Ireland is “especially exciting for me as an Irish-American.”