Amateur boxing review: Return to form for Ireland but fears grow over Olympic future
AFTER an underwhelming 2017 riven by post-Rio in-fighting and the general lull that comes in the wake of an Olympics where such huge expectations fell well short, the past 12 months have seen Irish boxing get back on track in some style.
At elite, youth, junior and schoolboy/girl level, Ireland has successfully regained ground on the international stage, with Kellie Harrington's World gold in India the 41st and final medal of a strong year.
Indeed, it was fitting that it was Harrington who provided that cherry-on-the-cake moment in New Delhi.
After years of living in the shadow of the great Katie Taylor, Harrington laid claim to the lightweight gold that had so often found a home around the Bray woman's neck.
The 29-year-old Dubliner boxed brilliantly throughout, gathering momentum as she navigated each step on the road, culminating in that cool, calm and clinical display against Thailand's Sudaporn Seesondee in the decider.
With the Olympic cycle leading towards Tokyo 2020 commencing from this point forth, Harrington's timing could hardly have been better. The wind at her back, she looks destined to lead the Irish charge for Japan.
First of all though, before that conversation can even get under way and hope can spring eternal, there has to be an Olympic Games competition to enter.
No matter the medal hauls or the talent coming through, it would all pale into insignificance were there to be no boxing – or a different type of boxing tournament - in Tokyo.
And, looking into 2019, the presence of the sport at the greatest show on earth has rarely looked so precarious…
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
TALK swirled around all year that the International Olympic Council (IOC) would seriously consider boxing's future as an Olympic sport if controversial Uzbeki Gafur Rakhimov was elected president of AIBA.
Most assumed everything would be alright in the end. These high-powered statements were little more than a shot across the bows of boxing's world governing body, which has hardly had its troubles to seek in recent times.
Yet the talk refused to go away, only gathering pace as it became clear that, Rakhimov aside, candidates were thin on the ground.
Suddenly, with the November election looming, major figures within the boxing world were starting to sit up and take notice.
“Amateur boxing would be all but finished… in Ireland, 90 per cent of the funding comes from the government; that would be gone straight away. When you look at the great success we've had, I think it would die a death.”
Those are the words of Billy Walsh – the former Irish head coach who is currently in charge of Team USA, and whose ultimate focus is on the 2020 Games.
“If this one guy [Rakhimov] is the problem, he should not be bigger than the sport,” continued Walsh in an interview with The Irish News back in October.
“If he has any love for the sport, he would make the right decision somewhere along the road.”
Unsurprisingly, Rakhimov ignored the advice of Walsh and the countless other international coaches who suggested he step aside for the good of boxing. At the start of November he was duly elected to the top spot, defeating Russia's Serik Konakbayev.
Weeks later, the IOC announced that it had put planning for the Tokyo 2020 boxing tournament on hold while a probe into the workings of AIBA was undertaken.
The outcome of that review could lead to the IOC dropping its recognition of boxing's governing body – a potentially dire move for all the Irish hopefuls preparing to chase their Olympic dream.
ALL HAIL KING KURT
A WIDE smile beamed from ear to ear when Kellie Harrington stood on top of the podium in India after becoming only the third Irish boxer to claim World gold, but she isn't the only one to have successfully stepped from the shadow of a superstar during the past 12 months.
It has always been known that Kurt Walker had the size and the skills to make an impression on the bantamweight world. The only problem was, during his early years at the Irish High Performance unit, he had the formidable figure of Michael Conlan blocking his way at 56kg.
Since Conlan turned pro in the wake of the Rio Olympics, however, Walker has started his own journey that he hopes will lead to Tokyo. European bronze in 2017 was an impressive feat, but the Lisburn lad moved on to a different level this year.
Walker cruised into the final of the Commonwealth Games to set up a meeting with England's Peter McGrail – dubbed ‘the Scouse Lomachenko' and coveted by some of the top promoters in the game if/when he chooses to turn over.
McGrail was too cute that April day Down Under, landing eye-catching shots to bag gold – but Walker's time would come when the pair were reacquainted in the final of the European Union Championships in November.
This time, despite breaking his thumb in a first round shaded by McGrail, Walker fought the perfect fight in two and three, using his long levers to curb the Scouser's advances and land the more telling shots.
In the third, he played the matador to McGrail's raging bull to superbly to seal a victory which proved that, on his day, he is capable of mixing it with any of the top 56kg fighters in the world.
SILVER LINING ON THE GOLD COAST
COMPARED to Glasgow four years previous, a relatively inexperienced Northern Ireland team headed to the Commonwealth Games in Australia, led once again by head coach John Conlan.
Gone were Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, yet still the medals flowed. Siblings Aidan and Michaela Walsh made history by becoming the first brother and sister to box at the same Games – and they certainly made their presence felt.
Welterweight Aidan produced controlled displays throughout, displaying a cool head well beyond his 21 years in his first major international competition as a senior boxer.
He came up short in the final against England's hugely experienced Pat McCormack, but will have taken plenty from those nine minutes between the ropes should the pair come face to face again down the line.
Michaela, meanwhile, was justified in her post-fight outrage after controversially losing out to Australian golden girl Skye Nicolson in her 57kg final.
Considering she was also unlucky not to return from Glasgow with gold around her neck following a tough, tight tussle with two-time Olympic champion Nicola Adams, it was a bitter pill for the Monkstown woman to swallow.
However, Walsh didn't let that disappointment grind her down and regrouped impressively to take bronze at the European Championships two months later – defeating world champion Alessia Mesiano along the way.
The Italian may have got her revenge when they met again at the World Championships in New Delhi, but Walsh has had an 18 months to remember and looks well placed heading towards the start of the Olympic cycle.
Kurt Walker also took home silver, as did Kristina O'Hara who gave Indian legend Mary Kom all she wanted in a hugely competitive light-fly final.
It was a frustrating 2018 in general for Brendan Irvine, who has been sidelined after undergoing surgery on a wrist injury during the summer.
However, despite suffering that injury during the Commonwealth camp, he still returned with a silver medal and now has his sights set on a return to the ring – and a return to the Olympic stage in 2020.
Carly McNaul was one of the stars of the Irish team Down Under, her all-action style driving the east Belfast woman to silver and a place on the podium.
The experienced Steven Donnelly, competing at his third Commonwealths, showed he still had plenty left to offer by winning a second consecutive bronze medal.
Having moved up from welter to middleweight, Donnelly came through a tough opener against Welsh hopeful Kyran Jones, and that set him on the road to the semi-final, where he lost out to eventual champion Vikas Krishan.
The 29-year-old has since moved to the paid ranks.
James McGivern also bowed out to an Indian opponent in the last four, but not before showcasing his enormous potential throughout the tournament.
As a result of the shake-up in Olympic weights, which will see light-flyweight eradicated completely, McGivern now moves up from 60kg to the new 63kg division – with his first outing expected to be at either next week's Ulster elites, or the Irish championships in February.
It wasn't to be for Sean McComb unfortunately after he was edged out in a nip and tuck first fight against England's Luke McCormack, and the west Belfast man turned pro not long after, hooking up with MTK Global and enjoying an impressive start to his pro career.
Alanna Nihell, Damien Sullivan and Stephen McMonagle all fell before the medal stages, but can be proud of the performances they put in as they gear up for a bigger and better 2019.
WITHOUT doubt, Jude Gallagher's was a name on everybody's lips in 2018.
Domestically and internationally, the Tyrone teenager showed why he is considered one of the top talents in the country.
Claimed three Irish titles, and made an indelible mark on the international stage – landing a bronze at the European Youth Championships in Italy last April, before following that up with another bronze at the World Youths in August.
The Two Castles fighter has a bit of everything, can box or fight, and looks strong and solid at light-flyweight. Considering, at 16, he still has another year to go at youth level, Gallagher can go even further in 2019, with his future surely destined for the 52 kilo division.
It was a year to remember too for Holy Trinity's talented young flyweight Jon McConnell.
The Crumlin teenager was in superb form at his first major international tournament in October, taking home bronze from the European Junior Championships in Anapa.
McConnell shot to prominence when he edged out Russia's two-time European schoolboy champion Evegeni Zhorov at the last 16 stage, before going on to beat England's highly-rated Billy Adams. Like Gallagher, a big future awaits.
At the European Schoolboy and Schoolgirl Championships in Bulgaria, Erne girl Kaci Crowley – also competing in her first international competition – boxed her way to the top of the podium in the 57kg division.
A deserved mention goes to Conor Quinn for his bronze medal at the Chemistry Cup in June, while Star's JP Hale returned with gold from the Brandenburg Cup.
The cream of Ulster boxing showed what they were made of by beating the best Germany had to offer twice in the space of a matter of weeks at the end of the year and, with provincial and national championships on the immediate horizon, it promises be an interesting start to 2019.
Among the younger age groups, the amount of talent coming through at County Antrim and Ulster level is frightening, and coach John Conlan had a 40-strong selection up at a training camp in Jordanstown during the summer as he begins to look towards the next Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
In terms of potential, the future looks bright.
AND finally, while there was plenty positive to shout about in 2018, there was one major disappointment after Northern Ireland effectively passed up on the chance to host the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games.
The North won the bid to stage the event two years ago, only for the Stormont government to collapse before ministers had agreed a financial package.
As a result, civil servants decided it is "not value for money" – a decision branded “a slap in the face for our young people" by the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council.