Boxing

Seconds Out: Kurt Walker can go on and secure spot at Tokyo Olympics says coach John Conlan

Kurt Walker with his European Games gold medal during yesterday's homecoming at Dublin airport
Neil Loughran

IRISH coach John Conlan has backed Kurt Walker to go on and book his place at next summer’s Olympic Games after landing European Games gold on Sunday.

The Lisburn bantamweight spent the early years of his senior career in the shadow of Conlan’s son Michael, but has since showcased what a talent he is in his own right – and especially in the past eight months.

Walker took European Union gold in Spain last November and beat three top quality opponents - Zhirayr Saeqsyan (Armenia), Samuel Kistohurry (France) and England’s Peter McGrail – before overcoming experienced Ukrainian Mykola Butsenko in the 56kg final.

He topped off a memorable fortnight by being named as Ireland’s flagbearer at Sunday night’s closing ceremony in Minsk, and Conlan believes the 23-year-old has shown he is now among the very best in the world.

“Kurt has always had the potential,” said the Ulster High Performance head coach.

“He was just sort of in Michael’s shadow, so he wasn’t given the opportunity. And then, when he was given the opportunity, there was a lot of pressure on him to try and perform.

“He knew he had the talent, and the EUs in November opened the door. He beat Peter McGrail there, he beat some good guys, he felt comfortable doing it… he realised ‘you know what, I can perform at the top level’.

“This was another step up. The Armenian was an animal, non-stop aggression, the French guy was a phenomenal talent, McGrail is European champion. Then Butsenko, I always used to study him because he was in Michael’s weight; he’s a very difficult opponent, and he had beaten Kurt.

“But Kurt two years ago is a very different athlete. Kurt now is an elite, grade A performer. The training camp in Belfast was exactly what I wanted, and after that they all knew they were going in great shape.

“A lot of people didn’t give them much chance, with Joe Ward gone, the injury to Brendy [Irvine]… a lot fell on Kurt’s shoulders, and he was phenomenal.

“Coming away from what we originally looked at as a development competition, I’m really happy with how it went.”

There is ongoing uncertainty surrounding the qualification process for Tokyo 2020, with the International Olympic Committee assuming responsibility in the wake of AIBA’s axing.

It could mean Irish hopefuls going to the last chance saloon at the proposed final continental qualifier in Tokyo four weeks before the Olympics, but Conlan is hopeful Walker will have already booked his spot by then.

“I’d be very confident of Kurt qualifying at the first go,” he said.

“The problem is it sounds like the first continental qualifier will be in London – whether that happens or not - and the second one would be in Tokyo four weeks before the Games.

“So if you get a tough decision, or come up against somebody in form in your first fight, you potentially have to go to the continentals in Tokyo.”

Conlan also had words of encouragement for Michaela Walsh, who turned in some superb performances en route to taking silver in Belarus.

Plenty of observers felt the Monkstown fighter was unfortunate not to get the nod from the judges in her featherweight final against Stanmira Petrova, and Conlan had nothing but praise for her efforts.

“I can’t even fault Michaela - she beat the reigning world champion, she beat the Russian number two seed who had beaten her previously. They weren’t classic Michaela fights but she did what she had to do - she dug in, the tactics were excellent for her.

“The final was against a slightly bigger more technical opponent, but we all believed she got all three rounds. At ringside we thought she had done enough, so it was a bit of a shock.

“But I’m in this game long enough to know that different people see different things. Michaela’s there or thereabouts… they’re going to open more entries for the women’s weights so I would be confident of our women qualifying.”

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Limerick boxer Kevin Sheehy, who passed away in the early hours of yesterday morning following a hit and run

BOXING WORLD IN SHOCK AT DEATH OF KEVIN SHEEHY

THE boxing community has been left in shock at the loss of Limerick heavyweight Kevin Sheehy, who died following a hit and run in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Sheehy, who boxed for the St Francis’s club, was regarded as a major prospect, and represented Ireland at the European Championships after landing the national U22 title in January 2018 – a title he defended this year.

The Ulster Boxing Council and the County Antrim Board were among those to “a very talented young man who had a bright future ahead of him”.

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East Down Boxing Club's Irish champions Oisin Mulholland, Bryce Collins and Emmett O'Donnell with other young members at the club's base outside Crossgar. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

EAST DOWN AIMING TO BUILD ON IMPRESSIVE SEASON

IT has only been back in operation for eight years, but East Down Boxing Club is continuing to build impressively after picking up some major medals during the past season.

Inside the last four months the club has brought three All-Ireland titles back to Crossgar – Emmett O’Donnell taking the Boy 3 59kg crown at the National Stadium in April, Oisin Mulholland cleaning up the 48kg division at Junior 2 and Bryce Collins receiving a walkover at Junior 1 42kg.

Although he didn’t have to box in Dublin, Collins is well regarded by East Down coaches Marty Kayes, James Reynolds, Sean Bell, Billy Sinclair, Dominic Mulholland and Tony Collins, having defeated highly-rated pair Diarmuid Bradley (Holy Trinity) and Tiernan O’Neill (St Paul’s) to take the County Antrim title.

Indeed, both Mulholland and Collins were part of the Ulster High Performance team that travelled to Germany for the Black Forest Cup last month, with Mulholland bringing back silver while Collins took bronze.

“For a wee club like ours, it’s a big thing,” said James Reynolds.

“We’ve done reasonably well - wee Oisin won the Boy 1 Irish title and has been in Dublin every year since. Big Emmett is a serious prospect and Bryce is a great kid, very dedicated, works very hard; he’s beat the best there is.”

The club’s base - about a mile out the road from Crossgar towards Downpatrick - is as no frills as they come, with the East Down boxers training inside an old chicken house, come rain or shine.

There is no heat and no running water, but there are two rings and plenty of space for fighters to prepare.

“Fancy surroundings don’t make boxers,” smiles Reynolds, who boxed for Downpatrick-based club Ballyvange back in the day under the watchful eye of his father.

“We’re very happy where we are. It’s very basic, a real spit and sawdust type of club, but it does the job for us. We’ve always been very cross-community focused; there’s all breeds and creeds in our club, that’s the way it’s always been and that’s how it always will be.

“It’s tough in an area like Crossgar because there’s a lot of soccer, a lot of Gaelic, and it’s probably a middle class sort of area really, but you can see there’s a bit of quality coming through.

“They have all done brilliantly so far, and hopefully winning these titles will give the younger ones something to aspire to and give the club something to build on going forward.”

Oisin Mulholland, Bryce Collins and Emmett O'Donnell with the East Down Boxing Club coaches. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

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