Boxing

Amateur boxing review of the year: Walshs, Walker, and Ward in the news as 2019 draws to a close

From Kurt Walker striking gold to Joe Ward turning pro, there has been no shortage of talking points in 2019. Neil Loughran looks back on a big year for amateur boxing in Ireland...

For the second time in the space of eight months, Kurt Walker defeated English rival Peter McGrail before going on to claim gold at the European Games. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

AIBA GET THE BOOT

AFTER months of rising concerns for the future of Olympic boxing, it was finally confirmed in June that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would take over the qualification and competition for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The IOC voted unanimously to implement a recommendation of its executive board to oust boxing’s world governing body AIBA from the Tokyo Games over issues surrounding its finances and governance and suspend the body until the issues are resolved.

AIBA has been in turmoil over its finances and governance for years with the federation $16 million in debt and an ongoing bitter battle over the presidency that has split the body internally.

The IOC said it had to act after a six month investigation found multiple problems with AIBA, including the risk it could go bankrupt. It’s report report also flagged up “ongoing legal, reputational and financial risks” due to AIBA president Gafur Rakhimov, being identified as “one of the leaders of Uzbek organised crime”. Rakhimov denies any wrongdoing.

As a result, the IOC’s European Olympic qualifier will take place in London from March 14-23, with a further, final World qualifier held in Paris in May.

KING KURT STILL GETTING BETTER

IF Kurt Walker showed signs that he was ready to be considered among the World’s elite towards the end of 2018, then he backed that up in impressive style this year.

Four years ago the Lisburn man was firmly in Michael Conlan’s shadow as the run-in to Rio loomed. However, with the Tokyo Olympics just seven months away, this is Walker’s time – and he could be primed for a huge 2020.

Walker turns 25 in March, and looks to be hitting his peak, having backed up his EU Championship gold medal at the tail end of last year with another podium-topping performance at June’s European Games in Minsk.

The margin of his improvement can perhaps best be gauged by three fights with England’s highly-rated Scouser Peter McGrail over a 15 month period. In the 2018 Commonwealth Games final, the ‘Scouse Lomachenko’ was just a bit too cute and clever with his punch picking.

Fast forward seven months, to Valladolid and the EU decider in November 2018, and this time Walker refused to be cowed after losing the first round, bouncing back to edge McGrail on a split.

When they met at the semi-final stage of the European Games this year, confidence was coursing through Walker’s veins as he got he dominated from the off, keeping McGrail off balance and landing some beautiful one-twos to sweep to a comprehensive victory.

Waiting in the final was Mykolo Butsenko. The Ukrainian veteran old-manned Walker when they last met, in the 2017 European Championship semi-finals, but was no match for his Irish opponent this time around.

The Canal counter-puncher bowed out of the World Championships in the quarter-final, finding Mongolia’s tough, energetic Erdenebatyn Tsendbaatar hard to live with; this was a taster, not that it was needed, of the kind of quality that lies ahead.

He has to make it to Tokyo first, but Walker heads to the Olympic qualifiers in March believing that he can achieve the minimum last eight finish required to secure his spot at the greatest show on earth.

O’ROURKE LEADS THE WAY

AOIFE O’Rourke pulled off the biggest success story of any Irishwoman this year when she upset the odds to land the EU title in Madrid.

The Castlerea middleweight outclassed the same Russian opponent who had defeated her at the Chemistry Cup earlier in the year ¬- Anastasia Shamanova - before seeing off Poland’s Elziebta Wojcik in the gold medal match.

Amy Broadhurst topped the podium at the European U22 Championships for the second year in succession, and looked set for potentially tasty showdown with lightweight queen Kellie Harrington at November’s Irish Elite Championships.

Dublin’s Harrington, World champion in 2018, defeated Broadhurst in the national final that year. However, the Dundalk woman represents a different proposition now, with a string of international successes under her belt since that fateful night.

The thumb injury that led to Harrington’s withdrawal from the European Games final back in June was cited as the reason for pulling out of the elites, but it is a rivalry that looks only to have been parked rather than passed over.

Speaking of rivalries, it would be interesting to get a look at the Abbotstown spars between Carly McNaul and Cavan’s Ceire Smith over the coming weeks.

East Belfast woman McNaul made a rapid start to 2019, landing the Ulster and Irish flyweight titles before taking home silver from the Chemistry Cup in Germany.

However, illness forced her out of November’s 2020 Irish Elites, opening the door for Smith to step through and take the title. With Niamh Early also in the mix, it will be interesting to see who is selected to go to London at 51 kilos.

SIBLINGS SHOW THEIR CLASS

MICHAELA Walsh finished 2019 with a flourish after proving far too strong for Emma Agnew and, along with brother Aidan, all eyes turn towards what could be a magical summer in Tokyo.

The west Belfast siblings became the first brother and sister to win Irish elite titles on the same night when Aidan followed Michaela’s lead last month, beating Cork’s Callum Walsh, and both head into 2020 with only one thing in mind.

This year was one of contrasting fortunes in some respects. Featherweight Michaela started like a steam-train, winning the Chemistry Cup, and could count herself unlucky not to have returned home from the European Games with a gold medal around her neck.

After a cagey decider against Bulgaria’s Sanimira Petrova in which she looked to have done enough, Walsh came out the wrong side of a 4-1 split. Considering a similar disappointment at the Commonwealth Games the year previous, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but bigger days lie ahead.

The 26-year-old bowed out of the Worlds in the last eight, on a 4-1 split to Liudmila Vorontsova of Russia, but will fancy her chances of landing one of the six 57kg places up for grabs at March’s Olympic qualifiers.

It looks likely she will be joined in London by Aidan after he recovered from disappointment early in the year to put himself right in the frame for selection.

The 22-year-old was beaten by Paddy Donovan at the semi-final stage of the 2019 Irish elites held last February. With Kieran Molloy then beating the elusive Limerick man in the final, it looked a long way back for welterweight Walsh.

But he never gave up, continuing to impress coaches in Abbotstown with his dedication, and when Donovan made the switch to the pro game with Top Rank, it was down to Walsh and Molloy to go head to head.

The Galway man was given his chance at the European Games but failed to deliver, returning home empty-handed, while Walsh was seen to have edged the in-house sparring between the pair in the lead-up to September’s World Championships.

Walsh got the nod to go to Yekaterinburg and, even in defeat, could take considerable encouragement from his display against eventual silver medallist Pat McCormack.

Well beaten by the Sunderland native in the Commonwealth Games final 17 months earlier, the Monkstown man was a different proposition this time around, and it could easily have been his hand raised rather than McCormack’s.

Any potential future match-up would hold no fear, and that could yet come at the Copperbox Arena a few months down the line – though both will be hoping the draw offers them a more straightforward easier route to potential Olympic qualification.

MURPHY AND HALE LIGHT UP THE HALL

ULSTER finals night was back in the Ulster Hall for the second year running at the end of January – and a packed house was treated to some quality action.

The fight of the night was undoubtedly the bantamweight showdown between young Belfast pair Colm Murphy and JP Hale. St George’s ace Murphy recovered from a first round knockdown to finish the stronger, only for Hale’s hand to be raised when all was said and done.

And it was only six days before that rivalry was renewed when they met in the Irish U22 finals, this time it was Murphy who came out the right side of the judges.

“It’s funny but I feel like these fights have made us bond more,” said 19-year-old Murphy at the time.

“There’s so much mutual respect – I couldn’t say anything bad about him.”

Alongside the likes of Murphy and Hale, there is no shortage of talent coming through in Belfast and beyond, as evidenced by the impressive performances of Dylan Eagleson (St Paul’s) and Gleann’s Martin McCullough.

Eagleson won every round of every fight en route to the open senior Irish cadet title earlier in the year and could so easily have got the decision after a tight tussle with Russia’s Timur Khalilov at the European Male and Female Junior Championships in Romania.

Also boxing in his first major international competition, McCullough showcased his silky skills as he progressed to the last four before being edged out by Russia’s Ivan Kobzev.

Bringing back bronze is not to be sniffed at, and there is plenty of promise there for the future.

THE SHOW GOES ON WITHOUT JOE

THERE was much pomp and ceremony when, in the summer of 2017, it was announced that Joe Ward would be hanging around for another crack at the Olympic Games.

The supremely gifted Moate light-heavy returned with Rio with nothing but regrets, having travelled as a genuine medal hope. He would make that right in Tokyo, you’d see.

Yet almost as soon as that announcement was made, there were rumours swirling around about suitors trying to talk Ward into a move to the pro ranks. He was named on the Irish squad bound for the European Games in June but the talk was that he hadn’t been seen around Abbotstown for some time.

It came as no surprise then when it was finally confirmed that Ward had inked a management contract with New York-based Times Square Boxing, bringing to an end one of the glittering Irish amateur careers.

Who can fill Joe Ward’s shoes? That remains to be seen, but there’s certainly no shortage of contenders.

Newry’s Kane Tucker only moved up to 81kg last year and, still only 20, has plenty more developing to do.

However, he impressed enough at the behind-closed-doors trials in Abbotstown to earn a place on the team going to the World Elite Championships.

Unfortunately for Tucker, a hand injury forced him out of an ultra-competitive light-heavyweight division at the Irish Elites last month, although he could still return in time to force his way into the reckoning for the Olympic qualifiers.

Former Irish middleweight kingpin Emmett Brennan eventually prevailed, beating reigning champion Thomas O’Toole, and with the likes of Tommy Hyde and Belfast’s big-hitting Paul McCullagh also in the mix, there could be headaches down the line for Bernard Dunne and co.

THE FIGHT FOR FLYWEIGHT

BACK at the start of 2015, it was Brendan Irvine who came from nowhere to force himself right into the Olympic reckoning – going on an amazing run at domestic and international level before securing his spot in Rio in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Heading towards the next Games, there is a new kid on the block pushing hard for the flyweight position. Like Irvine, Jude Gallagher shone at his first elite championships under the bright lights of the National Stadium.

And when the TV cameras rolled around, he wasn’t overawed either. Just as Irvine had defeated the experienced Hughie Myers in that 2015 decider, Tyrone teenager Gallagher stormed onto the scene with a comprehensive victory over European Games medallist Regan Buckley.

The relentlessness of his performance demanded that Gallagher be given due consideration as the Irish coaches look at their options for the Olympic qualifiers in March.

Irvine is still there, and facing one of the biggest challenges of his career as he bids to bounce back from a frustrating 2019 and force his way into the reckoning.

After returning from a lay-off following a wrist operation, he boxed at the Chemistry Cup and at a fight night in New York, only for disaster to strike weeks before heading out to the European Games in Minsk.

‘Wee Rooster’ suffered a broken foot in a freak sparring accident in May, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the year. But, as he works his way back slowly, the qualifiers will be his aim.

At 23, the St Paul’s stylist is still a young man with his whole career in front of him, and he would love nothing more than to become a two-time Olympian.

BOOST FOR BELFAST

BELFAST boxing received a nice early Christmas present after confirmation that the European schoolboy/schoolgirl championships would be staged in the city next year.

After the disappointment of losing the rights to host the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games due to the stalemate at Stormont, bringing any kind of international competition to the north should be welcomed.

And the hope is that this is only the beginning. Anybody who remembers the 2001 World Championships being held in Belfast will recall the excitement that surrounded the event and the buzz it brought to the city.

Ever since, World and European championships have tended to take place in Russia or other remote eastern European outposts. A change to this policy would be welcomed and could open the door to some of the top talent in the world coming to Belfast.

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