Rio Olympics

Ready, steady, Rio: Irish boxers get ready to roll at Olympics

Olympic boxers Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Steven Donnelly and Brendan Irvine are all hoping to shine at the Rio Olympics
Picture Matt by Bohill
Neil Loughran

As Paddy Barnes prepares to carry the Irish flag into the Maracana Stadium at Friday’s opening ceremony, many believe the boxing team boasts Ireland’s biggest medal hopes. Neil Loughran looks at the men, and woman, who carry the hopes of a nation…

 

PADDY BARNES
Age: 29
Club: Holy Family, Belfast
Weight class: Light-flyweight (49kg)
Odds for gold: 2/1 (favourite)
Danger in the draw: Joahnys Argilagos (Cuba), the talented 18-year-old won gold at his first World Championships last October, beating Brendan Irvine along the way and is hot on Barnes’ heels at the top of the betting

WITH two bronze medals in the bag already, can Paddy finally land that elusive gold? Arch nemesis Zou Shiming, who beat Barnes in the 2008 and '12 semi-finals, is now off the scene having since turned pro, so the Holy Family light-flyweight will never have a better chance.

One bookies, with whom Barnes had a carefully constructed falling out and make-up session before heading off to Rio, make the 29-year-old favourite - but it is still a huge ask for a man who has only had a handful of competitive fights since securing his qualification through the World Series of Boxing (WSB) in April 2015.

That lack of action means Barnes will be thrust into action early on, as he is not seeded and must fight four times if he is to win gold. Barnes, though, has steadily improved throughout his career and the north Belfast “punchaholic” - as 2012 silver medalist John Joe Nevin calls him - has the experience, workrate and power to blast his way to the top.

 

BRENDAN IRVINE
Age:
20
Club: St Paul’s, Belfast
Weight class: Flyweight (52kg)
Odds for gold: 25/1
Danger in the draw: Elvin Mamishzada (Azerbaijan), reigning European Games and World champion, the 24-year-old is a strong, come-forward fighter and will take some beating.

AT JUST 20-years-of-age, Irvine is the youngest member of the team and has been earmarked as a Tokyo 2020 Olympian by Irish coaches for many years. However, the west Belfast man is ahead of schedule after exploding onto the Irish and international scene in recent years.

‘Wee Rooster’ hasn’t looked back since winning the Irish Elite title at the first time of asking in January 2015, going on to land silver at the inaugural European Games in June the same year. Lost out in the quarter-final of the World Championships to eventual gold medalist Joahnys Argilagos before moving up to flyweight, winning a second Irish Elite title and targeting the 52kg spot in Rio.

Tall and wiry, Irvine is a tireless trainer and worked hard to improve his physique for the step up - and those efforts paid off when he sealed his place in Brazil at the European Olympic qualifiers in Turkey back in April.

‘Rooster’ showed his resolve by bouncing back from the disappointment of his semi-final defeat to Armenia's Narek Abgaryan by winning a tough, tight Olympic box-off against Bulgaria’s Daniel Asenov

 

MICHAEL CONLAN
Age:
24
Club: Clonard, Belfast
Weight class: Bantamweight (56kg)
Odds for gold: 3/1 (third favourite)
Danger in the draw: Robeisy Ramirez (Cuba), favourite to add bantamweight gold to the flyweight gold lifted in London in a very tough division. Talk he would have preferred to have gone pro by now and looked a shadow of his former self when booking his place in Rio at the final qualifier in Baku.

HE BECAME the first-ever Irish male to win gold at the World Championships yet, somehow, Conlan finds himself third-favourite with the bookies going into the Olympics.

At 3/1, Conlan - who won a bronze medal at flyweight four-years-ago - is worth a sizeable punt. The Clonard fighter is as close to a professional boxer, in terms of dedication and living the life of an elite athlete, as you will find in the unpaid ranks.

Team-mate Paddy Barnes has described him as “the most naturally talented boxer to come out of Ireland”, and there is certainly a case to be made. Conlan is quick, elusive, can box orthodox or southpaw comfortably, has a good boxing brain and can bang.

Actually qualified for Rio twice, having booked his place following a gruelling WSB schedule before winning World gold, so big things are expected. Bantamweight is very competitive, but Conlan is a genuine gold medal hope.

 

DAVID OLIVER JOYCE
Age:
29
Club: St Michael’s, Athy
Weight class: Lightweight (60kg)
Odds for gold: 16/1
Danger in the draw: Albert Selimov (Azerbaijan), as crafty as they come. Beat Belfast’s Sean McComb in the European Games semi-final and at World Championships last year. One of the few men to hold an amateur win over the great Vasiliy Lomachenko, Selimov is a European boxing legend and as cute a hoor as you will see in Rio

FALLING to his knees as his name was announced at the end of a gruelling European qualifier box-off with Turkey’s Volkan Gokcek, Joyce realised a long-standing dream. The St Michael’s, Athy boxer was unlucky to miss out on Beijing 2008 and London 2012 at the qualifier stage and was understandably overjoyed to finally reach the promised land.

Former Irish head coach Billy Walsh, who will lead the USA charge in Rio after his acrimonious exit from these shores, admitted he had been in tears watching a stream of Joyce qualify. Rated an outsider at 60kg, Joyce’s all-action style could see him force his way into contention.

 

STEVEN DONNELLY
Age:
27
Club: All Saints', Ballymena
Weight class: Welterweight (69kg)
Odds for gold: 33/1
Danger in the draw: Mohammed Rabii (Morocco), beat bookies’ favourite Daniyar Yeleussinov in the World Championship final, the 23-year-old was voted Boxer of the Season in WSB last year and can do a bit of everything. The man to beat in a tough-looking division

ON HIS day, Ballymena banger Donnelly is capable of beating anybody at 69kg. He proved that during the WSB last year, when he travelled the world beating everybody put in front of him before his challenge faded towards the end of a physically draining campaign.

After seemingly being overlooked for the welterweight spot, Donnelly had given up all hope of a career in boxing until an unlikely sequence of events left him glued to the Russian National Championships to find out whether he would qualify for the Olympics.

On November 29, it was confirmed - the dream was alive. Having left his wild child days well and truly behind him, Donnelly has given it everything in preparation for Rio and his performance in defeating Canada’s highly-rated Custio Clayton at the Commonwealth Games two-years-ago shows what he is capable of on the big stage.

A live outsider.

 

MICHAEL O’REILLY
Age:
23
Club: Portlaoise BC
Weight class: Middleweight (69kg)
Odds for gold: 8/1 (fifth favourite)
Danger in the draw: Arlen Lopez (Cuba), a strong, powerful fighter, Lopez took World gold last October, has starred in the WSB and beat the man - second-favourite Uzbekistan’s Bektemir Melikuziev - who beat O’Reilly at the last-four stage in Doha.

THE Portlaoise middleweight’s participation is under threat following confirmation that he tested positive for a banned substance prior to leaving for Rio.

He has been informed that his A sample tested positive. He can request to have his B sample tested but can’t take part in any competition until the completion of an investigation. If he’s cleared to compete, O’Reilly is right up there at 75kg.

Has won three Irish Elite titles in-a-row and took gold at the European Games in June 2015 before picking up a bronze at his first-ever World Championships. Indeed, had it not been for a debatable decision in his Olympic box-off with Egypt’s Hossam Abdin, O’Reilly wouldn’t have been sweating until the world qualifier in June to book his place in Brazil.

He can go far if he gets the chance.

 

JOE WARD
Age:
22
Club: Moate, Westmeath
Weight class: Light-heavyweight (81kg)
Odds for gold: 8/1 (second favourite)
Danger in the draw: Julio Cesar la Cruz (Cuba), the man to beat at light-heavy, Ward hasn’t been able to get close to him in their previous meetings at the 2013 and '15 World Championships. Surprisingly lost to Albert Ramirez last year, so can be beaten

THE big man seems to have been around forever, yet he is only 22-years-old and this is his first Olympic Games. Ward burst onto the scene when beating 2008 Olympic silver medalist Ken Egan in the 2011 Irish Elite final and he proved it was no fluke by the getting the better of the Dub in the next two 81kg deciders.

Impressed at times in AIBA Pro Boxing last year, though a lack of fitness cost him when he was stopped by Frenchman Mathieu Bauderlique. Needs to be on his game in Rio to force his way into the medal positions.

Ward will be hoping he is on the other side of the draw to Julio Cesar la Cruz, who convincingly beat the Westmeath man in the World Championship final last October. Still, Ward has bags of talent and will be confident that, with the right gameplan, he could finally edge out the Cuban.

 

Katie Taylor with her gold medal after beating Yana Allekseevna in the 60kg light-weight final at the 2014 AIBA Elite Women's World Boxing Championships in Jeju, Korea

KATIE TAYLOR
Age:
30
Club: Bray, Wicklow
Weight class: Lightweight (60kg)
Odds for gold: 8/11
Danger in the draw: Yana Alekseevna (Azerbaijan), it is no surprise the two girls who beat Taylor this year - Alekseevna and France’s Estelle Mossley - are the second and third favourites for gold in Rio. The tall Alekseevna is a bit like the Russian Sofia Ochigava, who Taylor beat in the 2012 Olympic final - a quick, solid counter-puncher.

THE queen of Irish boxing - but has her crown slipped? Perhaps slightly, but it is not necessarily the case that Taylor has lot anything from her considerable armoury, rather that the chasing pack have closed the gap.

It was always going to happen and, although I felt Taylor had done enough to beat Yana Alekseevna and Estelle Mossley earlier this year - both decisions went against the Bray woman - it will have done the 30-year-old no harm to feel the breath of her opponents on her neck heading into Rio.

Still odds-on favourite to add another gold medal to the one she bagged at London 2012, it would take a brave person to back against Taylor standing on top of the podium on August 19.

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