Michael Conlan tops the bill in a disappointing year for Irish boxing
WHAT a year. What. A. Year. Medals galore, Ireland’s best-ever showing at an Olympic Games, the long wait for a successor to 1992 golden boy Michael Carruth finally brought to an end.
From its lofty perch on top of the Corcovado mountain, Christ the Redeemer smiled down upon the green machine so sit back and raise a glass to a sun-soaked summer that will live long in the memory.
This should have been the opening two paragraphs of the 2016 amateur boxing review. We all hoped it would be as expectations, from the outside looking in at least, had never been so high.
But instead of being paved with gold, the road to Rio was filled with huge, yawning potholes around every bend as, one by one, Ireland’s boxers veered off into the ditch before the medal stages.
Some stalled at the start, others fell asleep at the wheel, while one was unceremoniously shunted off the track before exploding in spectacular fashion, the plumes of smoke from the smouldering wreckage travelling far and wide.
In contrast to what transpired, the mood music heading into the Olympic Games had been good. Billy Walsh may have acrimoniously departed the scene 10 months previously, but all reports suggested preparations were going well.
The finishing touches were being applied at a former naval base outside Rio, with Walsh putting his American charges through their paces at the same venue.
“I know a fella who organised both training camps,” laughed the Wexford man before he took Team USA to Brazil.
It was on the eve of the Games, when excitement should have been at fever pitch, that Ireland’s story began to unravel in the most damaging circumstances imaginable.
‘Irish boxer fails drug test’ came the earth-shattering headlines back from Rio the day before the opening ceremony. Talk about timing. Only the boxer in question knew at this stage who was at the centre of the allegations. Others were understandably concerned, with Paddy Barnes asking Twitter for any information as the rest of the team remained in the dark, the finger of suspicion hovering above them all through no fault of their own.
Eventually, it was confirmed that Michael O’Reilly had tested positive for a banned substance, the Portlaoise middleweight – considered a genuine medal hope - sent home from Rio in disgrace.
All of a sudden, Ireland were one boxer down without a punch having been thrown. It couldn’t have been a more calamitous start – the snowball had already started rolling down the hill and was gathering pace.
Steven Donnelly and David Oliver Joyce opened Ireland’s account with wins, but another hammer-blow was to follow the next day when Paddy Barnes’s dreams of a third Olympic medal were unexpectedly extinguished.
With two bronze medals already in his back pocket, Barnes had hoped to sign off on a glittering amateur career by landing gold. Having blazed through the World Series of Boxing the year previous en route to Rio, the Holy Family light-fly had every reason to be confident.
World number 26-ranked Spaniard Samuel Carmona was seen as little more than a stepping stone to the next round but, from the first bell, Barnes lacked the zip and intensity that had defined his career to that point.
After three tough, close rounds, Carmona’s hand was raised aloft as Irish hearts sank. Having made the 49 kilogram weight since he was 16, Barnes went back to the well one last time and found it had run dry.
“It wasn’t making the weight [that was the problem], I was fighting three hours after the weigh-in - something I’ve never done,” said Barnes in the days after.
“I feel the same way making weight as I have done since I was 16. I’m always drained, really tired the day before but, because I have plenty of time to refuel and hydrate, that’s why I’m so fit in the ring.
“Because it was so close, it just caught me and I was f**ked. I didn’t even hydrate properly because I thought I’d have to weigh-in two days later.”
Joyce was next to fall, outclassed by the experienced Azeri Albert Selimov. But worse - much worse - was still to follow. Light-heavyweight Joe Ward was viewed as a shoo-in for a medal.
Having won silver at the World Championships the previous October, this was the Westmeath man’s time to shine having been unlucky to miss out on qualification for London 2012.
Ward has talent to burn, but was unwisely drawn into a gun-fight by the wild, rugged Carlos Mina on a night to forget at the Riocentro Pavilion, with two controversial public warnings playing their part as the Ecuadorian advanced.
Another man down, it fell on Donnelly to steer the ship back on course and he did so with a remarkable show of guts and guile as he slugged it out with Mongolian puncher Byambyn Tüvshinbat.
The performances of the All Saints fighter, whose journey from bar-room brawls in Ballymena to boxing at the greatest show on earth was one of the stories of the Games from an Irish point of view, provided some sort of silver lining.
But his journey too would soon to come to an end on the same day his room-mate at the Olympic Village, Brendan Irvine, bowed out. Donnelly gave it his all against world number one Mohamed Rabii, but exited on a split decision.
It was a bitter pill, but his reputation had been enhanced beyond recognition: “I can walk away from these Games very proud,” said the 27-year-old.
“Nobody expected me to get this far probably, only myself and club coaches and the Irish coaches. I would’ve loved to have brought a medal back to everybody back home, but it’s not to be.”
Irvine, meanwhile, was unfortunate to be drawn out of the hat alongside Shakhobidin Zoirov, the tricky Uzbek who would go on to take flyweight gold, making easy work of the 52kg division.
Better days lie ahead for ‘Wee Rooster’, with his miraculous ascent from virtual unknown at the turn of 2015 to the Olympic Games 20 months later something to be hugely proud of.
The fact he had to jump up a weight class in the middle of that period made his qualification all the more remarkable, with Irvine sealing his place in Brazil thanks to an unforgettable box-off victory over Bulgarian Daniel Asenov back in April. Seen as a huge medal hope at Tokyo 2020, his journey could be just beginning.
One woman whose amateur journey has come to an end, however, is Katie Taylor. The London 2012 gold medallist endured a frustrating year, coming out on the wrong side of decisions at the European Olympic qualifiers and May’s World Championships before heading to Rio.
Paired with Finland’s Mira Potkonen, who she had beaten in the previous five encounters, Taylor was expected to breeze into the last-four. The reality was very different though, as the fight went back and forth over four competitive rounds. The feeling was Taylor had done enough, but there was sadness rather than shock when Potkonen’s hand was raised.
It was a sorry way to bring down the curtain on an amateur career that had delivered so much, though the 30-year-old has since readjusted her sights and is determined to a blaze a trail in the pro ranks under Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom banner.
ARMS outstretched, the last amateur vest he would ever wear ripped off, clasped in his right hand, both index fingers raised in disgust, Michael Conlan provided one of the defining sporting images of the year.
The Belfast switch-hitter’s reaction to his controversial Olympic exit flashed around the world, Conlan’s explosive post-fight interview reverberating throughout the Riocentro pavilion and beyond.
Conlan had bitten his tongue when on the wrong end of contentious decisions in the past but could hold it no longer as he launched a tirade condemning boxing’s governing body and the judges at ringside.
“AIBA are cheats. They're f****** cheats… I don't f****** care that this is on TV,” he blasted in an interview with RTÉ.
“Amateur boxing stinks, right from the core to the very top.”
In the days that followed, six judges were sent home from the Games - including Omagh referee Michael Gallagher - after AIBA reviewed the footage from contentious bouts.
Certainly, inside the Rio boxing venue there was a sense of foreboding as members of the media took their seats for his quarter-final showdown with Vladimir Nikitin.
The last Irish boxer standing by this stage after a disastrous few days, the hopes of a nation rested on his shoulders. If you could have chosen anyone to carry that burden, it was Michael Conlan.
The first round eased Irish nerves, Conlan boxing beautifully on the back foot, landing a string of superb counters off both hands. Then, the judges’ cards flashed up before our eyes - unanimous for Nikitin.
“The fix is in,” sighed one of the press corps wearily.
Conlan changed tack in the second round, aware he had inexplicably lost the first, standing toe-to-toe. Both men landed good shots, but Conlan appeared to do the better work. The judges agreed - one round each, it was all down to the final three rounds.
The last instalment was the closest by far but by the time the bell sounded, the large pocket of Irish support inside Riocentro roared at what they believed was a job well done.
Standing in the centre of the ring, the announcer began to speak in Portuguese. Most in the press box were none the wiser, until the word ‘azul’ was uttered.
The blue-vested Nikitin sank to his knees and screamed with delight. A stunned silence inside the arena soon gave way to a chorus of boos as Conlan circled the ring defiantly.
As it transpired, the Russian was in no physical state to compete in his semi-final two days later, withdrawing on the morning of his scheduled bout with America’s Shakur Stevenson, adding further insult of injury.
Having worked towards this stage since picking up bronze at London 2012, returning home from Rio empty-handed wasn’t in Michael Conlan’s plans for 2016. He wanted to be remembered for his actions inside of the ring, rather than outside.
But fate can be a funny old thing. Initially gutted that his early exit had scuppered any chance of a big money deal in the pro ranks, Conlan needn’t have worried.
Within months, he had inked a deal with American outfit Top Rank - the promoters who helped launch the post-Olympic careers of Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather jnr - and will make his debut in Madison Square Garden on St Patrick’s Day, top of the bill.
By then, the events of August 16 will be but a distant memory for a professional star on the rise.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
- Despite the exodus of top stars like Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, there is plenty of talent coming through. Light-welter Gabriel Dossen and middleweight Michael Nevin won bronze medals at the World Youth Championships in Russia last month, while Derry welterweight Brett McGinty is also one to watch in 2017.
Two-time Irish Elite champion Kurt Walker has the chance to prove himself a worthy successor to Conlan at 56kg, while Sean McComb is a force to be reckoned with at his new weight of 64kg.
- After a disappointing year, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) couldn’t afford to allow Zaur Antia to follow some of Ireland’s top boxers out the exit door.
The Georgian coach was coveted by Azerbaijan, Canada and Saudi Arabia, but recently committed his future to Ireland until at least 2021.
The Bray-based head coach is extremely highly-rated by the boxers and other coaches within the High Performance unit, with Ireland’s top stars often speaking of Antia’s unrivalled technical ability.
- Despite securing Antia’s services, there has been long-held concern at IABA’s failure to appoint a High Performance director to support the Georgian.
Former head coach Billy Walsh fulfilled the role in all but name but, officially, the post has remained vacant since Gary Keegan’s departure in 2008.
However, IABA chief executive Fergal Carruth confirmed last week the association intends to appoint a director in the new year.
- The International Boxing Association (AIBA) confirmed earlier this month that the scores of all five judges will be used across all grades next year. Previously, five judges scored fights, but only three scores were used.
The AIBA also announced the use of the independent Swiss Timing electronic draw system to select the judges. This comes after last summer’s Olympic Games, which were described by Billy Walsh as “the worst since Seoul 1988” in terms of judging.