IT is 48 years since a fighter representing Clonard Boxing Club last won an Irish elite title between the ropes – but the west Belfast club is hoping that could change in the coming weeks.
Michael Conlan was representing Clonard, his first and last amateur club, when he became the first Irishman to win a World championship gold medal three years ago, but didn’t compete at that year’s Irish Elite Championships.
Therefore the late, great Mickey Tohill’s bantamweight title win in 1970, when he defeated Dublin’s Noel Brennan, remains the last time a boxer from the club had his hand raised on finals night.
Up-and-coming talent Conor Quinn claimed this year’s flyweight title without throwing a glove in anger, the 20-year-old unfortunately the only entrant at 52kg.
But middleweight Gerard French and light-welter Caoimhin Ferguson are both in action this weekend, with French facing John Maughan (St Mary’s, Dublin) in a 75kg quarter-final while Ferguson takes on Castlebar’s Colm Quinn in a last four showdown.
It will be the first major competition at which Ferguson has boxed for Clonard, having moved from Gleann after last year’s Ulster Elite Championships, when he lost to Sean McComb in the final.
And coach Paddy Graham jr believes both he and French are in with a chance of going all the way.
“Caoimhin is a strong kid, he’s a great trainer,” he said.
“He’s with us since after the Ulster seniors and he’s sparring Gerard, Conor, he was sparring Sonny Upton, Alfredo Meli - they’re all getting good work.
“Wayne Kelly, last year’s finalist who also lost to Sean McComb, is on the other side of the draw so he’s well placed.”
While still boxing at welterweight French lost out to Aidan Walsh at the semi-final stage of the Ulster elites, and has looked to be on the cusp of a breakthrough in recent years.
“Gerard has all the talent,” continued Graham jr.
“If you had Gerard knuckling down he could go places. This time he’s put more effort in, he’s trained hard. He just needs a break.
“Gerard would get one good win and then there’d maybe be a setback. Aidan Walsh beat him and look at Aidan, he’s going to the Commonwealth Games, he’s a serious talent.
“But Gerard’s sparring well and training well. He looks a lot stronger at 75 and I think he’ll stay there. He’s hitting a lot harder, training a lot harder.
“He’s got a new job as a fitness instructor now and he was finding it hard to train at times, but they’re working with him at the minute so he can concentrate on the seniors.
“It’s all about which Gerard turns up. If he gets a good win his confidence will be flying and he’s capable of beating anyone.”
Following a hiatus of 16 years, Clonard reopened in 2001 and is continuing to thrive.
Last May the club unveiled its new £260,000 home at the old NIE substation at Gortfin Street, with a perforated metal portrait of Michael Conlan gracing the exterior wall.
But it is the new generation of talent emerging that gives Paddy Graham jr, his dad Paddy sr, brother Peter and fellow coaches Paul Donnelly, Tony Parks and Bobby Moore the confidence that Clonard is really going places.
“We’re going alright – we’re doing well at the minute,” said Graham jr, who boxed for the old Clonard club before helping form the new version.
“Caoimhin Ferguson chose our club and a couple of other good kids have come to the club too. There’s a wee lad Bernard Agnew, he’s a great kid, look out for him.
“The coaches are all working well together, there’s good morale, it’s a new beginning with the new gym. There’s no pressure on us any more.
“We’re a steady ship and, from juvenile right up, things are going well. Peter gets the underage kids loads of wee skill bouts and exhibitions and it’s paying off, and my dad won everything as an amateur and has a wealth of knowledge to pass on.
“He has really helped the likes of young Conor Quinn and you’re seeing how good he has become now. The club’s flying, and long may it continue.”
MICHAELA Walsh leads the roll call of Ulster fighters in action at the Irish Elite Championships this weekend.
The European Union gold medallist is currently in the middle of a training camp ahead of April’s Commonwealth Games in Australia, and is the only member of the 13-strong team to enter the elites.
First up for the Monkstown fighter on Saturday night is Tiegan Russell, of Cork club Fr Horgan’s, in the 57kg semi-final, with Dervla Duffy (Mulhuddart) and Ailish McCullough (Albert Foundry) facing off in the other last four bout.
Sean Duffy (Holy Trinity) and Dylan Duffy (Pegasus) both bowed out at the quarter-final stage last Friday night, Sean losing to Ballina’s Francis Cleary before namesake Dylan just came up short against defending champion Patrick Mongan.
At 69kg, meanwhile, Eugene McKeever (Holy Family, Drogheda) got the better of Michael Hennessy of St Monica’s, Newry.
Ulster pair Gerard French and Brett McGinty have been kept apart in the 75kg draw, with both having moved up from welterweight in the wake of last year’s Ulster Elite Championships.
French is up against John Maughan (St Mary’s, Dublin) while McGinty faces Maynooth’s Glory Carlos Imuala. McGinty reached last year’s 69kg final, losing to reigning champion Dean Walsh.
Holy Trinity have two fighters in action on Saturday night, with Caoimhin Hynes moving up to 81kg.
He awaits one of the winners of Friday night’s quarter-finals between Brian Kennedy (St Marys Daingean) and Robert Burke (Glasnevin), and Anthony Browne (St Michael’s, Dublin) and Davit Tsotsoria (Illies GG).
Hynes’s club-mate Jason Barron, meanwhile, is up against Smithfield’s Kiril Afanasev in the 91kg semi-final.
Former Irish Elite finalist Barron made his return to the ring last year, and lost out to Damien Sullivan in the heavyweight final of the Ulster Elites.