UNDER the watchful eye of leading US promoter Lou Di Bella, Joe Ward last week put pen to paper on the professional contract that spells the end of a glittering amateur career.
Still only 25, Ward is one of the most naturally gifted boxers to emerge from these shores in recent decades, and was touted as a strong medal hope at next year’s Olympic Games after the disappointment of his early exit at Rio 2016.
His decision to move over to the paid ranks came as a blow, if not a huge surprise, for the high performance unit in Dublin – and now the 81 kilo division has been blown wide open, with a host of emerging young fighters ready to challenge for the crown worn by Ward for so long.
Reigning 91kg Irish elite champion Tony Browne is understood to have come down in weight in an attempt to fill the void, while the likes of Newry teenager Kane Tucker, Cork’s Tommy Hyde and Galway’s Thomas O’Toole have served notice of their potential.
So too has Belfast banger Paul McCullagh jr.
The big-hitting St John Bosco man is right in the light-heavy mix, and will also be hoping to make his mark at the Irish Elite Championships in November, which will open the door for a crack at Olympic qualification for whoever finishes top of the pile.
McCullah had been considering turning pro before news of Ward’s decision filtered through, but has now adjusted his sights.
“There was people approaching me [about going pro], and there’s no doubt Joe Ward was a massive roadblock,” said McCullagh, who is working his way back to fitness from a hand injury.
“I’ve always trained like a pro - it’s something that has suited me more, the way my boxing style is. But since a big opportunity has arisen, I’ve decided to stay amateur.
There’s the Olympics next year, and the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
“I’m the reigning Ulster elite champion so I would love to retain my title and go to the Commonwealth Games so I could get my name out there a bit more.”
The 19-year-old landed his first Ulster title back in January, and it was an emotional night for the entire McCullagh clan.
His grandfather Paul had passed away at the end of 2018 while his father – also Paul – was in the corner as his son shone at the Ulster Hall.
“That’s what me and my granda were training for so it was sad not to have him there.
“He was a massive part of my training for the Celtic Cup when I won that, and then the Ulsters, so it was a strange feeling not having him there.
“My father has kept me right from I was no age too. He’s a man of few words but he knows what he’s doing and he’s guiding me along right.”
November won’t be long coming around, and McCullagh believes he will be all the better for his split decision defeat to Hyde at the semi-final stage of February’s Irish elite championships.
“I felt I didn’t perform that night, and from then on, being down with the Irish squad, I’ve come on a lot.
“I was in sparring with the likes of Tony Browne, so I’m coming on a lot. I know all the lads around my weight, we’ve all been sparring down in Dublin so we all know each other well. They’re all good lads, all respectful lads.
“At the end of the day we’re all out for the same thing, aren’t we?”
ULSTER TRIO CELEBRATE EUROPEAN BRONZE MEDAL SUCCESS
THE Ulster contingent starred on the Irish team that performed so well at the European Schoolboy/girl Championships in Tbilisi.
Ireland finished fifth in the medal table overall with two golds, six silver and 10 bronze, and were greeted by family and friends when they arrived back home to Dublin yesterday.
Carleigh Irving (Illies GG), Thomas Ward (Carrickmore) and Caolan Devlin (Mark Heagney ABC, Kildress) flew the flag impressively, returning home with bronze medals around their necks, while Holy Trinity’s Kyle Smith can be proud of his performance, winning his first fight before being edged out by talented Ukrainian Yehor Kirylius.
Devlin, boxing in the 76kg division, impressed in victory over Azerbaijan’s Islam Huseynli before losing out to Croatia’s Mateo Pejic at the semi-final stage.
Irving, meanwhile, caught the eye as she defeated Turkey’s Pinar Ozkan to secure a medal, and Illies coach Sean Devenney felt she was unlucky to bow out on a unanimous decision to England’s Jessica Keaton.
He said: “Carleigh clearly landed the vast majority of scoring shots and seemed to be in complete control of the contest throughout, so you can imagine the dismay which followed the announcement of the English boxer being declared the winner.
“All in all though Carleigh put in two outstanding performances for her first European Championships, especially against the English boxer who went on to win gold by beating Ukraine in the final.
“We’re delighted with her performances and she can take nothing but positives from the experience going forward. She’s proved she belongs at the top level and we’re in no doubt that she has a massive future ahead of her.”
The same goes for Ward, who was named Irish vice-captain before the team headed out to the Georgian capital.
He advanced to the semi-final stages with a unanimous decision win over Yahor Prudnikau (Belarus) before exiting at the hands of Ethan Moore. Still, as Carrickmore coach Ronan McMahon stated, the 14-year-old has plenty to be proud of.
“Tom’s been with us since he was nine or 10; we call him the quiet man of the club. He just goes about his work without fuss, a real humble wee lad,” said McMahon.
“Last year he started to show real promise but this year’s he’s just taken off. He went to train with the Irish elite squad a while back and you could even see that had brought him on another 15-20 per cent.
“He’s from Ballyshannon, his dad Jimmy does a bit of coaching with us, and they come up three times a week so he’s putting in a big effort and it’s great to see him get some reward for that.”