Evelyn Igharo represents the new Ireland - and she can go right to the top: Clann Naofa coach Jim O'Neill
THE red neon lights are flashing, the music booms and the disco smoke cascades all around the national stadium.
Just turned 18, Evelyn Igharo of Clann Naofa Boxing Club, Dundalk is making her debut in the national elite championships at 64kg.
Ciara Ginty from Mayo has a wealth of experience and ring craft beyond her 21 years.
Unlike her opponent, Ginty's well used to three-threes and aiming for her second elite title.
She knows heavy-hitter Igharo, just out of youths where she swept the boards, will take some stopping.
Calm and collected, trainer Jim O’Neill issues the final few instructions for the 64kg decider.
Wearing red, the Irish-Nigerian towers over Ginty.
They touch gloves.
Round One: Ginty is on her bike from the first bell. Jabbing. Moving.
Igharo is on the front foot, cutting off the ring, anxious for combat.
She jabs with her left as a distance tester before unleashing her ferocious right. Boom. Boom. Boom.
She lands as much as she misses, but Ginty feels the power and stays on the outside, with an educated jab her only resistance.
Towards the end of the first, Igharo nails Ginty in the corner. Another right lands. Boom.
But Ginty slips and moves out of danger.
Round Two: With the first round banked, Igharo is more patient. She stalks Ginty rather than rushing in. She picks her punches better too.
Boom. Her right hand is a thing of beauty. Poker straight. Quick. Powerful.
Ginty beats Igharo's reach and sneaks in to land a couple of stiff jabs.
But the teenager is still the one on the front foot, hunting down the Mayo girl and does enough to win the round.
Round Three: Igharo’s arms feel like lead. Doing three-threes and two-threes are like night and day.
But still she doesn’t take a backward step. You can’t coach desire. She keeps moving forward.
Both fighters are weary. Ginty gets close and does well to get off a couple of combinations. But she’s left herself with a mountain to climb.
To both fighters, the final bell sounds like a symphony.
Applause rings around the old arena.
On the face of it, and to every boxing fan at ringside, Igharo looks a clear winner.
But Jim O’Neill, the founding members of Clann Naofa BC, has been around enough corners to know that there is no such thing as a dead cert in amateur boxing.
He’s been on the wrong end of split decisions more times than he’d care to remember.
You see, it’s the hope that kills you.
“Show your appreciation for another cracking contest,” bellows the MC. “And the winner of that contest and the elite women’s champion for 2020 at 64 kilos on a split decision…3-2…”
For dramatic effect, the MC pauses before delivering the three judges’ verdict.
In real time, the pause is only a few seconds but for the long-suffering souls of Clann Naofa Boxing Academy of Muirhevnamor, it feels like years.
Years of blood. Sweat. Tears. Disappointment after disappointment. Knocking and banging and kicking the door.
Split decision after split decision going the other way.
This will be another one of those nights.
Where you bite your tongue and you remove the sweaty headgear and heavy gloves and you console your boxer and you tell them that tonight wasn’t meant to be their night.
Despite the club’s insatiable pursuit of excellence since 2008, nothing ever falls for Clann Naofa. Not ever.
“When they said ‘split decision’, it took forever…It was a big deal because she won a silver at the Youth Olympics and the worlds. She had the name,” says Evelyn.
“We’ve been on the wrong end of so many 2-1 decisions, so I wasn’t sure,” says Jim.
“I knew Evelyn won the first two rounds, I wasn’t sure about the third round. I turned to Gerard in our corner and said: ‘She’s got this. They can’t take this away from her, can they?’
“…And the winner is… Igharo, in the red corner.”
Tonight is Clann Naofa’s night.
With the referee holding her right arm aloft, Igharo punches the air with her left to celebrate becoming an Irish senior champion at elite level and the first in Clann Naofa’s history.
In her corner, O’Neill doesn’t visibly react to the split decision going in his fighter’s favour.
But inside, he’s dancing – like a man whose numbers came up in the lottery but just wants to get home to check his ticket again.
Friday November 22 2019 was the mother of all nights.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks to a sluggish Saturday evening in the Muirhevnamor housing estate, Jim O’Neill’s home, just a stone’s throw from Clann Naofa Boxing Academy.
Evelyn is stretched out on her coach’s sofa checking her WhatsApp messages and sipping on a bottle of Lucozade.
Evelyn Igharo walked tentatively through Clann Naofa’s doors with her brother and sister for the first time as a painfully shy eight-year-old.
Ten years on she's still the same. No amount of coveted titles will change that.
“I didn’t choose boxing – my dad did,” Evelyn says quietly.
“So I went down to the club with my older sister and brother. At first I didn’t like it. I didn’t like getting hit and the training was really hard. I didn’t think I’d stick at it.”
Evelyn is one of four children who was born and raised in the border town of Dundalk.
Her parents Eric and Juliette came to Ireland from Benin, the southern city of Nigeria, for “a better life”.
A student at Dundalk IT, Evelyn talks me through her three rounds with Ciara Ginty.
“Like, I knew I had to push her back...
“I don’t think she does well under pressure. I’m usually a long boxer but I knew I had to follow her, chase her down.
“I was wrecked by the third round. I thought I might have lost the fight. I’d lost the last round, the second round was close but I knew I had the first round...”
Jim, her coach, adds: “The transition from youth, doing two minutes to three minutes, is completely different. Even though we were youth we were training for three-minute rounds. It was important to get the extra minute in. It’s a big ask for a youth against an elite boxer who’s been doing three-threes for three years or more, whereas she was only coming in from youth.
“The night itself was so emotionally draining when the decision came through. I didn’t jump around. I just felt: ‘Yes’.
“We’re sort of the black sheep here because I’m from the north and they don’t take kindly to blow-ins," Jim says, with a roguish grin.
“This young lady has wiped the floor with everyone and it didn’t go down too well.”
Evelyn entered her first competition as an 11-year-old, winning Louth and Leinster titles before going on to win a host of national honours at youth level. She also took silver at the Euros and gold in Germany at the Golden Girls.
Clann Naofa has produced over 120 Irish champions at all grades – but Evelyn’s victory was their first at elite national level - and "she'll not be the last", her coach says.
O’Neill, a west Belfast native, boxed out of Immaculata under the “old-school” tutelage of Andrew McCormack, Vinty Mackin, Paddy Moore and Patsy McAllister.
He’s been coaching elite boxers for roughly 20 years. Evelyn Igharo is the best he’s encountered in all his years leaning against the ropes.
“When most kids come into the club we train them to a certain standard,” he says.
“Then we introduce them to some light-school combat – that’s throwing punches at 50 per cent power, because most kids are like windmills, no technique, no skill.
“The child gets hit on the face and then the tears come. All my champions, I’ve never seen any of them not cry. So you’re going to lose 50 per cent of them when you start that programme. Evelyn cried a couple of times.
“When Evelyn did get hit and did cry, she came the next night. So that’s the box you want to tick. Then she started picking up movements and combinations. She started picking it up real, real quick. And she started to deliver her punches and the punches she delivered at that young age were lethal.”
He adds: “Very few girls have gone the distance with her and that’s to do with her accurate punching and power. We can't get sparring for her, so most of her fights are in competition.
"She’s only a pup but she’s coming of age now; she’s moving into womanhood, she’s 18, she’s going to be stronger and you’re going to see a real talent in the future here – if she sticks at it.”
Evelyn has had to show resilience in more ways than one since taking up boxing. She’s never experienced any racism in school or at college but encountered abuse in one particular fight a couple of years ago.
“I was boxing one time in the [national] stadium and my opponent called me a ‘black witch’," Evelyn says matter-of-factly.
She won the fight and after a couple of meetings between the club involved and the authorities, an apology was offered by the fighter and accepted by Evelyn.
She is currently sponsored by LB Property Developer in Newry, but it won't be long before her star continues to rise and more sponsors come knocking.
“I'd like to thank LB for his continued support, it's very much appreciated," says Jim.
"You would imagine kids at her level would have sponsors and all the rest of it. She only has one sponsor. It’s maybe because we’re from the north, I’m from the north... Our club, to me, is a school of excellence and it’s one of defiance too.
"We’re saying: ‘We’re here and we’re staying here.’ I’d say Evelyn is the best champion that’s come out of our club, and there will be more to come.”
Evelyn's burning ambition is to fight at the Paris Olympics in 2024 and she has just recently moved to the High Performance unit in Abbotstown (Tuesday to Friday) where she will work under the watchful eye of High Performance Director Bernard Dunne.
She will continue her Health & Physical activity degree with Dundalk IT.
Not predisposed to hyperbole, O’Neill feels the talented teenager can go right to the very top.
“Evelyn,” he says, “represents the new Ireland. She’s Irish, she’s black – I’m not going to say she’s the next Katie Taylor because Katie is unique – but if Evelyn keeps progressing she’s going to be a world champion, without a shadow of a doubt.
“I have trained in the High Performance for the last 20 years, I’ve seen different kids come and go, I’ve seen quality, I’ve seen quality lost, kids giving it up, but Evelyn has the heart, she absolutely has it.”