Boxing

Olympic email gives Brendan Irvine boost as focus turns to rescheduled Tokyo Games

Brendan Irvine is the only Iris boxer to have booked his place at the Tokyo Olympic Games - and his full focus has turned to next summer after being assured those Games will go ahead whether there is a Covid-19 vaccine or not. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

BRENDAN Irvine could barely keep the smile off his face as he scrolled through emails on his phone a few weeks back. There, among the spam and Amazon’s latest offers, was the one he had waited months to see.

“It was from the International Olympic Committee [IOC],” says the St Paul's flyweight, “they were contacting athletes confirming that, whether there is a Covid vaccine or not, they still intend to host the Olympic Games next summer.

“Since I got that email, that’s what’s been keeping me going.”

After so much uncertainty since the Tokyo Games officially fell victim to the pandemic way back on March 24, this was music to the west Belfast man’s ears.

Irvine is the only Irish boxer to have secured his qualification, but speculation about whether the Olympics would be able to go ahead at all refused to go away.

However, at the end of September IOC president Thomas Bach raised the possibility of Tokyo 2021 going ahead without a vaccine and, with elite sport around the world finding a way to carry on, those plans now look to have moved a stage further as preparations recommence.

For Irvine, it is now coming up on eight months since he returned from 18 months of injury hell to dramatically claim his spot at a second consecutive Games.

In what would turn out to be the final session of that European qualifier in London, he produced a punch-perfect performance to defeat Istvan Szaka.

Yet, unlike his return from the qualifier in Turkey four years previous, there was no fanfare when he touched back down in Ireland - nothing other than a sign of things to come, and a window into the new normal of life in the current climate.

“March feels like a blur now – honestly, it feels like about three years ago.

“It was strange when I came back… usually when you do something like that, there’s maybe some people in the airport waiting for you, there’s a bit of an atmosphere about.

“But coming home to a dead airport, nobody about, anybody you do see is wearing masks, then you’re just getting in the car and driving home. Even when I got back to Belfast I wasn’t even really able to see my family for a couple of weeks because I had to isolate in my room and limit any kind of contact.

“Even though I knew I didn’t have it because I had kept myself to myself the whole time in London, you can never be totally sure.

“Thankfully everything was okay but it was a really weird time.”

The weirdness hasn’t quite left us yet, and the next time Irvine boxes competitively could yet be the resumption of that qualifier which - although a new date has yet to be confirmed - is expected to be held around February/March.

The 24-year-old wasn’t part of the Ireland team that headed to Italy for a two week training camp last month, but he is itching to get back to what he does best as soon as possible.

It shouldn’t be forgotten though that, for Irvine, the fight with Hungarian Szaka was only his second in the two years since landing a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

A troublesome wrist injury left him sidelined for the rest of that year and, just as he was preparing to return to the fold at the 2019 European Games in Minsk, the man known as ‘Wee Rooster’ suffered a broken foot weeks before the first bell was due to sound.

Instead of being in the thick of the action, he was watching on the TV as good friend Kurt Walker went all the way in the competition that had launched Irvine on the international stage four years previous when he took home light-flyweight silver.

“When I had the injury, it was completely different.

“It was nearly like being depressed because you were trying to get back to normal but there were obstacles being put in your way – it felt like two steps forward, four steps back so many times.

“You were fighting to get back to full fitness and full health, then to eventually get there just in time for the qualifier, and to get the job done… it was just a relief because there had been so much shit thrown at me.

“There were people I was talking to or meeting out and about who thought I had quit boxing. I didn’t want anybody knowing about the injury, I just wanted to work by backside off in the background then come back and be as good as I can be.

“Nobody sees all that side of it.”

He got back just in the nick of time, but the question marks that remained brought a pressure all of their own. Was he still as good? Could he get to another Olympics? What toll had those injuries taken?

All three were answered in emphatic fashion that dramatic evening at the Copper Box Arena.

“I was team captain going to London, the only one left from Rio, so there was pressure.

“But I didn’t let that in. I was just happy to be getting back in the ring and boxing. After being out for so long, I wasn’t really thinking about it being Olympic qualifying, I was more glad to be back competing at that level, and just wanting to enjoy it for that without worrying about what was at stake.”

And, four years on from his appearance at the Rio Olympics, Irvine feels like a different person as well as a different fighter.

Then, the 20-year-old had the misfortune to be drawn against Shakhobidin Zoirov in the first round - the tough, slick Uzbek who wound win the gold medal at a canter.

Feeling the burden of expectation upon his young shoulders, it proved a bitter pill to swallow. But the whole experience of being there, of suffering that defeat and dealing with the consequences, have left him in a better place as he looks ahead to next summer.

“Physically I’m much stronger, and I’m thinking more about what I’m doing. But in Rio, I didn’t really know what to expect, I got caught up in the whole Olympic thing. After the Olympics I didn’t know what I was going to do… it took a lot out of me.

“I put so much pressure on myself, trying to do well for me but also for my family back home, when I should’ve just been focusing on boxing.

“You can question everything in hindsight but at that time I felt more than ready for the Rio Olympics, I just came up against a serious operator on the day.

“When you’re there, you’re in a room with your team-mate and time just feels like it’s dragging in until your fight. It’s just building up, day by day, and that’s mentally draining. I would be more relaxed now, I know I would be because I’ve that experience behind me and also of other competitions where it’s a waiting game.

“It showed me not to over-think or over-complicate things. You’re just getting into the ring, doing the same things you do every day. Now, even in these circumstances, you just have to find a way to make things work for you.

“I was melted when they announced that the Olympics was cancelled because I’d worked so hard to get back, to give myself a chance of qualifying. There was a real mix of emotions, thinking ‘what did I put myself through there’ to try and get back to full fitness, no injuries… but eventually you just have to accept that it’s out of your control. What can I do?

“Now I know the Olympics is going to go ahead, and that’s what I have to focus on from here on in.”

OLYMPIAN IRVINE OUT TO HELP THOSE IN NEED

FOOTBALLER Marcus Rashford has set the perfect example for young sportsmen around the world, and Brendan Irvine is keen to take a leaf out of the Manchester United star’s book.

Irvine has watched on with admiration as a campaign led by Rashford forced the British government into a U-turn over free school meal vouchers for eligible children, and the two-time Olympian is determined to try and do his bit in these challenging times.

Last week Irvine posted a message on Facebook which read: “With this being a hard year for everyone, I would like to do my part to help people out, whoever it may be. It could be simply donating to Cash for Kids for Christmas, or making up food hampers for families over Christmas (or if anyone you know is struggling now).

“Message me, this is completely confidential. Let’s get together to help each other.”

Already various different individuals and organisations have reached out, and anybody who is keen to help can get in touch with Brendan on social media.

“I know there’s people out there struggling, people who would never ask for help, so if I can help one person, or one child at Christmas, I’d be over the moon,” said the 24-year-old.

“If people who maybe aren’t struggling can all make a contribution, it could make a big difference to some other people. This is a hard time, especially for some single parents out there, there’s people who can’t work at the minute or have maybe lost jobs.

“I have family members who have lost jobs over the last number of months and it’s not easy. People can put on a brave face and say we’re okay, but I just want to try and do something to help some way.”

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Peter Lavery (left) with St John Bosco club-mate Sean McCafferty. Bosco coach John Duffy stands between the pair

FORMER ULSTER AND IRISH CHAMPION PETER LAVERY PASSES AWAY

FORMER Ulster and Irish champion Peter Lavery passed away peacefully at home on Monday, October 26 surrounded by his loving family.

Peter boxed for the St John Bosco club in Belfast in the early 1950s, winning senior titles at provincial and national level, and went on to have an outstanding amateur record boxing all around the world.

In 1958 he was selected to box at the Empire Games in Cardiff, winning a bronze medal. There were five boxers on that team, and they returned with five medals – gold for Terry Milligan, silver for Jim Jordans and bronze for Peter Lavery, John McClory and Dicky Hanna.

His last amateur fight was against the John Caldwell at St Mary’s Hall in Bank Street, Belfast and what a fight it was, with John Caldwell winning a close points decision.

The tough flyweight also boxed 33 times as a professional and, according to Bosco stalwart and 1964 Tokyo Olympian Sean McCafferty, “he would have boxed anyone with no questions asked”.

Some of Peter Lavery’s opponents included Jimmy Reavy, Evan Armstrong, Frankie Taylor, George Bowes, while he was also renowned as a great entertainer outside the ropes, famed for his versions of some of Lonnie Donegan’s greatest hits.

A tribute from the club he served with such distinction said: “Thanks for all the good times Peter - sadly it’s time to say goodbye, from all at St John Bosco ABC.”

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