Boxing

2020 amateur boxing review: A year like no other - may we never see its like again

Apart from a temporary reprieve between August and mid-October, boxing clubs across Ireland have been closed since March. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

IT’S normally about now that we’re either basking in the reflective glow of a medal-laden Olympics, or mired in the messy fall-out from a Games that promised much but delivered little.

Once that settles, attention begins to turn to the next four-year cycle as the best kids in the country dip their toes into the senior scene, putting all those underage medals on the line in the ultimate acid test against hairy-arsed veterans who have been there, seen it and done it all.

A little closer to home, the chase for spots at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham would be hotting up. The likes of James McGivern, Aidan Walsh and Kristina O’Hara burst onto the scene last time while the more experienced heads of Steven Donnelly, Michaela Walsh, Brendan Irvine, Kurt Walker and Carly McNaul continued to lead the way.

Who will be next this time around? The picture is unclear because all of that – the agony, the ecstasy and the what-might-have-beens – seem somewhat trivial when we reflect upon the past 12 months.

Looking back, all that remains are increasingly distant memories of the handful of championships that took place before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, and the thousands of dreams lost or put on hold as a consequence.

The postponement of the Olympic Games was a watershed moment on the international stage, the decision to reschedule 12 months down the line reverberating across the sporting globe. For boxing though, it is at the bottom of the pyramid where the impact of the past nine months has taken its greatest toll.

Back in March clubs across Ireland closed their doors and prayed for better days, never imagining how long they would remain out in the cold. Restrictions were lifted from the start of August - some clubs opened, some waited until the traditional season start in September. It didn’t really matter, they were all closed again by the middle of October.

“I’ll miss the club. I’m in the club every night… I have to be in the club,” said 84-year-old Oliver Plunkett coach Patsy McAllister, one of many whose lives have long been handed over to the game they love.

“It’s just that awful feeling where you haven’t got anything to do.”

The old saying about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone has seldom rung more true.

Speak to most coaches and they will have a tale to tell of the young men and women who didn’t walk back through the door during that temporary reprieve, and may never do so again. The uncertainty is stifling, and shows no sign of lifting.

As we peer into 2021, the Irish Elite Championships - scheduled for the first half of January - have been put back until an unspecified date. They were never going to happen, everybody within the sport knew they weren’t; clubs weren’t open, other than the elite squad in Abbotstown boxers couldn’t train collectively or spar.

Yet you can’t blame those at the top of the sport for trying to hold out some sliver of hope heading towards the New Year. All they can do now, all anybody can do really, is watch, wait and hope that the tide turns eventually.

Coaches can’t wait to get back, neither can the vast majority of boxers, whether the sport is a hobby rather than part of a grander plan, or if all their life’s ambitions are wrapped up within it. The pandemic has brought into sharp focus just how much boxing, and sport as a whole, means to people across all generations, inside the four walls or inside the white lines - and far beyond them too.

Here’s hoping it’s not too long until we all have something else to talk about again.

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Daryl Clarke jumps for joy after beating Jack McGivern of the St George's club on Ulster Elite finals nights. Picture by Mark Marlow

ULSTER Elite Championship finals night feel like two lifetimes ago now but, on a mizzly Tuesday night in late February, this generation’s Freddie Gilroy and John Caldwell brought the Ulster Hall to a standstill once more.

Outside of the ring, Colm Murphy and JP Hale are good friends. Once they step between the ropes, you’d swear they hated each other. After two scintillating showdowns in 2019, expectations were high when both navigated their way into the 57 kilo decider.

Despite boxing at one of the lighter weights, the organisers moved their fight to the top of the bill. It proved an inspired move as everyone inside the famous old venue was on their feet applauding by the close of three all-action rounds.

When it went to the judges, you couldn’t have argued with either getting the decision – and again it was Hale, this time winning on a 4-1 split, leaving fans eagerly awaiting the next instalment of this all-Belfast rivalry. Whenever that may be.

“We’ve fought each other four times, and every time we fight we give it our all. Outside the ring we’re best mates,” said Hale.

“It was a brilliant fight. Last year gave me so much motivation to win again, it’s class to do it here, unreal. We’ll definitely be fighting again soon – I’ve big respect for him.”

It was a night to remember for Holy Family too after the north Belfast club went home with a hat-trick of Ulster Elite titles courtesy of victories for Sionan McKenna, Diarmuid Toland and Rory Lavery, while the Tuckers brothers from Newry announced their arrival on the Ulster Elite stage too - both heading back down the M1 as champions.

In the 81kg decider, Kane needed only a minute to get the job done, a huge right hand leaving the brave Gareth McDowell in trouble, the referee giving the Eastside man a standing count before waving the fight off.

Younger sibling Jake had a much tougher assignment in his first fight as an elite boxer, sharing the ring with the experienced Gerard French. In an engrossing encounter, the 18-year-old Tucker’s class eventually told.

He walked into the ring as a middleweight that night – almost a year on, it would be no surprise to see him join his brother at light-heavy when gloves are able to be laced up once more.

Slaughtneil dual star Brendan Rogers was in the crowd to cheer on big – like, really big – brother Patrick as he swept to the super-heavyweight title, while one of the fights of the night saw Daryl Clarke get the better of highly-rated Jack McGivern to claim the 63kg crown.

The 22-year-old picked up the Best Boxer award for his exploits, the trophy presented by Carl Frampton the next day. Little did Clarke know that just a month down the line he would be on the front line, helping the community in the fight against Covid-19.

As a youth support worker at Monkstown Boxing Club, Clarke’s nine-to-five typically involves delivering projects for young men alongside providing alternative education for those struggling to attain five or more GCSEs in school.

Instead though he worked alongside Paul Johnston at the club’s soup kitchen and delivered groceries to those most in need, this time in the face of a common opponent.

A month after his Ulster Elite success, Daryl Clarke was helping Monkstown coach Paul Johnston prepare soup to be delivered to the community in the fight against Covid-19

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Brendan Irvine looks to the skies in relief after putting almost two months of misery behind him to seal his spot at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Picture by PA

IF 2020 belonged to anybody, it was the year of the Rooster.

In January’s early days, Brendan Irvine wasn’t sure where his career was headed. All of a sudden reaching the Rio Olympics felt like a long time ago, with so much of the intervening years spent sidelined by injury.

An injection had helped keep a nagging wrist injury at bay for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but that was only delaying the inevitable. Surgery left him playing the waiting game and, just as he was ready to return, Irvine sustained a broken foot on the eve of the 2019 European Games.

Lesser men would have wallowed in self-pity, but ‘Wee Rooster’ is made of sterner stuff. Instead, he gritted his teeth and worked his way back, overcoming setback after setback, burying one frustration after another. Yet still there were doubts.

Irvine didn’t return in time for the Irish Elites and with Tyrone’s Jude Gallagher so impressive in capturing the flyweight crown, a genuine contender had emerged. When weight issues forced Gallagher out of the frame, Irvine had his opportunity to test the water at a multi-nations tournament in Hungary.

It didn’t go as planned, the St Paul’s stylist losing out to Botswana’s Mohammed Rajab in the last 32. With the European Olympic qualifier just a month away, there was ground to be made up – lots of it.

Still Irvine kept the faith. Considering all he had gone through, and then to be brought back to earth with a bump upon his return, that requires remarkable resilience.

Another challenge presented itself when the Covid-19 pandemic hung over the ill-fated qualifier like a guillotine from the moment the first bell sounded.

How the competition was ever allowed to go ahead remains a mystery as hundreds of athletes from countries across Europe came together in London at a time when the world was in the eye of the storm.

But begin it did, with Emmett Brennan, George Bates, Kiril Afanasev, Michael Nevin and Aidan Walsh all getting off to winning starts while Christina Desmond and Carly McNaul fell by the wayside.

With word filtering through that the competition was about to be pulled just three days in and, both needing one win to secure an Olympic spot, Irvine and Kurt Walker went into the final session knowing these nine minutes could make or break their year.

Irvine was in first and fought like he hadn’t been away at all, completely dominating Hungary’s Istvan Szaka to ensure he would be taking part in Tokyo. His reaction was one of pure relief.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to get the chance to go to these… I couldn’t walk properly three months ago. I was walking with a limp,” he said days later from the attic of his west Belfast home as the whole Ireland team began a period of isolation upon their return.

“A month ago, I didn’t know whether I was boxing in trainers or boots. I have insoles in my boxing boots to help. I was as low as you can be at times; only my family and my coaches understand where I’ve been.

“There’s always that wee bit in your mind where you don’t know if you’re going to get back to where you used to be. It was one thing after another there, and you do think ‘maybe it’s just not meant to be’.

“There’s been so much shite thrown my way, I’ve just stuck to the process and got on with it all.”

It wasn’t to be for Walker, however, as he was blindsided by Germany’s slick Hamsat Shadalov, losing out on a split decision. He will get his opportunity again at the World qualifier in Paris.

And if Covid-19 didn’t provide enough space for perspective, the Lisburn man didn’t have to look far from home for some of his own.

The 25-year-old and girlfriend Ria had been eagerly anticipating the birth of their baby daughter last summer. Due on August 14, her arrival would have coincided with his return from the Olympics had he gone on to secure his spot in Tokyo.

Walker had dreamt of coming home with the gold medal around his neck, ready to embrace the next chapter. Instead though, baby Layla was born on May 17 – almost three months early, weighing just 800 grams.

Even if the World qualifier had gone ahead last May as planned, he wouldn’t have been there. His Olympic ambition would have been snuffed out as his priorities lay elsewhere.

Heading into 2021, Layla is thriving, and Walker is counting down the days until he can climb back between the ropes, all his hopes still alive and kicking.

“When she was two weeks old the doctor brought us in and told us she had six hours to improve or she wouldn’t make it,” said the Canal BC boxer.

“He was crying as well, telling us that. We got her christened in the incubator… it was mad. She stayed the same for the next hour or two but then bang, she just started picking up and improving. Thankfully she has just kept on improving ever since.”

Sometimes you can lose and still win.

Michaela Walsh, Kellie Harrington, Aoife O’Rourke and Dean Gardiner didn’t even get to throw a punch in anger at the Copper Box Arena last March – their time will come, with the qualifier recommencing back in London on April 22 next year.

Kurt Walker and girlfriend Ria were able to bring baby daughter Layla home in August - three months after she arrived prematurely. The Lisburn fighter will attempt to reignite his Olympic ambitions next year

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