Boxing

Seconds Out: Irish boxers set for return to ring in Bulgaria ahead of Euro qualifier

Belfast flyweight Brendan Irvine is the only Irish boxer to have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics thus far. Picture by PA

IRELAND’S elite boxers will take part in their first multi-nations tournament in almost a year next month, as they step up preparations for the resumption of the European Olympic qualifier in April.

The squad is due to head to Germany for a two week training camp/round-robin competition on February 1, before setting off for Bulgaria on February 16. There, they will compete in the Strandja international tournament - the oldest international amateur boxing competition in Europe - which runs from February 21-28.

It will mark a welcome return to action, with the last time several of the team laced up gloves for a competitive bout coming at the London qualifier in mid-March 2020, before it fell foul of the Covid-19 pandemic just three days in.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were subsequently postponed just weeks later, leaving boxers across the country facing an uncertain future. The elite team was allowed to return to training in July and, having originally branched out into provincial squads, is now based at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

Following a training camp in Italy last October, an Irish team had been expected to enter the Alexis Vastine Memorial in Nantes, France. However, this ultimately didn’t happen, while Ireland also opted not to enter the Cologne Cup – formerly known as the Chemistry Cup – in Germany before Christmas.

As it stands, St Paul’s flyweight Brendan Irvine is the only Irish boxer to have secured qualification for this summer’s rescheduled Olympics, having bounced back from a long injury lay-off to book his spot at a second consecutive Games.

European Games gold medallist Kurt Walker lost out to Germany’s Hamsat Shadolov in the final session at the Copper Box Arena last March, and will try his hand in the last chance saloon at the World Olympic qualifier in Paris.

Christina Desmond and Carly McNaul also fell by the wayside early on but will hope to force their way back into the reckoning this year.

Emmet Brennan, George Bates, Kiril Afanasev, Michael Nevin and Aidan Walsh all got their campaigns off to winning starts and will hope to pick up where they left off when the action resumes in London.

That qualifier has been rescheduled for April 22-26, and is expected to be held behind closed doors. However, with the city in lockdown there are fresh doubts over whether this timetable can be adhered to.

Among those who were due to fight in the days after the competition was postponed were Michaela Walsh, Kellie Harrington, Aoife O’Rourke, as well as super-heavyweight Dean Gardiner.

However, in the time between Gardiner has decided to step away from the sport for personal reasons, despite being just two wins away from securing a place in Tokyo.

According to a statement from Clonmel coach Martin Fennessy, the cancellation of the Irish Elite Championships - which were due to be held this month - and the overall uncertainty around when amateur boxing can resume prompted the 32-year-old’s decision, while Gardiner is also now in full-time education.

Meanwhile, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday vowed to forge ahead with preparations to hold the Olympics this summer, in the face of growing public opposition as the country battles a surge in coronavirus infections.

Suga faces heightened scrutiny after Taro Kono, his administrative and reform minister, admitted last week that the Games may not go ahead as planned, becoming the first cabinet member to voice doubt over their staging.

Kono’s comments added fuel to the fire after recent media polls showed close to 80 per cent of Japanese believe the Olympics, already postponed by a year because of the pandemic, should be delayed again or cancelled entirely.

“We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world,” Suga said in a policy speech at the start of a regular parliament session.

Those comments echo a similar pledge by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach that the Tokyo Olympics will be a “light at the end of the tunnel” in the global pandemic fight.

Organisers face no shortage of logistical headaches, with tough decisions looming over how to welcome spectators and athletes while safeguarding against the virus.

The IOC expects just 6,000 athletes at the opening ceremony, down from an initial figure of about 11,000 from 200 nations. It also plans to scale back the ceremony because athletes will not be allowed to arrive at the Olympic Village more than five days before they compete and must depart within two days of completion of their events.

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UFC star Conor McGregor is in action against Dustin Poirier this weekend

ST PAUL'S SHOOT FOR STARS TO HELP KEEP FOCUSED

A BELFAST boxing club is trying to get some of the world’s biggest sporting stars to help them keep members – as well as the wider boxing community – engaged with the sport during these difficult times.

The series of lockdowns arising from the Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the amateur boxing scene, with no competitive action for any of the sport’s rising stars since early 2020, and none on the horizon for the foreseeable future.

As a result, St Paul’s Boxing Club in west Belfast is running a series of Zoom workshops for members every Wednesday at 4pm, with Rio Olympian Brendan Irvine leading a boxing session while performance coach Sean Connolly also gave a talk last week.

Among those who could feature in coming weeks are reigning British lightweight champion and former St Paul’s amateur star James Tennyson, as well as his promoter Mark Dunlop.

St Paul’s coach Ralph McKay has also reached out to UFC star Conor McGregor and world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury about the possibility of getting involved down the line.

McKay has a connection with McGregor’s boxing coach, Irish Olympian Phil Sutcliffe, while a 23-stone Fury famously did a training session at St Paul’s in September 2017.

Nine months later Fury ended his three-year exile from the ring, while in December 2018 his return to the top echelons of the sport was rubber-stamped during a dramatic draw with Deontay Wilder in Los Angeles.

“We are looking to find people who can talk about things like mental health, peer pressure, suicide, drink and drug abuse, as well as finding support networks to help keep boxers active,” said McKay.

“Everybody’s trying to find a way to keep in contact with kids at their clubs, and hopefully this can be a success. We’re trying to get others involved too, obviously Conor McGregor’s busy at the minute [he fights Dustin Poirier on Saturday] but Phil will pass the message on after this weekend.

“Even if he could jump on and give a wee chat about his own life, growing up, how he progressed to where he is now, and the same with Fury. He always said he would come back and do something for the club, so you never know.

“I’d be happy to open it out to other clubs and other kids if they were interested, even people who don’t follow or take part in boxing.”

Check out the St Paul’s Facebook page for details on how to join the Zoom meeting.

Heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury did a training session at St Paul's Boxing Club in 2017 as he began his come back to the ring. Picture by PA

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