Brendan Irvine wins on ring return but injury rules him out of semi showdown

Brendan Irvine blew off the cobwebs with a unanimous decision win over Kosovo’s Bashkim Bajoku in Sofia, but injury has forced him out of today's semi-final clash with Daniel Asenov. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

IRISH Olympian Brendan Irvine won on his long-awaited return to the ring at the Strandja International Tournament yesterday, but has been forced to pull out of today’s semi-final after picking up an injury.

The St Paul’s flyweight, who hadn’t boxed since securing his qualification for Tokyo 2020 almost a year ago, blew off the cobwebs with a unanimous decision win over Kosovo’s Bashkim Bajoku in Sofia.

That sent him through to an intriguing semi-final showdown against familiar foe Daniel Asenov this afternoon.

It is five years since Irvine and Asenov met in arguably the most important fight of the west Belfast man’s career. A box-off to decide who would go to that summer’s Olympic Games, there was no room for error at the European Olympic qualifier in Samsun, Turkey.

Just 19, not long moved up to 52kg and having been around the Irish senior scene for just over a year, Irvine completed a whirlwind start to his international career with a unanimous decision win to seal his spot in Rio.

However, he won’t get the opportunity to renew acquaintances with the Bulgarian after a first round head clash with occasionally wild southpaw Bajoku led to swelling above Irvine’s left eye.

The Kosovan caused some problems in the first round-and-a-half yesterday before running out of steam, with Irvine keeping his composure to take control of the fight, forcing a standing count in the dying seconds of the final round before having his hand raised at the end.

As a result of the injury, though, the Irish camp subsequently decided to be safe rather than sorry, meaning the 24-year-old will return home with a bronze medal.

That means Ireland has just one boxer left in the competition as it enters the semi-final stage today – Castlerea middleweight Aoife O’Rourke, who impressed once more en route to a 4-1 split decision win over Turkey’s Sennur Demir. She faces USA’s Naomi Graham, who will have former Irish coach Billy Walsh in her corner.

Belfast feather Michaela Walsh bowed out before the medal stages earlier in the day, coming out the wrong end of a controversial split decision against Russia’s Karina Tazabekova.

Former World champion Kellie Harrington made no secret of her disgust after losing her lightweight quarter-final on Wednesday, despite having dominated the second and third rounds. Walsh had perhaps even more reason to feel aggrieved.

Using her clear height advantage, the Monkstown fighter circled away from her opponent, dominating with the jab from centre ring, Tazabekova applying nowhere near enough pressure to worry the Belfast woman.

The second round was a closer, scrappier round – but another that Walsh edged. The Russian closed the distance but still found the majority of her swinging left hooks blocked by Walsh’s right arm, with the Commonwealth Games silver medallist doubling up her attack to finish the round with a flourish.

The Irish corner urged Walsh to use her feet in the third and, despite taking a straight right from Tazabekova, again looked in complete control for most of the round – the most eye-catching shot a Walsh right cross inside the opening 20 seconds.

It’s no wonder there was shock when Tazabekova’s arm was raised, somehow taking a 3-2 split and moving on into today’s semi-final.

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