Boxing

From Rio to redemption: Brendan Irvine ready for second crack at Olympic dream

Five years after the disappointment of Rio, Brendan Irvine is back for another crack at the Olympic Games – his latest bid getting under way in the early hours of Monday morning. And this time around, as Neil Loughran discovers, everything is different…

Irish flagbearers Kellie Harrington and Brendan Irvine lead out the team during yesterday's opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Picture by PA

YOU couldn’t see the smile behind the mask, but it was there. In truth, a wide grin had barely left Brendan Irvine’s face since the start of the week when Irish Olympic officials asked him and fellow boxer Kellie Harrington to carry the flag at yesterday’s opening ceremony.

There may have been fewer than one thousand people inside Tokyo’s 48,000 capacity Olympic Stadium but, as they entered the magnificent arena before bowing to their hosts, Irvine received another reminder of how far he’d come – and what a privilege it was to be there.

Since first lacing up gloves the west Belfast boy had dreamt of making it to the Olympics. Five years ago he did just that - reaching Rio at 20 - and in the early hours of Monday morning ‘Wee Rooster’ will go again, taking on Filipino Carlos Paalam at around 4am.

And when he does step through the ropes at the Kokugikan Arena, experiences in and out of the ring during the time between dictate that it will be a much different Brendan Irvine who does so; the boy who burst onto the scene now very much a man.

Back then, it all appeared so easy.

Every time he had needed to step it up coming through the ranks, he did. When Irvine progressed to the senior stage, he appeared born to it, picking up an Irish elite title and a European Games silver medal inside six months.

Even though his developing frame demanded a move up from light-fly to flyweight, confidence was sky high flying out to Brazil. And then, in nine minutes, it was over.

Irvine drew Shakhobidin Zoirov in the preliminary round and was comprehensively beaten. The Uzbek went on to win gold, not dropping drop a single round on the way to doing so. Sometimes the breaks don’t come your way and, for a kid on cloud nine, that was a rough return to boxing’s harsh reality.

“You’re in shock for a bit,” said ‘Wee Rooster’, now 25.

“You build the Olympic Games up to be something out of this world… I always dreamt of going, of bringing back a medal, but when it’s over so quickly, it’s pretty hard to take. Even for a while after the Games, it’s hard to come back to normality.”

Ralph McKay, Irvine’s coach at St Paul’s and long-time friend, had done research on the 52kg division at the time and while Zoirov didn’t necessarily fly below the radar, what happened inside Riocentro just days into the boxing competition still came as a shock.

“I didn’t see it coming, to be honest,” said McKay.

“That guy was absolutely outstanding, just different class. Brendan was just a pup at that stage, it was all new to him too, the experience of being there. But that’s how it is at that level.

“You have to box the best you ever have to compete, to get through to the next round. It’s one thing qualifying for an Olympics, but getting to a medal… it’s a different competition when you’re out there.”

Irvine’s own personal disappointment was far from the only sour memory he brought back from Brazil, as the hopes and dreams of a hugely talented Irish team gradually unravelled – from a failed drug test for middleweight to Michael O’Reilly to questionable decisions that went against Joe Ward and Katie Taylor, to the daylight robbery that denied Michael Conlan another Olympic medal.

And McKay admits he had been warned things might not go to plan well ahead of the Games getting under way.

“Before Brendan even went to Rio a top referee from here told me there’s a lot of cheating going on at the Olympics, don’t be expecting much for the Irish team.

“I presumed he was talking out his backside but everything he told me turned out to be true… you could see something wasn’t right.”

For Irvine, still new to the world of elite boxing, the whole thing was difficult to process.

“It was a really strange atmosphere. When word of the drugs test came out Michael [Conlan], Paddy [Barnes], Steven Donnelly, Joe Ward and David Oliver Joyce were all sitting on the balcony, I was just back from getting my hair cut, and they were like ‘someone’s failed a drugs test – one of us’.

“We didn’t know what was going on. Your first instinct is you think it’s yourself, even though you know you’re not doping, but you start to question things… did I lift the wrong water bottle? Anything at all. It was strange from the get-go.

“And then the day of Michael’s fight, I can’t even describe it… you know when it seems like time slows down? When the result came out it was just ‘what the f*** is actually happening here?’

“You didn’t realise how big it was until you went on your phone half an hour later and saw it was all anybody was talking about.”

When the time came, he was glad to get home - to friends, and to the family who have offered nothing but unstinting support since promise and potential turned into something more. Over the next four years he would need them more than ever as injuries brought him to the brink.

First there was the complicated wrist surgery that followed the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Even before that he hadn’t felt right, with Irvine needing a pre-Games cortisone injection just to get through the tournament, eventually adding to his medal collection with a silver.

Recovery required patience, and resilience. This is a word that would come to define Irvine throughout the Tokyo 2020 Olympic cycle. Once he had worked his way back into competitive action, disaster struck again – this time a broken bone in his foot ruling Irvine out of the 2019 European Games, and leaving him questioning his future in the sport.

Brendan Irvine with mum Brenda at a recent County Antrim Board event in honour of the four Ulster boxers at the Tokyo Olympics. Picture by Hugh Russell

“I’m not even going to lie about it, there was times you were thinking like that. I was training in a boot in the club for the majority of the year after my foot injury and nobody really knew… like, I’d bump into people out shopping and they just assumed I’d left boxing.

“After I qualified [for Tokyo] last year I met a guy in B&M and he thought I’d packed it in, he didn’t realise the shit I’d been through. If it wasn’t for the good support system in the north, the likes of our physio Lorcan Magee, I probably would have been finished.

“It changes your outlook. When I did my hand I started my own car washing business, when I did my foot, the only thing I could do was swim so I became a lifeguard. It was just anything to keep busy or make opportunity out of what was going on in my life at that time. I didn’t want to waste a second.

“I spent most of that year in SINI (Sports Institute of Northern Ireland), pretty much every morning, then in the club every night, or in the pool swimming. I couldn’t drive for a long time either so you were relying on family, Ralph, my girlfriend Bronagh and even my strength coach Rodney, he would come out of his way to pick me up.

“It would be easy to say I just stuck at it but everyone, all those people, really helped me through it.”

His modesty and gratitude are genuine, but those who worked with him at closest quarters during those dark times know Irvine is selling himself short with that assessment.

“Brendan is the epitome of a world class athlete,” said Irish head coach John Conlan.

“The word resilience, I hear it in different sports, but he just embodies it. The way he has been able to come back from a very difficult hand injury, very difficult foot injury, some serious fights and the way he has refocused, improved…

“Nobody realises that a lot of the time Brendan was limited in a lot of the things he could do, but he worked to improve the other aspects of his boxing. That’s an amazing athlete.”

“It was really hard watching him being so down at times,” says McKay, “but he had that family support around him that was able to bring him on and help him out. He’s never been one to look back; the way he sees it everything happens for a reason.

“In between those injuries he was missing a lot of international competitions, it was a big setback, but he just kept digging away, coming back to the gym. Even when he was in the moon boot, he’d have come in and done pads, and slowly but surely he got there.”

After one warm-up fight at a multi-nations tournament, Irvine was plunged right in at the deep end upon his return to the ring last year. That he was selected for the European Olympic qualifier in London was a demonstration of the faith the High Performance coaches had in him to deliver – and boy did he repay them in spades.

Knowing only one win was needed to guarantee his spot at Tokyo 2020, as well as securing entry to an elite group of Irish boxers who have competed at two Olympic Games, Irvine came out like a man possessed.

Hungarian pocket rocket Istvan Szaka tried everything but, that night, the last session before the qualifier was pulled due to the rising Covid threat, Irvine wasn’t going to be denied.

Sat in a hotel a mile down the road was McKay. Originally due to be inside the Copperbox Arena, he had to settle for a laptop screen – and every room on his floor will have heard the screams when Irvine’s hand was raised.

“We had tickets but then no fans were allowed in… we went over anyway. He knew we were there with him, and he turned it on that evening, first in, last out of every attack, working well to the body. It was brilliant.

“That’s all I’m hoping for going into these Games, that he boxes the way he boxed at the qualifier. If he boxes the way he did then he could go all the way to gold, I really believe that.”

McKay also believes that, if he is looked after properly, Irvine could yet stick around for a crack at Paris 2024, despite overtures from the professional world. But that is a conversation for another day.

For now, his sole focus is on Monday. Back home fiancée Bronagh has just moved into the house they finally got the keys for at the start of June. McKay is putting down the floors and helping get things fixed up. Bronagh, Ralph, his family, they don’t want anything to enter Brendan Irvine’s head other than boxing.

The opening ceremony is over, the game face returns for Ireland’s team captain. As the hours tick down to Monday morning, it’s all in his hands now.

“I’m pretty relaxed about the whole thing,” he says.

“Last time I was only really a kid, I didn’t know what to expect, whereas this time I do, I’ve been around the block a bit more. It’s just another Games, there’s no pressure, no stress, no nothing – I’m just trying to really enjoy it and try and perform to the best I can.

“There’s a good buzz about the team at the minute, everyone’s happy, positive. Everybody’s ready to go.”

TOKYO 2020 SCHEDULE

Tomorrow

81kg last 32 (12.42pm): E Brennan v D Uzmetov (Uzbekistan)

Monday

52kg last 32 (4.03am): B Irvine v C Paalam (Philippines)

57kg last 16 (6.27am): M Walsh v I Testa (Italy)/L Vorontsova (Russia)

Tuesday

69kg last 16 (3.30am): A Walsh v A Ayissi (Cameroon)/T Dlamani (Swaziland)

Wednesday

75kg last 16 (10.18am): A O’Rourke v L Qian (China)

Friday 

60kg last 16 (3am): K Harrington v R Nicoli (Italy)/E Falcon Reyes (Mexico)

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