Boxing

From the wreckage of Rio, Irish boxing can walk tall again after Tokyo

As the dust settles on Tokyo 2020, Neil Loughran looks back on the highs and lows of an Olympics like no other – and considers where this Irish team might be by the time the next Games roll around in three years' time…

Kellie Harrington celebrates after defeating Brazil's Beatriz Ferreira in the Olympic lightweight final on Sunday. Picture by PA

FROM the wreckage of Rio five years ago, Irish boxing can once more walk tall as boxers, coaches and support staff prepare to touch down on home turf after a six week expedition in the Far East.

Sunday saw the curtain come down on Tokyo 2020 after an Olympic Games like no other – played out before virtually empty arenas, with masked medal ceremonies the order of the day. As memorable as it may have been, we can only hope to never see its like again.

A seven strong Ireland team returns with Kellie Harrington’s gold medal and Aidan Walsh’s bronze to show for their endeavours, leaving them seventh in the overall boxing medal table.

As the dust settles, were expectations met, or even exceeded? The answer is probably somewhere in between. After the draw, which left so many of the team facing a major battle to get near the podium, you’d have to be pleased with what is coming home.

Olympic gold medals especially can never be taken for granted. Harrington was undoubtedly considered Ireland’s greatest hope, but going and doing it is another thing entirely.

Nine years on, Katie Taylor and the class of 2012 are still awaiting the homecoming show they were promised in the post-Olympic glow. If anybody deserves that moment for what she has achieved in the past fortnight, it is Harrington.

And she is not alone; the performances from the rest of a largely inexperienced team were also impressive.

Team captain Brendan Irvine and Aoife O’Rourke narrowly lost out to eventual silver medallists, Emmet Brennan – with only a handful of international outings and having barely sparred this year due to niggling injuries – threw everything at Uzbekistan’s world silver medallist Dilshod Ruzmetov after being handed a nightmare preliminary round draw.

There was barely anything between Michaela Walsh and Italian Irma Testa when they met in the last 16, while brother Aidan looked sensational in securing bronze before injury ended his competition.

Fifty-seven years after another Belfast counter-punching maestro, Jim McCourt, proved his class to also take bronze in Tokyo, it was fitting that Walsh should look so at home on the biggest stage.

Another man to put his name in lights was Kurt Walker. Considering he hadn’t boxed a competitive round since March 2020, the Lisburn feather shrugged off the pressure of being the first Irish boxer in action to see off Spain’s Jose Quiles Brotons before stunning world number one and gold medal favourite Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov in the last 16.

Despite winning two of the three rounds against American Duke Ragan, the judges’ scorecards saw Walker bow out just before the medal stages – but he comes back to Ireland, and back to baby daughter Layla, with his reputation significantly enhanced.

COACHING MASTERCLASS

HUGE credit deserves to go the way of Irish coaches Zaur Antia, John Conlan and Dmitri Dmitruk for bringing the best from the team in Tokyo.

Against the backdrop of 16 months disrupted by Covid, very little international competition or sparring, and a team relatively light in experience compared to the one sent to Rio five years earlier, the tactical plans drawn up were largely implemented to a tee.

FAITH RESTORED

AFTER the shambles and the scandals at Rio 2016, the integrity of Olympic boxing was thankfully restored in Tokyo.

Three years ago question marks surrounded whether there would be boxing in Tokyo at all as world governing body AIBA and the International Olympic Council (IOC) found themselves on a collision course over the potential presidency of Uzbek Gafur Rakhimov.

AIBA and all 36 Rio officials were subsequently barred from any involvement at Tokyo 2020, with the IOC setting up a Boxing Task Force determined to win back the trust of boxers and the watching world.

The subjective nature of boxing scoring will always leave room for debate, but when this Games closed there was no talk of dodgy decisions, no outcries. Close fights - and there plenty of them, several involving Irish boxers - were scored accordingly, and in most cases it would have been hard to argue strongly against the final result.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

ONCE the welcome home parties are over, a review process will take place, with eyes already on Paris 2024. The truncated three-year window may tempt some of the older campaigners on the Tokyo team to hang around, though that remains to be seen.

Harrington is expected to try and follow in the footsteps of Katie Taylor by having a crack at the professional world. She has talked about it before, and no-one could blame her after reaching the pinnacle of the sport. With the likes of Dundalk’s Amy Broadhurst coming behind, the lightweight spot looks in good hands.

Kurt Walker may also choose to follow suit. There is only a year until the next Commonwealth Games in Birmingham but, having already picked up silver in the Gold Coast three years ago, the 26-year-old could follow friends such as Michael Conlan and Sean McComb into the paid ranks.

Aidan Walsh has said he intends to take some time before considering where to go next. However, his style is so well suited to the amateur game it would be a shame to see him move over yet. Having only come onto the Irish senior squad in the last two years, the 24-year-old has the potential to go further still in Paris and, with Sport Ireland podium funding of 40,000 euro surely secured as a result of his bronze medal, there could be enough pull to keep the vest on.

His sister Michaela also has a big decision to make. She has had her heart set on an Olympic medal from the earliest of days, and would be 31 if she got to Paris – the same age as Kellie Harrington.

Having been around the amateur circuit for so long, Walsh is bound to be weighing things up, though sticking around for another crack – especially if Aidan does too – is bound to be a huge temptation.

Team captain Brendan Irvine has been the best flyweight in Ireland since bursting onto the scene in 2015. In the time between, he has boxed at every major competition going, including the Olympic Games twice – a massive achievement.

His coach at St Paul’s boxing club, Ralph McKay, believes there could be a third Olympics in him – if he is looked after by Sport Ireland.

Emmet Brennan has signalled his intention to continue boxing, though whether that is amateur or pro remains to be seen, while 24-year-old Aoife O’Rourke could be a major middleweight medal prospect in three years’ time.

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