Kellie Harrington helps drown out noise in the year when boxing came back
Politics may have reared its ugly head – as it always seems to – in the past year but 2021 brought so much more to celebrate for Irish amateur boxing with the delayed Tokyo Olympics providing some unforgettable moments. Neil Loughran looks back...
IF you’re finding the festive period has reached the stage where it is beginning to morph into a series of Groundhog Days, you should try drawing together the Irish amateur boxing review every year.
In the search for inspiration, phrases such as good, bad and downright ugly regularly reoccur. Even this time last year, still in the grip of the pandemic, with clubs only allowed to open temporarily, politics away from the ring continued to niggle and nag.
No matter what the circumstances, no matter the glories of the previous 12 months – and 2021 has offered up some spectacular stories – an ill wind always seems to blow.
The civil war within the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) rumbles on into another calendar year and, without an intervention or some attempt at establishing common ground, no doubt the same issues will continue to dog a sport that deserves so much better.
But this review will be mostly about Kellie Harrington, about Belfast’s own Aidan Walsh, about the potholed, Covid-hit qualification process that brought the Irish team to Tokyo last summer and, most important of all, about the long-awaited return of domestic competition that brought hundreds of eager young boxers back between the ropes after 18 months of inactivity.
Ultimately, this is what should matter most to everybody within boxing. That the sport is allowed to thrive, to deliver the best possible talent to the top table, to provide a pathway for the next Kellie Harrington or whoever those aspiring young men and women may want to me.
Maybe 2022 will be the year the constant, wearying background noise finally fades. We can but hope.
RETURN OF THE QUEEN
SHE has toured the streets of Dublin on an open top bus, been a special guest on The Late Late Show a couple of times, and lifted the spirits of a nation still struggling with the toll the past two years have taken.
Yet it is important not to lose sight of the journey that brought Kellie Harrington to the top of the podium in Tokyo, and saw her lay claim to Ireland’s third-ever boxing gold medal, following in the barrier-breaking footsteps of Michael Carruth and Katie Taylor.
Coming into 2021, Harrington couldn’t have known, never mind expected, what lay ahead.
Recovery from a broken thumb had left her sidelined for much of 2019 and, just as she was ready to begin the Olympic qualification process in March 2020, the walls closed on the world around us all.
The tournament postponed a day before she was due to make her bow, Kellie Harrington wouldn’t throw a competitive punch in anger until reaching Paris back at the start of July. Now 31, what boxing giveth, it can also very swiftly take away.
With a style totally reliant on reflexes, ringcraft and the execution of a remarkable boxing IQ, a summer of acid tests commenced inside Le Grande Dome at the rescheduled European qualifier. Victories over Agneta Rydgielska, France’s formidable punching pro Maiva Hamadouche and tough Turk Esra Yildiz answered any questions bouncing around the Dubliner’s head as her spot in Japan was secured.
A lesson was handed out to Team GB’s highly-touted youngster Caroline Dubois in the competition final, just for good measure. The word was out; Kellie Harrington was not only back, she was better than ever.
The rows of empty seats at Tokyo’s magnificent Ry?goku Kokugikan mattered for nothing as she carried that laser-like focus onto the greatest stage of all. Such was the hold Harrington had on us all across that fortnight, it was hard to escape the sense that some things are simply meant to be – Kellie Harrington going all the way being one of them.
Olympic gold medals are not won on such flights of fancy or gut feelings from thousands of miles away, however, and the 2018 World champion had to battle for every inch of her newly-assumed status among the greats of the game.
The final member of the Irish team to enter the fray, Harrington saw off Rebecca Nicoli and Imane Khelif on the way to the last four, where Thailand’s Sudaporn Seesondee posed an awkward puzzle in the opposite corner. As always, Harrington found a way.
“The last mile is never crowded,” she said after that semi-final. If only she had known then how the force of her personality, as much as her electrifying skills, had encouraged a growing army back home to set alarms for a final showdown with Brazilian beast Beatriz Ferreira.
They weren’t disappointed; anything but. Saving the best for last, Harrington recovered from a nightmare first round to somehow find calm in the centre of the storm, boxing beautifully to frustrate Ferreira.
The Brazilian’s heart eventually broken, Ireland’s pounded with pride as Harrington fell to her knees – ‘the winner, in the red corner...’ None could be more deserved, no better role model could boxing have asked for.
And, having spurned the advances of the paid ranks, Kellie Harrington isn’t done yet.
BROTHER AND SISTER ACT
MICHAELA Walsh was always Aidan Walsh’s hero. Whatever she did, he did. Whatever her goals, they soon became his. To have a big sister blaze a trail towards your dreams is almost unheard of and, for the Walsh siblings, a lifelong dream was realised when stepped on the plane to Tokyo together.
In doing so, they became the first brother and sister to box at the same Olympic Games. Through a qualification process beset by the pandemic and fraught with uncertainty, both had the other’s back.
It was written in the stars that they would secure their spot at Tokyo 2020 on the same day – in fact, within half an hour of each other. Having convincingly beaten Sweden’s Stephanie Thour to receive her golden ticket, Michaela relocated ringside for Aidan’s battle with Yevhenii Barabanov, where he eventually edged the tough Ukrainian on a split decision.
The pair celebrated with a can of Coke when all was said and done, always aware what it meant to their family back home, and how significant a moment in their own careers had just been created.
A less than favourable draw awaited the Irish team in Tokyo and, when Michaela just lost out to Italy’s Irma Testa, it was over to Aidan. With his big sister roaring him on at ringside, the 24-year-old danced his way past Albert Mengue and Mervin Clair to seal bronze.
An injury sustained in the celebrations - Walsh embracing his inner Michael Carruth by leaping high into the air - ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. Two damaged ankles saw him approach the podium in crutches; who knows what might have been had he not crashed to the earth as adrenaline coursed through those veins?
If not quite an overnight sensation, that bronze medal win completed an incredible rise to prominence for the Belfast welterweight. Two years earlier, he looked landlocked in the Irish scene, with Kieran Molloy and Paddy Donovan both ahead in the race for an Olympic spot.
Walsh showed the grit that lies beneath his calm, amiable demeanour to stay the course. It was fitting that, 57 years after the original counter-punching master Jim McCourt had landed bronze in Tokyo, Walsh should follow in those most graceful of footsteps.
Irish boxing is all the stronger for Michaela and Aidan remaining in the amateur ranks and, with Paris 2024 only two-and-a-half years away, they will take some beating should they make it to the French capital.
Before a punch had been thrown in anger, golden girl Kellie Harrington and Brendan Irvine had carried the Irish flag into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Irvine now has the rare distinction of being a two-time Olympian, even if he was unfortunate to be pitted against eventual medallists both times – losing out to gold medal winner Shakhobin Zoirov at Rio 2016 before bowing out against Thai silver medallist Carlo Paalam in Japan.
Third time lucky? The west Belfast flyweight will be hoping so.
ANSWERING THE CALL
NO matter what transpired in Tokyo, Lisburn featherweight Kurt Walker was always likely to call time on his amateur career once the dust settled.
A Commonwealth Games silver, European Union bronze and European Games gold after finally escaping Michael Conlan’s shadow post-Rio, Walker could have done little more.
And, despite just missing out on a medal in Tokyo, Walker was one of Ireland’s top performers in the Far East. Having set the ball rolling on the opening night with a gutsy victory over Spain’s Jose Quiles, the 26-year-old toppled reigning World champion and number one seed Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov from Uzbekistan.
Only for a quirk of the judging system, Walker would have been bringing home at least bronze, with American Duke Ragan – cornered by ex-Ireland head coach Billy Walsh – taking a razor-tight split decision after a bout many felt Walker had edged.
Having since turned pro with Conlan Boxing, and hooked up with renowned trainer Adam Booth, a big future surely lies ahead in the paid ranks. Walker was a guest at the recent Ulster Elite Championships, handing over the featherweight trophy to Jude Gallagher – one of the pretenders to the throne vacated by Walker.
Another loss to the Irish amateur scene is Kieran Molloy, who also turned over before Christmas, while rumours persist that talented Galway middleweight Gabriel Dossen may follow suit.
THE WAIT IS OVER
WHILE international action was stop-start, it wasn’t until September that amateur boxing competition finally returned in Ireland – ending an 18 month wait, during which hope and positivity were often in short supply.
With an election originally scheduled for December, the fallout within the IABA was plumbing new depths all the time, affecting the entry of the very underage competitions young boxers had been waiting so patiently for.
No matter what side of the split members found themselves on, it was ugly and undignified to watch.
Thankfully, the action between the ropes offered hope for the future. Getting things back up and running was the Irish Elite Championships, which crowned 26 new champions after five nights at a still empty National Stadium.
And while none of the Tokyo Olympians entered, the likes of featherweight Adam Hession and Dublin heavyweight Jack Marley showed their European U22 medals earlier in the year were no fluke with some classy displays. Dean Clancy won gold at those European U22s and is worth keeping an eye on during this Olympic cycle.
JP Hale’s physical development was clear to see as he beat Dominic Bradley to the 60 kilo crown, although the Swatragh man bounced back in impressive fashion to claim the Ulster elite title – with Bradley deservedly named best boxer of the tournament after three stellar displays.
Powerful Mullaghbawn man Eugene McKeever picked up a first Irish elite title with a brilliant display to get the better of former champion Wayne Kelly. McKeever was part of an inexperienced Ireland side that travelled to the World Championships in Belgrade, before picking up a third Ulster elite crown in-a-row this month.
A man on a roll, and with the Commonwealth Games around the corner, his career is gathering momentum at the right time.
However, while it is the elite athletes who so often grab the headlines when the big championships come around, Irish boxing’s real success story was the return of the up-and-coming crew to the ring after so long away.
After the despair of last year, they can look into 2022 in the hope that ambitions can finally be realised.
AND FINALLY… THE MAGNIFICENT McGIVERNS
WHEN it comes to triumph in the face of adversity, the McGivern clan have provided inspiration amid the darkest of days.
Under the watchful eye of Danny Boyd and dad Jim, James and Jack McGivern have emerged among the top talents in the country at Belfast’s St George’s club.
Back in February, however, boxing was the furthest thing from their minds. Still reeling from the loss of their granny, Jim’s mother Theresa, on February 3, Nicola McGivern – Jim’s wife and mother to James, Emma and Jack – passed away nine days later.
A huge supporter of her boys’ careers between the ropes, former amateur star James returned to the ring on the summer’s Feile an Phobail card at Falls Park.
“See you out there mummy,” he tweeted before his victory over Ed Harrison, “for the love of God don’t be shouting too much.”
Younger brother Jack, meanwhile, moved on from the disappointment of an Irish elite final defeat to Brandon McCarthy as he claimed a first Ulster elite title earlier this month.
Struggling with a chest infection, the 20-year-old summoned the strength to edge past Jon McConnell in a barn-burning opening encounter, before wins over Monkstown’s Robbie Gould and Erne’s Anthony Malanaphy brought the U’pritchard Cup back to the Ormeau Road.
With Jim and James in his corner, leading the cheers when his hand was raised, it was clear what it meant to all three – and nobody would have been more proud than Nicola.