Amateur boxing review: Rising stars, Common goals, Olympic fears and a brilliant year for Broadhurst
Doubts cast over boxing's place at the Paris 2024 Olympics may have ended 2022 on a sour note for the sport, but between the ropes there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful from an Irish perspective. Neil Loughran looks back on the last 12 months…
TEN years after Katie Taylor’s London Olympic gold started a ripple effect through Irish boxing, a tidal wave hit the shores as Ireland’s elite women soared towards the top of the international tree – spearheaded by the brilliant Amy Broadhurst.
The Dundalk woman finished 2022 as World, European and Commonwealth champion, a feat made all the more remarkable considering this time 12 months ago she was wondering what the future – if there even was one – held.
Kellie Harrington had returned from the Tokyo Olympics with a well-deserved gold medal but, rather than follow Taylor into the professional ranks as many expected, the Dubliner signalled her intention to carry on in the vest, targeting the top of the podium again at Paris 2024.
This came as a bitter blow to Broadhurst, in the few months that followed anyway. A natural 60 kilo fighter too, Harrington had long represented a roadblock to her own ambition - this was supposed to be her time to shine, but a radical rethink was required.
Then, as she struggled to shake the nagging sense of frustration, fate intervened when the 25-year-old was invited out to Connecticut to help Taylor prepare for her world title showdown against Amanda Serrano.
While the Bray woman would enjoy the defining night of a glittering career inside a packed Madison Square Garden, the hard work done away from the bright lights reignited Broadhurst’s career too.
Learning from the best, words of encouragement from her childhood hero sent Broadhurst into May’s World Championships full of belief. From that point forth she was only headed in one direction, the domino effect clearly traced back to the day an email from Taylor’s people landed.
Campaigning at 63kg, Broadhurst was irresistible in Turkey, going from strength to strength throughout before claiming gold with a dominant display against Algeria’s Imane Khelif.
Less than half an hour later, Lisa O’Rourke made it a day to remember when she proved too quick and slick for Mozambique’s Alcinda Helena Panguane in the light-middleweight decider, completing a remarkable rise for the Roscommon woman.
Like Broadhurst, O’Rourke had been part of the Irish training camp ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, and that experience - alongside older sister Aoife, who was competing in the delayed Games – made a major impact.
Within months O’Rourke was Irish U22 champion, pulled off a shock by landing European U22 gold in the spring, before carrying that fantastic form onto the World elite stage. Few can have enjoyed such a rapid ascent to the top of the game.
As well as securing the $100,000USD prize money on offer for gold medallists, both women also wrote their names into the history books alongside the only other Irish females to hold World Championship medals – Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington.
It could have been even better than the second place medal table finish in Turkey too, as Belfast girls Carly McNaul and Michaela Walsh both came agonisingly close to claiming medals following some classy displays.
Ireland’s rising stock in the international arena was further cemented at the European Championships in October, when Broadhurst, Harrington and this time Aoife O’Rourke returned with gold medals around their necks.
The depth of talent in the female ranks was displayed by the other medallists in Montenegro, where there was silver for Immaculata light-fly Caitlin Fryers – who has had an impressive 2022 - and Cork light-middle Christina Desmond, while Michaela Walsh and Shannon Sweeney both landed bronze as Ireland were crowned team of the tournament.
To cap off a fine year for Irish females, Galway’s Cliona D’Arcy claimed heavyweight gold at the World Youth Championships in November, adding to European gold won earlier in the year.
THE Commonwealth Games always provides a platform for emerging stars, with Dylan Eagleson and Jude Gallagher among those to come of age in Birmingham back in August.
Nineteen-year-old Eagleson started 2022 as Irish boxing’s worst-kept secret, impressing sufficiently at the Commonwealth assessment to earn his spot before landing bronze at the European U22 Championships.
Given his tender years, and lack of top level international experience, there were understandable reservations about the Bangor teenager travelling to the European elites in Armenia – but, in his first elite outing, he backed up his huge reputation by claiming silver.
The cat may have been out of the bag heading to the Commonwealths, but this new-found status didn’t take a fizz from the confident Eagleson as he used his ring smarts to navigate a way to the final, saving the best for last.
With little between him and Abraham Mensah after a scrappy opening round-and-a-half, Eagleson changed tack, standing in the pocket, avoiding the Ghanaian’s bombs by millimetres and picking his punches brilliantly to romp across the line.
If moments like that are the true test of a fighter’s mettle, then Eagleson passed with flying colours.
Jude Gallagher was rightly lauded as one of the stars of the Birmingham Games, even if illness and issues making the 57kg weight prevented his semi-final and final opponents from ducking between the ropes.
By then the Tyrone tornado had already caught the eye of Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn - and the crowd inside the NEC Arena - with some superb performances, not least his first round demolition of local favourite and 2017 European silver medallist Niall Farrell, which was followed by an exercise in precision against Pakistan’s Ilyas Hussain.
The story may not have ended how he wanted, but that was out of the 21-year-old’s control and he goes into 2023 with a huge wind at his back.
FOUR years after returning from the Gold Coast with silver around their necks, west Belfast siblings Aidan and Michaela Walsh went all the way in one of the stories of the summer’s Commonwealth Games.
It was third time lucky for older sister Michaela, who also landed silver at the 2014 Commonwealths in Glasgow.
There were plenty of times she doubted whether it would happen, but in Birmingham the 29-year-old stayed focused on each step of the journey before having her hand raised in a ‘Super Sunday’ that yielded five gold medals, as well as silver and a bronze for Team NI.
“In 2014 I promised my granda I would win gold before he died, unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that but I felt that he was there with me today,” she said, tears filling her eyes, “I finally got it.”
By that stage her younger brother already had the job done, answering any doubts about the ankle injuries that curtailed his Olympic dreams at the semi-final stage 12 months previous.
Buoyed by that brilliant bronze medal in Tokyo, Walsh was in complete control during every stage of his Birmingham journey. If ever a man appeared destined to top the podium, it was the 25-year-old as he swept to light-middleweight gold, even dropping Mozambique’s Tiago Maxanga in the final.
Eagleson, Gallagher and Amy Broadhurst added to the gold rush on a dramatic last day, while Carly McNaul secured a second Commonwealth silver medal in a row, having warmed up for the competition with a Best Boxer performance at the Eindhoven Cup.
Completing the medal haul was the unlikely figure of Eireann Nugent – unlikely because, after being out of the ring for 11 years, the Commonwealth Games marked her competitive comeback.
What a stage to do it on and, despite being pitted against English favourite Jodie Wilkinson, the Immaculata woman embraced the occasion, outworking her opponent to seal an emotional victory and guarantee bronze.
Nugent may have come up short against the experienced Rosie Eccles on finals day, but her story served as an inspiration for anyone currently sitting kicking their heels wondering whether or not it is worth picking up the gloves again.
ONE of the most significant Irish Elite Championships is just around the corner (January 12-15, 20-21), and some weighty conversations have taken place over recent weeks and months as the Paris 2024 Olympics move into view – provided boxing is still part of the programme, of course.
Unlike in recent years, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) and the High Performance unit have requested any fighter with Olympic ambitions to enter the upcoming championships as the selection battle heats up.
However, the weight classes for Paris have forced boxers across the country to look up and down the scales as they weigh up different qualification routes. That process runs run from January 1 until May 31, 2024.
The seven men’s weight classes are 51kg, 57kg, 63.5kg, 71kg, 80kg, 92kg and 92kg+, with the six women’s weights 50kg, 54kg, 57kg, 60kg, 66kg and 75kg.
For the likes of Dylan Eagleson, who has shone at 54kg, there are some tough decisions to be made. Given his growing frame, it was widely considered that he would move up to 57kg for the Irish elites, pitting him against the likes of Birmingham team-mate Jude Gallagher and reigning Irish champion Adam Hession.
However, it has since been suggested a possible crack at 51kg was being considered. All will be revealed in the coming weeks.
The picture has become clearer in one potentially contentious weight class, with Amy Broadhurst revealing that she won’t challenge Olympic golden girl Kellie Harrington for the lightweight spot on the Irish team.
Having won World and European gold at 63kg, it remained to be seen whether the Dundalk woman would go down to her natural weight and fight it out with Harrington, or move up again and campaign at 66kg.
However, following discussions with Irish head coach Zaur Antia, Broadhurst made the call before Christmas.
“I’m going up to the 66 kilos, the decision is made,” she told The Irish Examiner.
“Taking on the bigger girls is the route that looks the best possible one for me to follow my dream of Olympic gold.”
SADLY, fighting has seldom been the sole preserve of the ring when it comes to boxing in Ireland – and 2022 saw some major upheaval at the top of the sport, with a changing of the guard afoot.
Bernard Dunne, who was appointed IABA High Performance director in the wake of the 2016 Rio Olympics, officially left that post earlier this year. The search for his successor continues, while former super-bantamweight world champion Dunne has since taken up a similar role in India.
Cuts to the IABA’s government funding were eventually restored in November after Irish sports minister Jack Chambers had earlier announced a 15 per cent reduction after members of the sport’s national governing body voted overwhelmingly to reject proposed governance reforms at an EGM in Roscommon.
Also as a consequence of that EGM, IABA chief executive Fergal Carruth and the chairman of the board of directors, Ciarán Kirwan, both stood down and left their posts at the beginning of September.
However, a new officer board was subsequently appointed, and minister Chambers reinstated funding after Sport Ireland confirmed their satisfaction with governance reforms in the association.
As part of a Christmas message, interim IABA chairperson looked ahead to 2023 with confidence.
“In the New Year, we’ll travel to every province to hear from clubs, directly, on how want IABA to evolve and grow - every coach, every club, every senior boxer will have a voice.”
THE threat of boxing being removed from the Olympic programme continues to loom large on the horizon – with new fears for the sport’s involvement at Paris 2024.
Just days before Christmas, a bombshell statement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the removal of boxing from the programme for Paris “will now be considered”.
Due to an ongoing row between the IOC and the International Boxing Association (IBA), it was not included in the programme for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, though hope remained that there would be enough time between to resolve those issues.
However, the threat to the Paris Games was an unexpected, and unwelcome, development as boxers up and down the country gear up for the Irish Elite Championships and the official start of the Olympic qualification process.
The latest IOC announcement came in the wake of the IBA’s decision to renew its multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the Russian majority state-owned multinational energy corporation.
Before that, the Russian-born president of the IBA, Umar Kremlev suggested the world governing body would not give permission for its fighters and officials to take part in events they were not involved with – including the Olympics, where the boxing competition is currently being organised by the IOC.
Hopefully the months ahead see some progress on this front, rather than casting a constant cloud over athletes going in search of the ultimate dream.
IRELAND has bid farewell to some heavyweight figures over the past year – including John McNally, who won the country’s first-ever Olympic boxing medal.
The west Belfast man, who landed silver at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, died on April 4. He was 89.
Echoing the words of late RTE broadcaster Jimmy Magee, boxing historian Barry Flynn - whose book ‘John McNally: Boxing’s Forgotten Hero’ chronicles McNally’s life and career – paid tribute to “the pathfinder for Irish boxing”.
“John shone like a beacon throughout that summer of ’52,” said Flynn, “you’ll never take him out of the record books, and he’ll always be there as the first.”
Those sentiments were shared by legendary trainer Gerry Storey, who remembered watching McNally’s exploits as a young man.
“John started the ball rolling, he was the guy who put Irish boxing on the map – and he gave an example for the other Irish boxers to follow.
“People might not appreciate just how hard it was to go away and win an Olympic medal in those days. Factor in too not knowing anything about your opponents. You were going completely into the unknown, figuring it out on your feet.
“To me, that makes his achievement all the more impressive.”
Among those who also passed on this year were ex-Ulster and Irish champion Sammy Vernon, Harry Doherty, who helped bring the World Championships to Belfast in 2001, stalwarts Tricia Magennis, Geordie Boyd, Jim Scullion and Seamus McCormick, and former Immaculata boxer Liam Mervyn.