Sport

Inside the Irish invasion as boxing’s best target Italian job at World Olympic qualifier

Former Irish High Performance director Bernard Dunne (third from right) and ex-Irish coach Dima Dmitruk (second from right) will pit India's Hussam Mulhammed against Tyrone bantamweight Jude Gallagher on Friday
Former Irish High Performance director Bernard Dunne (third from right) and ex-Irish coach Dima Dmitruk (second from right) will pit India's Hussam Mulhammed against Tyrone bantamweight Jude Gallagher on Friday

THERE’S a bit of an Irish invasion taking place in the northern Italian outpost of Busto Arsizio this week.

Inside the E-Works Arena, hopes and dreams hang in the balance as boxers come from every corner of the globe in search of a coveted spot at this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Yet here, far removed from anywhere or anything, bar a nearby Aldi, Irish hopes are not limited to those who step between the ropes. One moment Eddie Bolger, the Wexford man now spearheading Germany’s resurgence, walks away with a smile having watched his lightweight, Felicitas Ganglbauer, defeat Raykhona Kodirova of Uzbekistan.

In the couple of hours that follow, ex-Irish head coach Billy Walsh and former Irish High Performance director Bernard Dunne are left cursing their luck after seeing boxers bow out.



In the case of Walsh, there can be no complaints, American middleweight Naomi Graham well beaten by Cindy Ngamba. He shrugs his shoulders - onto the next one, with talented flyweight Roscoe Hill gearing up for the afternoon session.

But Dunne is bristling. He is not alone either. As India’s High Performance lead, the Dubliner watched from the seats at ringside as Boro Ankushita is unfortunate to come out the wrong side of a split decision against France’s Emilie Sonvico.

Working the corner for the Indian lightweight is Dima Dmitruk – a former Russian champion who founded the Spartacus Boxing Club in Tullamore after moving to Offaly in the early Noughties. Until February 2023 he was a fixture of the Irish coaching team, before being lured away by Dunne.

Dmitruk is also one of the most important figures in the boxing career of Grainne Walsh.

After a tumultuous few years beset by injury, being overlooked in favour of Amy Broadhurst for last summer’s European Olympic qualifier in Poland, despite defeating the Dundalk woman in a dramatic Irish elite final months before, then losing her coach, Walsh enters the fray on Friday.

And when she does, there will be a familiar face in the opposite corner as she comes up against Germany’s – and Eddie Bolger’s - reigning European champion, Stefanie von Berge in the last 32 at light-welter.

When the Irish contingent arrives for Martin McDonagh’s super-heavyweight showdown in the afternoon, there is a further renewal of acquaintances in the cramped, sweaty warm-up room just a few steps away from the mouth of this dated auditorium.

In the café upstairs, McDonagh’s club coach – two-time Olympian Phil Sutcliffe – chats with the rest of the party from Crumlin Boxing Club party who jetted out from Dublin to Milan on Tuesday afternoon.

Newtownstewart's Jude Gallagher overcame Algeria's Hichem Maouche on Monday to move into the last 32 at the World Olympic qualifier. Picture courtesy of Tara Robins Mari
Newtownstewart's Jude Gallagher overcame Algeria's Hichem Maouche on Monday to move into the last 32 at the World Olympic qualifier. Picture courtesy of Tara Robins Mari

For Dunne, it is the first time he has seen some of his former comrades in over a year. With those boyish features hidden behind a greying beard, the 44-year-old is preparing to cross swords with an Irish fighter in major competition for the first time since swapping Abbotstown for Patiala in Punjab.

An avid follower of kabaddi – “basically tag... what a sport” – Dunne has settled well into his new surroundings, and continues to learn Hindi, with the aim of being fluent by the time Paris rolls around.

“Even though most of our boxers speak better English than me...”

Yet being behind enemy lines, from an Irish perspective at least, will never sit entirely easily.

On Friday morning, Indian bantamweight Hussam Mulhammed faces Jude Gallagher. Had matters not turned so ugly with the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, leading to his eventual exit, Dunne could well be have been offering words of encouragement to the Newtownstewart man before going into battle.

Yet some bonds remain strong. And, as they were leaving the arena after Gallagher’s opening win on Monday evening, Irish coach Damian Kennedy couldn’t resist throwing his arm around Dunne’s shoulder before a bit of playful probing.

“Right,” he whispered, “what’s your plan going to be on Friday?”

“I told him he has two arms and two legs,” smiles Dunne, “and that’s it.”

By the time the bell sounds, the serious business will commence. It will be uncomfortable, accepts the former WBA world champion, but necessary.

“I’m a proud Irishman, I’ll always be a proud Irish man - but I’m also a professional and that’s the way you have to be.

“Jude is an exceptional talent, he was in a couple of assessments during my time, and you could see what he was all about. He’s very strong, so we know what we’re up against.

“Getting to the Olympics is the pinnacle for all these guys. That’s why we’re here.”