The Irish Eye
In the first of a new regular column on the Irish boxing scene, Kane Clarke rounds up a turbulent month, in which controversy at the Rio Olympics dominated the news agenda …
With August being a quiet month for Irish boxing on the professional scene, it was time for fans to turn our attention to Rio de Janeiro, in support of our enormously talented pugilists and their quest for medals and Olympic glory. Many believed this group was the best in a generation, with many more tipping a historic medal haul.
However, Ireland headed into the Olympics without Billy Walsh, who resigned as head coach of the country’s High Performance Unit (HPU) days after the Irish team achieved historic results at the World Championships in Doha last October. After eight months of failed contract negotiations with the IABA (Irish Amateur Boxing Association), Walsh decided to take up a post with the USA Boxing team ahead of the games in Rio.
That left Team Ireland in the very capable hands of Zaur Antia, John Conlan and Eddie Bolger. They were keen to show the rest of the world why the Irish were the ones everyone was looking to avoid in the draw, and also prove that Walsh's defection across the Atlantic Ocean wouldn't mean any less Irish boxers on the podia in Rio.
But, just as the Irish coaches were exiting that very draw, their bus was surrounded by media outlets reporting that an Irish male boxer had tested positive for a banned substance. On the eve of the opening ceremony, Irish boxing was dealt a knock-out blow with the revelation that Portlaoise middleweight Michael O'Reilly had been disqualified after admitting he may have inadvertently taken a prohibited substance in a supplement.
With the squad now dramatically cut down to seven, Ballymena welterweight Steven Donnelly was the first Irish boxer to take to the ring at the Riocentro, with a huge amount of pressure on his shoulders, but ultimately eager to put on a showing that would put the focus firmly back on the Irish boxers still competing for glory.
The 27-year-old put on a punch-perfect performance against Zohir Kedache, disposing of the Algerian with ease and booking his place in the next round. After the bout, Donnelly quashed any rumours of unrest within the camp, hailing the team spirit among the Irish as "fantastic."
Up next was the immensely likeable David Oliver Joyce. The Mullingar lightweight would finally make his Olympic debut after qualifying at the eighth attempt, nine years after his first. The St Michaels Athy trained brawler was up against the game Andrique Allisop of the Seychelles, but Joyce - a former amateur rival of Carl Frampton - progressed to the last-16 via a deserved unanimous decision victory, realising his dream of having his hand raised in victory in the Olympic squared-circle.
With two great wins from Donnelly and Joyce, and with the fall-out from the O'Reilly fiasco dying down, things were starting to look up for Team Ireland, morale was high.
Surely no better time to enter Irish flag bearer and team captain, Paddy Barnes.
Barnes hadn't had to make the 49kg limit since his Commonwealth Gold tilt in Glasgow two years ago, and it was evident not long into the first round that something wasn't quite right with the Belfast native - and after three rounds, the double bronze medallist from 2008 and 2012 surprisingly crashed out to Spaniard Samuel Carmona Heredia via a split-decision (28-29, 28-29, 29-28).
David Oliver Joyce was rewarded for qualifying for the next round, with a bout against the current European champion and only man to defeat Vasyl Lomachencko as an amateur - Albert Selimov. After being cut in the first round, Joyce rallied well and gave it his all but came up just short after the three rounds against the Azeri World no.2.
Joe Ward was the next Irish boxer to fall in Rio. The World Championship silver medallist received two public warnings for holding, leading to dubious point deductions at the end of the second and third rounds, ultimately costing him the fight against Ecuadorian Carlos Andres Mina via split decision. The 22 year-old now faces a tough decision concerning whether to turn professional or stick around another four years for Tokyo.
With Ward and Joyce crashing out, and the fact that Billy Walsh and Team USA were progressing nicely having picked up their first medal, pressure started to mount again on Team Ireland, with social media back home awash with comments along the lines of 'how things weren't the same since Billy left'.
Re-enter Steven Donnelly. The County Antrim man had already lifted the spirits of the nation once … could he do it again against the teak-tough Mongolian Byamba Tuvshinbat?
Of course he could! Once again he thrived under the pressure, coming out on top on two of the judges’ scorecards and level on another after two close rounds before pulling away in the final stanza to book his place in the quarter-final.
Later that day, Belfast flyweight Brendan Irvine would take to the ring for his first fight. 'Wee Rooster' received the most difficult draw of all his team-mates with an engagement against the much fancied Uzbek, Shakhobiddin Zoirov. The 20-year-old put on brave performance, eventually losing out to his more skilful opponent, but Irvine can take solace from the fact that Zoirov went on to win the gold.
Up next for Team Ireland was our 'shining light' in what had been a challenging week thus far, Steven Donnelly. The Commonwealth Games medallist put up a valiant effort against World champion Mohammed Rabii, narrowly losing on a split-decision to the World No.1. However Donnelly's top-class performances under pressure - and in the midst of the media circus surrounding the Irish boxing team - were something that the man himself, and the Irish people, were rightfully proud of.
The following day Michael Conlan started his Olympic bantamweight campaign in blistering fashion, disposing of Armenian Aram Avagyan to set up a quarter-final bout against a familiar foe in Vladimir Nikitin, who held a win over Conlan at the 2013 World Championships.
Sandwiched in between Conlan's two bouts, defending lightweight Olympic champion Katie Taylor was looking to guarantee herself a medal of her own after receiving a bye to the last eight, only to surprisingly lose out to Mira Potkonen of Finland to see her Olympic defence fall at the first hurdle.
While many thought the Bray woman was the victim of bad judging and won three of the four rounds, there was no denying that the now 30-year old didn’t seem to be the same fighter that has won 18 major international golds for Ireland. She took more shots than usual against an opponent she had already previously beaten on three occasions.
Therefore, in the space of nine calamitous days, hopes and expectations of a historic medal haul had diminished to a solitary quest for a medal from Belfast's all-conquering Commonwealth, European and World champion, Michael Conlan.
From this point forward, Conlan’s name would go down in Olympic history, just like he said it would, but not how he expected.
From the first bell against Nikitin it was clear to see that the slick hit-and-not-get-hit style of Conlan was too much for the Russian but, incredibly, the round was scored unanimously to the latter, and the boos that we had become so accustomed to during this boxing tournament in the Riocentro, rang out once more.
At the start of the second round, referee Kheira Sidi Yakoub momentarily called a halt to the contest to clean blood from the Russian's face. Paddy Barnes used the break to let Conlan know from the stands that a change in tactics were required, as the judges had him down on all three cards.
Immediately Conlan stepped on to the front foot and fought the Russian at his own game, staying in the pocket, acting as the aggressor and taking the round on all three judges’ scorecards, levelling the bout at a round-a-piece going into the final stanza.
Influenced by the judging thus far in the bout, it was unsurprisingly a case of more of the same from Conlan in the next round; the judges strangely seemed to favour the head-to-head standing and trading in the second round to Conlan’s exhibition of the sweet science in the first, so Conlan duly delivered and once again took the fight to his bloodied opponent, who looked a well-beaten man as the final bell rang.
Shockingly, Conlan lost 28-29 on all three scoreboards, leaving the 24-year-old outraged, in what many say was the worst Olympic boxing decision they had seen since Roy Jones Jr was robbed of gold in Seoul '88.
In his now infamous post-fight interview Conlan claimed: “the AIBA are cheats, they’re f*cking cheats.” The AIBA released a statement shortly after, declaring that Conlan's cheat claims were "foundless" and threatening legal action. Rather strangely though the AIBA also announced that several judges and referees were being dismissed from their duties having determined that “less than a handful of decisions [at the Olympics] were not at the level expected”.
It was assumed that the judges of the Conlan contest would be among the unspecified number of officials sent home but, further muddying the waters, Jones Kennedy Silva do Rosario of Brazil and Udeni Talik Bandara Kiridena of Sri Lanka (who had both adjudicated the Conlan-Nikitin bout) were back on judging duty the very next day.
To make matters worse, it then emerged that Nikitin had withdrawn from his semi-final bout against Team USA sensation Shakur Stevenson due to injuries inflicted during the Conlan fight.
Indeed by now the success of Team USA – who hadn't secured an Olympic boxing medal since Beijing 2008 – was really rubbing salt into Irish wounds. Under the guidance of Billy Walsh, the Americans picked up a gold, silver and bronze at the games.
This obviously raised the question with Irish fans and media, namely: 'what would Billy have done?' if he were in our corner. To which this writer would reply: what actually could Billy have done? Sure he is a world-class coach, and any team would be better with him, but the situations that saw each of our fighters eliminated were completely out of the coaches’ hands.
The O'Reilly doping scandal; Barnes only having three hours to rehydrate when he usually has eight; Joyce, Donnelly and Irvine being eliminated against European, World and Olympic champions respectively; the suspicious refereeing and judging in the Ward, Taylor and Conlan defeats … the evaluation into where it all went wrong will go on for a long time, but let’s not look to put the blame on the coaches, as some seem to be doing. Walsh would have been just as helpless as Antia, Conlan and Bolger when faced with any of these situations had he been in our corner.
Let’s hope for Olympic boxing's sake that the attention granted to Conlan's post-fight actions and comments, will bring about the 'cleansing' to the AIBA that is so badly needed, because as the man himself said: "amateur boxing stinks, from the core right to the top".