The 13th Round: Celebrating Paddy Barnes’s defeat

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Sh*t happens.

Unfortunately on Monday afternoon it happened to Paddy Barnes in Rio as the Irish boxing legend was defeated in his opening light flyweight bout by Spaniard Samuel Carmona Heredia.

In Ireland we love a scandal, to point the finger at something done wrong, who is to blame, what should have been done differently. Barnes’s defeat was no different and, in the immediate autopsy. ill-informed commentators cited the Belfast man’s Twitter habits, unprofessionalism in terms of weight-management, and even the departure of former coach Billy Walsh as reasons for the shock defeat.

Let’s get this straight, knowing what we know now, there is nothing more Paddy Barnes could have done in his fight or in the lead up to the Olympics. Defeat was unavoidable, but in a way, the manner of defeat was glorious and a measure of the man himself.

The begrudging of some, including other athletes, who described Barnes’s Last 16 defeat as some sort of karmic retribution for his social media activity and gentle ribbing of absent Irish golfer Rory McIlroy was quite sickening.

On the other hand, those who trotted out the gem ‘you should have spent more time training and less time tweeting’ are pure unadulterated idiots with no concept of the vast swathes of empty rest time that accompanies elite level sport.

Barnes is a finely-tuned boxing machine, but was defeated by Father Time long before he stepped into the ring at Pavilion 6 of the Riocentro. Making weight was always tough for Paddy, but two years out from Rio he had strolled to light flyweight gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, a move up in weight would have been illogical. However, it would be another 738 days until Barnes saw the 49kg weight limit again.

The double Olympic bronze medalist revealed afterwards that he had not made weight, and that is with day-before weigh-ins, for any of his seven WSB fights last Spring, incurring a fine each time for the Italia Thunder. It proved to be a financially-straining but rewarding decision as Barnes romped to top spot and Olympic qualification, bullying his elite opponents around the ring in each bout. It should also be noted that it was a decision green-lit by Billy Walsh so this episode can’t be used by the ‘Bring Billy Back’ brigade.

His berth in the Olympics secured, Barnes did not enter the three big tournaments in 2015. Missing the European Games and European Championships through hand injury and therefore not qualifying for the World Championships. All the while the Holy Family fighter kept training, no tapering, just training toward a competition that he had 15 months to prepare for.

At some stage between August 2014 and August 2016, Barnes became too big for light flyweight. With no tournaments to enter, he was unable to know this. There is an argument that Barnes should have entered the Seniors last December, but even then, that would have been one fight after twelve hours rehydration, rather than the three hours he had on Monday.

Olympic qualification in the bag, and the full extent of his weight issues unknown, it would have been a bizarre move if Barnes’s Olympic slot was not ratified last December in favour of moving to flyweight.

Some have suggested that Barnes should have tried make weight out of competition as a tester of his body’s capabilities. However as he said himself, he felt okay in the first round versus Carmona. Even if he knew his body had failed him, what was Barnes to do? Withdraw from the Olympic Games?

With the lower, more unnatural, weights it is always a physically-taxing gamble shrinking down, and something which should be done as little as possible. In actual fact, Barnes should be commended for even making the weight in the first place, never mind fighting three high-intensity rounds.

Watching the fight, one immediately knew something was off. Paddy’s punches were snapless, he was being rocked back by Carmona’s shots. It wasn’t an off day, Barnes had already lost before he stepped on the plane.

Knowing the extent of the unavoidable problems faced by Barnes, any disappointment turned immediately to pride. There were no what-ifs or regrets. The bout itself was a close one and could be argued in favour of the Irishman, but this is superfluous, he knew he was gone and would have been embarrassingly beaten in the next fight.

Less than three minutes into the fight a weight-drained Barnes realised he had nothing left in the tank. But he kept going. Perhaps in his head he knew that a third Olympic medal was out of the question, or maybe things like this don’t cross the minds of fighters in the midst of battle, either way his performance in rounds 2 and 3 were nothing short of astounding.

With nothing left to give, Paddy summoned shots from God knows where. He was going out fighting. Exhausted, it would have been understandable if Barnes had retired on his stool – but he didn’t. Call it Olympic spirit, call it Irish pride, call it the Last Stand of an angry little Belfast man. Looking back now, those final six minutes are not those of a sluggish underperforming faded fighter, but of a living legend showing what he is made of.

If his heroics inside the ring weren’t enough, Barnes showed class outside it. No tantrums, no shoulda/woulda/couldas, Barnes accepted defeat, explained what went wrong and individually thanked the Irish in the arena for their support. Years of training gone in nine minutes, thousands potentially knocked off any professional signing-on fee, and yet Barnes took it on the chin and promised to come back stronger. What a team captain, what a man.

The defeat saw Barnes become the first Irish boxer to lose their opening bout at an Olympics since Michael Roche in 2000, but I’m more proud of Paddy now than I would have if he had romped to gold as we had predicted.

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie