Qualification for the Rio Olympic Games has been finalised and we now just await the five tripartite qualifiers from smaller nations. 281 boxers have earned their spots in Brazil, among them eight Irish fighters who form arguably the most talented group of Irish pugilists ever assembled.
1992 in Barcelona may spring to mind, with gold medalist Michael Carruth and silver-winning Wayne McCullough alongside the phenomenal talent of Paul Griffin and Ulster giants Kevin McBride and Paul Douglas. Similarly there is the 1956 Melbourne Games where, despite some dubious decisions, Ireland came away with four medals. Alongside appearances here from Patrick Sharkey and Henry Perry, there was bronze for Belfast legends Johnny Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy, additional bronze for Drogheda’s Socks Byrne, and all capped by a silver for Fred Tiedt.
However, the Class of 2016 stands out as the best ever.
With a more stringent qualification process, the competition in Rio promises to be the toughest in Olympic history, and securing nine spots, the largest haul for Ireland in the qualification era, is an achievement in itself.
Nevertheless, each and every fighter goes into the Games with medals on their minds, and each has their own story.
Indeed, with the rub of the green, it could have been so much more. At light welterweight Dean Walsh was harshly denied at the European Olympic qualifier by the judges, and the policy-makers, when he was edged out by Cuban Lorenzo Sotomayor who boxes for Azerbaijan. At the World qualifier Walsh again was unlucky when a broken hand curtailed his Olympic dream and saw him crash out in the opening round. Walsh’s 64kg rival Ray Moylette was then dealt an awful hand in Venezuela at the WSB/APB qualifier, drawing eventual winner Bachkov Hovhannes in the opening round – and giving him his toughest fight of the tournament.
At heavyweight Darren O’Neill was subject to a rotten decision at the European Olympic qualifier, being adjudged to have lost to Azeri #1 seed Abdullayev Abdulkadir. At the World qualifier the former middleweight pulled the short straw and faced Nigerian monster Apochi Wesley early on.
It is Dean Gardiner however who came closest. The Tipp big man, whose ambition was merely to make it to Rio, was denied in the final of the World qualifier by Guido Vianello – whom he had beaten last time out. A victim of the reduced number of spots at heavyweight and super heavyweight, Gardiner had the tournament of his life out in Azerbaijan, and his loss was the one which stung most.
Away from those who almost qualified, there are an additional number of Olympic-quality boxers who will be watching from home next month. Most unfairly is Kelly Harrington, World silver medalist at light welterweight and, along with welterweight/middleweight Christina Desmond, a victim of the at patently unfair lack of weight categories for women at the Olympics. At bantamweight Kurt Walker is certainly good enough for the Olympics but has Michael Conlan in front of him in the pecking order. Similarly Sean McComb is one of the best lightweights in the World, but was edged out at the National Elite Seniors by Davey Oliver Joyce. Finally there is Adam Nolan, who futher proved at last year’s European Championships that he is World class, but was unable to enter this year’s qualifiers due to Steven Donnelly’s sensational WSB campaign.
Now let’s look at the nine who did make it.
At light flyweight there is team captain Paddy Barnes, the only Irish boxer to have won two Olympic medals, and odds on (4/11) to win a third. 29 years old, Barnes enters the competition head and shoulders above any of his competitors and, as he has said numerous times, the only man that can stop Paddy Barnes winning gold is Paddy Barnes. Of course it is not a foregone conclusion, and there is always some young upstart looking to upset the applecart, but there is a real feeling that the Belfast small man is going to steamroll his way to top prize – much like he did in last year’s World Series of Boxing.
Brendan Irvine is the only youngster in the squad. At 20 the Wee Rooster is looking to follow in the footsteps of other young Belfast flyweights such as Caldwell and Mick Conlan and claim a surprise medal. While Tokyo 2020 are probably ‘his’ Games, and he is still growing into the 52kg weight class, it is a testament to the culture of success that the High Performance Unit has bred that Irvine goes to Rio fully focused on, and fully confident of, medaling. Don’t rule him out.
A whirlwind twelve months has seen Mick Conlan become a superstar of Irish sport. The Commonwealth, European, and World champion looks to add Olympic gold to his list of achievements, and deeply believes that this will be the case. In possibly the toughest weight division, it won’t be easy, and Conlan will most likely have to overcome his 2012 conqueror Robeisy Ramirez, but the Belfast bantamweight is up to the challenge. I’m not a religious or superstitious man, but with Conlan there is a sense of the supernatural, that his Olympic glory has been preordained, that gold is meant to be.
The most heartwarming story of the qualification process is that of lightweight David Oliver Joyce. At 29, in his eight attempt to qualify for the Games across all the different avenues, and having been cruelly denied a spot in London, the St Michael’s Athy boxer made it through in Turkey at the European Olympic qualifier. The triple EU gold medalist is the most pro-styled fighter on the team, and if judges in Brazil choose to reward this approach, he could continue his fairytale further.
Katie Taylor will try and retain her crown as lightweight Olympic queen, but will do so without her air of invincibility. Beaten this year by Estelle Mossely and Yana Alekseevna, the Bray woman now has a real fight on her hands for gold. The chasing pack have caught up, and Rio gives Taylor the opportunity to reassert herself as top dog. Top prize in Brazil will be both Taylor’s greatest test and, hopefully, her greatest win
At welterweight there is Steven Donnelly, a man whose journey to Rio is unique. Essentially retired this time last year, Donnelly was sent to the Games by the quirks of the bewildering Olympic qualification process and a rangey Russian southpaw called Andrey Zamkovoy. A long journey back to sharpness began and the Ballymena man will look to peak next month. No one knows for sure how Donnelly will cope at the top level, but if he can replicate and build on his WSB performances, he could cause a splash.
Cards on the table, Michael O’Reilly is one of my favourite fighters. The Portlaoise middleweight is a coach’s nightmare, and does so many things ‘wrong,’ but much like John Joe Nevin, it leads to breathtaking boxing joy. Small at the weight, too wide a stance, hands low, chin out, leans straight back, all of these ‘faults’ combine to make-up one of Ireland’s most naturally-gifted boxers. Wonderfully elusive, and with noted punch-power to punish those with the temerity to attempt to hit him, O’Reilly at full tilt is a sight to behold. If he arrives to Rio in top-form he will be hard to beat.
After the injustice of 2012, Joe Ward will finally get to strut his stuff at the Olympics next month. Still just 22, Ward is the consensus #2 light heavy at the Games, behind only the brilliant Julio César La Cruz of Cuba. Super strong and super quick, Ward has only ever been beaten five times in senior 3×3 boxing. A debatable countback loss to Ehsan Rozbahani, a robbery against Bahram Muzaffer, a freak injury against Mateusz Tryc, and two defeats in the World Championships by La Cruz. The pair should be on opposite sides of the draw in Rio, setting the stage for a final encounter, and a chance for it to be third time lucky for Ward.
Less than four weeks to go. We can’t wait. It could be historic.