The 13th Round: Trust Zaur & Co – Walsh deserves Olympic Qualifier spot

The debate over who should represent Ireland in the light welterweight division at this week’s AOB World Olympic qualifier in Baku is one which has gripped Irish fight fans and has been intensely debated.

On one side there is Dean Walsh, Wexford’s reigning National Champion and 2015 European bronze medalist.

Then there is Mayo’s Ray Moylette, the experienced 2011 European Champion.

And finally there is Belfast lightweight star Sean McComb, who stepped up to 64kg for one final tilt at securing a place in Rio.

The trio were observed by Zaur Antia and the rest of the High Performance coaching unit over the past week in Baku, where the final qualifier will take place, and in the end they plumped for Walsh.

The choice was a controversial decision in some eyes, and a thoroughly deserved one in others. Here at Irish-Boxing.com, as we obviously were not in Azerbaijan, we are placing our trust and faith in Zaur and his team, and assuming that the decision to go for Walsh is a justified, merited, one – and one which they believe offers Ireland the greatest chance of claiming Olympic qualification this week.

Before continuing we should state that we do not have a horse in this race. We are fans of all three boxers, and all are lovely young men and a credit to their communities. Additionally, we agree that the IABA at times have been a less than stellar organising body, but we believe they have made an honest unbiased decision here.

Admittedly, the initial decision to call a box-off between Walsh and Moylette (as well as Michael O’Reilly and Conor Wallace), then cancel it in favour of observation in Baku was a clunky and mistimed one – and unfair on the fans who had booked time off work, transport to Dublin, accommodation etc, but it was the right move. Observation of three boxers over a period of days was a fairer way to determine selection, rather than a box-off between two over nine minutes.

The fact that reconsideration occurred is something of a controversial choice in itself. Many believed that Walsh, as National champion, should have been an automatic choice for both AOB qualifiers in 2016, but we would argue that, with form being such an important factor in an Olympic year, that re-evaluation for the second qualifier was warranted – especially with the debated nature of the outcome of their 2016 Senior final clash (Walsh won a hotly contested split decision).

Indeed we think that the likes of Kirill Afanasev and Thomas Carty have a right to feel somewhat aggrieved that they were not part of a re-evalutation process in the heavyweight and super heavyweight divisions respectively. The fact that those divisions were set in stone, while the 64kg and 75kg divisions were, brings us to the elephant in the room – the disciplinary breach of Walsh and O’Reilly following their elimination in the European Olympic qualifier in Turkey in April.

The fact that it was just their two weights point to the IABA putting the slots up for grabs as more of a disciplinary measure for Walsh and O’Reilly, rather than a means to seek Ireland’s most in-form boxer at the weight – although it seems like their selection on Thursday has proven just that. That is that Walsh and O’Reilly represent Ireland’s best hope of placing a boxer in the top five spots in Baku and claiming a berth in Brazil.

The means of choosing have been decried as some as being underhand, unfair, and that the decision was made before the boxers even stepped foot on the plane to Azerbaijan. This seems somewhat far-fetched. Antia was apparently furious with Walsh and O’Reilly and seriously reconsidering their futures following their undisclosed indiscretions. Add to this that the IABA’s decision to spend thousands of euros on flying and accommodating Moylette, McComb, and Conor Wallace last week is one which would have not been taken lightly, and certainly not one made purely to offer the facade that they were considering these boxers when they had actually already made their choice.

Apparently two test bouts were held between Moylette and Walsh last week. Unsurprisingly Wexford supporters argue that Walsh won both, while the Mayo faithful claim their man Moylette came out on top. One person who actually witnessed the bouts, Irish heavyweight champ Darren O’Neill, states that one of the meetings was “a close and heated three rounds”

Therefore one must assume that Walsh and O’Reilly were chosen to represent Ireland in Baku as they were the most impressive in training camp and are seen to be Ireland’s best chance of qualifying for Rio. Indeed accusations that Walsh’s uncle, and former HPU head coach, Billy, influenced the decision (both through his lasting influence on the coaching staff, and his presence in Azerbaijan with Team USA) are insulting to Walsh, who must have boxed out of his skin throughout the week to outshine Moylette and McComb, as well as win back the favour of Antia.

Walsh and O’Reilly, alongside Darren O’Neill and Dean Gardiner, now have the opportunity to secure qualification in this week’s tournament. The duo will be expecting to qualify, and looking at the field of fighters competing, it is expected that they do.

For Moylette, Olympic qualification for Walsh should not be the end of the road for him. The St Anne’s fighter is eligible, alongside pro fighters, for the WSB/APB qualifier in Venezuela next month, and should be sent regardless of Walsh’s performance in Baku. The ratification process for this cycle of Olympic qualification is unclear, however one can assume it is similar to 2015 when Brendan Irvine competed at the World Championships at light flyweight despite Paddy Barnes occupying an Olympic slot at 49kg.

Should both Walsh and Moylette achieve qualification criteria, perhaps then a best-of-three box-off should be called a-la Andrew Selby and Khalid Yafai’s series of bouts ahead of the London Olympics.

However, that is all hypothetical at this stage, and for now we offer Dean Walsh, and Michael O’Reilly, congratulations for re-securing their place on the team, and wish all four boxers the best of luck for the coming qualifier.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Guglielminotti – The Fighting Irish (@ThefIrish)

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