5 BIG Questions for Irish Boxing Following Olympic Changes

Olympic Boxing is changing, big time.

The qualification process and weight classes for Paris 2024 have been confirmed – should boxing take its place at the Games – and confusion is the overriding feeling.

First things first – this is what boxing will look like in France:
Women’s Light Flyweight (50kg) – 18 places 
Men’s Flyweight (51kg) – 16 places 
Women’s Bantamweight (54kg) – 18 places 
Women’s Featherweight (57kg) – 20 places 
Men’s Featherweight (57kg) – 18 places
Women’s Lightweight (60kg) – 28 places
Men’s Light Welterweight (63.5kg) – 18 places
Women’s Welterweight (66kg) – 22 places
Men’s Light Middleweight (71kg) – 18 places
Women’s Middleweight (75kg) – 18 places
Men’s Light Heavyweight (80kg) – 18 places
Men’s Heavyweight (92kg) – 18 places
Men’s Super Heavyweight (+92kg) – 18 places

Many boxers and fans aren’t happy.

The main issue for most appears to be the reduction of men’s weights to just seven, with large gaps between classes, and iconic categories such as middleweight being removed. 

New name, same lads

Unfortunately, this is just the way it is. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) are always reluctant to add to the number of medals/classes from Games to Games so boxing is limited to 13 as always. Considering all that has gone on over the last decade or so, the IBA (International Boxing Association – formerly AIBA) are in no position to lobby for an increase in the number of medals they can award.

In addition, the IOC are putting an emphasis on gender equality across sports – an inarguably correct thing to do – so seven men’s weights and six women’s weights, with an equal number of total competitors, is the way it has to be. Adapt or die.

Of course, there are safety concerns. The six women’s classes are spread over just 25kg while the men have the limitless super heavy category and the other six stretched across a whopping 41kg. The qualification system, too, could give rise to potentially dangerous fights, as it looks likely that many boxers from non-Olympic weight classes will qualify for the games at the weight above them.

Qualification, an increasingly difficult to decipher process, is messier than ever for Paris.

World Rankings via multi-nations rather than major international tournaments will provide the vast majority of places.

The process begins in 2023 with the ‘Golden Belt Series’, a currently unspecified number of multi-nations tournaments. Boxers will accumulate ranking points in these across all 13 men’s weights and all women’s weights bar light heavyweight and heavyweight.

At the end of 2023, the top eight boxers in each Olympic weight category will qualify for Paris – however, the Olympic weights will be combined with non-Olympic categories (seemingly with no added weighting), meaning an initial top eight finish probably will not be enough.

Then, the Golden Belt series resumes for more tournaments for the first three months of 2024 – with most of the remaining spots at each weight on offer (with places guaranteed for the highest-ranked non-qualified boxer from each continent). 

Finally, there will be a regular last chance World Qualifier in May 2024 where the two finalists in each Olympic weight also book their tickets to France. Still with me?

Ireland qualified 7 boxers for Tokyo 2020 and won 2 medals – but we can’t rest on our laurels

So what does this all mean for Ireland? It certainly raises a number of questions.

What Approach Will Ireland Take In the Golden Belt Series?
If Ireland are going to qualify boxers for Paris they will probably need to identify their Olympic hopes by the end of this year! Boxers will need to go to as many Golden Belt Series tournaments as possible in 2023 (and 2024) to rack up as many points as possible. Cost and commitment to the amateur game are both an issue here and, understandably considering the latter, Team USA are very against the new format. There really can’t be any chopping and changing of fighters during their process or else no-one has a chance at all!

The cost issue will also probably feed into who is sent to these tournaments. Will Ireland identify their Olympic hopes at the 13 Olympic weights and just enter in these categories? Or will they also target the other 10 non-Olympic weights which will have Olympic places on offer? 

The long and costly Golden Belt Series will benefit strong boxing nations and especially those with a centralised approach. Ireland can take advantage here. For the 2016 Olympics, under the unofficial management of Billy Walsh, Ireland took a smart approach, using all the routes available. Mick Conlan, Paddy Barnes, and Steven Donnelly all qualified through the WSB while Joe Ward and Davey Oliver Joyce both came close in the APB and a valiant attempt was made with Ray Moylette through the WSB/APB qualifier in Venezuela. Will the IABA HPU be able to maximise our chances once again?

Weighty Questions
An issue that will become even more of a decision should Ireland decide to send boxers to the Golden Belt Series at all weights rather than just the Olympic classes. For example, consider the supremely talented Gabriel Dossen. Assuming he cannot cut down to 71kg, his only chance of the Olympics is now at 80kg. 

Does, and should, Dossen have to bulk up to 80kg to have a chance at qualification? Or would he be sent on the Golden Belt Series at 75kg and, if he qualifies, bulk up to 80kg right before the Olympics? Lots of boxers, including double Olympian Brendan Irvine and Elite champs like JP Hale and Eugene McKeever, are going to have choices to make in this regard.

Might Gabriel Dossen go pro?

How to pick the team?
2022 is a huge audition year for dozens of Irish boxers. There will be an Irish Elite Championships later this year, Women’s World Championships, Men’s and Women’s Europeans, multiple multi-nations, and the ongoing talent identification and infamous behind-closed-doors ‘test spars’. It still feels early in the cycle but we have to go ‘all in’ on fighters in talent-packed divisions – and this will send many to the pros (assuming they don’t want to hang around, banking on their rival failing to qualify and them getting a chance at the cut-throat World Qualifier in 2024).

How important will the Seniors be?

We could have Gabriel Dossen, Kelyn Cassidy, and Kane Tucker all vying for one spot at 80kg. JP Hale, George Bates, Paul Loonam, Brandon McCarthy, and Dean Clancy may be battling for light welter supremacy. Christina Desmond, Evelyn Igharo, and siblings Aoife and Lisa O’Rourke will all be targeting 75kg selection. A ‘good’ headache to have, but a headache all the same. 

Opportunity Cuts
With new weights for women comes new chances. Michaela Walsh is one of our greatest ever but it’s easy to forget that she qualified for Tokyo a weight above her ideal class. Now that bantamweight has been added, the Belfast boxer could maybe move down to 54kg – where she won EU gold in 2017.

Similarly, the recalibration of welterweight down three kilos to 66kg could benefit Gráinne Walsh who is emerging from injury hell and now finds her division a perfect fit having previously been undersized.

On the other hand, it looks to be bad news for Amy Broadhurst. Operating at light welterweight currently, will she be given an opportunity to challenge Olympic champ Kellie Harrington this year? Would she go on the Golden Belt route at 63kg, looking to qualify all the way up at 66kg? Or might she leave the Irish system entirely and target her preferred 60kg class with Great Britain? 

Women’s Boxing
More of a big-picture point but will the IABA aggressively target women’s boxing? It is an area where we can become genuine world leaders. With many countries, most notably Cuba, essentially ignoring the women’s side of the sport, and the classes now so tightly compacted, there is a very real opportunity to win many medals here.

There are some foundations and we have a head-start on many nations – but expect the rest of the world to cotton on to the changes very quickly. Finishing second in the medals table at the European U22s and the seeming conveyor belt of gold medals at underage level shows that the talent is there. It needs to be capitalised on.

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