The 2024 National Elite Championships drew to a close on Saturday night with a marathon session of high-level contests, historic achievements, and good ol’-fashioned scraps.
It was far from perfect, though.
Many Irish boxing people’s favourite night of the year, there were more than a few grumbles from those in attendance that the event has lost ‘something’ recently. Having lived abroad the past few years, Saturday was this writer’s first Finals Night since 2019 and the decade-long decline has sharpened – despite the achievements and quality of those competing rising.
If you were to objectively rank the highest-level sporting contests to take place in Ireland in 2023, the likes of Kelyn Cassidy v Gabriel Dossen and Jenny Lehane v Niamh Fay would comfortably make the Top Ten. World-class Irish sportsperson versus world-class Irish sportsperson. Why are these sporting contests taking place in front of barely a thousand people?
As we retreated to Leonard’s Corner, exhausted, exhilarated, but quite frustrated, “how to ‘fix’ Finals Night?” was a bubbling topic of conversation amongst journalists and ‘boxing people’. You can hear some of these thoughts on this week’s episode of the Irish-Boxing Insiders Podcast and on The Irish Sun’s Rocky Road Podcast, and we have gone into more detail below.
This article was extremely difficult to write because it is, essentially, a criticism of an organisation and hard-working people who do so much for boxing in Ireland. There could also be numerous factors at play that prevent certain changes from being made, be they budgetary, logistical, or otherwise. However, this piece comes from a place of support, it is constructive criticism. We all want Finals Night to be an occasion that befits the boxers competing.
Publicity, Publicity, Publicity
The main issue. Just not enough people outside of the boxing core knew that the tournament was on, nevermind knew what was at stake, or who really were competing.
There have been posters, press releases, press conferences and photo calls in the past, why can’t these return? Irish boxers are some of the most fascinating and honest sportspeople out there, manna from heaven for an interviewer. Having semi-finals the evening before the finals (understandable in terms of recreating a major tournament) is madness in media terms. Cassidy and Dossen should have been everywhere during the week, profiles of both in the papers, interviews together on radio, previews and opinion pieces galore and not just from the usual suspects (only Irish-Boxing.com, the Irish Sun, and RTÉ were present on Saturday).
To stay with Cassidy-Dossen, it was just so disappointing to see a fight between two world-class boxers (which delivered on the night), with huge Olympic ramifications, between best friends, and making history as the first Elite final between two Black Irish boxers, receive so little fanfare.
Of course, you could argue it’s not the IABA’s job to hold the general sports media’s hand – but you could equally argue that every other body in Ireland does so and that boxing is falling behind here. And if budget is an issue, clever cooperation with the media is undoubtedly the cheapest way to publicise an event. Our boxers deserve to be recognised and revered as domestic sporting stars.
Change The Structure
Perhaps a controversial one but with potentially 25 finals (granted it was just 19 on Saturday), there is just too much boxing from an event perspective. The biggest night of the year doesn’t need to be the longest night of the year. Bringing the men’s and women’s championships together was the correct call but changes need to be made or else Finals Night will continue to be a cold ‘get in and get out’ affair.
Personally, this writer would advocate splitting the contests along Olympic lines. The 12 non-Olympic weights on Friday and the 13 Olympic classes on the Saturday. However, another suggestion would be to actively consider the talent pool and split the nights evenly with big stars dotted throughout both sessions.
Lessening the number of finals would then allow for the ‘razzmatazz’.
Borrow From Pro Boxing
Some may consider this sacrilege, but Finals Night wasn’t always like this. Cast your mind back about 15 years – there were proper ringwalks, ring parades, the national anthem, personalised ringwalk music, and space and time for champions to celebrate in the ring afterwards, not to mention interviews. Lights, smoke, an actual darkened arena – these are all things we’ve seen in the past but have been absent recently. At times on Saturday night it felt like 4:00pm on a Sunday afternoon during the Senior Cadets.
It doesn’t need to just be ‘red v blue’, list the boxers’ achievements, the context of the occasion. Peter O’Donnell is a legend and the voice of The Stadium. His epically-timed calls of results should definitely remain but perhaps, for introductions, a more bombastic figure could be introduced to help give more of a big fight feel. It is madness that Kellie Harrington’s record-breaking 11th national title was met with polite applause.
Buaiteoir 60kg – Comhghairdeas Kellie Harrington 😍
The olympic champion doing what she does best, Kellie Harrington win the 60kg!
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) November 11, 2023
Make It A Night Out
Similarly, the resurgence of pro boxing events in the 2010s was thanks in part to it becoming known as an attractive, fun thing to do. It’s not ‘selling out’ by any means to allow people to have fun or to let ‘event junkies’ become part of it. The races, the dogs, even the FAI Cup final last weekend have all benefitted from the sporting spectacle being wrapped up with ‘the event’. It doesn’t have to be Sweet Caroline and a three-piece suit with no socks, but the sheer talent of Irish boxers and the drama of competitive contests has the potential to draw crowds if packaged better.
So what to change? For one, the Ringside Club Bar needs to be opened. Alcohol isn’t for everybody and needs to be enjoyed and policed responsibly but it is available at nearly every other major sporting event in Ireland. Another thing which definitely could be streamlined is the ticketing. In the year of 2023, it is madness that ticketing is done via a call to a mobile phone number for the IABA box office rather than an online ticket portal. It’s just another small thing that could lead to the uninitiated, the floating sports fan, feeling like this is a closed-off event to them.
Legends and Stars
Of all Ireland’s living Olympic boxing medallists – aside from Harrington in the ring and Aidan Walsh supporting Michaela – only Michael Carruth, an employee of the IABA, was present on Saturday. There was a nice touch in having World Championships medallist Tommy Corr present a title but there could be so, so much more.
Finals Night previously was a who’s who of Irish boxing royalty just simply in attendance. It was a can’t-miss event but, after a couple of laps around the stadium on Saturday, Emmet Brennan was the only major figure noticed by this writer. The likes of Kenneth Egan, Paddy Barnes, Andy Lee, Carl Frampton etc all live on this island, all enjoyed huge success on the South Circular Road, all have huge profiles, and are all adored by Irish boxing fans. Were they invited to Saturday night? Couldn’t they have handed out trophies alongside Corr?
And where were the future stars? Obviously, the volunteer R+J’s do an incredible job but it seemed bizarre, on what should be one of the biggest nights of the Irish sporting calendar, that there was a break in the middle of the session for a group picture. If there has to be an intermission why not bring out European Schools gold medallists Cassie Henderson, Ella Archbold, and Louise Joyce to receive the adulation of the crowd?
Running a night like Saturday is a thankless task and the difficulty in staging such an event is appreciated. This article isn’t moaning for moaning’s sake. We have something special in Ireland and we can make a special night.
The raw materials are there in bucketloads and our sport is the best in the world, with a few gradual tweaks we can get back to the legendary nights of the so-called ‘Golden Era’.