BY Chris McNulty
ON A freezing February Friday in 2013, the temperature inside the National Stadium went up a notch.
The old place was boiling.
Kenneth Egan retired after a third successive defeat by Joe Ward and Jason Quigley won a first Elite crown, beating Roy Sheahan.
In the night’s penultimate bout, Kellie Harrington won the women’s light-welterweight final against Sarah Close.
It was the night Katie Taylor made her first appearance in the ring since winning gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
With no opponent willing for a crack at the Irish lightweight crown, Taylor instead defeated Karolina Graczyk from Poland.
A packed audience of 2,000 gave a raucous backdrop. It was one of those nights. The night was eight months after Taylor’s defeat of Sofya Ochigava in the Olympic final.
In a ‘Road To Rio’ tour, organised by Brian Peters – now her manager as a professional – Taylor defeated Maike Klueners, Yulia Tsyplakova and Denitsa Eliseeva.
Eight years on, Irish boxing must avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in the afterglow of Taylor’s historic win.
However, Irish boxing and Ireland is in a different place now – with the Covid-19-enforced changes presenting problems and challenges.
Harrington’s capturing of the Olympic lightweight gold on Sunday morning in Tokyo has given the sport and the country a new hero.
Harrington’s superb win over Beatriz Ferreira will have lit a fire inside many youngsters watching on. The story of how a woman from Portland Row in Dublin, who works as a cleaner in St Vincent’s Hospital in Fairview, is inspiring and heartwarming.
But across the country, boxing clubs remain shut. The locks are on, lights are off, gloves draped over the top ropes.
Indoor work is permitted only for individual training. ‘Non contact individual training,’ it is billed on a circular to clubs. Sessions must be staggered and 15 minutes allowed between each session to allow members to arrive and leave without interaction.
Inter-club sparring is prohibited. In-club sparring can take place outdoors only.
Last year during lockdown, Harrington’s partner, Mandy, had to hold the pads so Kellie could train at home. Fortunately, Mandy is a former boxer so she knew the drill. Others aren’t so lucky. There are plenty of young Irish boxers who just won’t go back. That’s just a fact of life after 18 months of inactivity.
The last ‘major’ to be staged in Ireland was the Ulster Elite Championships, almost 18 months ago at the Ulster Hall.
Patrick Rodgers was the 2020 Ulster Elite super-heavyweight champion.
In an interview with the Irish News in May of this year, the St John’s, Swatragh puncher outlined the difficulties.
“I went from training flat out to doing absolutely nothing,” he said.
“We were sent out programmes, the first month or two I was fairly dedicated, but see when you’ve no goal… it was just so hard to get motivated. There was no competitive edge. I’m the sort of person who can’t just go and train myself and be super-dedicated, I need to know that if I don’t do it there’s some boy’s going to knock my head in.”
Sportspeople are motivated by their next assignment, but the diaries have been empty for most since last spring.
Donegal’s two-time European medalist Leah Gallen, for example, was denied the chance to go to Montenegro for the European Youths. The doors of the Raphoe Boxing Club remain closed to the club’s amateur hopefuls. In the meantime, Gallen has been featuring prominently for Sean MacCumhaills, her local GAA club.
The ability of other sports to resume has been a further twist to the knife in boxing’s arteries and a point of frustration for coaches across the country and the dangers of drifting away is real.
Ireland had success at the European Under-22s in June with Dean Clancy winning gold, Adam Hession silver and Jack Marley bronze. These and countless others have no inkling as to their next Championships and clubs no hint as to when their doors can open for collective work again.
There is a real danger that talented boxers will step off the carousel. Some of the best prospects in the country have been kicking their heels since last March with no light showing from the end of the tunnel.
Harrington was absent from the first round of the 2019 Irish Elite Championships. So, too, were Kurt Walker, Brendan Irvine, James McGivern, Gabriel Dossen, Michael Nevin, and Dean Gardiner.
European bronze medalist Nevin was regarded as a medal prospect for Tokyo but days before the Olympic qualifiers in Paris it was confirmed that he pulled out of the squad. The Portlaoise man’s absence remains shrouded in mystery amid suggestions that he is to turn pro.
Clonmel super-heavyweight Gardiner quit the sport in January in order to pursue third level education
Martin Fennessy, his club coach, said at the time: “He had a lot of life changes to juggle with ten to 12 training sessions per week – some in Dublin. There are only so many hours in a day. Dean made his decision on New Year’s Eve after weighing up all his options.”
There are others who have gone, too. Of the eight boxers Ireland sent to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, only Irvine is still involved in amateur boxing.
The Senior Cadet Championship finals were held on February 28, 2020 and you have to go back a further month, to January 31, 2020, for the last staging of the National Under-18 finals.
Irish boxing remains embroiled with internal wrangles, but it must put on a united front and find a way to resume. Otherwise, a generation could be lost and those wide-eyed at Harrington on Sunday morning will gaze in a different direction soon.
Boxing must come out and fight its corner. As much as the present is demanding it, the future needs it.
The Ulster Elites will have to take place to aid the selection of a squad for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Already, there are whispers that these will be held behind-closed-doors. If that does become the case, boxing chiefs must either source TV coverage or at least ensure that the fights can be viewed. Where there’s a will, there is a way. Often, though, it can appear as if the collective will is absent.
The IABA is not known for being proactive. Before its boxers went to Tokyo, there was no media day arranged to put its fighters into the public domain – a chance missed if ever there was one.
In the wake of Harrington’s golden moment, the next chance cannot be missed.
Friday night’s Conlan-Doheny card in Belfast took place in teeming rain, but it worked.
If indoor tournaments and cards with crowds cannot take place indoors, would an outdoor amateur show be such an outlandish suggestion? In these times, a way has to be found to arrest the absence of the sport for those outside of the ‘elite’.
Funding, of course, remains a problem for boxing.
Boxing facilities in Ireland have long since been frugal.
The story of the Buckingham Street club in Dublin, where Harrington first laced up a pair of gloves, has been well documented lately. The club has only one toilet, catering for males. Christy Burke last week told how the club was ‘inundated’ with youngsters wanting to join. However, he sighed, the club ‘simply don’t have toilet facilities to cope’.
Seven years ago, still in the wake of Taylor’s gold medal in London, the Bray Boxing Club got an allocation of €300,000 for an upgrade. Taylor was a three-time World champion and Olympic gold medalist.
“We feel privileged now that we actually have toilet facilities,” she dryly said at the official opening of the new facilities.
Funding is a major issue, but that noose seems unlikely to be untied any time soon.
In the last tranche of Sports Capital funding, released in November 2019, boxing was allocated €823,959. In other words, 1.5 percent of the €52million shelled out. Boxing was granted 53 percent of what clubs applied for.
Ownership of property is a central issue to the access of Sports Capital funding – and a root problem for many boxing clubs.
Many of the club’s boxing counties are in shared facilities, such as community centres or sports halls.
The Covid-19 pandemic is posing difficulties for so many clubs, not just in terms of the retention of their young boxers.
Some have been crippled to the brink, the bills continuing to come in the door, but unaccompanied by revenue streams and a future that remains clouded in uncertainty.
At the moment, only Harrington, Kurt Waker, Michaela Walsh and Aoife O’Rourke are on the top line of €40,000 from Sport Ireland. Aidan Walsh, a bronze medalist from Tokyo, will be upgraded, but was only receiving €12,000 of funding until now; not near enough for someone trying to live and train full time to compete at the upper echelons.
In spite of being Ireland’s leading Olympic sport, boxing hasn’t managed to source top-level corporate sponsorship to aid its coffers. It must ask why and act accordingly.
Amid all the calls for increased funding and assistance from others, the sport has to begin by helping itself.
Not just for Kellie Harrington – but for those she has inspired in the last couple of weeks.