06 August 2008 – by Mark Doyle
Ireland’s five qualifiers for the 2008 Olympics are currently in the final stages of their preparations for the Beijing Games.
This weekend they will launch their respective bids for glory. In less than a fortnight, they could have enshrined their names in the annals of Irish sporting history. In years to come their exploits in China could be mentioned as fondly and respectfully as those of Wayne McCullough and Michael Carruth in Barcelona 16 years ago.
Of course, all five of them are well aware of what is at stake, of what is to gain, but what are their chances of medal success?
Below, we have a closer look at each boxer and try, as best we can, to evaluate their chances of achieving immortality in Beijing.
Obviously, the upcoming draw will ultimately prove crucial but something tells us that at least one of our Olympians is on the verge of something very special…..
The first of the Irish contingent to qualify for Beijing, the Belfast light-flyweight did so by surprising his team-mates – and perhaps even himself – by reaching the the quarter-finals of last years World Championships in Chicago, his progress only halted by eventual winner Zou Shimin.
As that run proved, Barnes is a classy fighter who belongs at this level and, at just 21, deserves to be regarded as one of Ireland’s most exciting young talents.
However, Beijing might be coming a tad too soon for Barnes in terms of winning a medal and a tad too late in terms of his momentum.
Indeed, it has been a long wait for Barnes – he recently admitted that his season has ‘dragged’ somewhat – and he might not be as competition-sharp as some of his team-mates.
Beijing should, though, turn out to be a tremendous learning experience for him ahead of what one hopes will be another Olympic bid in London in four years’ time.
However, this stylish boxer cannot be discounted and, with a favourable draw, Barnes could again upset a few more illustrious names on his way to the latter stages of the biggest and most prestigious tournament in amateur boxing.
The Irish team captain will be expected to lead by example in China.
Dublin Light-heavyweight Egan came desperately close to missing out on Beijing before eventually sailing through in style, claiming gold in the final qualifying tournament, in Greece in April.
Now that he is in the draw, Egan is a decent bet for a medal. The Neilstown native is one of the highest-ranked light-heavyweights in Europe and, if he can avoid the big guns early on and is allowed to feel his way into he tournament, could easily reach the last four.
At 26, he certainly has the experience and, as an eight-time National Seniors champion and a former European bronze medallist, he also has the pedigree.
The fact that he is a southpaw also marks him out as an opponent that most of the top light-heavyweights will want to avoid.
Egan has had to wait a long time for his first Olympics appearance – he was devastated after missing out on Athens in 2004 – but a change in his entire mental approach seems to have worked wonders for him when it comes to coping with pressure and expectancy.
Indeed, now that his chance has finally arrived, he seems in no mood to let pass him by.
JOHN JOE NEVIN:
John Joe Nevin is very much the dark horse of the Irish group.
This skilled bantamweight is just 19 years of age and fighting in one of the most competitive divisions in the tournament. However, there is a growing feeling that Nevin might just be capable of getting amongst the medals.
Certainly, when Andy Lee starts talking about Nevin as Irelands best prospect primarily for his fearless attitude one has to sit up and take notice.
Admittedly, Nevin is a confident and slick operator, and there’s no doubt that many of his rivals will be hoping to stay out of his way early on.
But perhaps it is expecting a little too much for one so young and one so young inexperienced to collect a medal in Beijing; London 2012 would appear to be a more realistic target.
But should it be? Nevin has now beaten some of the top guys in his weight class and that aforementioned self-belief could take him very far indeed….
Definitely one to watch in Beijing. Sutherland is a confident (some might say cocky!), hard-hitting middleweight who is regularly involved in exciting fights.
However, that could prove detrimental to his chances of picking up a medal in this very competitive weight class.
Sutherland can really bang and one could easily foresee him forcing a stoppage during his Beijing bid. However, as he himself freely admits, he does not like the points-scoring system and his style is far more suited to the professional ranks.
Still, as he proved in defending his Irish senior title with a win over his great domestic rival Darren ONeill, Sutherland has heart and intelligence as well as power, and is a genuine medal contender. The draw, though, will be so crucial for this dyanmic fighter.
JOHN JOE JOYCE:
This exciting light-welterweight from Kildare seems to be building momentum at just the right time. A proven talent at junior level, he is now firmly established as Irelands best at 64kg.
Like Egan and Sutherland, he only booked his place in Beijing in the final qualifier in Greece. However, like his aforementioned team-mates, he did so with a gold medal around his neck, underlining his status as a boxer of real talent.
Joyce’s qualification was a welcome and thrilling surprise for the High Performance team and he is now in the rather enviable position of having nothing to lose in Beijing.
He is a determined character who showed impressive mental strength in bouncing back from the disappointment of Pescara to effectively cruise through in Athens.
Indeed, the Irish team were particularly impressed with they way in which Joyce took everything in his stride in Greece and positively outclassed his opponents in the latter stages.
This is a fighter who seems to excel when it matters most, to relish upsetting the odds and that makes him a very intriguing prospect. Again, if the draw went his way, Joyce could easily turn out to be Ireland’s surprise package in Beijing.