Sixty eight years after Mossy Doyle – the first Irish boxer to step into the ring at the Olympics at the 1924 Games in Paris – began Ireland’s quest for one of the biggest prizes in sport, Michael Carruth finally ended Ireland’s long wait for a boxing gold at the Barcelona Olympics.
Wayne McCullough was also trading leather for gold on a day which saw underdogs Ireland slated to meet powerhouses Cuba in a double header in the bantamweight and welterweight classes. It finished honours even.
Computer scoring – as a result of the fallout from the Roy Jones versus Park Si-hun outrage at the previous Olympics – was used for the first time in the Catalan capital,and the new system reflected the dominance of McCullough, a gold medal winner for Northern Ireland at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, as he cruised through his opening three bouts, hammering Fredrick Mutewata of Uganda, who must have been sick of the sight of the Belfast man at this stage as he lost to him at the 1988 Olympics, Ahmed Ghimin of Iraq and Mohammed Sabo of Nigeria on convincing 28-7, 10-2 and 31-13 verdicts.
The win over Sabo was for a place in the semi-finals and at least a bronze medal. The Belfast fighter, later to be nicknamed “The Pocket Rocket”, met Li Gwang-Sik of Korea in the last-four and booked his ticket into the 54kg decider with a 21-16 victory following a slug-fest with the North Korean.
The stage was set for a compelling bantamweight duel, but it the Guantanamo-born southpaw who got the decision, a 16-8 verdict, at the Pavelló Club Joventut de Badalona venue, despite a storming final round from the Irish champion, who was bravely fighting through the pain barrier after picking up a severe facial injury after being on the receiving end of a stinging right from El Cipillo in the second round. McCullough fought heroically through the pain barrier.
Meanwhile, Carruth was limbering up in the dressing room for his welterweight clash with Juan Hernandez. The Dublin southpaw, the captain of the Irish team in 1992, beat Maselino Tuifao 11-2 in his opening bout to set up a last-16 duel with a familiar foe in the quarter-finals; Andreas Otto, who was now boxing for a unified Germany.
Three years prior to their Barcelona clash, Otto, then boxing for East Germany, had beaten Carruth 18-1 in the light-welterweight semi-finals of the 5th AIBA World Championships in Moscow, an outrageous verdict that in no way reflected Carruth’s performance, or, for that matter, Otto’s implied dominance.
However, the Irish skipper exacted sweet revenge in the rematch, the Drimnagh BC southpaw forcing Otto into a standing count in the first en route to a 35-22 decision and at least a bronze medal.
Next up was Arkon Chenglai in the semi-finals. He was dispatched on a score of 11-4, Carruth recalling that he got the impression that the Thai didn’t fancy meeting a Cuban – Hernandez went through Puerto Rico’s Anibal Acevedo for a short cut in the other semi-final – in the final and seemed happy enough with bronze.
Ireland had another boxer through to the finals, but the odds, according to the bookies, and various boxing pundits, who were giving Carruth about as much chance as a goldfish thrown into a bathtub with a barracuda, looked bleak.
However, the Dubliner had other ideas and edged a tactical opening frame 4-3. Carruth dropped points after receiving a public warning for holding in the second and trudged back to his corner expecting to be in arrears – but the scores were locked at 8-8.
It was to be decided final frame. Herdandez’s corner had given their man, a silver medal winner at the Seoul Olympics, an earful during the interval and he came out with all guns blazing. However, Carruth was still drawing him down his southpaw alley and was still picking up precious points on the counter. Over in his corner, his dad and coach, Austin, and Ireland’s Cuban coach, Nicholas Cruz, were screaming out instructions.
After the final bell, the signals coming from various unofficial sources at ringside were indicating Carruth had it by a three point margin, but the official score had yet to be announced. The tension was palpable, and the MC rambling on in Spanish wasn’t exactly conducive for anyone of a nervous disposition.
Finally, it was announced that Carruth had won 13-10 and and the place erupted. Ireland’s long wait for a gold medal in boxing was over, and the 36-year gap between Ronnie Delaney’s gold medal win in the 1,500m at the 1956 Games in Melbourne had been bridged.
Paul Douglas also came close to winning a medal at the Barcelona Games.Wins against John Peterson and Alexei Tchoudinov seeing the Holy Family BC heavyweight into the quarter-finals, but he was then beaten by Holland’s Arnold Vanderlijde in the last-eight.
Vanderlijde was beaten in the semi-finals by Cuba’s legendary Felix Savon, who many consider the greatest amateur boxer of all time.
Paul Griffin had secured a European gold in in the featherweight class in Gothenburg in 1991 – Paddy Barnes was to bridge that 19-year gap to win gold in Moscow in 2010 – but the Dubliner, also of the Drimnagh BC, went out to Steven Chubgu of Zambia in Barcelona.
Paul Buttimer, the second Sunnyside BC boxer to appear at the Olympics after Kieran Joyce, also went out in the preliminaries. Boxing at flyweight, Buttimer lost to Nigeria’s Moses Malagu, who lost to eventual silver medallist, Raul Gonzalez of Cuba, in the next phase.
Kevin McBride fell at the first hurdle. The Smithboro BC super–heavyweight lost to Peter Hrivnak. Thirteen years after that defeat, McBride caused a sensation when he beat Mike Tyson in Washington.
Cuba took home seven gold medals from the 12 weight categories in Barcelona – but they didn’t take the welterweight gold back to Havana. That, along with Wayne McCullough’s silver, was on its way back to Ireland.
Ireland finished fourth ahead of North Korea. The top five in the medals table were, Cuba, Germany, USA, Ireland and North Korea.
A qualification system was introduced for the first time for Barcelona and a new word entered the boxing lexicon, the dreaded “countback”.
Flyweight: Paul Buttimer (Sunnyside)
Lost to Moses Malagu (Nigeria) 8-12
Bantamweight: Wayne McCullough (Albert Foundry) – Silver
Beat Frederick Muteweta (Uganda) 28-7
Beat Ahmed Ghmim Abbood (Iraq) 10-2
Beat Mohammed Sabo (Nigeria) 31-13
Beat Gwang-Sik (North Korea) 21-16
Lost to Joel Casamayor (Cuba) 8-16
Featherweight: Paul Griffin (Drimnagh)
Lost to Steven Chubgu (Zambia) TKOI2
Welterweight: Michael Carruth (Drimnagh) – Gold
Beat Maselino Tuifao (Western Samoa) 11-2
Beat Andreas Otto (Germany) 35-22
Beat Arkom Chenglai (Thailand) 11-4
Beat Juan Hernandez (Cuba) 13-10
Heavyweight: Paul Douglas (Holy Family)
Beat John Pettersson (Sweden) 8-1
Beat Alexei Tchoudinov (CIS) 15-9
Lost to Arnold Vanderlijde (Holland) TKOI1
Super Heavyweight: Kevin McBride (Smithboro)
Lost to Peter Hrivnak (Czechoslovakia) 1-21