Vladivostok, if loosely translated from Russian, means “to conquer the East”.
The Irish Olympic boxing squad of 2008 headed to Vladivostok, the home base of the Russian Pacific nuclear fleet, to train and spar with the Russian national team in the run up to the Beijing Olympics.
A few weeks later the five-strong squad touched down at Dublin Airport from China with three medals, Irish boxing’s biggest haul since the 1956 Games in Melbourne.
Ken Egan claimed silver, while Paddy Barnes and the late Darren Sutherland took home bronze, while John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce made the last-16.
All five Irish boxers were only beaten by the eventual gold medallists in their respective weight categories in Beijing.
Egan met China’s Zhang Xiaoping in the light heavyweight final, but the Asian fighter was handed a controversial 11-7 decision and Egan’s dreams of landing gold and joining an illustrious light heavyweight cast which included Muhammad Ali, who claimed gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, were dashed.
Many boxing pundits believe that the final score to Xiaoping, who had been well beaten by Irish 2012 Olympian Darren O’Neill in a Multi Nations tournament prior to Beijing, did not reflect Egan’s performance, and that the judges had failed to register some of the Dublin southpaw’s clear cut shots, particularly in the second and third rounds.
Egan dropped to his knees after the final bell, as did Xiaoping, in celebration. The 81kg gold medal would not be leaving China.
“I genuinely thought that I won that fight by two or three points. If it had of been anywhere in the World I would’ve won, said Egan – who beat Turkey’s Bahram Muzaffer, who controversially overcame Ireland’s Joe Ward at the 2012 Olympic qualifiers in Turkey – in Beijing.
“Everyone says to me I went to the Olympics and I won the silver. I lost the gold in the final; that’s how I look at it. Okay, I came home with the silver medal, an amazing achievement. If I was offered that at the start of it, I would have taken it with both hands.”
“It was a close final and he came out on top but it is behind me now and it’s history and it’s great to have been part of it.”
Sutherland stopped Algerian middleweight Nabil Kassel in his opening bout and was then drawn against the powerful Venezuelan Alfonso Blanco in the last 16.
Blanco had beaten the St Saviours OBA (Dublin) man at AIBA World Championships and Olympic qualifiers in Chicago en route to silver in the Windy City.
But Sutherland produced a fantastic performance to exact revenge in Beijing to guarantee himself at least bronze. That set up a semi final clash with Great Britain’s James DeGale, a duel which the London-born middleweight won 10-3.
Egan, incidentally, beat Tony Jeffries 10-3 in the light-heavyweight semi-final, leaving the Olympic head-to-heads between Ireland and Team GB locked at 1-1 and an exact amount of points scored and conceded.
Barnes, who qualified for Beijing from the AIBA World Championships in Chicago, registered impressive 14-8 and 11-5 verdicts over Ecuador’s Jose Luis Meza and Poland’s Lukasz Maszcyk to assure himself of at least bronze in Beijing.
Zou Shiming, who had beaten the Irish Elite champion in the quarter finals in Chicago, awaited, and once again there was controversy over the scoring after the Chinese light-flyweight was awarded a 15-0 verdict. There is no questioning the fact that Shiming deserved his win. However, Barnes found the target at least six times in that clash and Shiming’s margin of victory was outrageously flattering.
Nevin, at 18 the youngest member of the Irish squad, booked his ticket for Beijing at the Olympic qualifiers in Pescara, Italy. Gary Keegan, the then Director of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s High Performance Unit, had brought Nevin to Pescara, the second last Olympic qualifier for European boxers, merely for experience.
However, Nevin, who also qualified for the 2012 Olympics, took his opportunity with both hands and made the Irish team for Beijing, where he beat Abdelhalim Ouarradi of Algeria before going out to eventual Olympic champion, Badar-Uugan Enkhbat of Mongolia.
Nevin put his Olympic disappointment behind him to become the first Irish male boxer in the 101-year history of the IABA to win two medals at World Championships level in Milan and Baku in 2009 and 2011.
Meanwhile, John Joe Joyce had lost on three occasions to Gyula Kate of Hungary prior to Beijing, but the St Michael’s Athy man put the record straight on the biggest stage of them all with a 9-5 decision in his opening bout. The then-IABA President Dominic O’Rourke, Joyce’s club coach, was at ringside.
Joyce was then ahead by a single point going down the final stretch of his last 16 meeting with Felix Diaz, but the Dominican Republic light welterweight found the target in the final few seconds to tie the bout at 11-11 before getting the nod a countback.
Joyce, who would go on to win bronze for Ireland at the European Championships in Liverpool later that year, was the second Irish boxer after Andy Lee in 2004 to exit the Olympic Games on a countback, a system in which the highest and lowest scores of the five ringside judges are eliminated and the scores from the three other judges are totted up.
Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia worked Ireland’s corner in Beijing. Jim Walsh was Irish team manager.
China finished on top of the medals table in Beijing. Ireland were in 12th spot. Ireland finished in 11th position in the rankings table.
The 2008 Olympic Games was the last Olympiad to exclude female boxers, which was a good omen for Ireland as certain female lightweight was poised in Bray to bridge the 20-year gap since Michael Carruth stood on top of a an Olympic podium.
Light flyweight : Paddy Barnes (Holy Family) – Bronze
Beat Jose Luis Meza (Ecuador) 14-8
Beat Lukasz Maszczyk (Poland) 11-5
Lost to eventual gold medalist Zou Shiming (China) 0-15
Featherweight: John Joe Nevin (Cavan)
Beat Abdelhalim Ouarradi (Algeria) 9-4
Lost to eventual gold medalist Badar-Uugan Enkhbat (Mongolia) 2-9
Light welterweight: John Joe Joyce (St Michael’s, Athy)
Beat Gyula Kate (Hungary) 9-5
Lost to eventual gold medalist Felix Diaz (Dominican Republic) 11-11 (countback)
Middleweight: Darren Sutherland (St Saviours) – Bronze
Beat Nabil Kassel (Algeria) RSC4
Beat Alfonso Blanco (Venezuela) 11-1
Lost to eventual gold medalist James DeGale (Britain) 10-3
Light-heavyweight: Ken Egan (Neilstown) – Silver
Beat Julius Jackson (Virgin Islands) 22-2
Beat Muzafer Bahram (Turkey) 10-2
Beat Washington Silva (Brazil) 8-0
Beat Tony Jefferies (Great Britain) 10-3
Lost to Zhang Xiaoping (China) 7-11