Joe Ward admitted that it was a dream come true after he qualified for Thursday’s AIBA World Elite final and the Rio 2016 Olympics on Monday night .
The Irish southpaw upgraded his bronze medal to at least silver after beating Uzbekistan’s Ishod Rasulov in the 81kg semi-final at the World Elites in Doha, Qatar.
The top two (the finalists) light-heavyweights in Doha qualify for Rio 2016, and Ward can now finally call himself an Olympian after posting a 29-28,29-28,29-28 unanimous decision.
It’s a huge achievement for me now, twenty one years old and going to Rio. It’s a dream come true,” said Ward.
“I’m feeling great. It was a lot at stake in there, but I really performed really well. I’m delighted with myself. It’s amazing to get that win out of the way. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career but I made up for it in there tonight.”
Ireland’s only AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) representative in Doha took the first two rounds of the battle of the southpaws with the two-time World silver and bronze medallist to lead 20-18 across the board going into the third.
Ward’s cleaner and more composed work caught the eye of the judges in the opening frames against the vastly experienced Uzbek, who, to his credit, fought on despite sustaining a wicked cut over his left eye following an accidental clash of heads in the opening stanza.
Rasulov took the third frame 10-9 on all cards, but at that stage Ward, who threw in a cheeky Ali shuffle at the end, was on his way to Thursday’s final and Rio.
“I knew this time it didn’t matter what he did; if I went in there and performed to my ability I was going to win,” said the Irish 2016 Olympian.
The victory puts his controversial defeat in the Olympic qualifiers in Turkey for London 2012 behind him.
Ward hailed the Irish coaching staff of Billy Walsh, Zuar Antia and Eddie Bolger for sticking by him, giving Bolger a big hug into the bargain, and the Irish fans who got right behind him versus Rasulov, who he beat in the Chemistry Cup quarter-final three years ago in Germany.
“It was unbelievable, that’s what kept me going. I really didn’t even feel the nine minutes they (the fans) were that good.
“It’s a massive thing when you can look around and see a load of Irish people cheering you. They’ve been amazing, amazing.
“I’ll be giving it a better shot than I did last time,” added Ward in reference to his final with Cuba’s Julio La Cruz, who beat the Irishman in the 2013 World semi-final in Kazakhstan.
The European Elite champion, who is considered a veteran of the Irish team even though he’s only 21, meets La Cruz, who is aiming for his third successive World title, in Thursday’s 81kg decider.
Ward’s win over Rasulov, combined with Michael Conlan’s semi-final victory yesterday, guarantees Ireland at least two silver medals and confirms we will have representatives in two finals on Wednesday and Thursday, an historic first for Irish boxing.
European Games champion Michael O’Reilly also claimed bronze in Doha, making the 18th edition of the tournament Ireland’s most successful campaign by far since the inaugural World Championships in Havana in 1974.
Ward, Conlan and Paddy Barnes will represent Ireland at the Rio Olympics in the light-heavy, bantam and light-fly classes.
O’Reilly will join the trio if he beats Egypt’s Hasan Abdin in Wednesday’s Olympic box-off in the middleweight class.
Meanwhile, Ward won AIBA World Junior gold in 2009 and AIBA World Youth gold in 2010.
If he wins on Thursday he’ll become the only international boxer to claim a hat-trick of AIBA gold medals in all age levels.
“Wouldn’t that be something,” said Ward.
Wouldn’t it indeed. Seconds out!