By Michael O’Neill
Friday promises to be another ‘unique’ night in the annals of Irish ‘amateur’ boxing as the Women’s Elite finals take place at the National Stadium in Dublin.
The 60kg lightweight title will feature one Katie Taylor from Bray aiming to take her fifth Irish crown but this time facing an ‘up and coming’ challenger and it is that bout which has attracted most media attention here in Ireland this week.
True she has held the title by walk-over on four occasions but on Friday she welcomes the challenge set by the young 21 years old ‘pretender to the throne’ Shauna O’Keeffe from Clonmel BC in Tipperary.
Reigning Olympic, World & European lightweight champion Taylor (who also holds the European Union and inaugural European Games crowns), has positively welcomed the chance to fight for the Irish title for the first time.
“I’m delighted to get the opportunity to box for an Irish title and I’ll be taking absolutely nothing for granted,” said Taylor, who created history here at the National Stadium in 2001 when she fought Alanna Audley-Murphy in the first officially IABA-sanctioned women’s bout in Ireland.
The then 15 years old Taylor defeated the young Belfast 16 years old Alanna Audley (27:12). They were to become close friends and members of the Irish team in major World and European championships in the years that followed with both taking medals in different weight divisions at home and abroad.
“I’m looking forward to actually boxing for the title this year – it’s been a long time coming,” said Taylor in a series of media interviews promoting the Championships in recent days.
“It’s something I’ve wanted for years, to get a bit of competition in the National championships and I haven’t boxed since the European Games so it’ll be good to get a fight under my belt.
“I need to stay busy and get a few fights,” she said. “I definitely don’t like being out of the ring for so long.”
So who is Shauna O’Keeffe? The 21 years old southpaw is the current Irish Intermediate champion, who saw off the challenge of Clare’s Kayleigh Murrihy-McCormack in the semi-final last Friday, on an unanimous decision. She also won the Celtic Box Cup gold in Dungarvan in September. This is a huge step up for her, but she is undaunted by the challenge that lies ahead.
Speaking to IrishBoxing.com before her semi-final against the Clare woman, she commented : “I’ve been dreaming of meeting Katie Taylor since I was fourteen.
“I became a boxer at the Clonmel Boxing club when I was 14, exactly 7 years ago and it’s the best decision I ever made, I found a love for the sport before I joined from watching my two brothers who were in boxing at the time. They gave me the confidence to join and I soon knew this is what I wanted to do.”
“We have a great team in our club that starts with our fantastic coaches Martin Fennessy, Rob Scanlon, Keith Galvin, John Mackey and our female coach Jade Fennessy, all great coaches dedicating their life and time to the sport and everything I’ve accomplished wouldn’t have happened without them”.
Clonmel BC coaches Fennessy and Scanlon will be working her corner against Taylor, an AIBA Ambassador for the sport.
“Shauna has an Olympic dream like anyone else. She’s a tough, determined and focused young boxer and she has great belief in herself,” said Fennessy.
“We’re excited to go into it and she deserves to be there on merit. She’s won an Intermediate title, she’s won the Celtic Box Cup. She won all four rounds last week in the semi-finals.
“She didn’t drop a round. She’s in the final on merit. We’re not focusing on Katie Taylor, we’re focusing on what we can do.
“We know it’s an honour to share a ring with the Olympic champion and we’re going up to give it our best shot. Our mind-set is that we are looking for a top performance from our girl and we’ll see where that takes us.”
The number of entries this year was by any standards very disappointing and clearly under the existing regime and that includes the current CEO and Boxing Council, little has been done for Elite women in Ireland to build upon the huge success and honour brought to the country by Katie Taylor.
Happily there is a new “go ahead” IABA President in Portlaoise’s Pat Ryan, himself a noted coach of leading boxers including Michael O’Reilly,who like Taylor,took Gold in the European Games in Baku. Under Ryan’s guidance I believe it is ‘quite likely’ that women in Ireland will soon now ‘feed into’ the highly successful High Performance Unit built up by Gary Keegan, Cuban Nicolas Cruz Hernandez and later of course by Billy Walsh and Georgia’s Zaur Antia. Equally important I believe that proper funding will follow in the not too distant future.
At the moment the women’s teams at all levels receive little funding compared with the men’s and both ‘Sport Ireland’ and their masters at the Government’s Sports Dept must ensure that this now happens – better late than never.
Despite the lack of funding there are several excellent female boxers in the country though a whole generation has lost out even in Taylor’s era due to the IABA’s lack of promoting the women’s sport.
Friday night is not all about Taylor v O’Keeffe for there are eight finals plus one walk-over at the Olympic weight of 75kg where the title goes to Christina Desmond, who has often represented her country with a fair amount of success at European, World and youth Olympic level.
It is though a shame that the IABA has not organised an exhibition bout for her against a tough International opponent on Friday night’s card.
She could even have been sent to the Rio Test event in early December where Ireland will not be represented though Team GB are sending three including Chantelle Cameron and Lisa Whiteside. Australian Caitlin Parker is another who is competing at the 75kg in the test event. She is well known to the Cork woman from their youth days.
Another final much looked forward to will be the clash of Carrickmacross’s Joanne Lambe against Kerry born, St Michael’s Athy based dual sports star Moira McElligott who has won several races in the world of horse racing having overcome the leading male jockeys to so do. They have met in the ring before as Joanne Lambe explained to your correspondent :
“Yes I boxed Moira last year in the semi-finals. It was a very tactical and competitive bout which I won unanimously. However Friday is another day and I will be taking nothing for granted. We have prepared for this fight 100%.
I’m not even thinking about the Europeans or World’s whatsoever. All I am focused on at the moment is Friday,and boxing to the best of my ability on the night”
Other experienced campaigners in action on finals night include Dervla Duffy from the St Brigid’s Kildare club who meets Mayo’s Elaine Harrison who boxes out of the Ardnaree BC, whilst Kelly Harrington from Glasnevin hopes to retain her 64kg crown against another rising star in Cheyanne O’Neill from Athlone BC.
Cavan’s Ceire Smith, (who beat current World 51kg champion and AIBA No. 1, Marlen Esparza (USA) in Warsaw this year), meets 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist Michaela Walsh in Friday’s flyweight final, which is one of eight titles down for decision.
This promises to be the ‘fight of the night’ as both are strong contenders for a place in Ireland’s squad for the European championships in Istanbul and later at the World Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan, the final Olympic qualifier.
We will update you on all the news from the National Stadium at the weekend.
Elite National Women’s Championships National Stadium Dublin, Friday November 27th (7.30pm)
48kg Lauren Hogan (St Brigid’s Edenderry) v Donna Barr (Twin Towns)
51kg Michaela Walsh (Holy Family GG) v Ceire Smith (Cavan BC)
54kg Dervla Duffy (St Brigid’s Kildare) v Elaine Harrison (Ardnaree)
57kg Joanne Lambe (Carrickmacross) v Moira McElligott, (St Michael’s Athy )
60kg Katie Taylor (Bray) v Shauna O’Keeffe (Clonmel BC)
64kg Kelly Harrington (Glasnevin) v Cheyanne O’Neill (Athlone)
69kg Clare Grace (Callan) v Grainne Walsh (Sparticus)
75kg Christina Desmond (Fr Horgan’s BC,Cork) W/O
81+kg Diana Campbell (Garda BC) v Maeve McCarron (Carrigart)