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The 13th Round: Outstanding Last Man tournament could be a crucial milestone for Irish boxing

We’re back, baby!

Roy Sheahan is Ireland’s Last Man Standing but the Athy middleweight was not the only winner at the weekend.

Professional boxing returned to Irish terrestrial television via TG4 on Saturday night and despite doubters – including this writer – it was an unequivocal success.

Early pull-outs, late pull-outs, and a freak blizzard could – indeed, probably should – have knocked Ireland’s Last Man Standing off its feet. However, like co-promoters Assassin Boxing had promised, the show went on and ended up being better than anyone could have expected.

Red Corner and Assassin managed to pull it all together, not only saving the show but creating a memorable night. While the eight-man single-elimination ‘Prizefighter’ format may have run its course on Sky Sports, it was perfect a boxing-starved Irish public. Irish sports fans, especially boxing fans, are notoriously difficult to please, but a glance at social media will tell you how much the return was appreciated.

The format, tailor-made for TV as it was, was just that, and it was the boxers themselves who delivered what could be a crucial milestone for the sport on this island. A massive knockout in the opening bout, a crazy fighter roaring in the second, knockdowns and wars galore – not to mention the Cinderella Story to top it all off – the night was pure drama and made for exceptional viewing.

It was clear beforehand that TG4 themselves were approaching the night with a degree of trepidation, offering little promotion, and perhaps viewing the show as more of a tester rather than the start of something big. However, it was the latter which they may have received, and the word is that the broadcaster was mightily pleased with the night and the reaction from the viewing public.

Deals will hopefully be hammered out soon and it would be a travesty if Ireland’s Last Man Standing 2 doesn’t hit our screens this Summer. For Irish boxing as a whole, it could be bigger too – did lightbulbs go off in the collective heads of other Irish networks? Might eir Sport, TV3, or even RTÉ fancy a return? Will the Eric Donovan-led Celtic Clash series get some airtime? Will Brian Peters be dialling up his old friends in Montrose for a business lunch?

Keep Building
It will be bigger next time too. Only recently, Top Rank boss Bob Arum spoke of his reluctance to enter fighters into the inaugural season of World Boxing Super Series as it was an untested format. There were parallel doubts here – from TV, from fans, from big sponsors, and from those in the fight game – but these were fairly blown out of the water by the action. Next time, expect more and more managers and fighters keen to take part, higher attendances, more mainstream media and corporate interest, and a general building of momentum.

The night itself wasn’t perfect, of course. Poor Jack Cullen had around ten minutes from stepping out of the ring having won his semi-final to re-entering for the final. This was put down to scheduling, however it can be expected that, should there be a next time, TG4 will be more amenable and an Irish title fight will be placed in between the semis and final. In addition, without getting into nitty-gritty, promotion and production were not to the standard of Sky Sports by any means, but it was always going to be a learning experience for all involved.

The Best of Both
In a broader sense, the criticisms of the format remain – ‘it’s a bastardisation of boxing!’ – however, thankfully, this iteration stopped short of gloved gladiators. With boxing brains Eric Donovan and Ken Egan in the studio, a ridiculously skilled winner in Roy Sheahan and, perhaps most importantly, the inclusion of an Irish title fight – Ireland’s Last Man Standing struck the right balance.

Indeed, as the promoters had themselves noted last year, this format provides for a growth of Irish boxing stars. Roy Sheahan made a name for himself with the more general sports fan and, relatively soon he should return to the public glare. Unlike with Prizefighter where many winners would subsequently fight early on big Matchroom undercards, the Last Man Standing model ensures that Sheahan will hopefully return on the next Last Man Standing card in a televised Irish title fight.

Now What?
The next few days and weeks will be crucial. As the buzz that only prizefighting can bring subsidies, will the TG4 execs take the plunge and look long-term? Saturday really only was a trial, and most likely one which cost the promoters money. However, the action and excitement brought by Roy Sheahan, Jack Cullen, Chris Blaney, JJ McDonagh, Nick Quigley, Vladimir Belujsky, Owen Jobburn, Ger Healy, Craig O’Brien, and Jay Byrne may have ensured that the investment pays off.

Whatever the case may be, Irish boxing is in a stronger place than it was last week. We have a break-out star in Sheahan, the profiles of O’Brien and Byrne have been built further, and there is genuine hope for the future that the sport will continue to rise.

And the night was decent craic too.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Guglielminotti – The Fighting Irish (@ThefIrish)


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Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie