The 13th Round: A new era of Irish boxing begins

The Rio nightmare has been and gone, some of the long-standing stars have moved into the pro ranks, and Irish amateur boxing moved into the Tokyo Olympic cycle over the weekend.

The 2017 National Elite Senior Championships reached their conclusion in Dublin as the ten new champions were crowned.

It’s easy, as some have, to slip into revisionism when looking at these championships, but the fact remains that there was a healthy list of entries as well as some unfortunate pull-outs due to illness and injury.

Six of the winners on Friday night were past champions, three of whom retained titles. Indeed, between them, Brendan Irvine, Kurt Walker, Sean McComb, Dean Walsh, Joe Ward, and Darren O’Neill, already had 19 Elite titles going into the finals. Five of the six have medaled at major international tournaments and three were Olympians. while World Youth bronze and European Youth silver medalist Walker had a certain M. Conlan ahead of him in the pecking order.

A strong backbone to the team remains.

The four new winners aren’t babies either. Between them, Blaine Dobbins, Patrick Mongan, Emmet Brennan, and Martin Keenan have an average age of over 25, and three are former Intermediate champions. All will now be provided the opportunity to push on to the next level with full-time training at the High Performance Unit.

It was an entertaining night too at headquarters. The addition of the women’s finals left many worried that the night may chug into the early hours of the morning, but it was all done and dusted by midnight.

At light flyweight Blaine Dobbins put in a very impressive performance in a close fight with Darryl Moran. The Derry boxer seems to be the perfect man to replace Paddy Barnes. At 25, it is hard to envision the St Joseph’s fighter growing out of the weight like many teenage 49kgs (such as champion last time Stevie McKenna). Dobbins was sharp too, countering well, and raising his game from the semi finals. It definitely is not hard to envision him winning a couple of fights and getting to the medal stages of the European Championships in the Summer. Young Moran will not be too disheartened with the narrow loss. The Illies GG man will now head to Romania next month for the European U-22s and come back stronger next year.

Brendan Irvine stamped his authority on the flyweight division, taking his second consecutive 52kg at the expense of Cork teen Tommy McCarthy. The Belfast boxer looked strong and powerful at the weight, benefiting from an intense strength and conditioning regime following his Rio return, and was clinical in his display. A dark horse no more, the St Pauls thoroughbred will be one of the top flyweights in Europe going forward. Like Moran above, McCarthy wont be downbeat following defeat. Indeed the confident 18 year old was delighted to have competed on the big stage, and the slickster is one to watch.

While he is now a three-time champion, Kurt Walker will finally have the opportunity to step out of the shadow of Mick Conlan. After an even first against the always-improving Stevie McKenna, the slick feet of Walker brought him the 56kg title. A hugely talented boxer and a decorated underage star, Walker would have been the number one these past few years for most countries. Now finally having the road clear, we could be in for a big few years from the Canal boxer who seems made for the big stage. McKenna’s miraculously expanding frame will probably see him at 60kg next year, and the Monaghan boxer will definitely be a threat once his body allows him to settle into a definitive weight..

In what was similar to the last lightweight final between Davey Oliver Joyce and Sean McComb, Patrick Mongan overcame the physical and technical advantages of George Bates with relentless pressure and heart. A real feel-good story, it’s a life-changing win for the 28 year old Olympic BC scrapper. With a bit of refining, the Galway man will be a tough night’s work for any 60kg boxer.

In the highest quality bout of the night, Sean McComb defeated the talented Wayne Kelly to take the 64kg crown. Still adjusting to the new higher weight, Belfast’s McComb has the ability to become a top light welter. As he said following his semi final win, the Holy Trinity fighter is approaching his peak and is devoting his life to boxing. With his size and skill, McComb will be tough to beat – and the last remaining Belfast Boy looks to be one of the team leaders going forward. Like Bates, it is a tough loss to take for Kelly, who is undoubtedly an Elite international level boxer, but both will be back next year.

Dean Walsh put on his best ever performance in an Irish ring to win the welterweight title against youngster Brett McGinty who pushed him every step of the way. The St Ibars gave an exhibition on how to box and move, emptying the tank against the relentless teen. It was a fourth Irish title for Walsh, but a first at welterweight, and the Wexford boxer will admit himself that he needs time to develop into the higher weight. The physically smaller man in the ring on Friday, Walsh would not be able to sustain a succession of similarly draining performances over the space of a few days in Elite international competition. McGinty is still only 18 and definitely one for the future, and a good shout for the Commonwealth Games in Australia next year.

Dublin middleweight Emmet Brennan successfully negotiated the sheer size of awkward southpaw Stephen Broadhurst, boxing to plan and taking the 75kg title. In these championships Brennan defeated pre-tournament favourite John Joyce and came back from a knockdown to edge Fearghus Quinn before his final win. Highly rated by many, the 25 year old Glasnevin boxer now plans to finish working full time to dedicate himself to boxing, and should now improve exponentially. A smart fighter with plenty of grit, he has the potential to be the next in a long line of top Irish middleweights. Broadhurst was devastated to lose, but the Louth boxer has definite talent and can still be a player at the weight should he continue on.

In one of many close bouts on the night, Joe Ward snuck past up-and-coming Dub Tony Browne, taking a 4-1 split decision win to claim his fifth light heavyweight title. While Ward hurt Browne with his first shot of the fight, the St Michael’s Inchicore boxer fought his way back into the contest and finished much the stronger. Ward showed glimpses of his undoubted class, but his fitness looked suspect, and he will need to improve massively here ahead of the Europeans. While the decision can’t really be argued – it was a close fight that either could have edged – some of the scorecards were ridiculous, with a 30:26 in favour of Ward defying belief. He was loser on the night, but it was a real coming-out party for Browne who impressed those in attendance. While he seems suited to the pros, the 22 year old is targeting Tokyo, and Ward will need to be on his guard.

The evergreen Darren O’Neill was just too cute for big Kenny Okungbowa in the heavyweight decider. The Kilkenny boxer scored a close but clear win over the Athlone big man. In what will now most likely be his swansong year, O’Neill will give it one last shot to end Ireland’s 70 year major medal drought at heavyweight and, with a nice draw and a few big performances, he could certainly do it. Okungbowa remains the most-improved Irish boxer of recent years and could be our 91kg representative¬†in the future.

Last but not least were the super heavyweights, and Rathkeale’s Martin Keenan caused a bit of a shock with a win over last year’s runner up Thomas Carty. The Ennis big man put the pressure on early and built a lead over the Dublin counter-puncher who finished very strongly. Similar to Mongan earlier in the night, it was dreamland stuff for the unfancied big man who will make his Irish debut this weekend against a SOuthern English Counties select. Carty has all the natural talent in the world and will learn from this loss ahead of his trip to Romania for the European Under-22s

Next up are the European Championships in Ukraine. We now have the ten national champions, however whether this is the team that will go to Kharkiv remains to be seen. It would seem fair to reward the weekend winners with a spot on the plane, however some may argue that reigning champions Davey Oliver Joyce and Dean Gardiner, as well as Olympian Steven Donnelly – who all missed out on the Seniors through illness – should be allowed stake their claim. An unanswerable question perhaps, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Regardless, the talk of a decline and crisis in Irish amateur boxing seem premature considering the quality names that remain such as Walker and Irvine, the new potential breakthrough stars such as Brennan and Dobbins, and the young talent on the Under-22 and Youth squads such as Jordan Moore and Gabriel Dossen.

A review of the women’s action on Friday night will be released in the coming days.

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