The 13th Round: Irish women’s boxing going from strength to strength

It’s a quiet year on the international scene for Irish amateur women’s boxing with no European or World Championships.

However, National Elite Senior titles were still up for grabs in Dublin on Friday night, and six finals were decided at the National Stadium.

The decision to mix the women’s finals in with the men’s drew criticism from some, admittedly small, quarters. Some noted the logistics, believing that having sixteen fights on the night would see boxing run into the wee hours of the morning (thankfully things progressed quickly and it was all done before midnight). Others, more prehistorically, argued that the standard was not of a high enough quality, and that it either didn’t deserve to be placed alongside the men’s – or that fighting alongside the men would only serve to highlight the gulf in quality.

Obviously we here at Irish-Boxing.com can only speak for ourselves, but the level of women’s boxing on show at the weekend was of an immensely high standard, and we were treated to some entertaining bouts. Indeed there is a definite feeling that, each and every year, the quality on show seems to improve.

Starting us off at light flyweight was Kristina O’Hara who put on a dominant and destructive performance against Shannon Sweeney of St Anne’s. Having taken a year away from competition to develop physically, technically, and to move down in weight to 48kg, O’Hara was mightily impressive. Landing heavy shots at will and effortlessly controlling the ring, it was a great start to the night. The St John’s Bosco fighter’s next major port of call will be the Commonwealth Games in Australia next year – however, such is the inequality for female boxers, she will have to move up to flyweight (51kg) to enable her participation. Nevertheless, she will still be a real medal hope. Mayo’s Sweeney is still only a teenager, and having won under-18 and under-22 titles over the past year, she is definitely one for the future.

Dervla Duffy returned to featherweight to defeat reigning champion Moira McElligott. A fantastically conditioned fighter, the Monaghan woman was just too much for her good friend McElligott. At 34, Duffy admitted afterwards that she was considering a move to the professional ranks should she receive an offer. With the Irish pro scene booming there is surely enough space for the passionate, fight-loving Mulhuddart boxer. McElligott is a relatively recent convert to boxing, but is improving at a rapid rate, and is sure to be in the hunt to reclaim the 57kg title next year.

Perhaps the big story of the night was Kelly Harrington and her move down to the Olympic-eligible weight of 60kg. The World Championships silver medalist took on Shauna O’Keefe, who had beaten Amy Broadhurst in the semis in what was the Fight of the Championships, in the lightweight decider. It was a classic matador v bull kind of fight, and Harrington’s footwork needs to be seen to be believed, floating around the ring like a ballroom dancer. The Dubliner won with the sort of swagger that suggests there will be plenty of major medals to come over the next few years. O’Keefe has now lost two successive finals against Ireland’s two most accomplished female boxers ever. The Tipp woman pours her heart and soul into the sport and, while devastated afterwards, has probably already began training for next year’s Seniors.

Ciara Ginty made her move into the Elites with a win in the light welterweight final over Emma Agnew. The Mayo teen won World Junior gold and Youth Olympic silver, and her technical skills secured her the win here. The world should not be expected of Ginty just yet, and the Geesala talent does need time to develop. For her, major international tournaments being over a year ago could be seen as an advantage. Agnew is a decorated fighter herself, and had entered the Seniors for the first time. A gutsy fighter who left it all in the ring, the Dealgan boxer can be proud of her efforts.

At welterweight, Gráinne Walsh put on a sensational display to stop Gillian Duffy in the third round and win her first Elite title. The Offaly fighter is a massive hitter but, impressively, is not drunk on her own power and patiently sets up attacks. On a personal note, the Spartacus 69kg fighter employs an absolutely beautiful screw uppercut, this writer’s favourite shot in all of boxing. Merely from unqualified observation, it looks as though Walsh has the potential to move down in weight and, if she could carry this power down with her, she would be even more of a force.

Finally there was Leona Houlihan who won the light heavyweight crown with a second round stoppage of Caroline Connolly. The tall 37 year old is a late convert to boxing but Phil Sutcliffe and the coaches at Crumlin have ensured that she is a well-oiled, well-drilled machine that takes advantage of her reach and just focuses on landing straight shots.

One thing which was disappointing was that the remaining four champions were determined by walkover: Carly McNaul (flyweight), Terry Mullarney (bantamweight), Christina Desmond (middleweight), and Maeve McCarron (heavyweight). For Desmond in particular it was disappointing, with the Cork boxer having won World Universities and European bronze medals last year but being unable to box at home in front of a big crowd. One assumes however that it will not be a long term problem, as more and more fighters come through.

All in all though it was a very reassuring night to see the levels of talent currently at hand, and some of the performances certainly provided confidence that, despite the departure of Katie Taylor to the pros, the constant stream of medals from Irish women’s boxing will continue into the Tokyo Olympic cycle.

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