The changing – and increasingly younger – face of Irish boxers turning professional

Some sell it as a young and exciting new breed while those more traditionally inclined have a totally different perspective.

What they both can agree on is there is a significant shift in how top Irish amateurs are transitioning to the pro ranks.

The age profile of the average vest ditcher has dropped substantially over the past few years with elite talents in their teens and early 20s being tempted into the paid ranks.

Indeed, some argue it has gotten to a point that a good underage CV is enough to get you a solid signing on fee. Who needs a college degree, or an internship when your Junior Cert makes for exceptional reading?

Many boxers coming through the ranks appear to either put less value into senior amateur success or feel there is no obvious pathway for them to secure that success. Sometimes, simply, they haven’t got the patience to wait for a chance to prove themselves at the highest amateur level.

Whereas you used to be able set your watch to once every four years for a spate of turnovers, the Olympic cycle means a lot less in modern times.

Paris and Los Angeles just don’t seem to have the appeal as Beijing, London, or Rio did. In fact, senior success of any kind isn’t necessarily viewed essential in the current climate.

Take for example two of our 2021 turnovers – Willo Hayden and Callum Walsh.

Both enjoyed massive underage success, picking up European Schoolboys and Junior gold respectively – but neither are waiting around to make a serious impact at senior level. Indeed, Hayden never even competed at Senior level.

Interestingly enough, both suggested they were disappointed that was the case and openly admitted they would have to learn to live with the fact they never managed to put a National Elite Championships belt on their mantlepiece.

There is always the case of the more ‘suited to the pros’ amateur, the stars who have done their time in the vest, the Intermediate-level operators who want to have a go, the small hall heroes, the kickboxing converts and so on and so forth turning pro.

However, in the last few years, there has been a noticeable amount of young talent earmarked as potential International medalists that have transitioned from the IABA to punch for pay – not to mention established members of the team leaving mid-cycle.

Whether one sees it as a bad thing or not is up for debate but the trend can’t be denied. The reasons and theories are plentiful – from COVID, to IABA and HPU mismanagement, to wider trends within the sport.

Looking at just some of the notable turnovers makes for some interesting reading:

2021

As mentioned above, welterweights Callum Walsh and Willo Hayden have both decided to go pro at 19 and just-turned-20 respectively. Cork’s European Schoolboys silver medallist Steven Cairns switched at the turn of the year and, at 18, is even younger. Super heavyweight Thomas Carty has also elected against attempting to fill the considerable void left by Dean Gardiner, instead linking up with Murphys Boxing at the ‘young for a big man’ age of 25.

A Senior Final in another reality?

2020

While he was Ireland’s top light welterweight, James McGivern fell out of love with the amateur game following the 2019 European Games. The Belfast talent had seemingly walked away from the sport but was enticed back in by the pros, signed with MTK just after his 22nd birthday, and scored two wins last year.

One to be hardest hit by the removal of the 60kg class from the Olympics?

Jason Harty, a European Junior gold medallist, won the 2020 Elites (held in November 2019) but soon signed with Frank Warren. The Limerick middle was never given any sort of crack of the whip at adult level as Michael Nevin and Gabriel Dossen sat ahead of him in the pecking order. Just weeks later he was joined in the Queensberry stable by another European Junior gold medallist – and his brother-in-law – Edward Donovan. The pair finally made their debuts last month.

Donovan and Harty Warren-t more attention

Tiernan Bradley‘s path is perhaps slightly different having not fought amateur since 2017 and having gained an enormous amount of weight following his time in the Conor McGregor camp. However, when making his comeback, the Tyrone talent’s target was always the pros rather than the 63kg spot on the Irish team.

2019

Irish amateur boxing was rocked when team captain and perhaps our likeliest Tokyo male medal hope Joe Ward elected to go pro what we thought was then a year out from the Games. Following a freak debut, the amateur legend is back on track but he leaves behind him a large gap.

Two enormous natural talents.

A few months previously World Junior silver medallist and “the biggest star to come out of Ireland for the future” Paddy Donovan had decided to make the switch, signing with Top Rank. The Limerick welter, as many in the sport did, may have thought that the European Games were to be an Olympic qualifying event and therefore his 2019 Elite final defeater Kieran Molloy had a shot at Tokyo qualification. In the end, the European Games were not a qualifier, Molloy was beaten by Aidan Walsh in the subsequent Elites, and now the Belfast man is in Olympic pole while Donovan has moved to 6-0 in the pros.

Donovan debuted on the same night as Dublin light welter Pierce O’Leary. The Inner City puncher won Irish titles right the way up but never entered the Seniors and is now also 6-0 while multiple underage title winner Callum Bradley was another MTK teenage signee.

2018

While turning pro older than many on this list, at 25, Sean McComb‘s switch following the Commonwealth Games saw one of the team’s most established figures depart mid-way through an Olympic cycle.

The Holy Trinity talent factory is well-represented in the pros

A few years younger, at 21, Caoimhin Agyarko‘s move left some what-ifs. The Belfast middleweight joined up with Frank Warren off the back of having won the Irish Elites at short notice at 81kg. Could he have made an international impact at 75kg?

While the unfairness of women’s weight classes may not have helped, Katelynn Phelan, a World Youth and European Junior bronze medallist, made the move at just 18 years of age. The lilywhite has since become one of the rising stars of Irish boxing following the sensational Jessica Schadko win.

Phelan has blazed a trail in the pros. Will she soon be followed?

2017

He was seen as almost a shoo-in for the Irish 60kg vest (which was, at this stage, an Olympic weight) but Gary Cully, Zaur Antia’s ‘perfect’ amateur boxer, turned pro aged 21 and the Naas southpaw hasn’t looked back.

Zaur consoles Cully after his loss to Davey Oliver Joyce in the 2016 Elite QF. It was Cully’s final bout in Dublin (Pic: Kev Byrne)

2016

Maybe the original early turnover – European Schoolboys gold and Junior silver medallist Aaron McKenna had plans to debut in Mexico that summer aged 16. Eventually he made his bow eighteen months later having never had a Senior amateur bout.

McKenna won gold at the ‘Mini-Worlds’ in Russia and was on the books at Golden Boy soon after

Another teen to turn pro in 2016 but not debut until 2017 was Lewis Crocker – who entered with the tag of Best Kid in the Country from Carl Frampton and now sits at #11 in the WBO rankings. While there were extenuating circumstances here, and in many other cases mentioned, the increasing prevalence of early pro switchers can’t be ignored.

Indeed, there are buckets more early switchers. Boxers who may not have been national number ones at the time but still with plenty of pedigree. These all ditched the vest young and take on the pros rather than building/waiting within the old framework.

These include the likes of Stevie McKenna, Brett McGinty, Joe Fitzpatrick, Paul Ryan, Michael Gallagher, John Joyce – all decorated amateurs, all European, World, and/or Commonwealth international medal-winners, and all out of the amateurs by 22.

As we have said above, this is neither a criticism or a celebration of the increasing numbers of boxers turning pro at a young age, merely a detailing. There are reasons aplenty, some overarching and some specific to individual fighters. Some have perhaps made the right decision while others have maybe been misled.

The only thing that is for certain is that we’ve a totally different landscape on our hands compared to 10 years ago.

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sport for a living for 19 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: editoririshboxing@gmail.com

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