The Ultimate Preview- detailed look at the National Elite Finals

National Stadium, Dublin 8, Ireland

The stage is set for Ireland’s most prestigious amateur boxing event of the year, the 2015 National Elite Championship Finals which are set to take place at the National Stadium on South Circular Rd, Dublin 8. Ten national elite titles are up for grabs on which is expected to be a sold out event at the home of Irish boxing which is celebrating 104 years of history.

Irish Head Coach Billy Walsh believes that mental strength and patience is the key, as Irish boxing, which has won seven of our eight medals in all sports from the last two Olympics, approaches the qualifiers for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. One of the various roads to the 31st Olympiad begins at at the National Stadium in Dublin this weekend. Former Olympians, European Elite champions and medallists, EU Elite champions and medallists and World Youth champions and medallist are slated to battle it out for domestic supremacy.

The welterweight final on Friday evening will feature Beijing 2008 Olympian John Joe Joyce and London 2012 Olympian Adam Nolan going head-to-head for the 69kg crown. Both athletes have won one bout at lost one at Olympic level, Joyce agonisingly losing on a count back – the only other Irish boxer to lose on a count back at the Olympics is current WBO World middleweight champion Andy Lee in Athens in 2004 – to eventual Olympic champion Felix Manuel Diaz of the Dominican Republic in 2008.

Both Joyce and Nolan are former Elite champions. Ray Moylette, a gold medallist at the 2008 AIBA World Youths and the 2011 European Elite champion, challenges defending light-welterweight champion Dean Walsh, while four-time middleweight champion Darren O’Neill, who captained the Irish boxing team at London 2012, meets towering Athlone BC heavyweight Ken Okungbowa for the vacant 91kg crown. O’Neill, who has moved up to heavyweight, will be appearing in his ninth Elite final this weekend.

O’Neill said: “Ken is a big, strong man. You can see that just by his definition. It is going to be a test for me in the sense that I’m moving up to heavyweight for first time. He’s going to physically pressure me. I think that I have enough in my arsenal to combat him.”

Meanwhile, Hugh Myers is in against talented Antrim prospect Brendan Irvine in the light-flyweight final who is aiming for his second title since 2013, while World Youth bronze medallist Kurt Walker goes three-rounds with 2013 Intermediate champion Sean Higginson in a repeat of the 2014 Ulster

final which Walker won. Michael O’Reilly, the current middleweight champion, defends his National Title against Stephen Broadhurst.

Both men finished in podium positions for Ireland at the IABA hosted 2011 European Youth Championships at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. O’Reilly secured silver – although most observers, except, unfortunately, the judges sitting at ringside, believe he clearly beat Russia’s Igor Kharitinov in the 69kg final – in 2011 and Broadhurst claimed bronze. O’Reilly won his first Elite belt last year after edging out Darren O’Neill on a split decision in the 75kg final.

The St Francis BC in Limerick have two boxers, Myles Casey and Matthew Tinker, between the ropes versus Evan Metcalfe and Roy Sheahan, a three-time Elite Champion and ex European Union gold medallist. Brothers Ken and Jimmy Moore, the last man to beat Paddy Barnes in the Elite Championships in the 2006 final, and Derek Duhig have been working the St Francis BC corner with a 100% return so far.

“We entered two in the Championships and we have two in the finals. You can’t do any better than that at this point, but the job is only half done now,” said Chief Seconds Ken Moore.

Casey, a brother of ex European pro champ Willie “Big Bang”, is on the verge of a unique hat-trick, as he has already won National U/22 and Intermediate titles in the last three months. Tinker reached the light-heavyweight final last year and gave a fine account of himself against 2011 European Elite champion Joe Ward, the only boxer in the history of the sport internationally to win three AIBA medals – World Junior (gold), World Youth (gold) and World Elite (bronze) – as a teenager.

Ward and David Oliver Joyce who will be in attendance on the Finals night took home the National Elite light-heavyweight and lightweight titles in 2014, but both boxers have signed for AIBA Pro Boxing and have relinquished their belts. Tipperary super-heavy Dean Gardiner, who was beaten by his Clonmel BC teammate Con Sheehan, who has signalled that he is switching codes and turning pro, in the 2014 final, is in against Constantin Popovicu on Friday, while former Elite champion Sean McComb meets the experience George Bates for the vacant lightweight belt.

The McComb versus Bates decider is a repeat of the 2013 final which McComb won 19-7 under the old computer scoring system. Bates, however, believes he has improved considerably since then. He said: “I am feeling very confident going into the final. He beat me before in the final back in 2013 but this time it will be different. Since 2013 I have come on ten -fold. I am a much better boxer. I have better movement, more shots and I am improved all round.”

The women’s finals sponsored by Quicpark on Saturday will also feature top bouts, not least being the welterweight showdown between AIBA World No. 8 Claire Grace versus Youth Olympian Christina Desmond. Grace, the only Irish female boxer beside Katie Taylor to medal at the European Elite Championships, is the defending 69kg champion and is, in fact, is the only boxer, male or female, in action at the National Stadium this weekend who is ranked by AIBA. Desmond won silver at the 2013 AIBA World Youth Championships in Bulgaria after being edged out on a split decision by Kazakhstan’s Gaukhar Ermekbay. Kristina O’Hara, an EU Youth gold medallist, meets experienced Irish international Ceire Smith in the flyweight final. Joanne Lambe, who along with Grace represented Ireland at the 2014 AIBA World Women’s Elite Championships in Korea, where Katie Taylor, who has withdrawn from the Elite Championships because of a hand injury, won her fifth title, defends her featherweight belt against Dervla Duffy. Louise Donohue and Debbie O’Reilly contest the vacant lightweight belt, a title which Katie Taylor won on a walkover last year.

Ireland’s Head Coach, Billy Walsh will be keeping a close eye on the proceedings this weekend as the various roads to Rio 2016 loom on the horizon. There are a number of routes to Rio, but the bottom line for Irish boxing is that if our boxers are going to be trading leather under the shadow of the iconic statue of Christ The Redeemer, which overlooks Rio, in 2016, getting to the 31st Olympiad will be a big test. Two hundred and eighty six places are available for the world’s male and female boxers at each Olympic Games.

Two hundred and fifty of those places are reserved for men. Thirty six places are reserved for women, which made its Olympic debut in 2012, over 100 years after boxing featured for the first time in a modern Olympics in St Louis in 1904. Six of the 286 places (five males, one female) go to the host nation Brazil next year. Eight invitation places (wild cards) are also available for Rio 2016. Likewise, 272 are directly up for grabs through the qualification process.

The Olympics berths are available through regular amateur boxing, which is now officially called AIBA Open Boxing (AOB), the World Series of Boxing (WSB) and AIBA Pro Boxing (APB). The first AOB qualifier will be at the 2015 AIBA World Men’s Elite Championships in Doha, Qatar next October. Twenty three Olympic places are available across ten weight categories, with three places each going to bantamweights, lightweights, light-welterweights, welterweights and middleweights, and two places each to lightflyweights, flyweights and light-heavyweights. Heavyweights and super-heavyweights will have to win gold at the World Elite Championships, as there is just one Olympic place available in each of these weight classes.

In short, in order to book a ticket for Rio in Doha, boxers will have to win a medal, and in some cases those medals will have to be at least gold or silver. (In relation to boxers winning bronze in the weight classes where there are three Olympic places on offer – both losing semi-finalists are awarded bronze in boxing – it is understood that the boxer that loses to the eventual gold medallist will secure the Olympic berth, although this has not been confirmed.

To put how difficult this is in the context of Irish boxing, Jason Quigley, who has since turned professional, was the only Irish male boxer since the inaugural World Championships in Havana in 1974 to reach an AIBA World Elite final in Kazakhstan in 2013. Quigley, Tommy Corr, Olympic champion Michael Carruth, Stephen Kirk, James Moore and Joe Ward and John Joe Nevin have won Ireland’s medals – all bronze, except for Quigley’s silver, Nevin has won two bronze medals at this level – at the Word Elite Championships. Moreover, the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan this summer will act as a qualifier for men for the World Championships. Basically, Europe’s male boxers, for the first time, will have to qualify for the qualifiers from the Olympic Games. There will be further AOB qualifiers for men after the 2015 AIBA World Elite Men’s Championships.

Meanwhile, the AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) qualification process is currently underway. The top two ranked boxers in each of the ten weight classes at the end of the season will book tickets for Rio 2016. Joe Ward and David Oliver Joyce are our representatives in APB. Both men have won two and lost one of their three fights so far. Joyce and Ward are in action in the WSB again this month. Belfast duo Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, who are signed with Italia Thunder, Galway heavyweight Gary Sweeney and Tipperary super-heavy Dean Gardiner, who are signed with the Mexico Guerreros, and Ballymena middleweight Steven Donnelly, who is with the Hussars of Poland, are Ireland’s representatives in the WSB. Barnes beat Magomed Ibiyev of the Baku Fires in the WSB last weekend in Baku, Azerbaijan last weekend, but Conlan was unlucky to lose to Magomed Gurbanov in the Azeri capital.

Seventeen direct Olympic places are available through the WSB. The top ranked boxers in APB and WSB who do not qualify directly for Rio 2016 will meet in box-offs for Olympic places. The 2016 AIBA World Women’s Elite Championships in Kazakhstan, where Olympic champion Katie Taylor will be aiming for her sixth successive World title, is the first Olympic qualifier for women.

There will be one further qualifier for women after the World Championships. Female boxing is restricted to three Olympic weight classes – flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. The semi-finalists (top four) in each of these weight classes at the 2016 World Championships will qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Billy Walsh admitted that there is little room for error en route to Rio.

He said: “Every year the National Championships is a premier competition. It has developed many of our boxers and it is vital in their development toward World and European competition and Olympic qualifiers.

“It is going to be very demanding on all our boxers in AOB, APB and WSB competition. They will have to perform to their absolute best at each of these tournaments. When there are Olympic places up for grabs absolutely no quarter is asked or given.

“Our boxers will have to be mentally strong and patient also as there are other tournaments besides the World Championships in which they can qualify for the Olympic Games. In 2008, for instance, we qualified three boxers for the Beijing Olympics at the very last qualifier in Athens.”

“Getting to Rio is a big challenge, but our boxers have proven in the past that they can meet those challenges and compete against and beat the best in the world.”

Tommy Murphy, President of the IABA, is looking forward to the Elite Championships finals. He said:

“The Elite finals are always a very special occasion in our sport and we always have a few surprises. No doubt we will get a few this weekend. I would like to wish all our boxers the very best of luck this weekend. I would also like to thank our sponsors and supporters.

“Irish boxing is building up toward the Olympic qualifiers and it is going to be an eventful year for our sport at home and abroad. The qualification process for the Olympic Games is difficult and demanding.

“But our boxers have met those demands before and I am confident that they will meet those demands again. They always do us proud and we are loking forward to welcoming all to the National Stadium this weekend.”

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