“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over.”

By Cain Bradley on January 12, 2018
“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over.”
The takeover of Irish Boxing has not been loud, but quietly bubbled under the surface.

Perhaps it is harsh to suggest that Irish boxers have not gone on to deliver what was expected of them in the professional game…

Conor McGregor uttered the now famous words at UFC Fight Night 46 at The O2 in Dublin after stopping Diego Brandao in front of almost 10,000 roaring Irish fans. Conor would certainly take over the UFC, winning two titles, setting PPV records and even holding the company ransom so he could box Floyd Mayweather. His prophecy of a collective of fighters ready to take over can be seen as incorrect. No teammate nor fellow Irishman really got anywhere near to a title level. The stereotype is of the ‘Fighting Irish’ and although that has not necessarily come to fruition at the top level of the UFC, the small nation has outperformed its size in amateur boxing under the stewardship of Billy Walsh. At the 2000 and 2004 Olympics they had one boxer attend. In 2008 and 2012 they had seven total medals over eleven boxers. Even 2016, where they shockingly did not win a medal they had eight boxers compete. They have also won six medals in the last three AIBA male World Championships. The amateur success has not yet been parlayed into much professional success though. The two have their differences but you would expect more success for the Irish professionals. Did the takeover fail? Is it on its way?

When you go back through the Irish Amateur Championships you can see that although it was not necessarily the Olympians, some amateurs have come through to the top level. Jamie Conlan, Carl Frampton, Ray Moylette, Jason Quigley, TJ Doheny, Andy Lee and Ryan Burnett have all come through the Irish amateur system to enjoy varying levels of success at the professional level. The boxing program has been implemented by the team of Billy Walsh, Gary Keegan and Zaur Anita which came in after a disappointing Sydney Olympics. They created the High Performance Unit which has helped develop elite boxers. Arguably the first two elite boxers in the system were Darren Sutherland and Kenneth Egan. Sutherland was a two time EU Champion, beating DeGale twice, but would lose to him in the 2008 Olympics and only win bronze. Egan won silver, losing a controversial decision to the hometown fighter in the final. He also twice won bronze at the European Championships as well as three EU Titles.

Darren Sutherland signed with Frank Mahoney following his Olympic success and after stopping Georgi Iliev proclaimed, “I think we’ve found a superstar.” He would win three more bouts over the next six months. A few months later though he was found dead with his wrists bound in his own apartment by Frank Mahoney. He had suffered from depression and a cut caused by a clash of heads had caused deep panic. It has been suggested that he was not in love with the sport. His marketability and skills were obvious. His style was always suited to the professional game, a willingness to engage with power, an ability to switch punches to the body and a good engine. Four fights is very early to predict a career but Sutherland looked to suit the professional ranks more than George Groves and James DeGale, two future world champions. The only concern would have been the mental aspects. Obviously his heart was not fully in it and even in the amateurs at times you could see he seemed to lack a determination and be full of self doubt which could have held him back.

Kenny Egan was welcomed home from the 2008 Olympics as a hero. He appeared on TV shows and became a celebrity in Ireland. Trouble was soon brewing as he failed to turn up for a match with the United States and appeared to have left the country. He apologized to the nation, describing his new found fame as “very challenging.” The next couple of years saw him continue to box without quite reaching the levels he had. In 2011 he admitted a drink problem claiming “I was drinking too much. Ever since I got back from the games, I just went mad on it and didn’t stop.” Egan would continue to box and lost in the 2013 National Championship to Joe Ward.  He officially retired in 2013 but has spoke of his regret of “not spearheading that (turning professional) back in 2010.” Egan would probably not have been suited by the professional game. He was a counter puncher but looked too slow to really make a difference at the highest level.

John Joe Nevin was another big name of Irish amateur boxing who has let a troubled life get in the way of a potentially sparkling boxing career. Twice he was a bronze medalist at the World Championship and at the Olympics he was one of the ten best boxers on show. He beat Oscar Valdez, Dennis Ceylan and Lázaro Alvarez, but that only got him to a silver medal, behind Britain’s Luke Campbell. He became the first traveller to win a medal and turned professional a year later with intentions of winning a Featherweight World Title, a rematch with Luke Campbell and a bout at Croke Park. Four years later and his last bout, his ninth with as many wins, came at Tolworth Recreation Centre, on the undercard of Pink Tyson defending her title on PPV (you did not miss much). His limited activity has come with spells on the sideline. Like any boxer, he has had his fair share of injuries from training but also enforced absences due to issues outside the ring. He broke two legs after a vicious attack in his home after a personal dispute. He was also in trouble with the police after being involved in a melee with the Police which led to him confronting an officer with the words “you don’t fucking tell me what I do.” Maybe it’s too early to declare Nevin a bust but his lack of success is shocking given his obvious talent.

The three real stars of Irish amateur boxing turned over not long after the 2016 Olympic Games. Paddy Barnes was twice a bronze medal winner at the Olympics, losing to Zou Shiming twice. He went 5-1 in the WSB and had two Commonwealth medals to celebrate as well. The affable Belfast Flyweight is seen as being the type of character who will thrive with the current landscape being so dependent on social media. It was Frank Warren who signed him, adding to a stable which now includes Carl Frampton and Jamie Conlan. He has gone unbeaten in five and is building a solid resume in a decent weight division. Katie Taylor, who many believe to be the greatest female boxer of all time, also turned professional following the games, signing with Eddie Hearn. She made her debut 14 months ago and is already the WBA Lightweight Champion. She has mainly featured on Anthony Joshua undercards although a title defense headlined at the O2 Arena and Hearn has referenced targeting a date in Dublin in 2018 for Taylor. Probably the Olympian who turned over with the most worldwide fanfare, Michael Conlan was a world champion who also won bronze at the 2012 Olympics. His gesture was also one of the enduring images of the 2016 Games. Red vest in hand, middle fingers aloft before an infamous interview in which he took shots at AIBA. He signed with Bob Arum at Top Rank and his debut came when he headlined on St Patrick’s Day Weekend at Madison Square Garden. With more than 5,000 fans attending it was a level of support that means Conlan could well find himself a top draw very soon. He has also looked very impressive to date, his power which many feared was a weakness of his has seen him finish all but one opponent.

Perhaps it is harsh to suggest that Irish boxers have not gone on to deliver what was expected of them in the professional game following their amateur experiences. Lee, Frampton and Burnett have all won World titles. Doheny and Quigley are talented individuals with potential. That is arguably outsize success for a nation under seven million people. It is more a failure of optics. The Irish amateur success has never looked to capitalize on its success by turning professional as a group until after 2016 when its three stars went. This is due to a number of factors including a smaller rate of entry to the professional game from than amateurs than most other countries, including Great Britain.

In a similar way to the Brazilian exodus to the professional game from the Olympics, a lot will depend on the success of Conlan, Taylor and Barnes. A strong elite funding system in Ireland mainly keeps prospects amateur especially whilst there is no big promoter in Ireland. Frank Warren has made the biggest move in terms of signing Irish boxers but you wonder if an Irish promotion that could sign a big TV deal and showcase home talent in front of its biggest audience would be more successful. You also wonder whether the failures of Egan, Sutherland and Nevin to adjust to life past the high performance unit is an indictment of the Irish system or of the failing of professional boxing to support its boxers. The takeover of Irish Boxing has not been loud, as perhaps McGregor would have been, but instead quietly bubbled under the surface. None of the principals have turned over together or even in many cases ended up at the same promoter. Along with the high profile failures this gives the impression that Ireland has not managed to translate its amateur success into professional joy. If Conlan, Taylor or Barnes can enjoy success on a large scale, headlining shows in Ireland and making waves on television then it could be the game changer. The truth is probably actually almost the opposite. Ireland has enjoyed a similar amount of success at both levels, it just has been a gradual process.

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  1. Alfonso Bedoya 03:39pm, 01/12/2018

    Memo to Katie me Darlin’: Stay far and away from Holly Holm and you’ll do just fine….just fine!

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