Barnes not pulling any punches
Straight-talking and supremely confident, Paddy Barnes is ready to take these Olympic Games in his stride, writes JOHNNY WATTERSON
PADDY BARNES walked out of the arena in Turkey last April glaring at the judges. It was not difficult to see clearly what he was doing despite wearing boxing gloves. The light flyweight from Belfast was defiantly making a crude gesture with his right hand right in front of the three men sitting behind a table to the side of one of the rings.
No fear, Barnes was eyeballing the trio of officials, who he had to walk past towards the exit, Irish team head coach Billy Walsh dutifully marching side by side with him.
It wasn’t in Barnes’ nature to walk away from Trabzon without the judges knowing precisely what he thought of them, which was they were, all of them, w***ers.
Joe Ward may have had more to gripe about over referee decisions on that trip but if Barnes has shown that if he is not diplomatic, captain material, he does represent the honest heart of this Irish boxing team. He was the only one to make the comment but everyone agreed with him.
Don’t step back. Don’t accept anything. Don’t show weakness. Don’t think you are any worse than the man in front of you in the ring.
Firebrand Barnes is the conscious, indiscreet and occasionally feral element in this Irish boxing team. He says the things the other boxers might think and then takes it a little further.
He followed up his hand gesture with a vitriolic attack on the refereeing that was so defamatory it could not be printed. Everyone agreed with him again. He was not sanctioned. He was not told to shut up.
“Yeah, I let the referees know I’m not just going to lay there and let them get away with stuff like that,” he says unapologetically. “But it’s in the past and I’ve qualified so I’m not really worried . . . London is a bigger stage than Turkey. The judges are fair. They usually are. Everybody get a decent crack of the whip.
“You can’t be thinking anything like that there (mysterious referee decisions). You have to go in and do your best. Hopefully my best is good enough to beat anybody and I believe it is.”
In the past Barnes was given a room of his own as he constantly fought to make the 49 kilo light flyweight limit. Because of his moody temperament they had to isolate him from the rest of the team. Barnes volunteered the information himself and wore it almost like a badge of honour, that if he was testy it was as a by-product of him doing what he does. With boxing being what it is – a sport where the athletes are given some latitude for expression – that wasn’t a problem.
“I’ll make the weight easily,” he says now. “Even in Turkey I was a kilo under every single night so . . . I was given my own room okay but really I didn’t need it. My diet and my training has improved . . . and my attitude.
“Since Turkey I’m feeling better. I’ve had six real fights this year. I’m not going in ring rusty to the Olympic Games like the world championships last year. I’ve four years more experience now and technically, I’m better. Another two world championships behind me too.
“I’m a better boxer and my style has improved. I’m mentally tougher, a better boxer all round. I’m starting to bring my feinting on. Even my club coach Gerry (Storey) is getting me to jab more and learn these street moves, as he calls them. They all seem to be working.”
Barnes is always going to beat the world. He never lets up and has rarely felt the urge to remain judiciously modest. He is content to allow those lofty ambitions swirl around in public where others might be crushed under their weight. It makes him perhaps the most interesting character on the Irish Olympic team. But his bravado is also more rogue or rascal than soaring ego. He is more humorously irreverent than blind whinger.
“Hopefully, I will,” he says of beating the world in London. “I’m ready to do it.”
In Beijing he was beaten in the semi-finals by China’s Zou Shiming, who also beat him in the quarter-finals of the world championships a year before.
It’s significant because of the manure, as Barnes sees it, the International Amateur Boxing Association recently rained down on him. He was stripped of his top six seeding to hold no seeding at all. When the boxing draw is made after the weigh-in on Friday Barnes could find himself up against any of the world’s top boxers in the first round, including the Chinese.
“I just take it my stride,” he says. “The top six in the world are seeded. I’m not the top six in the world, so I could draw the world champion or the world number two in the first fight. You think they’re going to be happy facing me in their first fight? I don’t think so.”
What has been positive about the Holy Family fighter is his progress. Ligaments in his wrist made last year a poor one for him. Walsh thought part of the dip was that Barnes thought he had cracked the sport, knew it all. He said Barnes believed he could do it on his own and no one could tell him anything. Part of it was disillusionment. Part of it was just Barnes’ angsty nature.
Walsh also said his most experienced fighter was no more than 50 per cent in Trabzon.
Barnes typically contradicted him to insist it was closer to 30 per cent. Motivation has always come from talking big and trying to match it. Olympic bronze, European gold and Commonwealth gold have shown Barnes can.
“My style . . . technically and mentally, I think I’m better now,” he says. “In London you might see a better Paddy Barnes than you ever have. The Olympics is bigger. There’s more at stake. I suppose I’d die in the ring for any fight but in the Olympics . . . Every boxer here would feel the same way. We go with the attitude that we can beat anybody.
“I’m excited. London is very close. I know what’s at stake and I’m glad to get out of the country before it, get away from all the media and just focus on my own.
“I’m scared of flying and I hate travelling . . . I wish it was in Belfast but it’s in London and that’s far better for me.”
He’s been unashamedly running a Twitter campaign to carry the flag at the opening ceremony. He says he thinks chef de mission Sonia O’Sullivan, makes the decision. Not everyone agrees with that. The flag carrier is expected to be announced today but if Barnes doesn’t get the job, the time campaigning will have provided a useful distraction.
“The campaign is going well at the minute. But it can go well if it likes. I’ve still to persuade Sonia O’Sullivan. I think . . . If she wants to have a race to see if I get to carry it . . . If I lose that there then I’ll fight her instead,” he says laughing at the absurdity of a Barnes v O’Sullivan rumble. But he’s quickly back to the point. He knows the major hurdle.
“Paddy Barnes,” he quips. “Once I’m mentally right I can beat anybody.”
Box Ireland the rest of the team
Conlon is an interesting 20-year-old. He has come out of nowhere from west Belfast’s Beechmount and now people are watching him and cooing. A really fine athlete, fast with great speed and technically strong. Inexperience might come against him but he has buckets of talent and if he makes it through the draw few in the Irish camp will be surprised.
JOHN JOE NEVIN
Nevin is the only male Irish boxer to have medals in separate world championships. He has recently recovered from a broken jaw sustained boxing in the professional ranks (there is little difference anymore except in the boxing rules) but is highly rated and ranked at four in the world.
O’Neill qualified from the world championships last year and didn’t have to stress about going to Turkey in April. An intelligent fighter, his strength is that he comes out of Ireland where his weight division is incredibly strong. A national school teacher, he is the Irish captain. Ranked 7.
Like head coach Billy Walsh, the Bray-based garda comes from Wexford. He is tall, rangy and left handed which all adds up to an awkward style for opponents. They find it hard to get to him and counter the south paw. Relatively unknown, he went to Turkey and won the qualifying tournament.