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World beaters: How boxing is a unique Irish sporting success story

Characters and ability to take on the world has come to define the sport in Ireland

As elite sport goes, boxing, and Kellie Harrington in particular, have earned a place in people’s consciousness – maybe even hearts – without trying. Like the GAA, boxing is “racy of the soil” and has spit and scrub authenticity.

Olympic boxing does not have a designer clothed, ersatz Eddie Hearn promoting it. It doesn’t put much effort into the cosmetic end of publicity but, this week, at the European Games in Poland, it has been communicating in its own way.

Enduringly excellent, boxing of world championship and Olympic level turns up. And, at the bigger events, it endearingly allows its athletes to express themselves in the way they see best. Winning is one way, personality another.

That sometimes gives a mixed bag. Lose a fight they feel they should have won and they may not turn up for the press conference. Hurting, feeling frustrated and unhappy, they say, “Feck it, I’m talking to nobody”. Was there a participation agreement to do media? Who cares?


It’s the kind of personal reaction people can understand. Boxers are their own people and personalities and they are trusted to express themselves as they see fit. Think Michael Conlan at the Rio Olympics: his dad, John, by his side, his heart ripped out by judges since implicated in corruption and Michael giving them and the International Olympic Committee both profane barrels straight to camera. No other sport.

In boxing, there is no real media training. They don’t come out to deliver pre-learned workshops on talking points that are both meaningless and uninteresting. There’s an honesty that flows from boxers, an elemental quality that compels them to often talk outside the ring the way they compete inside it. They rip the plaster off. Their backgrounds also tell them to have a healthy scepticism for authority.

At the Olympic qualifying tournament this week in Poland, there were highs and disappointments. Harrington came out after qualifying for the Paris Games next summer and explained how she desperately wanted to ring her wife, Mandy, from the hotel as she had gone cold turkey from her phone. She added that she had come to love the sport that has given her such joy and an Olympic gold medal once again, after a period of struggling with her affections.

Dean Clancy emerged after winning his quarterfinal and booking a ticket to Paris and spoke about how his grandfather had died a few days previously and was buried on the day he fulfilled a lifetime ambition. “I’m only 21,” he yelled between grief and elation, barely believing that he was going to the Olympic Games.

When southpaw Amy Broadhurst accepted a surprise invitation from professional world champion Katie Taylor last year to spar with her at her base in Connecticut before the Bray fighter’s world title bout against Amanda Serrano in Madison Square Garden, it changed the arc of her career.

Within six months, Broadhurst had captured the world championship, European Championship and Commonwealth titles in the 63kg light welterweight division.

Broadhurst lost her quarterfinal fight in Poland. She’s not in the Olympics. She had to move up to the 66kg weight division because her world championship weight is not an Olympic category and her more natural 60kg lightweight is where Harrington resides. Broadhurst didn’t turn up for media. No issue. She posted her thoughts online.

“Heartbroken isn’t the word,” she said. “I always thought my destiny was the Olympic Games. I believed I was born for boxing. I was to be an Olympic champion and that’s not the way it’s gone for me. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know if I’ll ever strap an amateur glove around my hand again or if I’ll go pro.”

In boxing, they are encouraged to believe they can become world champions and Olympic champions. Masters of their destiny, they are coached to beat the world. In the way children think when they know no better, in boxing, the athletes have no sense of the Olympic Games being beyond their talent, outside their capability.

They are hot wired to understanding success is within them all, just as failure is. Both live side by side but over the years since the High Performance was set up to identify the consistently emerging talent, boxing bucks the trends of other Irish sport (rowing being an exception).

Take Wimbledon next week. There were no Irish players, male or female, listed in the qualifying draw and there will be none in the main draw of 128. The junior list is not yet available. But, last year, there were no Irish players. What that suggests is there is nothing coming down the line.

Sports have priorities. It is not easy to mimic the success of Skibbereen rowing or what Zaur Antia and the boxing coaches at club level are achieving.

Jack Marley and Aoife O’Rourke are in the ring on Friday, however, to try to win semi-finals to book their tickets to Paris. Success will bring the number to five who have earned Olympic qualification in Poland.

Forever believing themselves to be world leaders, when they review the week in Poland, boxing will conclude five athletes was not enough.

They will work out what happened, roll up their sleeves, fix it and continue to win more Irish Olympic medals than every other sport combined.