Brendan Irvine keeps cool to focus on Baku gold medal

Belfast boxer and badminton top seed Scott Evans set sights on greatest prize

Not everyone can put an exact value yet on a European Games gold medal, although Brendan Irvine clearly has. In earning the right to contest the final bout at light flyweight, he celebrated as if it would be the greatest prize of his life. Which, so far anyway, it may well be.

Win or lose, it’s already been a breakthrough week for the 19-year-old from Belfast – Irvine was the first of the Irish boxers to guarantee himself a medal of some colour and now he could become the first of them to make it gold.

And by making that final bout (set for today at 2.30pm Irish time), Irvine has also earned himself an automatic qualifying spot for the Boxing World Championships in Doha later this year, where Rio Olympic qualification places are also up for grabs.

Exactly how that will work out with fellow Irish light flyweight Paddy Barnes – already qualified for Rio in a quest to win a third Olympic medal – remains to be seen, although there's no doubt that Irvine has this week laid down a flaming marker of his potential.


Display of energy

He turned it on again in his semi-final bout against Ukrainian Dmytro Zamatayev and needed to – his opponent took the first round, before Irvine nailed the next two with a devastating display of energy and punches that earned him a unanimous decision.

Irvine celebrated as if he'd won gold and needed a little cooling afterwards from Irish head coach Billy Walsh. His final opponent, Russian Bator Sagaluev, looked exceptionally strong when scoring a unanimous win over Muhammed Unlu from Turkey.

“It doesn’t matter who I’m fighting, I just want to focus again on my performance and getting a win,” said Irvine. “I needed to cool down a bit after that, get relaxed and focus for tomorrow. That’s the key now.”

It was Irvine’s response to Zamatayev’s early onslaught which was most impressive: “I started a bit slow. I knew by the end of the first he was tiring and the coaches said in the corner to me that he’s tiring so I just let myself overtake him and I did. You can call it fitness or you can call it hunger or whichever one you want to call it. But I just really wanted it. He’s a tough lad, European champion before. It just shows you that I’m up there with the best of them.”

And he's not the only one – Michael O'Reilly also earned himself a shot at the gold medal bout by coming through his middleweight quarter-final against Aljaz Venko from Slovenia. Up next for O'Reilly is his semi-final against Russian Maxim Kaptyakov (set for tomorrow at 10am Irish time).

That will be another hard contest, although the Portlaoise man certainly looked the part in his unanimous decision over Venko to secure a fourth medal of some colour for the Irish boxers in Baku.

Meanwhile, Scott Evans secured his place in the last 16 of the men’s badminton singles with a third straight win in his Group A match, where he defeated Gergely Krausz of Hungary 21-16, 21-7.

Evans has made no secret of his desire to leave Baku with gold and not just because he’s seeded number one. Speaking after he win over Krausz, the 27-year-old reiterated his belief that medal opportunities in badminton don’t come around very often.

“That is the group stages comfortably out of the way and I still think I can play a lot better,” said Evans. “It’s been good to get a feel for the hall, and my body, and I think I’ve got a good feeling now to go from here.

"The games are very important, not just for me but the Olympic Council, the Sports Council and Irish badminton, really. If we get medals here we'll promote the game in Ireland and that's a big part of what we're trying to do."


Sam and

Chloe Magee

also earned their place in the last 16 of the mixed doubles, although as Evans admits, no one is counting on medals just yet.

“It’s now knockout every day from here on and there’s nothing won yet. But I think a medal here is what we need to build a bigger profile for ourselves and the game. All the players here are loving the games too, so I think they will definitely grow and grow.”

And assuming they do, so too will the value of a European Games gold medal.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics