Ireland’s Joe Ward reaches World Championships final

Split decision win over Melikuziev sets up Julio César La Cruz showdown

Joe Ward in action in his World Chanpionships quarter-final - the Irish southpaw is through to Saturday’s 81kg final after a semi-final win over Uzbekistan’s Bektemir Melikuziev. Photograph: Inpho/AIBA

Joe Ward in action in his World Chanpionships quarter-final - the Irish southpaw is through to Saturday’s 81kg final after a semi-final win over Uzbekistan’s Bektemir Melikuziev. Photograph: Inpho/AIBA

 

Joe Ward said it was close. He said it was tight. He said both of them had their moments over the three rounds. That’s also what most of the crowd believed at the Sports Halle in Hamburg.

In a split decision, five referees called it that way too, with three falling towards the Irishman – 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 – and two with Uzbek opponent Bektemir Melikuziev – 27-30, 28-29.

From the depths of despair in Rio, Ward again breathed success. On hearing his name called to contest a second career World Championship final he dropped to his knees, relieved and wondrously happy.

“Yeah, look, it’s a very close fight. It was a very tough fight,” said Ward afterwards. “Both of us had our moments in it but I felt like I was doing enough, I was catching him with the cleaner punches and I deserved to win it.

“I was always in control. But as I say he had his moments, his boxing. Both of us are going to have our moments in a fight. But I did enough to win.”

Ward now faces Julio La Cruz in Saturday night’s light heavyweight final. The Cuban, a three-times gold medal winner and Olympic champion, is chasing his compatriot Felix Savon’s collection of six successive World Championship gold medals. A freakily fast and elusive operator, Cruz won a unanimous decision in his semi-final over Carlos Mina Caiceda. Cruz beat Ward in the world final in Almaty in 2013.

“For me it’s all about experience,” said the 23-year-old when asked about Cruz. “I am learning the whole time. I went in there to perform to my best ability and see where it takes me.”

Ward was accurate with his post-fight analysis. Both southpaws caught each other and both stuck to their plans. Melikuziev, who arrived with a cut over his left eye, pushed forward all the time throwing right hooks. Ward picked his shots and scored.

The Uzbek believed throughout that going forward was the best way to upset Ward, who took a few punches, especially at the end of round one, but landed a combination with his jabs to ensure he was soundly in the contest.

In the second round, Ward backed off but scored. His opponent pushed aggressively forward, his arcing rights always a danger, with a few landing over Ward’s leading arm. But all the time Ward reacted well and the Moate boxer was landing the harder blows.

“Look his head was going back every time I was hitting him,” he said. In the third round coach Zaur Antia was screaming “throw right hook, left hand”. And he did, a nice left-right combination catching the judges’ attention before a bigger right took Antia and John Conlan from their seats.

When the bell sounded few knew which way the result would fall. “He is now lifting 110 kilos; before it was 80kg. He is now bench-pressing 110kg. Different boy,” said Antia.

Ward, though, knows where he has come from and knows what’s ahead. “The Olympics went really bad for me – it was a lack of preparation . . . it was one of these things that happen,” he said. “But we regrouped. The rest of the guys went pro but I wanted to stay to bring Irish boxing back to where it was at the top level and as the captain.

“It is a pleasure representing Ireland and coming home with medals. It’s something special for myself and my family. Now I want to go for the gold.”

It has been a week of first stage recovery for Irish boxing – of finding its level after the ashes of Rio. Ward especially was an athlete looking for redemption. An Olympic medal contender, he crashed out in the preliminary phase of the competition in Rio for no apparent reason other than the sport itself had fallen into paroxysms of dispute.

The atmosphere has mellowed and Irish boxing is no longer under threat to have its funding removed by Sport Ireland. But high performance director Bernard Dunne and his corner coaches in Germany, Conlan and Antia, know the weight Ward’s medal carries.

An Olympic Games followed by a World Championships 12 months later with nothing to show and Irish boxing may have begun to doubt itself. Ward, the jewel in Ireland’s crown, may have done the same despite a silver and bronze from previous World Championships.

Kudos

Even Dunne’s appointment in April came with a health warning when his authority was instantly challenged on team selection. It was no way to enter the fray but he will get kudos for presenting Ward in these championships in the best condition he has been for some time.

Even before last night’s bout, former world champion Michael Conlan and Beijing light heavyweight Olympic silver medallist Kenneth Egan commented on social media about the way Ward has dominated his bouts since arriving in Germany and how well he has performed.

They both understand that any medal represents progress and Ward’s gold or silver will be viewed as progress after the low watermark of last summer.

It is something Dunne understands. When he won his World Super Bantamweight eight years ago, against Ricardo Cordoba in the Point, it was after twice climbing off the canvas and at the fag-end of the 11th round.

That’s the hard way to do it. But medals of any colour are hard to get and when Dunne sat down with Ward, who traditionally struggled to be in mint condition, and had the conversation – and he did have it – he might well have mentioned Cordoba.

A World Championship medallist again and yet Ward is still virtually unknown in his own country. Well, at least this week has been a positive boxing story. Let’s leave the pitiful marketing of the sport’s assets to another day.

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