Boxers inspired by new gold dream

By Ross McKee
BBC News

Image caption,
Paddy Barnes celebrates victory against Australia's Andrew Moloney

Tony Blair may have said he felt the hand of history upon his shoulder, but in the world of boxing a soundbite can be smashed from your lips the second you have uttered it.

Five Northern Ireland fighters are in an unprecedented position on Wednesday as they all aim to strike gold at the Commonwealth Games finals.

But Paddy Barnes, Thomas McCarthy, Eamonn O'Kane, Paddy Gallagher and Steven Ward were not shooting from the lip ahead of their contests.

So it was left to another former Commonwealth Gold winner and boxing champion, Barry McGuigan, to do the talking for them.

McGuigan scooped gold as a bantamweight at the 1978 games in Canada in the company of such boxing greats as Azumah Nelson and Mike McCallum.

And he sees no reason why a clutch of golds will not be returning to Belfast.

"Are we going to get five golds, probably not," he said. "But it wouldn't surprise me if we got four.

"It reinforces that we have an outstanding heritage in boxing, it goes on and on and gets better and better - the standard of boxing is quite phenomenal."

McGuigan is among a roll call of fighters including Wayne McCullough, Neil Sinclair, and Davy Larmour who have claimed gold for Northern Ireland at the games.


This year has been the country's best showing at the games since 1994, when it collected two gold and two silvers, and the boxing team has not collected a medal at the event since 1998.

BBC boxing commentator Jim Neilly believes the return of Michael Hawkins - who was NI head coach at the games in Canada in 1994 - has been a significant factor in the renewed success.

"Michael Hawkins was head coach in Victoria and was the man behind that success," he said.

"It was flawed in my opinion that the view was then that the job should be shared around instead of being given to the person best qualified and the best man for the job.

"The decision to reappoint Michael and combine his talents with former Ulster champion Stephen Friel was taken not all that long ago because there was, I understand, some debate.

"But you only have to listen to what the two of them have been saying to the boxers in the corner throughout the competition to realise how focused and organised they are."

McGuigan feels the team has also benefited from enhanced training techniques which have given the local fighters the edge over their opponents.

"The guys have gone down to the collective training with the Irish performance team in Dublin and spent a couple of weeks there," he said.

"It is significant, sparring and coaching with top guys and mixing in competition, the level of confidence you get from that, which is very apparent.

"Plus they have learned how to box to the computer - the scoring system has changed - no longer are they doing the tall boxing stuff.

"They are standing their ground, they are holding their guard very tight and they are picking their shots and trying to find a little gap in the opponent's guard. That is a really good sign to make that adaptation very quickly."

Gerry Storey of the Holy Family boxing club in Belfast, is as well placed as any to assess what is needed for medal glory.

Coach of the Irish Olympic boxing team on four occasions, he trained McGuigan and Sinclair in their successful Commonwealth bids.

Storey says people have to be realistic about Northern Ireland's chances of claiming all five golds, but said it was possible.

"I think everybody is behind these lads, especially the trainers," he added. "They have all gone out expecting to get gold and these guys can do it.

"These guys are out every night of the week and you have got to congratulate the trainers too, they are also out every night of the week and some are out twice a day - they have put a lot of work into it and now they are getting their returns."


Gerry Storey is not surprised at local boxing's return to the medal podium, and talks of a "tradition" which goes back decades.

Jim Neilly says the sport suits the Northern Ireland mentality.

"There's a lot of personal pride combined with physical strength and skill," he added. "There's a lot of natural aggression from within the psyche."

But maybe the last word should be left to Neil Sinclair who still savours his Commonwealth gold from 1994 and feels some soundbites enter the lexicon for a reason.

"They do use the phrase the fighting Irish," he said.

"They are a good fighting team, and there is a good fighting spirit, but they are nice guys as well."

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