IT’S been a baptism of fire for the GB boxing team at the Olympic Games. The draw was the stuff of nightmares for the Brits. Galal Yafai went in with the reigning Cuban World champion (and lost a close one), Josh Kelly went in with a World gold and silver medallist (and put in a very game but losing performance), Antony Fowler had a 2013 World champion, hurtful puncher Zhanibek Alimkhanuly, Lawrence Okolie met the masterful Erislandy Savon, but was competitive despite the gulf in experience between the two. Inside the first six days of the boxing competition Britain saw six boxers eliminated.
The draw is hardly something GB can control but it has been unfortunate. There have been under-performances, Qais Ashfaq and Joe Cordina lost what appeared to be winnable fights, against Thailand’s Chatchai Butdee and Uzbekistan’s Hurshid Tojibaev. There have also been highlights, Pat McCormack’s win over his Kazakh opposite number and Joshua Buatsi knocking out Uzbekistan’s Elshod Rasulov, a three-time World medallist and the third seed in this tournament.
“It’s been tough,” GB performance director Rob McCracken reflected. “I think the boxers on the whole have done tremendously well. I think they really stepped up. You look at McCormack, you look at Buatsi and Kelly gave it a right go against the World gold and silver medallist.
“Overall it’s okay, the mood’s okay. It’s an individual sport, I touched on that yesterday in the meeting. I think we saw that from Buatsi, McCormack and Kelly, they really went for it.”
“They’ll support each other and they’re rooting for each other,” he added but notes, “It’s about your career and about the sacrifices you’ve made over the last few years, go make it pay. We had that chat yesterday morning.”
Nor was he too harsh on Joe and Qais. “In fairness, Cordina’s opponent’s the APB number one, a 28, 30 year old man, I think he’s lost about six bouts in about a million so top class, extremely tough opposition. And Qais Ashfaq’s opponent, the Thai, hugely experienced. It’s how you get the performance on the day. I’m sure they felt on another day they could have boxed better. It just didn’t quite happen for either of them on the day,” Rob said. “It just didn’t happen for them, they just didn’t get going.”
There will be intense pressure on the remaining boxers, with no room for error, but McCormack, Buatsi, Nicola Adams, Muhammad Ali, Joe Joyce and Savannah Marshall are all contenders.
There also reason to be positive about GB prospects at the next Olympic Games in 2020. Young boxers have been developing with impressive speed already, with successful Youth squads in place now in a way they weren’t in the last cycle. A more established team for 2020 may even see them accumulate a greater standing, and more ranking points, over the next cycle and so perhaps avoid getting such a harsh draw.
“Brazil’s always been the challenge, we lost all of the men after London, all of the men moved on,” McCracken said. “Tokyo will be a great squad, you have strength and depth already appearing with the younger kids, the Luke McCormacks, the Pete McGrails, the Calum Frenches, the Galal Yafais, there’s lots and lots of good kids, Frazer Clarkes, you can go up and down the weights. I think there’s better strength in depth than we had left after London. I think in two years, three years, compared to this cycle and this group, you’ll have more experienced boxers in.
“Tokyo at this stage looks a real good opportunity for GB Boxing. I think Brazil was always going to be a tough task but we have boxers capable of winning medals in the team, they’re still in the tournament and they can win medals.”