June 1, 2016
June 1, 2016
Olympic Games

Action Images/Lee Smith

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What’s happened? Can professional boxers enter the Olympic Games?

Professional boxers could enter the next Olympic Games, which start in August. AIBA, the world governing body for Olympic boxing, held a Commissions meeting that concluded in Manchester in February. That meeting has recommended professional boxers be made eligible for the Olympics and that motion was approved today (June 1) at an extraordinary congress in Lausanne.

How’s that going to work?

THERE are two qualification events left before Rio 2016. A World qualifier takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan June 14-26, with 39 places at Rio 2016 available there, but that will not be open to pros. There is a final qualifier set for early July in Venezuela for boxers from the World Series of Boxing and AIBA’s APB (the pro style formats run by AIBA). Pros will be allowed to enter that event and this would be their route to the Olympics, if they do well enough. 26 places at Rio will be up grabs at this competition in Venezuela.

So countries will able to select pros as well as amateurs?

IT seems that this will indeed happen through national federations. Therefore we’ll have to see which countries would choose pros to enter their Olympic programmes and which professionals would be willing to do it (or be allowed to, given their contractual arrangements). For the time being it seems likely GB Boxing will focus on the athletes they’ve been working with for the last four years. Earlier this year a spokesperson for GB Boxing said, “The proposals have the potential to broaden the talent pool from which we are able to select boxers and we are looking forward to hearing more about them in due course. In the meantime, we have a squad of talented boxers that are all training hard … for Rio 2016 and all of our efforts are focused on helping them to achieve this.”

Would America be able to drum up a ‘Dream Team’ so suddenly? It seems unlikely but maybe other countries would have the resources to bring professional boxers back to their Olympic squad.

Is it fair?

It seems rough on boxers who have stayed true to their Olympic dream and resisted the temptation to turn professional. Imagine going through four years and the hugely demanding qualification process to find yourself up against, say, Manny Pacquiao in an Olympic quarter-final.

Although scoring changes and the removal of headguards have brought the two codes closer together, tournament boxing is still a very different event to a 12-round title fight. It’s three rounds, so fought at a higher pace, but repeated day after day, so still gruelling, and the boxers have to make weight every morning they compete over a two-week period; again very different to the pros, where they weigh in a day before.

“I’ve stayed amateur for the one reason, for the Olympics,” GB middleweight Antony Fowler told Boxing News. “I don’t think it’s fair to let professionals in, but either way, they’ll have adapted to eight, 10, 12 rounds. Going back to the three-threes they’ll all struggle because they’ll be slow off the mark.”

But surely a professional is going to be too good for an amateur?

Of course, there are superlative talents at the elite end of professional boxing. But outside of that, I’m not convinced it would be a case of serving up young amateurs to be destroyed by hardened pros.

“[Gennady] Golovkin could go for Kazakhstan, that would be a nightmare for me,” Fowler laughed, before insisting, “It’ll be hard for him to cut me down in three rounds. Obviously over 12 rounds he’d murder me but over three rounds you never know how I’d get on with him. I used to spar [Carl] Froch, I could match him over four rounds. Bring him on!”

To be a successful Olympic boxer, you have to be able to train full-time. The major boxing countries have well-funded programmes, which not only pay their boxers, but provide them with training facilities, coaches etc.

There are already professional formats for ‘amateurs’, in which they can compete over five rounds, in the World Series of Boxing, or up to 12 rounds in AIBA Pro Boxing (APB), and remain eligible for the Olympic Games. There are hardened career ‘amateurs’ out there, particularly from Cuba, Russia and Kazakhstan. We can’t pretend that Olympic boxing isn’t already a top-level competition.

Why is this even happening?

It is a radical concept. The Olympic Games has created many of the sport’s stars, it’s a unique opportunity for a boxer to leap from obscurity to sudden fame. It would lose that if big names from the pros are brought in, and win it.

The rationale though is to make the Olympics the pinnacle of the sport and try to incorporate the world’s best boxers. How that could happen, when the top fighters earn so much from the major pro events, is an open question.

“I guess there are top tennis players and athletes who compete [in the Olympics],” reflected GB super-heavyweight Joe Joyce. Someone like Wladimir Klitschko, who is coming to the end of his career, might be tempted. But he is focused on winning back his pro world heavyweight title, saying: “I have always said that I would love to participate again in the Olympic Games, but right now I’m only focusing on my rematch with Tyson Fury.”

And of course, we asked Joyce how he’d box Klitschko in an Olympic bout. “Movement, etc, would be the tactics, and being unpredictable!” Joe suggested.

Is this the end of amateur boxing?

It heralds what could be a fundamental change for the Olympic sport. It’s too early at present to tell exactly what the consequences could be, but they are potentially far-reaching.

This move has come at a late stage of the qualification process. Generally, the qualification route needs to be rationalised, it has been a labyrinthine process this time around. I’d rather see a rush for instance to create more places for another women’s division, and priority given to creating more opportunities for female boxers.

The last Olympic Games were fantastic, with the intensity of the competition, the nature of the bouts, even with both headguards and computer scoring as they had back then. Rio 2016 is going to be very different. Just how different, we’re going to have to wait and see.

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in Boxing News magazine