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A whole new Worlds

GB Worlds team
GB Boxing
The Olympics might be over. But the Worlds are just beginning. John Dennen previews the championships in Belgrade

THE Olympics are over, but the big tournaments keep on coming. The AIBA men’s World championships take place at the Stark Arena in Belgrade, Serbia, scheduled to begin on October 24 and finish on November 6.

AIBA have added more weight categories into this tournament, increasing the number of divisions to 13 and changing some of the actual weights from the Olympic categories. This does alter the landscape of international boxing, diverging from the Olympic Games at a time when AIBA is still suspended by the International Olympic Committee. This tournament marks another inflection point in the changes that have been made to the amateur sport. For this event, for the first time, major prizemoney is being made available to medal winners, $100,000 for a gold, $50,000 for silver and $25,000 for bronze. The ruling that AIBA brought in allowing professional boxers to return to these tournaments also alters the complexion of this event, with Olympians who are already invested in their pro careers entering, like Uzbekistan’s Shakhram Giyazov, Armenia’s Hovhannes Bachkov and plenty of others.

The members of Britain’s all-star Olympic team however are either being rested after the Tokyo Games or considering options in professional boxing. It creates an opportunity for the next generation of GB talent to step forward onto the big stage.

GB is sending a squad of nine: Kiaran MacDonald at 51kgs, Niall Farrell at 57kgs, Harvey Lambert at 67kgs, Harris Akbar at 71kgs, Lewis Richardson at 75kgs, George Crotty at 80kgs, Conner Tudsbury at 86kgs, Lewis Williams at 92kgs and Delicious Orie at 92&kgs.

GB Boxing’s performance director, Rob McCracken said, “The World championships is an incredibly tough assignment, so this is an opportunity for a new group of boxers to test themselves at the very highest level. There is a lot of talent in this team, however [due to the restrictions imposed by Covid-19] they have had very little competition over the past 18 months. Taking part in this tournament will be a great learning experience for the boxers and will enable myself and the coaches to get a clear idea of where we are and what we need to do to develop this group.”

Niall Farrell is the only member of this team who’s been to the Worlds before; he competed at the event in Hamburg in 2017. He’s also the only one with a major medal winning a flyweight silver at the 2017 European championship. A quality boxer himself, 57kgs is still going to be a highly competitive division, with formidable World champion Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov of Uzbekistan and Javier Ibanez, a Cuban boxing for Bulgaria, expecting to make an appearance.

“I can’t wait for it. It’s been a long time coming,” Farrell told Boxing News. “There’s a good buzz in the gym. Everyone’s looking forward to it.

“Our team that’s going out there is a hungry team, hungry for success.”

He added, “We’re all buzzing [about the prizemoney] but anyone who knows boxing knows how hard it is to medal at the Worlds so everyone’s talking about it but everyone’s going to take it one fight at a time.”

Middleweight Lewis Richardson was chosen for Britain’s Olympic squad. He entered the European Qualification Event earlier this year but met eventual Olympic silver medallist Oleksandr Khyzhniak in the preliminary stages, before he could win a place at the Tokyo Games. A technical southpaw Richardson still acquitted himself well, showing the rugged side of his boxing as his stood up to the Ukrainian’s relentless power. “It was disappointing to miss out on Tokyo,” he said, “but I’m now fully focused on reaching Paris 2024. This will be my first experience of a World championships but I am in good form and feel that I am improving all the time so am looking forward to it.”

George Crotty has done well in the smaller tournaments on the European circuit and it will be fascinating to see his skills and experience put to use in a major competition. Don’t write him off. Conner Tudsbury is a light-heavy too but he gets to move up to 86kgs for this.

Talented Yorkshireman Harris Akbar has laboured in the shadow of Pat McCormack, the Olympic silver medallist and one of GB’s outstanding boxers over the last few years. Now he gets a chance to shine. Akbar was a tall welterweight, moving up to the new 71kgs division might help him too.

There is a 67kgs division here and that creates room for Harvey Lambert, the national Elite champion who is a new entrant on the GB squad but has a style suited to international boxing. “I do express myself when I’m in the ring,” he says. “I just feel real proud to be part of this team and be in this new wave really.

“I want to be tested against the best and see where I’m at.”

Lewis Williams, a tall heavyweight, gets an additional kilo in this tournament, boxing at 92kgs. He’s sparred Anthony Joshua and Frazer Clarke regularly but is still young himself and has to gain experience at this world level.

At super-heavyweight Delicious Orie steps forward. He has done what he needed to do at domestic level, winning the Elite championships and Haringey Box Cup in style. But a World championships catapults him in at the highest class. It will be exciting to see how he fares in a division that has tough brawlers like Ukraine’s Tsotne Rogava, rising German Nelvie Tiafack and plenty of others.

Flyweight Kiaran MacDonald is following in the footsteps of Galal Yafai, GB’s brilliant Olympic gold medallist. He is relishing his chance to box for Britain in Belgrade. “This is going to be their first big test on their first big stage for a lot of fighters, not just the younger ones,” he tells Boxing News. “I’m one of the more experienced fighters and I haven’t competed in a World championships.

“It’s a new look squad, it’s got a lot of new faces in there, younger fighters. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s had good experience now with the WSB and things like that. So I’m looking to use my experience really, and try and help the team out as well.”

“We’ve been stuck behind top level fighters. [With Galal] I’ve been sparring with him for five or six years now. I’ve seen him grow and obviously he’s helped me develop a lot. He’s basically turned us from a boy into a man with the sparring. We’ve all seen him fight. We’ve all seen how rough and active he is,” he added. “It’s brought me on leaps and bounds.”

MacDonald was taken out to Tokyo to spar with Yafai for his Olympic campaign. He was clearly a key help. “[Galal] would probably tell you himself, the rounds that we done were priceless for him and priceless for me. Some of the styles he was boxing at the Olympics were pretty similar to myself, like the Cuban [Yosbany Veitía], the Kazakh [Saken Bibossinov who’s expected to be at this tournament], they’re pretty similar styles to what I’ve got. Obviously he’d already competed against the Cuban but he’d been sparring that style for months and months leading up to it,” Kiaran said. “[I’m] a flashy counter puncher. I adapt very easily, that’s one of my best assets [but] I sit in the pocket and can punch very hard when I need to.”

MacDonald is actually the last person to have defeated Sunny Edwards, an outstanding IBF belt-holder now. Kiaran beat him in the final of the ABA championships in 2016. “That’ll be haunting him deep down inside,” the man from Sunderland joked. “When we turn professional that would be the big money fight. It’s really exceptional what he’s done to be honest. To be a world champion at that age he’s done really well.

“That year in the ABAs I boxed five times, I was competing against Joe Maphosa, who was already on the Great Britain squad, he’d done WSB and that, and that was one of my first fights in the region. I was up against it really. But I went into them championships with ‘I had nothing to lose,’ that’s the sort of mindset I took in.”

Professional boxing for him can wait. His time in Tokyo has inspired MacDonald on his own Olympic quest. “It was good getting the boys ready for the Games, being in and around all the other sports and all the other athletes who were competing. So it just gives you a little insight, it makes you have a bit of want for the Olympics. Obviously we’ve had all the professional promoters knocking on the door as well. It keeps you grounded a bit. You realise what your dream actually is. Anybody can sort of turn professional but not everyone can compete at an Olympic Games,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the big picture really. I’m not 100% certain what’s going to happen, I’m taking it year by year and hoping to improve, progress and obviously pick up major medals along the way.

“Half the fighters at the Olympics, take nothing away from them, I believe I’m better than them. I was just very unfortunate to be stuck behind Galal who’s obviously been to the Rio Games, and obviously we all know how good he is. I feel like I was in a very unfortunate position. I feel like if it was any other nation I would probably have been at the Games. I’m good enough to compete with them all who were at the Games. I was thinking I’m good enough to be here but you’ve got to bide your time,” he continued. “I’ve just had to use it to mature myself mentally as well as physically. You can’t always get the best in life so sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet and find the best in the situation and try to overcome it.

“I feel like it literally brought us on endless amounts. I would say me from the ABA final to me now is like a completely different fighter. I’m just a lot more polished, more tidy and a lot easier on the eye.

“I’m really looking forward to the next couple of years,” he concluded. “We’ll see where I’m at really, I’ll test myself against the best.”

Ireland will send a team to the Worlds: Ricky Nesbitt at 48kgs, Sean Mari at 51kgs, Adam Hession at 57kgs, JP McHale at 60kgs, Brandon McCarthy at 63.5kgs, Eugene McKeever at 67kgs and Kelyn Cassidy at 80kgs.

Cuban quartet of Olympic champions, Andy Cruz, Roniel Iglesias, Arlen López and Julio La Cruz are expected to box in Belgrade. They will be simply unmissable.

But with the corruption scandals that have plagued AIBA, most essential for the future of amateur and Olympic boxing is that there is fair judging in Serbia. It’s a new-look tournament, we just need it not to have the same old problems.

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