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Beyond Tokyo – What next for the stars of the Olympic Games

Olympic Games
Julian Finney/Getty Images
John Dennen considers what’s next for boxers who rose to fame at the Olympic Games and what next for the sport ahead of Paris 2024

IT used to be simpler. Make a name at the Olympic Games and wait for the offers from professional promoters to roll in. Spend many months mulling them over, secure a lucrative future in the process and eventually turn over, maybe even an entire year after the Games. But post-Tokyo the picture is more complex.

For a start, some of the medallists in Japan were already professional boxers. The rules allowing pros into the Olympics were relaxed for Rio 2016, though back then in Brazil the pro boxers made little impression. In Japan there was a professional belt-holder, France’s Maiva Hamadouche who left without a medal after losing to Mira Potkonen. In fact, it was early career professional boxers, ones who had either managed to balance parallel progress in Olympic-style tournaments with a few pro bouts, or boxers who’d had some pro contests before being brought back into their national team. Duke Ragan, for instance, won Olympic silver in one of the most hotly contested divisions in Tokyo. But the featherweight is already signed to Top Rank. His new-found prominence should give him more leverage but his future essentially is already set. America had two other silver medallists, Richard Torrez at super-heavyweight and lightweight Keyshawn Davis. Davis is 3-0 as a pro, but not tied in with any one promoter. He didn’t win gold but did show off his array of skills. He finishes in a strong position, probably the most talented of the Americans. Torrez, in contrast, had been a true amateur. He will now look to turn professional and while not the biggest heavyweight his gallant effort in Tokyo and his character make him a marketable prospect.

Torrez lost in the super-heavyweight final to towering super-heavyweight Bakhodir Jalolov. He is now a prominent national figure in Uzbekistan. Jalolov is one of the boxers who has successfully balanced his Olympic ambitions with the early stages of a professional boxing career, taking eight straightforward wins over the likes of Kristaps Zutis, Wilfrido Leal and Brendan Barrett in Tashkent, Mexico and New York. Those pro bouts didn’t stop him from entering minor and major Olympic-style boxing tournaments in Europe and Asia. It worked for these Olympic Games. But inevitably as a professional he’ll move up towards the alphabet belts. Training for 10 and 12-round contests will make it much harder for him to strike that balance with tournament boxing. This could be his last Olympics.

Filipino Eumir Marcial had one professional contest during the year-long wait for the delayed Games. The middleweight had a thrilling semi-final with Ukraine’s Oleksandr Khyzhniak. With his Olympic bronze medal and already established relationship with world-famous trainer Freddie Roach, he can continue to try to follow in the footsteps of Manny Pacquiao. Brazil’s Hebert Sousa is another middleweight with a big future after spectacularly levelling Khyzhniak to win the 75kgs gold medal. He returned to an absolute hero’s welcome and will be a star in Brazil.

No British boxers have dipped their toe in professional waters. They all stayed with the GB programme, even after these Olympic Games were postponed an additional year. Many had been on the team for multiple Olympic cycles but their patience has been rewarded. With this being GB’s most successful Olympic team in 100 years, all the Tokyo Olympians will be highly appealing signings for any professional promoter.

For some, the wait will very soon be over. Peter McGrail didn’t medal in Japan but he is one of the most decorated amateur boxers to have come out of the UK. The only British man to have won two World championship medals and the first Liverpudlian to win European gold, McGrail already has his pro debut inked. He will box on Matchroom’s October 9 bill in Liverpool. He’s been looking forward to this for a long time. It’s a good move, putting the demons of his Olympic disappointment behind him and debuting on a big show in his home town. But intriguingly he hasn’t settled on a long-term professional deal yet. It’s clear that much of the men’s team have fought their last amateur contests. Galal Yafai competed in both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2021. Winning flyweight gold in Japan, and being tipped as the boxer of the tournament by many, has made Yafai a star. His older brothers are professionals, Kal held the WBA’s super-flyweight belt and Gamal was the European champion, so there is a natural path for him there.

Frazer Clarke has just turned 30 and after more than 10 years on the GB squad, he made it to an Olympics and won a medal. He will turn professional. As a big heavyweight with power and good skill, he will make an impact. Clarke was very successful in the World Series of Boxing, the quasi pro format. Between 2016 and 2018, he beat Kamshybek Kunkabayev, another Olympic medallist, as well as Guido Vianello, now a pro prospect, in London and Italy, among many others in five-round bouts. With his experience now, he has essentially served a professional apprenticeship already and could be moved quickly towards British and European title fights like his predecessor Joe Joyce.

“Without being part of this team, I’m going to be a bit lost,” Frazer told Boxing News. “The thought of not being part of GB Boxing anymore, it hits me right in the heart, honestly. A third of my life they’ve seen me through, both my kids have been born and they’ve seen me through that, helped me through the good times, the bad times, people have been there for me. I’ve seen them more than my family.”

He showed genuine leadership skills in Tokyo, so who knows what his long term future could hold? After a pro career, he hasn’t ruled out a return to GB eventually as a coach or even, ultimately, maybe performance director like Rob McCracken is now. “I feel like I’ve got experience and knowledge which I could definitely pass on,” he suggests. “One day I reckon I’ll be walking through that gym in Sheffield with a cup of tea and a biscuit a bit like Rob.”

Ben Whittaker put in a sequence of star-making performances in Tokyo, not only boxing well enough to win the light-heavyweight silver medal but catching the public’s attention as he danced into the ring and finished bouts with his Dragon Ball Z-inspired celebrations. He is considering overtures from professional promoters and managers but, at the time of writing, hadn’t signed with anyone. Intriguingly he revealed he had carried a shoulder injury through the Olympics. Whittaker has now had an operation but won’t be expected to box professionally until 2022.

Ben Whittaker Olympic Games
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Twin brothers Pat and Luke McCormack will be an enticing package for professional boxing. Lively characters, Pat has been an outstanding amateur, rated number one in the world last year and only losing in the Olympic welterweight final to outstanding Cuban Roniel Iglesias. Luke had the misfortune to be drawn against another brilliant Cuban, the great Andy Cruz, in his second bout in Tokyo. But he was a highly successful international boxer too, winning multiple European medals. He is an aggressive boxer, with a style that’ll translate well to the pro sport. At the end of his campaign in Tokyo, Pat felt they had served their apprenticeship. They are eyeing a professional future, but a chance to rest and recover was the first item on the agenda.

Lauren Price and Karriss Artingstall are two stars to come out of the women’s team. Artingstall won featherweight bronze, losing a very tight semi-final to Japan’s eventual gold medallist Sena Irie. Karriss has the skill, she also has real power and with relatively well-known pro boxers around her weight, she could take that side of the sport by storm. Lauren Price was not only sensational when winning Olympic gold in Japan, she has literally completed amateur boxing. Price has won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, the European Games, World championships and now the Olympic Games. But staying on three years to do the next Olympic Games is a genuine consideration. There is a commercial appeal to being an Olympic athlete and potentially playing a starring role at Paris 2024. In women’s professional boxing, the élite talents can also move quickly. Those big fights surely will still be there in three years’ time. While promoters are currently making offers, neither Lauren nor Karriss has yet ruled out another Olympic run.

If they were to stay on, it would be a coup for the GB Boxing programme. The British women’s team going into the Paris cycle could be very strong. Rosie Eccles, the Welsh welterweight, will be back. There was only one Olympic qualification event for these Games. Eccles lost to Russia’s Saadat Dalgatova before the qualifier was suspended in 2020. Beating the Russian in a revenge win this year would have been scant consolation but it shows Eccles belongs at that level. Lewis Richardson also had a tough draw at the Olympic qualifier, losing to eventual Olympic silver medallist Khyzhniak in the preliminary stage. But Richardson acquitted himself well against such a strong opponent and is determined to represent GB in Paris. Other new faces will be appearing from the next generation of GB boxers. Flyweight Kieran MacDonald, for instance, and super-heavyweight Delicious Orie were among the sparring partners brought over to Tokyo. Now they will want to step into the limelight themselves. They have big events to look forward to themselves, with a World championships in October and the Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham next year. Any GB team would be pushed to match the Tokyo squad’s six medal haul at the Olympics – that was a one in a century event – but there will still be exciting boxers coming through.

Ireland had a hard draw. Brendan Irvine met eventual flyweight finalist Filipino Carlo Paalam in his first bout. Featherweight Kurt Walker boxed brilliantly well, beating fearsome Uzbek World champion Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov, a stunning win, only to miss out on a medal when America’s Ragan got the decision in their quarter-final. Undoubted star of the Irish team was Kellie Harrington who followed Katie Taylor in winning lightweight Olympic gold. But she certainly has no intention of calling out Taylor and is undecided about whether to turn professional or stay amateur. A local hero, she’s already returned to her part-time job at a hospital.

Apart from the Britons, it was the Cuban team that stunned in Tokyo. Four gold medallists, three two-weight Olympic champions, they were sensational. The Cuban regime doesn’t allow their boxers to go pro but Arlen Lopez and Andy Cruz would be simply superb if they could defect. Iglesias has already competed in four different editions of the Olympics. A third gold medal in Paris is surely a step too far even for him, but if he were to manage it, he would join a group of the greatest Olympians of all.

Where it gets complicated is waiting to see what weight classes will be contested at Paris 2024. There will be more women’s divisions. The International Olympic Committee expects to see gender parity when it comes to the number of events, and the standard of women’s boxing in Tokyo was higher than ever. But boxing isn’t going to get extra medals (though the full complement of divisions at the Worlds and other international competitions will remain). It adds another element of uncertainty. We all have to wait to see who will even run the boxing tournament in Paris. Replaced by the IOC’s Boxing Task Force, AIBA was suspended from handling the event in Tokyo due to officiating controversies, concerns about potential corruption and issues with its governance and finances. The new AIBA president Umar Kremlev has set the organisation on a path to reform, but the IOC pointedly would not comment on boxing’s future while the Tokyo Games were underway. It has to be hoped that the success of the boxing event in Japan bodes well for the future. But it is not certain. The progression from these Games must continue.

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