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Olympians on the brink – qualifying in a time of coronavirus

Peter McGrail
Sam Mellish/GB Boxing
As the tournament was being shutdown, Galal Yafai and Peter McGrail had to win to become Olympians. John Dennen recounts an extraordinary day from inside the Copper Box

THESE are strange days. Boxers rarely, if ever, admit to fear. But that is precisely what Galal Yafai felt on his way to the Copper Box on Monday. He was one bout away from qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games. The goal that he and the rest of the British team have been spent years working so hard towards.

One bout, three rounds, nine minutes.

Put like that it might not sound like much, but Yafai knew just how hard this contest would be. On the first day of the European Olympic Qualification Event he had seen his opponent in action. Russia’s Rasul Saliev had demolished Polish flyweight Jakub Slominski. Huge hooks chopping down had dropped Slominski heavily. Even when they hadn’t quite caught fully, their impact was enough for the Pole to find himself thudding down hard into the canvas.

Fighting Russia for the Olympics was always going to be tough. To make it harder still the boxing on that day was taking place behind closed doors, due to the coronavirus crisis. Yafai would not get to enjoy the advantage of a home crowd in London.

To heap further pressure on the situation, he received an extraordinary phonecall an hour before he was due to compete. After the final session of boxing on the Monday, featuring his and Peter McGrail’s qualification bouts, the tournament would be shut down. Because of the pandemic the event had to come to a halt. It would be picked up again, later in the year, maybe in May or June. That was the plan at least but the time and the location for the rest of the event were all unknown. Yafai simply had to win.

“It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been for a fight. Everything was at stake. I fought the Cuban World champion in Russia and I wasn’t as nervous as I was then,” Yafai said. “I thought, ‘Gosh, he [Saliev] looks good he does.’”

This was the first Olympic boxing tournament in London since the 2012 Games. That was an occasion renowned still for the sheer volume of its crowds. But in a now eerie atmosphere, the bell rang to set Saliev and Yafai on one another.

It’s possible that Galal did have a more refined game plan in the back of his mind. But for this bout he could not bear to give it anything less than everything. Yafai went for him from the start. Claiming the centre of the ring, he slammed his southpaw left into Saliev’s body. He kept his hands moving quickly, staying on Saliev despite the Russian’s strength.

Saliev responded to Galal’s presence on the inside with brutal tactics. He pounded punches below the belt, so low he hit the Briton in the leg at times. Although the referee handed him a warning and took a point from Saliev in the second round, Galal still needed to win the last round to be sure of his Olympic place. He exchanged frenetically with the Russian, firing fine hooks through. Then, as time ticked down, Yafai stepped back, picked out jabs and won a unanimous decision.

“I knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up with my pressure,” Yafai said. “When I’m in there, I don’t care. I’ve just got to win. Just try everything I can. One thing that I do in boxing, I give it my best. You can see there, I gave it my all. It was good enough today.”

Galal Yafai is now a two-time Olympian Sam Mellish/GB Boxing

In just the same way Peter McGrail needed a victory on Monday to take up the Olympic place he has been striving to win for the last four years.

Kevin Godla looked to be a tall, tricky opponent. He had eliminated Francesco Maietta on the Saturday, dropping the Italian to confirm that win. But McGrail outclassed him. He took the measure of the Czech early in the first round and scored with southpaw lefts to the head. He slipped smoothly in and out of range with clever footwork, prying Godla’s defences apart. A frustrated Godla stood off, shifting from side to side but he was unthreatening. McGrail tracked him down to unleash three punch combinations. He finished with quick straight shots to secure a clear, wide unanimous points victory.

“I’m made up,” McGrail said. “I knew it was going to be a bit of tricky fight because he had long arms and he had unorthodox movement. I’m just buzzing to have booked my place at Tokyo.

“It’s a proud moment for me. Not just for me, for the family, for the city, for my own gym, Everton Red Triangle. I went in there when I was 10 and I still work with Paul [Stevenson] whenever I can.”

He added, “I’ve trained hard for the tournament, me, the lads and the girls were ready. It was just I suppose a little bit of luck was on mine and Galal’s side. We got our chance to qualify. But I’m gutted for the rest of the lads and the girls because we’ve all the put the work in.

“It’s been a bit of mad week for everyone. But I’m made up for myself, I’m made up for Galal and I’m pretty sure, whenever it’s rescheduled, hopefully it’s rescheduled in London and we can actually get the crowd in.”

Team mate Charley Davison has left herself in a good position for whenever the tournament is resumed. The mother of three had been out of the sport for seven years before returning to her club in Lowestoft. She managed to win the national championships last year, a feat in itself, before making a sudden ascent to the international team. She only joined the squad in January and did enough to be selected for the Olympic team. Her first bout in the GB vest came on the Monday morning at the Copper Box.

She showed little ring rust and no hesitancy as she took control of her contest with Ireland’s Carly McNaul from the first round. She tagged McNaul with her lead right and began to harry her with sharp one-twos. Davison dominated the second round and in the third subjected McNaul to two standing counts. The Briton won a unanimous decision, especially impressive as McNaul is a Commonwealth silver medallist.

“I think I boxed really well, considering I haven’t boxed in a long time. Obviously I had sparring up in Sheffield but it’s totally different to getting in there, especially at an Olympic qualifier. I felt I could have been a little bit sharper but I think the nerves were a little bit there. The first one is always the shaky one,” Davison said calmly. “I am a bit hard on myself but you always want to improve every time you box. You never stop learning.”

The event had gone behind closed doors for her bout. Davison’s supporters, including her eldest child, were going to attend for her first bout. Instead they had to watch it on television. “It doesn’t really affect me because you’ve still got your team cheering you on. When you’re in the ring you don’t really listen to the crowd anyway,” she said. “Just get the job done.”

Which is precisely what Davison did.

For Britain, middleweight Lewis Richardson was the last boxer in action. He outscored France’s Viktor Yoka, boxing neatly and even imposing a standing count on the Frenchman, a crisp southpaw cross landing flush to the face.

“You know what. That was my first standing count I’ve given anyone in about 50 fights. Just a sweet shot, lovely back hand, head proper whipped back and I think that could have won me the second round,” Lewis said. “The first two rounds I thought I controlled pretty well. I put quite a lot into the first two, that was my plan to go out there and win the first two. I knew my fitness would see me through.”

His victory was unanimous. “That was amazing. Great experience obviously being in London, without the crowd but still it’s in London, it’s close to home, it’s unbelievable.”

But like the rest of the GB team and most of Europe’s elite boxers he is left in limbo. The plan is to restart the tournament from exactly where it left off. The results so far will stand, the draw will stand. The hope is that it can be restarted in May or June. But all other details, for the time being, remain in doubt.

“That’s out of my control what happens next. But I’ve put myself in the best position and I’ll go and prepare for whenever we get given a date and I’ll be ready just like I was today,” Richardson said. “Obviously I was a reserve previously and I stayed on it, stayed focused, kept training. I’ll continue to do that and give myself the best possible chance to achieve and hopefully qualify.”

There was a surprise for the Irish team when Kurt Walker, the reigning European champion, lost his first bout. German featherweight Hamsat Shadalov, a lively southpaw, boxed dynamically. He pocketed early scores and forced Walker to chase the bout. Walker slammed in double right hands, targeting the body with success in the last round but it was too late to turn the decision his way. Shadalov won unanimously.

In the flyweight division Brendan Irvine joined Galal Yafai as a two-time Olympian. Hungary’s Istvan Szaka might have caught him out with some left hands from his southpaw stance. But Irvine shook them off and soon took complete charge. Uppercuts from his left and right made their mark and he kept up sending thumping shots into Szaka, winning a unanimous decision.

In the talent-packed middleweight division Michael Nevin scored a fine win over Holland’s experienced Max Van Der Pas. Nevin’s straight one-twos worked well against the southpaw. Van Der Pas finished with a cut on his forehead as he conceded a split decision to the Irishman.

At welterweight Ireland’s Aidan Walsh remains in the competition after outpointing Estonia’s Pavel Kamanin unanimously.

The victor, like the rest of the boxers left in the competition, can keep his Olympic hopes alive. But they’ll all simply have to wait.

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