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The longest road to the Olympics – European qualifier preview

Lewis Ricardson Olympics
James Chance/Getty Images
John Dennen previews GB’s hopefuls for the Olympics as they enter the qualification event once again

THERE has never been a more tumultuous road to an Olympics. The Tokyo Games were postponed for a year and now the European qualification event, suspended mid tournament in March 2020, picks up from where it left off. It restarts June 4, running until June 8, at Le Grand Dôme in Villebon-sur-Yvette on the outskirts of Paris, France. The restructuring of the qualifying process, enforced by the coronavirus pandemic, means that there won’t be a second one. The World event, for those who hadn’t qualified through their continent, had to be cancelled. It means those remaining Olympic quota places will be allocated simply on the Boxing Task Force’s world ranking system. For the boxers most highly ranked within their continent that is good news, they are likely to be granted a place at the Games through that second wave of allocations. But for those who do not already have a high world ranking, everything comes down to this qualifier. Some will only have this one chance in France to win a place at Tokyo.

GB have several boxers going into must-win bouts at this event. At 63kgs, just over a year ago, Luke McCormack was doing his final preparations for his Olympic qualification bout, only for the tournament to be cancelled the night before. Now after this long hiatus, he’ll go straight into a contest with Turkey’s Tugrul Erdemir. All is on the line for him, win it and he’ll be through to the quarter-finals and an assured place at the Olympic Games. George Bates will compete for Ireland in this division.

GB 75kgs Lewis Richardson will need to finish in the top six to qualify. But he has one of the toughest bouts of all lined up for him. He’s drawn to go in next with Oleksandr Khyzhniak, a most formidable obstacle between Lewis and his Olympic dream. The fearsome Ukrainian is a European and World gold medallist, heavy handed and relentless. He cleaned out Olympic medallist Kamran Shakhsuvarly in one round in the last bout before this tournament was suspended. Richardson has had over a year of waiting for this specific bout. But he is undaunted.

“We know who is and we know what he’s done and everything like that. But nobody’s had this length of time to really focus on beating him and I believe my style and my attributes could be good enough to beat him,” Richardson told Boxing News. “It’s not been a burden at all. I feel like the way I’ve been developing and have developed, even leading up to the qualifier the year before, that was a real year of progression and improvements. I think that’s continued and it showed in the Bocskai, having five fights out there in five days and winning.”

“I’ve been growing and improving as a person and as a boxer,” he continued. “I’m feeling good. We all know what he’s about. He’s only human, two arms, two legs. He’s been beaten before. He’s been beaten by a Brit before [by Joshua Buatsi]. There’s no reason why it can’t happen again.”

At lightweight Caroline Dubois is also going into a huge bout. The youngster was Youth Olympic and Youth World champion and only suffered her first loss, ever, at a warm up tournament in Serbia earlier this year. In France she must immediately box Mira Potkonen, the tournament’s top seed, a World medallist who famously eliminated Katie Taylor from the 2016 Olympic Games. It’s a significant challenge, but victory would be a major statement of intent for Dubois. One that would put her on course the top six finish she needs to qualify at 60kgs and the potential to star at the Olympics themselves. Highly decorated Irish star Kellie Harrington will be in the mix too in this weight class.

There are also six Olympic places available in the women’s 51kgs division at this event. Charley Davison, another new face on this GB team, is close to one of them. She boxed well to reach the quarter-finals, with Poland’s experienced Sandra Drabik lying in wait for her there.

For super-heavyweight Frazer Clarke the pressure must be acute. Not only has he had the same additional year delay as everyone else, this is his third Olympic cycle in pursuit of his place at the Games. He needs to reach the semi-finals to qualify and his first bout comes against Croatian southpaw Marko Milun. “For me this is probably the toughest bout of the tournament. The next bout is probably the toughest competition in the whole tournament for. He’s the second best fighter other than me in this tournament. Boxed him before, in 2018 when I wasn’t in good form to be honest. I went to the EUs in Spain which I won in bad form,” Clarke said. “I’ve improved a lot since then, he’s improved a lot since then.”

But Frazer is fired up. “This game is like Snakes and Ladders. I’ve had the ups, where I’ve felt top of the world, then I’ve hit the snake, straight back down again. I’ve been in shape, out of shape. In form, out of form. And I’ve loved every second of it because there’s no job quite like it,” Clarke said. “We’re downplayed so much but I love this job, I love this environment. The time is now for me. Everything that’s happened in the last two years, three years, four years, six years, eight years, it doesn’t mean nothing. It’s about now. I feel like I’ve come into good form. I’m going to say it: I feel like I’m the forgotten man. Because I’ve been here for so long. Yeah I had a dip in form a couple of years ago and results weren’t going my way… People feel like I’m an amateur journeyman. I’m not. I’m not. Everyone that thinks I’m not a serious medal contender for Tokyo, they’ve lost their minds. Since Christmas I’ve been to two tournaments, I’ve won two gold medals. Six wins. Some good opponents. Some demons I got rid of and I’m in a good position. I like this. I like to be just quietly, quietly creeping along, getting on with my business in a good position. The Russian, the Kazakh, the Uzbek, the American, let them have the limelight all they want. Little fat Frazer Clarke from Burton-on-Trent, he’s going to put on a shock and people are going to say, ‘Oh my God, that guy that’s been on there 10 years, he wasn’t just here to take part. He’s going to win the Olympic Games.’ Because that’s what I’m going to do. People are going think I’ve gone crazy. ‘Oh you can’t beat [the Uzbek, Bakhodir] Jalolov.’ Yes I can. I beat him before and I’ll beat him again.”

Frazer Clarke Olympics
Sam Mellish

And, as if the weeks before his first Olympic qualifier couldn’t have been even more dramatic, Clarke is also celebrating the birth of his baby son. He is inspired. “It’s been an emotional week,” he says, “with the birth of my son and we’re literally getting down to the business end now. He’s really motivated me.”

At 91kgs Cheavon Clarke must also finish in the final four to make it to Tokyo. That means Cheavon is two wins away, with Armenia’s Narek Manasyan next and the winner of Belgium’s Victor Schelstraete and Greece’s Vagkan Nanizanian after that. It’s a good draw for him.
GB’s Karriss Artingstall has a tough division and a tough draw, kicking off her tournament in France against Belarus’ Helina Bruyevich. But Artingstall is a force at 57kgs, with powerful long straight punches and mobile footwork. Six Olympic places are on offer in her weight class at this event but also with a high ranking in her continent, Artingstall can be confident too of being allocated an Olympic quota place even if this competition doesn’t go according to plan. Ireland’s Michaela Walsh is another great competitor at 57kgs, she enters this competition with brother Aidan Walsh at 69kgs.

At 81kgs, 75kgs and 69kgs respectively Ben Whittaker, Lauren Price and Pat McCormack are the most highly ranked in their weight class in Europe. That means their places at these upcoming Olympic Games are all but assured. They can rubberstamp that themselves at this competition.
Price, the reigning World and European Games champion, is likely to meet Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands once again in the final. These great rivals have been battling one another at tournaments throughout the build up to this Olympic Games. “She doesn’t do anything different. How I can perform better is down to me and what I do. Obviously at major tournaments I’ve kind of got that little bit more will to win as well because so much is on the line at major tournaments. I suppose the Nouchka situation is always going to be one of them. One and two in the world, it’s always going to be whoever performs best on the day,” Price said.

Her first bout though will come against host nation middleweight Davina Michel. “I’m just concentrating on myself. I know if I’m ready to go, trained hard, then I shouldn’t have no problems. As long as I perform I should be fine,” the Welsh star said. “I can’t wait, I’m excited, nervous but I’m looking forward to going and qualifying and get the word ‘qualifier’ out of my head now.”

Peter McGrail, at 57kgs, and Galal Yafai, at 52kgs, qualified for Tokyo last year before the boxing was suspended, as did Irish flyweight Brendan Irvine. But this tournament is still more than a formality. Success here will contribute to their seeding for the Olympics themselves, which could prove vital for setting up a medal-winning run. The road to Tokyo is heading into its final straight.

The action will be streamed live on the Olympic Channel and can be viewed at https://olympics.com/en/

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