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The Olympics are here

GB Boxing Olympics
Sam Mellish/GB Boxing
Boxing at an Olympics like no other begins this weekend, and GB is going in with an exceptionally strong side. John Dennen previews the event

FINALLY it’s here. Tokyo 2020 will be an Olympic Games like no other. For a start it’s happening in 2021, delayed by a year due to Covid-19. The Olympics has been cancelled before, because of World Wars, but never successfully postponed. Nor has an Olympic Games ever been staged during a global pandemic. The boxing will take place at the Kokugikan Arena, Tokyo’s historic venue for sumo wrestling, without crowds, beginning on Saturday (July 24) and finishing on August 8.

Coronavirus brings plenty of complications. The athletes’ movements will be restricted within the Olympic environment, all will be under the pressure of having to pass regular Covid tests or else be forced into isolation, potentially even missing out on their events. How these additional pressures affect the individuals in competition, time will only tell.

For Britain these Games are still a golden opportunity. This might just be the best GB Olympic team since 1956. Of course there have been excellent British squads in recent cycles. GB secured three medals at Rio 2016 and Beijing 2008, as well as a remarkable five at London 2012. Those squads have produced brilliant Olympians like Nicola Adams and professionals like Josh Taylor, Anthony Joshua and James DeGale to name but a few. But going into Tokyo what this squad has throughout its 11 members are seasoned international medal winners in virtually every category. The GB Boxing programme has done an excellent job at keeping this unit together, with so much uncertainty blighting amateur boxing over the last year. Every British boxer going to Japan has real potential, although whoever finally finishes with medals will depend on the draw and maybe even a dose of luck along the way too.

Considering the boxers’ achievements over the last five years, perhaps GB can consider themselves unfortunate to only have two of their number seeded in the top four. But those two are outstanding. Pat McCormack and Lauren Price have led the way for this team. Both are hitting their stride at the right time in the build up. If they can peak for these Games, they are real gold medal contenders.

Both won the European qualification event in Paris in June and in the process confirmed their place as world number one in their respective divisions. For McCormack his final was especially satisfying. He beat his Russian rival Andrei Zamkovoi, who had defeated him in the final of the last World championships. McCormack got his revenge in a high intensity, high quality European final, which for the Briton came at the perfect time.

“He’s been on my mind since I lost to him in Russia, when we had a head clash, he cut my eye open and then the fight got stopped. He’s been on my mind since then because he’s World champion and I’ve been dying to get him back,” Pat, now a two-time Olympian, said. “It’s like I was taking over the throne.”

“I feel like I’m going to peak perfect at Tokyo,” he continued. “I’d rather be the number one seed expected to win gold, than be like an underdog… I’ll be going there with confidence to bring back the gold medal.”

Pat McCormack
Pat McCormack could star at welterweight. Photo: Sam Mellish/GB Boxing

Lauren Price, the reigning 75kgs World gold medallist, also beat stern Russian opposition in the final of the qualifier. Zenfira Magomedalieva was a World champion herself up at 81kgs and, having moved down, she is a big, physically imposing middleweight. Yet Price used her speed and skill to calmly pick her off. Her quick feet and sharp reactions will be crucial. The Welsh southpaw will also need to be ready for Holland’s Nouchka Fontijn. The two have boxed one another time and again in major tournament finals and across the European circuit, handing one another defeats and taking victories. Their personal battle could well continue in Tokyo.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I was eight years of age to go and become an Olympian now. To call myself an Olympian, it’s a dream come true but I’m not going to stop here. I’m going to go and win a medal, hopefully gold,” Price said. “I’ve won the Commonwealth, the European, the World [gold] and I’ve got one more to get. That’s what motivates me.”

But even for the most talented, medalling in a major tournament let alone an Olympic Games is never guaranteed. Peter McGrail suffered a surprise defeat to good Hungarian Roland Galos at the qualifier (only after the Liverpudlian had secured his place at these Olympics). But he is a pure boxing talent who has medalled at the last two World championships and the previous two Europeans. Once a Youth Olympian, going into the main event McGrail is still a seasoned international winner. But his path to possible glory in Tokyo is complicated by how competitive the 57kgs division is. The Uzbek, Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov, the Cuban, Lazaro Alvarez are outstanding. Even the Hungarian’s good. McGrail is in one of the must-watch divisions. “It’s fired me up for the Olympics more,” McGrail told Boxing News. “I’m going to be a completely different animal in these Olympics.

“I’m just looking forward to my first fight and performing in front of the world watching. It’s going to be special.”

63kgs, Luke McCormack’s division, also contains a constellation of stars. Andy Cruz, another Cuban, is superb. The American, Keyshawn Davis, at his best is a very hard man to beat and the Frenchman Sofiane Oumiha is a formidable opponent. But Luke was neck and neck with Oumiha the last time they boxed and can fight with ferocity and focus. Succeeding in Tokyo alongside his twin brother Pat could become one of the stories of the Games.

As could be Caroline Dubois. It’s too early in her career to say that Dubois could become the best female boxer the UK has produced. She is just 20 years old. But don’t overlook her potential. No one has done what she accomplished at Junior and Youth level. She won the Youth Olympics and World Youth championships and never lost a bout in those age groups. She has tasted defeat twice as a senior, and does not care to do so again. She is capable of becoming a star at these Games.

As is Ben Whittaker. He has only just turned 24 and at light-heavyweight he is in an exciting weight class. He is a stylish, slick boxer. But the rough, tough men in this division will try to drag him into brawls and disrupt him to prevent him from putting those skills to work. How he adapts to that over the course of this tournament will decide whether he gets among the medals.

Galal Yafai enters his second Olympic Games. At Rio 2016 he was essentially a novice. Now he is experienced, one of the veterans of this team. The southpaw puts opponents under real pressure over the course of three rounds, unleashing unrelenting combinations of punches. But he will have to contend with the reigning Olympic champion in the division, Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan and many more threats.

Another Briton with a crowd-pleasing style is Cheavon Clarke. The heavyweight bounds forward with heavy punches and works well on the inside. But at 91kgs there are slick boxers, like Spain’s Enmanuel Reyes, and the dangerous, rugged Kazakh Vassiliy Levit, not to mention the leading Russian in the imposing Muslim Gadzhimagomedov.

It’s remarkable that Charley Davison is lining up alongside the world’s elite at these Games. A mother of three children, she had seven years out of the sport before being brought on to the GB squad only at the start of 2020. She was a surprise inclusion on the Olympic team. But in her recent performances she’s hardly looked like an international newcomer. She’s boxed with poise, good movement and fine judgement of distance. Reaching these Olympics is a landmark achievement for Davison, but qualifying alone is unlikely to be the end of her journey.

Lauren Price has won World and European gold. Now she is determined to become Olympic champion. Photo: Sam Mellish/GB Boxing

Karriss Artingstall becomes the first female soldier to box at an Olympics. She stands out at 57kgs not just by being sharp on her feet but through landing shots with real power. Artingstall felt the very real pressure of qualifying in Paris. Now she expects to fight more freely in Japan. “The opposition over in Tokyo is obviously going to top class because it’s all the best boxers at the pinnacle of the sport,” she told Boxing News. “I’m there, I’ve done it. The only thing for me now is to treat every bout as if it’s a final and get myself on that podium.

“I’ve not got there for no reason. I know I’m capable of mixing it with every single one of them. I just need to make sure I turn up on the day, relax into it and just perform.”

“They’re all on fire,” she adds of her GB squad. “The atmosphere from now compared to before the qualifier is a completely different atmosphere.

“It does make me confident going away with the team and obviously the likes of Pat McCormack and Galal that are two-time Olympians, it’s a good team to be going away with.”

GB team captain Frazer Clarke encapsulates the spirit of the side. He has never given up. Anthony Joshua was ahead of him during his first Olympic cycle, Joe Joyce took the super-heavyweight place in his second. He stuck to his dream, even through the Covid postponement, and after 11 years of work he will box in his first Olympic Games. But being there won’t be enough for him. He has the punch power to get himself out of trouble, the physicality to compete with the biggest men of this division and, when switched on, the technical prowess to control and win rounds.

It’s hard to predict a medal tally, especially when so many factors will come into play in this most uncertain Olympics. But if this GB team performs to its full potential it is capable of matching the best medal hauls of any British boxing team in recent editions of the Games. The talents of this generation have to go out and show they are a heavyweight boxing nation.

IRELAND
IRELAND have a team of seven through to the Olympic Games. Their stars are Kellie Harrington in the 60kgs division and Michaela Walsh at 57kgs. For Harrington following in the august footsteps of Katie Taylor is hardly easy. But Harrington won the World championships in 2018, took silver at the European Games in 2019 and has been in fine form so far this year. At the European qualification event in Paris she boxed in style, winning her first three bouts in the tournament unanimously, including handling professional world belt-holder Maïva Hamadouche at home with aplomb, before beating Britain’s impressive Caroline Dubois in the final. Michaela Walsh also reached the final of the European qualifier, losing there to Italian Olympian Irma Testa. But Walsh is hard to beat when she gets into her rhythm and is in a very competitive but unpredictable division.

Flyweight Brendan Irvine, who became a two-time Olympian in London last year just before the qualifier was suspended, captains the side. “We are excited to just get stuck in now. We have a strong team, with every single person going into the Olympic Games with a real opportunity to do something special,” he said. Irvine and Harrington were selected to carry the flag for Ireland at the Opening Ceremony.

Ireland’s talented featherweight Michaela Walsh. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

At 57kgs Kurt Walker will be a boxer to watch. Although he suffered a shock defeat to Germany’s Hamsat Shadalov at the qualifier last year, his high world ranking ensured he received an Olympic quota place. He is the reigning European Games gold medallist and has a budding rivalry with Britain’s Peter McGrail. Aoife O’Rourke is a very able middleweight who sooner or later will break through to the top tier of international boxing. Aidan Walsh, the brother of Michaela, is mobile, drops his hands and aims to pocket punches before frustrating his opponents. That approach qualified him for the Olympics but he may have to change it to beat the elite. Battling light-heavyweight Emmett Brennan forced his way through to the Games in a high pressure Olympic box-off. Whomever he’s drawn against, Brennan will come to fight.

USA
AMERICA is not sending the team they expected to have at these Olympic Games. The pandemic meant the Americas qualification event and subsequent World qualifier were called off this year. Through the Boxing Task Force’s revamped qualification system the US gets an Olympic team of nine based on ranking points accrued. But three of those boxers had already turned professional. Even though AIBA’s rules permit pros to return, this normally would be contrary to USA Boxing’s selection policy. But these are not normal times. Troy Isley, at 75kgs, Keyshawn Davis, at 63kgs and Duke Ragan, at 57kgs, are back in the picture. They have had two, three and four professional bouts respectively, keeping themselves busy with punching for pay this year. But the allocation of their Olympic places was based on their achievements in amateur boxing, which have been substantial. Duke Ragan won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in 2019 and was already a World silver medallist. Keyshawn Davis was a highly impressive World finalist two years ago. Troy Isley too has medalled in international competition, his Pan American bronze was vital to getting him to Tokyo. But transitioning to the longer distance of the pro game, and then having to recalibrate for the faster, shorter Olympic-style sport is not ideal preparation. It’s hard to predict how ready they will be for the Olympics themselves.

Outside of the three pros the US does have other Olympians to watch too. Richard Torrez might be widely known for suffering a heavy knockout loss to Bakhodir Jalolov, but he is well-regarded among the super-heavyweights. Oshae Jones at 69kgs won the Box Am and Standja tournaments in Europe last year and is a Pan American Games champion. Experienced Virginia Fuchs, at 51kgs, who missed out on Rio 2016, becomes an Olympian. Rashida Ellis (60kgs), Delante Johnson (69kgs) and Naomi Graham (75kgs) complete the team.

INTERNATIONAL
The rule that now allows professionals to enter the Olympics, if selected by their national teams, may have originally been intended to tempt some superstars into the Games but it’s also let athletes from smaller boxing nations earn during the year long wait for the postponed Olympics and get some rounds in too. New Zealand heavyweight David Nyika for instance qualified for the Tokyo Games last year. Since then he has had a pro bout, a meaningless 29 seconds with a hapless opponent. But Nyika is skilled, exciting to watch and the fourth seed at 91kgs. Dabbling in professional boxing has its risks. Australian super-heavy Justis Huni qualified for Tokyo, only to damage his hand in his fifth pro bout, as recently as June, and therefore rule himself out of the Olympics. The Uzbek team has managed juggling nascent professional careers with Olympic-style boxing. Bakhodir Jalolov is 8-0 as a pro but is still the leading super-heavyweight in Tokyo. But his preparations have including multiple Olympic-style tournaments, including this year’s Asian championships, where he won gold, this year’s Governor’s Cup in St. Petersburg, where he won gold and this year’s Strandja tournament, where he won gold. He’s not the only formidable Uzbek in Tokyo. Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov is the top seed at 57kgs for good reason. Elnur Abduraimov is going to be in some thrilling bouts at 63kgs.

Europe has some exceptionally strong boxers coming through. Marauding middleweight Oleksandr Khyzhniak could be due another duel with heavy-handed Russian Gleb Bakshi. (Although expect the Philippines’ Eumir Marcial also to have a say at 75kgs.)

Fearsome middleweight Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine. Photo: James Chance/Getty Images

At 63kgs is Cuba’s Andy Cruz, who might just be the best boxer at any weight in this competition. But beyond him Cuba might not be quite as dominant as they have been in Olympics gone by. Lazaro Alvarez has had to drop down to 57kgs, enriching that fantastic division. Gold medallists at Rio, Julio La Cruz and Arlen Lopez are both qualified but both have moved up divisions. It will be interesting to see how Lopez fares at 81kgs but for La Cruz 91kgs might just be too great a leap in weight. Welterweight Roniel Iglesias is still going, still qualified but it’s been a long time since his brilliant gold medal winning performances at London 2012. Younger men are taking over.

Indian legend Mary Kom, a record-breaking six-time World gold medallist, has superbly managed to qualify for these Games. But to medal at this stage of her career would be the stuff of fairy tales. India will likely be looking at Vikas Krishan, at 69kgs, and Amit, at 52kgs, for potential podium finishes. Also at 69kgs Sewonrets Okazawa might just be the host nation’s best hope for a boxing medal. He will be a handful, but how he’ll miss not having a home crowd to roar him on.

The boxing tournament at the Tokyo Olympics runs from July 24-August 8. At Boxing News we’ll keep you updated throughout.

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