Who will be the best boxer at Rio 2016?

James DeGale
Action Images
Chris Kempson tells the story of the Val Barker trophy and ponders who will win it at Rio 2016

THE Val Barker Trophy was first awarded at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 and indeed Barker was present there to present the trophy to Louis Laurie of the USA, a bronze medallist in the flyweight division. The emphasis was very much on style and winning an Olympic gold medal was not necessarily a pre-requisite to being considered for the trophy. We have to go back until 1988 which was the last time a non gold medallist won the Trophy.

So, who was, Val Barker? Barker was a successful amateur boxer who won the ABA heavyweight championship in 1891, in the colours of the Belsize ABC. Later, he moved into amateur boxing officialdom, becoming the first Honorary Secretary of the Federation Internationale de Boxe Amateur(FIBA), in 1920, the year in which it was founded. Barker ceased to be Honorary Secretary in 1932 but became Life President until his death in 1941.

FIBA was dissolved in 1946 with the Association Internationale de Boxe Amateur (AIBA) becoming the sports’s overall governing body, which still administers amateur boxing in the Olympic Games today. Back in England on the domestic front,Val Barker, was President of the ABA from 1926 to 1929. In 1936, FIBA dedicated the trophy in Val’s honour which was first awarded at the 1936 Games and has been ever since.

Overall, there have been eighteen winners of this prestigious award. Only two apart from Louis Laurie were not Olympic champions. Laurie won the third place match when his Argentinian opponent Alfredo Carlomagno was unable to box. In those days the bronze medal prize was contested between the two losing semi-finalists. Earlier in the competition, the American had lost in his semi- final to the eventual silver medallist from Italy, Gavino Matta Then came Kenyan, bronze medallist, Philip Waruinge at featherweight, the first black African boxer to win the trophy; and next a certain multi-talented American silver medallist named Roy Jones Jnr who was the victim of an outrageous decision (3-2) in favour of South Korea’s Park Si-Hun in the light-middleweight final in Seoul in 1988. Waruinge lost to the eventual Mexican gold medallist, Antonio Roldan in the semi-final, in Mexico City in 1968.

Boxers from the following countries have won the coveted trophy: USA (5), relative newcomers in their own right Kazakhstan (3), Italy (2), Cuba (2), South Africa (1), Great Britain (1), Kenya (1), the former Soviet Union (USSR (1), Russia (1), and Ukraine (1).

The trophy was not always a passport to future success in the professional game, but it was certainly no deterrent either! Only the following won world titles: both Italian gold medallists; Giovanni Benvenuti and Patrizio Oliva gold in Rome 1960 and Moscow in 1980 respectively at welterweight and light-welterweight; Roy Jones Jnr silver medallist at light-middleweight in Seoul in 1988; Vassiliy Jirov gold medallist in the light-heavyweight division at Atlanta in 1996 and lastly Vasyl Lomachenko from the Ukraine at featherweight in Beijing in 2008.

The following boxed later for world titles but didn’t win them: Philip Wariunge (bronze) in 1968 at featherweight in Mexico City; Howard Davis Jnr (gold) at lightweight in 1976 at Montreal and Paul Gonzales (gold) at light-flyweight in 1984 at Los Angeles. Both Laurie, bronze at flyweight in Berlin in 1936 and South African, George Hunter, gold at light-heavyweight in London in 1948, turned professional but did not ever box for a world title and indeed their paid careers did not achieve that much.

Eight gold medallists remained throughout their careers as “true blue amateurs”. They were: American, Norvel Lee (gold at light-heavyweight in 1952 at Helsinki); GB’s very own Dick McTaggart (gold at lightweight in 1956 at Melbourne); the former Soviet Union’s Valeri Popenchenko (gold at middleweight in 1964 at Tokyo); the late great Teofilo Stevenson (gold at heavyweight in 1972 at Munich); the late Cuban, Roberto Balado (gold at super-heavyweight in Barcelona in 1992); Russia’s , Oleg Saitov (gold at welterweight at Sydney in 2000); Kazakhstan’s Bakhtiyar Artayev (gold at welterweight in Athens in 2004) and finally Kazakhstan’s Serik Sapiyev (gold at welterweight in London 2012).

There has been quite a spread of trophy winners across the various weight divisions over the years, with bantamweight, the only weight category not to have received a Val Barker Trophy winner, so far! Where have all the bantamweights gone is the cry? The successful weight divisions are as follows: welterweight (4); light-heavyweight (3); lightweight (2); featherweight (2); light-flyweight (1); flyweight (1); light-welterweight (1); light-middleweight (1); middleweight (1); heavyweight (1) and super-heavyweight (1).

After Barcelona in 1992, the “new order” came along, with three Kazakhs, a Russian and a boxer from the Ukraine taking the coveted trophy. In 1992, it was a Cuban and four years previously an American, the “old guard” so to speak , so things are changing in the Olympic ring; although with all these matters it is opinions and choices that matter, whether we agree with them or not. It is so pleasant to see a trophy instituted some eighty years ago being contested so keenly every four years. It reflects the continuing spirit of the Games and the proud place which amateur boxing holds within the wider Olympic movement itself.

So far, no boxer from the continent of South America has won the Val Barker Trophy, so will this change in Rio or not? We shall see, whether it does or not will be as always a matter of opinion, so fasten your seat belts and let’s see what the 2016 Games will bring forth. Maybe, this will be their best chance, so far, to land a winner of this unique trophy, the next few weeks will tell us whether they can do so or not. Whatever happens and whoever wins the trophy in Rio they will have given everything in the Olympic spirit to do so.

For the ultimate guide to boxing at Rio 2016 don’t miss this week’s issue of Boxing News magazine

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