The Mullingar shuffler
IN 2009, I watched John Joe Nevin put on an exhibition throughout the Irish Senior Championship finals. One performance in particular, in dismissing Holy Family fighter Tyrone McCullough (subsequently a European bronze medallist in 2010), was enough to inspire Grannykiller to race to the bookies in search for odds.
A punt on Olympic gold in 2012 was hardly a sage-like prediction. Nevin was already an Olympian having travelled to Beijing where he won his opening round bout before being knocked out of the Games by the eventual bantamweight champion Enkhbatyn Badar-Uugan of Mongolia. But the fact that his dominance at domestic level was so impressive – and graceful – inspired us.
We never got that bet on, but there are no regrets.
Never mind our fiendish gambling instincts, the entertainment of Nevin’s master class at London’s ExCel Arena during his Olympic bantamweight semi-final win over Cuba’s Lazro Alvarez Estrada was enough to sate our lust for life.
Having moved into a 5-3 lead after the first round against a world champion, it would be understandable if a fighter eased into defensive mode and attempted to pick off his opponent through a frugal effort to save his lead. Instead, Nevin decided to trust his adventurous instincts and threw some shapes with his talented South American dancing partner.
The second round produced a fantastic effort from both fighters. For Nevin to fight in such a cocksure way – disregarding the basic principles of defence and moving with grace while throwing erratic but unpredictable punches – against a fighter from a country famed for being the classiest of boxing nations was phenomenal. For Estrada to pursue the Irish man in methodical yet stylish fashion, throwing looping and dangerous hooks, showed why he is a world champion.
Nevin increased his lead by a point but the Mullingar native was still not in a conservative mood. He picked off his opponent with precision, showing the footwork which RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey eloquently christened the “Mullingar shuffle”. His approach was even momentarily punished as Estrada caught Nevin on the ropes with seconds left in the bout.
The Irish man had already done more than enough to claim at least a silver medal and a 19-14 win and he will fight Britain’s Luke Campbell for gold in a rematch of last year’s World Championship semi-final (which the Hull native claimed on a countback, the scoring principle of which is explained here).
“I’m enjoying the whole thing; I’m not putting myself under pressure,” said Nevin after the bout. “I’m over the moon, I knew I had a tough one… but as our psychologist Gerry Hussey says: “the script is over written.”
Another Irish man came desperately close to tearing up the script. But while Paddy Barnes managed to rip apart the bulk of Zou Shiming’s dream story based on the Chinese fighter claiming a second Olympic gold, the Belfast light-flyweight was unable to scupper the beginning and end of Zou’s tale.
The first round really decided their semi-final meeting, with Zou commanding the fight as expected throughout the opening stanza. Nevin may be a shuffler, but when Zou (a three-time World and reigning Olympic champion) has his footwork right, he is a ballroom dancer.
The Chinese man ignored Barnes’ tight guard, showing fantastic movement to pick off his opponent with Zou starting well to the body before throwing elegant but forceful hooks to take an 8-5 lead.
In the next round, Zou attempted to throw punches from even more adventurous angles as a prowling Barnes moved to close down space. Physically dominating the champion, and throwing him to the ground on two occasions, Barnes gained a foothold in the bout and landed a cracking right hand with around 10 seconds remaining.
The second round was called 3-3 by the judges (making it 11-8 overall), but, in truth, Barnes was more deserving and possibly should have edged the round. The Belfast man decided to do his best to give the judges no other choice than give him the decision in the final chapter.
Putting a staggering amount of pressure on Zou, Barnes hassled and harried his opponent and there was a possible call for a count midway through the round but referee Gerardo Poggi called Zou’s fall a slip. Despite the heroic efforts of Barnes – delivering the bravest effort in one round out of all the Irish Olympic boxers in London – Zou used his reach to great affect as Barnes tires towards end.
The Olympic bronze medallist took the round 7-4, levelling the bout at 15-15 but Zou took his place in the Olympic final thanks to a countback (45-44).
In Beijing, Barnes lost this corresponding fight 15-0 to Zou – that result was never questionable although a zero points tally for Barnes was. This time around, even a +15 points improvement was not enough. The Irishman later tweeted after his loss: “Journey ends here, thanks for all the support people, Zou Shimming if you are reading this LEAVE ME ALONE!”
His trademark wit intact, a heroic Barnes is still standing. He stands alone.
Belfast Boy falls short
Close but no cigar, a Cuban smoked Michael Conlan’s dreams of making an Olympic flyweight final, but the 20-year-old Irish man managed to live up to the hype he had predicted.
Before the Games, Conlan had told Grannykiller that: “On my day I can beat anyone, I know I can because I’m capable of anything when I’m on form… I don’t think there will be anyone able to beat me at the Olympics.” He was nearly right, too, but Robeisy Carrazana Ramirez proved his theory wrong.
Conlan started relatively well and was quite busy against the well-guarded Cuban, who patiently sized up his Irish opponent before working to the body, claiming a 6-3 lead after the first round. Having fallen in arrears, Conlan started the second round at lightening pace and demonstrated the head movement and evasive abilities which have him marked out as Ireland’s most-talented young boxer. However, both the patience and physical presence of Ramirez defied his young 18 years.
Although Conlan seemed to have the better of the second, he had struggled to find even the hint of a leak in the Cuban’s water-tight defence and a 3-3 round kept Ramirez’s lead intact. With the bout slipping out of his mitts, the Irish fighter was forced to adopt a gung-ho approach in the last without much joy. Turning his back ever so slightly to Ramirez after a brief intervention from the referee, the Cuban pounced and caught Conlan flush with a number of impressive punches leading to a 10-4 round and a 20-10 loss.
Falling to a fighter who is a leading candidate for the Val Barker Trophy as best boxer of the Games is nothing to be ashamed of – especially considering the fact that Conlan never even boxed at a junior level for Ireland. However, he maintained afterwards: “I wish I could have got gold, but it’s easier said than done.”
Give it four years; with Conlan’s potential, it could be easily done.
*Ciarán Gallagher’s Mail Box column appears every Friday in the Irish Daily Mail
**See Grannykiller’s analyses of Katie Taylor’s Olympic lightweight final win over Sofya Ochigava here