Sometimes sport offers us a magical moment
Regular readers of this column will know that in sport, you don’t always get what you deserve. The sporting landscape is littered with hard luck stories and what ifs? None more so than the sport of boxing. Back at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Kenneth Egan was 9 minutes away from what would – should – have been Ireland’s first Olympic boxing gold since Barcelona in 1992. He faced Chinese boxer Xiaoping Zhang in the final. Zhang had beaten the favourite for the gold medal, Russian Arthur Beterbiev in the second round. Beterbiev is currently the unified Light Heavyweight champion of the world in the professional ranks and is ranked as one of the top ‘pound for pound’ boxers anywhere. The fact that Zhang had beaten Beterbiev in only the second round, raised eyebrows but didn’t cause a storm of protest. This was Beijing after all.
I watched the 2008 Egan/Zhang fight again recently and there is no doubt in my mind that Egan won it, and won it clearly. Had the fight taken place anywhere else in the world, Egan would have come out on top. But a home town decision robbed him of gold. Every time Zhang threw a punch, it was greeted with a roar from the partisan crowd. And it seemed that every roar influenced the judges to score the punch in favour of the Chinese boxer. Each time the score was added (and the crowd could see this), another roar and further reinforcement in the judges minds that the local boy was winning. The fact that the punches were landing on Egan’s gloves and could not have been scoring punches seemed not to matter.
Egan took silver and was gracious about it. Very gracious, more gracious that I would have been. But Egan knew the sport well enough to know that amateur boxing would never get every bout scored correctly. His graciousness reminded us of Sonia O’Sullivan in 1993 at the World Athletic Championships when Chinese runners took all three medals in the 3,000 meters. She too was gracious in defeat even when she knew that she had been wronged. Wronged by state sponsored doping which had been explained away as a diet consisting of the blood of freshly decapitated turtles.
Fast forward to Michael Conlon at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Conlon was the reigning world champion and was the favourite for the gold medal. He lost the quarter final to Russian Vladimir Nikitin in what was highly controversial at the time and was subsequently formally suspected of being fixed. It brought the curtain down on Mick’s amateur career in unfortunate fashion. He might have been a little less gracious in defeat than Ken and Sonia but who could blame him. Years of hard graft and toil, and early mornings, all in vain because someone, somewhere, in a room away from cameras, decided that Michael Conlon was not going to win a gold medal. I remember watching the scoring in that fight and feeling nauseous. In the final round, Conlon realised, disbelievingly, he was behind on the scorecards and went out and ‘boxed the ears off him’. Conlon knew something was up but wanted to put in such a dominant display in the final round that no judge could possibly be swayed, no matter what the payday. However, the judges were immune to embarrassment and awarded the fight to the Russian. You don’t always get what you deserve in sport, especially boxing.
That was 7 years ago and I have become incredibly jaundiced in my views on amateur boxing ever since. Kelly Harrington and Amy Broadhurst have brought me back to the sport in recent times. Who couldn’t find joy when Harrington earned a unanimous victory over Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil at the Tokyo games? Hakuna Matata she told us, translates as ‘no worries’ in the Swahili language. And then we sent a 10 person team over to the women’s European championships’ last year. And they brought back seven medals. Amy Broadhurst adding a European gold to the world gold that she won earlier in the year.
Irish Women’s boxing is a crowded field. Broadhurst for example is a natural lightweight but boxes a few kilos heavier at light welterweight because the lightweight position is occupied by Kellie Harrington. The problem for Broadhurst is that light welterweight is not an Olympic class and she will either have to box off against Harrington to qualify for Paris or go even heavier again to find a berth not occupied by a European or World champion.
Enter into this mix, Clonmel’s Shauna O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe had been boxing for several years. And boxing at a high level. In 2016 she made it to the final of the National Elite Championships at the National Stadium where she faced the greatest women’s boxer of all time, Katie Taylor. Taylor was the Olympic champion from London 2012 and would turn professional after her own Rio 2016 Olympic disappointment. Ordinarily, Taylor was crowned National Champion without throwing a punch because there was no-one in her class to go toe to toe with the greatest. When Taylor defeated O’Keeffe in 2016, it was her fifth National title but the first one that she had won in the ring.
On the night, Taylor was the better boxer, but O’Keeffe was not out of her depth. The scorecards that night read 40-34, 40-36 and 40-36 in favour of the five time World Champion. Taylor was made to earn her national title that year. Roll on to 2017, Taylor had turned professional and Shauna makes the elite final once more. Standing in her way this time was Kellie Harrington. Harrington had moved down a weight to fight at her more natural lightweight as she had been conscious of Taylor’s dominance at the lightweight class. O’Keeffe lost out to Harrington on a split decision. Four years later Harrington was the Olympic gold medallist.
Any national title in any sport is hard earned. Unless you are Katie Taylor, they don’t come in the post. So when Shauna O’Keeffe stepped into the ring earlier this month, for her third shot at the title, she was all too aware of the challenges that she faced. Incidentally Amy Broadhust, the World and European Champion lost her elite final on the same night to Offaly boxer Grainne Walsh. Broadhurst moved up to full welterweight to see if she was competitive at an Olympic class. It was a split decision defeat but one that leaves more questions than answers for Broadhurst.
Shauna O’Keeffe executed her game-plan perfectly last week, winning a unanimous 5-0 decision. The third National Elite Senior title winner for Clonmel Boxing Club, following in the steps of Con Sheehan and Dean Gardiner. Many others, maybe without her strong temperament, might have been lost to the sport. If your weight division is clogged with World and Olympic champions then you have to wonder how you might continue to motivate yourself for a shot at the title. When Taylor leaves the stage, along comes Harrington. And when you look a little north of Harrington’s weight division, you see Broadhurst.
It is a bit like tennis player Andy Murray. Now well past his prime, the former world number 4 will finish his career with three grand slam titles. He lost the Australian Open final 5 times. His curse? He was at his prime at the same time as Roger Federer (20 grand slams), Rafael Nadal (22 grand slam titles) and Novak Djokovic (22 grand slam titles). He kept going, even after his body cried stop, even though deep down he must have known that one of the three players above would probably beat him 9 times out of 10. And if he did catch one of them in a semi-final, one of the other two were waiting in the final. But that was professional sport. His career earnings on court alone amounting to nearly €70 million.
What Shauna O’Keeffe has achieved is remarkable by any standard. To make a comeback at her age (she is still the right side of 30) and win so comprehensively is a testament to both her sporting prowess and her mental strength. It isn’t a sport that you can pick up where you left off. Ring rust is a real phenomenon for boxers. It takes many months of training to get to the weight that you need to be at without losing power or stamina. Credit too to her coaches in Clonmel Boxing Club for developing a plan with her. But more credit to her for executing it. At any stage the wheels might have come off, an injury here, a failure to make weight there and months of work might have been for naught. Spurred on by previous hurt, previous ill luck and previous disappointment made for a heady cocktail of motivation.
High performance squads beckon, there are World and European Championships later this year. But the real quandary now for O’Keeffe is what to about the Olympic weight classes. But that’s for another day. Right now, Clonmel have another National Champion to accompany Courtney McGuire.
Clonmel have another athlete to inspire girls and boys. And Clonmel has someone who tells us to never give up on your dreams.
You don’t always get what you deserve in sport, but Shauna O’Keeffe just has.