When 17-year-old Joe Ward defeated Kenny Egan in the National Final to stun Irish amatuer boxing and take the reigning Olympic silver medallist’s Irish Light Heavyweight crown, we knew we had a special one on our hands.
After the verdict his grandfather, Joe ‘The Bareknuckle King” Ward, famously leaped over the ropes in the National Stadium, hugged his fighter and roared: “You’ll never be bate.” Old Joe meant in a fair fight. What happened to his grandson in Turkey last week certainly wasn’t one of those. The volleys of punches landed by the Westmeath lad in Trabzon went unnoticed by the judges.
Meanwhile, they saw his Turkish opponent landing with punches that cannot even be seen on the video. Nothing much has changed.
At the 1928 games, officials and boxers fought in and out of the ring after a series of home town verdicts. In 1960 in Rome, the Olympic Committee took the extraordinary step of sacking most of the judges after another catalogue of dodgy decisions. In the light middleweight final at the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, Roy Jones Jun. faced the unknown South Korean Park Si Hun, who had only reached that stage courtesy of a number of shocking results. (Park’s Italian opponent Vincenzo Nardiello was so enraged with the quarter-final verdict that he refused to leave the ring and was eventually dragged out.)
A week before that Roy Jones final, in scenes reminiscent of a Tyrone ladies football game, New Zealand referee Keith Walker was kicked and punched by Korean officials who invaded the ring after he had docked points from their fighter, Byun Jong-il. Walker was spirited out of the arena and on the basis of security advice, flew home next morning. Against Jones, Park stumbled into a blizzard of leather. It was so one-sided that half way through the first round Jones drops his guard and fights with his hands mostly at his side. At the end of the first, he raises his arm in triumph. For three rounds Park’s head rocks back and forth like a woodpecker’s as Jones’ lightening hands drill him. “If Jones gets any faster they’ll give him a speeding ticket” quips Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pachecho, co-commentating for NBC. Two standing eight counts follow. By the final bell the South Korean can barely stand. A few minutes later, he is crowned champion, prompting the disgusted referee (Italy’s Aldo Leoni) to turn to Jones and say “I can’t believe they are doing this to you.” The IOC investigated the scandal but as always, the decision stood.
Karl-Heinz Wuhr, general secretary of AIBA (The World Amateur Boxing body) at the time, wrote in a report that was not published until several years later that: “They (the South Koreans) did not miss a chance to try to corrupt or influence me” and “There were always judges prepared to declare a South Korean boxer victor, even if this was completely ludicrous.”
Wuhr alleged bribes had been paid to several judges and that there were concerted attempts to corrupt officials within the top echelon of the AIBA. You don’t say!
So when Joe Ward was informed he had to box a Trabzon boxer in Trabzon to qualify for the Olympics, he knew he was stepping onto a minefield. But like everyone else, he was convinced he had the tools to get the job done. After all, he had been there before. In May, 2009 at the World Junior Light Middleweight Final in Armenia, he faced Armenian boxer, Hayk Khachatryan. Ward removed the judges from the equation, stopping his man in the third in front of a very hostile home crowd.
The following year, Ward moved up a weight and secured World Junior titles back-to-back, comfortably beating Aussie, Damien Hooper to claim the Junior World Middleweight title. A few months later, the ‘veteran’ 17-year-old swaggered into his first senior European Championships and swept all opposition aside, finishing with a landslide victory in the final to become European Senior Light Heavyweight champion. In the AIBA rankings, he is European No. 1 and world No. 3 (Hooper, whom he easily defeated in that middleweight World junior final in 2010, is number 2). In the run up to the Trabzon tournament, Ward underscored his excellence, comprehensively whipping both of the bronze medallists from the 2011 World championships.
Ward’s Irish team-mate Paddy Barnes, the current Olympic Light Flyweight bronze medallist, also had to fight in Trabzon. Luckily for Paddy, he had already qualified for the Olympics by virtue of his quarter-final win on Wednesday. So, by the time he met the Turkish representative in Friday’s semi-final, he was mightily relieved to be fighting only for fun. Boy did the mischievous Mr Barnes enjoy himself, absolutely murdering the hapless Ferhat Pehlivan. After one particular blitzkrieg of punches in the third, he staggered the Turk to his toes with a big right hand and raised his arm to the crowd in anticipation of his imminent triumph. Two minutes later the judges handed the shell-shocked Turk a 21-14 decision. Paddy doesn’t do political correctness. In the Olympic semi-final in Beijing against the home fighter, he wasn’t awarded a single point over the three rounds, despite appearing to score regularly. Afterwards, when a BBC TV reporter had the temerity to congratulate him on the bronze medal, Paddy memorably told him “they can stick the bronze medal up their hole!”
So when the verdict was announced in Trabzon on Thursday past, he put his finger to the side of his head and made circles and laughed out loud. “ I hammered him,” he said afterwards to the incredulous Press pack,” absolutely hammered him. His ma and da knew it. The whole crowd knew it.”
It is no consolation for Ward to know that he did exactly the same to his Turkish opponent. He won every round. The video of the last round alone shows him landing 13 clear scoring punches to Muzaffer’s three. When the verdict was announced, bewilderment swept the arena. Muzaffer had the decency to look embarrassed, hugging Ward apologetically.
The Irish delegation has been most dignified. Pat Hickey, the influential President of Ireland’s Olympic Council - is attempting to use the wild card rule to get the Westmeath man to the games. It is a long shot. Meanwhile, Ward ponders his future. After 1988, Roy Jones turned pro with those electrified fists and went on to become the pound-for-pound fighter of the ‘90s. Park Si Hun returned to obscurity.
The fear now is that young Joe – disgusted at what has happened - will turn pro. Given the manner in which his grandfather’s prophecy has been broken, who would blame him? It is a damning indictment of Olympic boxing when the professional game looks cleaner.
Joe Brolly writes in the Journal every Friday