Vladivostok, if translated, means “to conquer the East”.
The Irish Olympic boxing squad for Beijing 2008 headed to Vladivostok, once the home base of the Russian Pacific nuclear fleet, to train and spar with the Russian national team in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
A few weeks later the five-strong squad touched down at Dublin Airport from China with three medals, Irish boxing’s biggest haul since the 1956 Games in Melbourne.
Ken Egan claimed silver and the late Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes took home bronze, while John Joe Nevin and John Joe Joyce made the last-16.
Remarkably, all five Irish boxers were only beaten by the eventual gold medallists in their respective weight categories.
Egan met China’s Zhang Xiaoping in the light-heavyweight final, but the Asian fighter, who was born in Inner Mongolia, was handed a controversial 11-7 decision and Egan’s dreams of landing gold and joining an illustrious light-heavyweight cast which included Muhammad Ali, who claimed light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, were dashed.
Many boxing pundits believe that the final score to Xiaoping, who had been well beaten by Irish 2012 Olympian Darren O’Neill in a Multi Nations tournament prior to Beijing, did not reflect Egan’s performance, that the judges had failed to register some of the Dublin southpaw’s clear cut shots, particularly in the second and third rounds.
Egan dropped to his knees after the final bell, as did Xiaoping, in celebration. The 81kg gold medal would not be leaving China.
“I genuinely thought that I won that fight by two or three points, said Egan.
“Everyone says to me I went to the Olympics and I won silver. I lost the gold in the final; that’s how I look at it. Okay, I came home with the silver medal, an amazing achievement. If I was offered that at the start of it, I would have taken it with both hands.
“It was a close final, and he came out on top, but it is behind me now and it’s history and it’s great to have been part of it.”
Meanwhile, Sutherland stopped Algerian middleweight Nabil Kassel in his opening bout and was then drawn against the powerful Venezuelan, Alfonso Blanco, in the last-16.
Blanco had beaten the St Saviours OBA (Dublin) man at AIBA World Championships and Olympic qualifiers in Chicago en route to silver in the Windy City.
But Sutherland produced a fantastic performance to exact revenge in Beijing to guarantee himself at least bronze. That set up a semi-final clash with Great Britain’s James DeGale, a duel which the London-born middleweight won 10-3.
Egan, incidentally, beat Tony Jeffries 10-3 in the light-heavyweight semi-final, leaving the Olympic head-to-heads between Ireland and Team GB locked at 1-1 and an exact amount of points scored and conceded.
Barnes, who qualified for Beijing from the AIBA World Championships in Chicago, a tournament at which Ali made a guest appearance, registered impressive 14-8 and 11-5 verdicts over Ecuador’s Jose Luis Meza and Poland’s Lukasz Maszcyk to assure himself of at least bronze.
Zou Shiming, who had beaten the Irish Elite champion in the quarter-finals in Chicago, awaited, and once again there was controversy over the scoring after the Chinese light-flyweight was awarded a 15-0 verdict.
Shiming deserved his win. However, Barnes found the target at least six times in that clash and Shiming’s margin of victory was outrageously flattering.
Nevin, at 18 the youngest member of the Irish squad, booked his ticket for Beijing at the Olympic qualifiers in Pescara, Italy. Gary Keegan, the then Director of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s High-Performance Unit, had brought Nevin to Pescara, the second last Olympic qualifier for European boxers, for the experience of competition in international competition.
However, Nevin, who also qualified for the 2012 Olympics, took his opportunity with both hands and made the Irish team for Beijing, where he beat Abdelhalim Ouarradi of Algeria before going out to eventual Olympic champion, Badar-Uugan Enkhbat of Mongolia.
Enkhbat was undoubtedly the strongest bantamweight at the 29th Olympiad, but would he have won gold if Cuba’s Guillermo Rogondeaux, who would have been aiming for a third successive Olympic title, hadn’t been dropped from the Cuban team?
Nevin put his Olympic disappointment behind him to become the first Irish male boxer in the 101-year history of the IABA to win two medals at World Championships level in Milan and Baku in 2009 and 2011.
Meanwhile, John Joe Joyce had lost on three occasions to Gyula Kate of Hungary prior to Beijing, but the St Michael’s Athy man put the record straight on the biggest stage of them all with a 9-5 decision in his opening bout. The IABA President Dominic O’Rourke, Joyce’s club coach, was at ringside.
Joyce was ahead by a single point going down the final stretch of his last-16 meeting with Felix Diaz, but the Dominican Republic light-welterweight found the target in the final few seconds to tie the bout at 11-11 before getting the nod a countback.
Joyce, who would go on to win bronze for Ireland at the European Championships in Liverpool later that year, was the second Irish boxer after Andy Lee in 2004 to exit the Olympic Games on a countback, a system in which the highest and lowest scores of the five ringside judges are eliminated and the scores from the three other judges are totted up.
Billy Walsh and Zuar Antia worked Ireland’s corner in Beijing. Jim Walsh was the Irish team manager.
China finished on top of the medals table in Beijing. Ireland was in 12th spot, two places adrift of Cuba. Ireland finished in 11th position in the rankings table, two places above the USA.
The 2008 Olympic Games was the last Olympiad to exclude female boxers, which was a good omen for Ireland as certain female lightweight from Bray was poised to bridge the 20-year gap since Michael Carruth stood on top of an Olympic podium at Barcelona 1992 and London 2012.
(Images: Ken Egan and Irish Beijing 2008 team)
Light-flyweight: Paddy Barnes (Holy Family) – Bronze
Beat Jose Luis Meza (Ecuador) 14-8
Beat Lukasz Maszczyk (Poland) 11-5
Lost to eventual gold medalist Zou Shiming (China) 0-15
Featherweight: John Joe Nevin (Cavan)
Beat Abdelhalim Ouarradi (Algeria) 904
Lost to eventual gold medalist Badar-Uugan Enkhbat (Mongolia) 2-9
Light-welterweight: John Joe Joyce (St Michael’s, Athy)
Beat Gyula Kate (Hungary) 9-5
Lost to eventual gold medalist Felix Diaz (Dominican Republic) 11-11 (countback)
Middleweight: Darren Sutherland (St Saviours) – Bronze
Beat Nabil Kassel (Algeria) RSC4
Beat Alfonso Blanco (Venezuela) 11-1
Lost to eventual gold medalist James DeGale (Britain) 10-3
Light-heavyweight: Ken Egan (Neilstown) – Silver
Beat Julius Jackson (Virgin Islands) 22-2
Beat Muzafer Bahram (Turkey) 10-2
Beat Washington Silva (Brazil)
BeatTony Jefferies (Great Britain) 10-3)
Lost to Zhang Xiaoping (China) 7-11