Paddy Barnes is back and ready to prove he’s the man ahead of Rio Olympics challenge
Paddy Barnes will step up his preparations to turn bronze into gold at the Rio Olympics when he competes in an international tournament in Lithuania at the end of this month.
The 29-year-old light-flyweight has been out of action since winning the 49kg category at the WSB Series in Venezuela in April of last year.
Initially he took a break to allow his injured hand time to recover from ligament damage sustained during his gruelling seven-fight schedule over 13 weeks in three different continents.
As a result, he missed the European Games in Baku, where Brendan Irvine won a silver medal in the light-fly category, which earned him a place at the World Championships — which is the only ranking tournament that Barnes hasn’t won a medal at.
Barnes — who spearheads Electric Ireland’s Olympic campaign #ThePowerWithin — is to box in the 52kg category in Lithuania and his lack of competitive action in the last 12 months doesn’t bother him.
“Once I’ve been in training camps I’m fine. Usually I box only three or four times a year anyway,” he said.
The IABA’s High Performance Unit (HPU) is hosting an historic training camp in the Irish Sports Council’s new purpose-built training centre in Abbotstown this week, with squads from Britain, Kazakhstan, Germany and India also taking part.
“I never thought we would get out there — in fact, I never thought I would see the centre,” admitted Barnes, who will be flagbearer for Team Ireland in Rio.
When the Belfast fighter linked up with the then fledgling High Performance Unit — after he sensationally qualified for the Beijing Olympics at the 2007 World Championships in Chicago — the boxers were billeted in a bed and breakfast near the National Stadium.
Initially they slept on airbeds in the dressing rooms of the renovated HQ of the HPU.
“I would never have slept in a dressing room,” insisted Barnes — right from the moment he was recruited he was never shy about expressing his opinions in the most forthright fashion.
In the early days, the coaching staff doubted whether Barnes would make the grade and he was left out of the squad originally selected for the 2007 World Championships.
Barnes recalled one exchange with Billy Walsh (right) which underlined how tempestuous their relationship could be. After Barnes pulled out of a tournament due to illness before Chicago, Walsh suggested that he might as well leave the team. “But I am the team!” protested the boxer.
“We had a love/hate relationship,” acknowledged Barnes, who is adamant the controversial departure of Walsh to the US last year hasn’t impacted negatively on the boxers’ preparations for Rio. “Everything is going normally and smoothly. We’ve got brilliant coaches. Zaur Antia is the master. He’s the main man, the best coach in the world. You couldn’t get any better than him,” added Barnes, who still seeks counsel from his original coach in the Holy Family Boxing Club, Gerry Storey.
“I would be in touch with Gerry all the time. He’s had a huge influence on my career. He celebrated his 80th birthday recently and I went around to his house with a helium balloon with ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it. I wanted to tie it to his door but he caught me.”
Seventeen of the 22 boxers in the light-fly category, including World champion Yoahnys Argilago of Cuba, have already qualified for Rio, but double Olympic bronze medallist Barnes is unfazed.
“It is man versus boys and I’m obviously the man,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the sport and it is massively important that I win that gold medal in Rio. I’m 100 per cent certain of that. I’m only starting.”
Barnes has yet to decide whether to turn professional after the Olympics or pursue his career in the expanding WSB or APS series.
Six Irish boxers have already qualified for Rio, and Barnes expects three more to make it. The squad depart for South America on July 18, which means Barnes won’t be able to attend Carl Frampton’s WBA World featherweight title fight against Leo Santa Cruz in New York 12 days later.
The Belfast pair are close friends — Barnes was best man at Frampton’s wedding — even though they come from opposite sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland.
Their respective clubs, Holy Family and Midland, are just a quarter of a mile apart. At one time it was a journey fraught with danger as it meant crossing the infamous ‘Peace Line’.
“We fought each other four times, he won three and I won the other but one of the decisions was debatable,” said Barnes. “We developed a close friendship. I’m not jealous of the success he’s had. I’m proud that as a friend he has done so well and I believe he will knock out Santa Cruz.”
Although he was surprised by Katie Taylor’s defeat at the recent European qualifier, Barnes takes a pragmatic view, saying: “You can’t win them all. For her to be mentally and physically ready for every fight for five years was a magnificent achievement.”