Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Fighting fit ladies aiming to deliver knockout blow at Commonwealths

Boxing Camp:  Michaela Walsh and Alanna Audley-Murphy
Boxing Camp: Michaela Walsh and Alanna Audley-Murphy

When Alanna Audley-Murphy and Michaela Walsh travel to Glasgow for this month's Commonwealth Games, they will be indelibly etching their names into Northern Ireland's sporting history and much has been overcome to have the pair in this unique position.

Despite a long history that stretches back as far as the 18th century, women's boxing remained illegal in the United Kingdom as recently as 20 years ago.

Indeed, it was only in 1996 that the 116-year ban on the sport was lifted by the Amateur Boxing Association of England and a further two years before Jane Couch was granted a licence to become Britain's first female professional.

The struggle for recognition continued, however, and as recently as five years ago the decision to include women's boxing in the 2012 Olympics was met with questionable assertions from influential figures such as 2004 silver medalist Amir Khan that a ring was no place for a girl.

What followed was foreseen by few as the exploits of Ireland's Katie Taylor and Great Britain's Nicola Adams in London – both winning gold medals – packed out the Excel Arena and enthralled spectators at home watching on television.

Suddenly female boxers became household names and the sight of both Taylor and Adams beaming in the ring following their respective successes proved to be some of the most enduring images of the Games.

The genuine buzz created around the sport meant that the decision to include women's boxing in this year's Commonwealths was nothing but straightforward and was of little surprise when it was announced in October of 2012.

And Audley-Murphy, who was there in London to watch her close friend Taylor win gold, is honoured to be one of Northern Ireland's first competitors.

The Eastside ABC fighter, a one time quarter-finalist at the World Championships, said: "This will go down in Northern Ireland's history and it's something that we'll be able to tell our kids and our grandkids when we're older. That's a big achievement no matter what happens.

"I'm always very proud to be selected for my country but this is brilliant.

"Women's boxing had gotten so much bigger in the years before the Olympics but that's such a big event that it opened eyes that bit more.

"You don't get to see the World Championships and the Europeans because they're not televised so the Olympics gave everyone a chance to see that the girls are right up there with the boys when it comes to boxing.

"Hopefully this will help the sport get even bigger."

Team-mate Walsh is equally aware of the significance of her selection and added: "We're history makers and it's something that I'm very proud of.

"Any time anyone asks, 'who were the first two girls to box for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games?', it will be us who are mentioned."

The addition of Walsh and Audley-Murphy to Northern Ireland's vaunted boxing team – three golds and two silvers were won in Delhi four years ago – has been a welcome one for the squad and at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland for the final media session before departure this week, it was clear to see how the pair have had little problem assimilating to what was once considered a male-dominated environment.

The high spirits in a camp that includes the likes of Olympic medalists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon are evident with the former declaring that the decision to include women's boxing at the Commonwealths should have been taken "a long time ago" and describing his latest team-mates as "brilliant boxers."

Walsh, who as a flyweight could be paired with Adams, enthused: "This is the best group that I've ever been away with. Normally when we travel it's all girls but a mixed team is great.

"You look and see Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlon and other up and coming athletes and it gives you a real buzz.

"Everyone is bonding together and we're like brothers and sisters really."

While it has appeared for some time that it would be this particular duo representing Northern Ireland this summer – the pair are the province's outstanding female boxers – with the competition now approaching, the anticipation is becoming fervent.

Audley-Murphy declared: "I'm completely buzzing now that it's only a few weeks away. We're here training hard and just can't wait to get started.

"Most of the hard work has been done and there's just a few more days of hard graft to go.

"We've had the right people around us and the facilities are great so each boxer can be confident of performing really well.

"It's a matter of watching the weight and keeping hydrated now to make sure that we're good to go come the first fight."

Further excitement has been generated by the close geographical proximity of the games, which ensures Northern Ireland's boxers can rely on substantial support for their fights.

Walsh, of the Holy Family club in Belfast, said: "Hopefully my family and Alanna's family will be over seeing as it's just a case of hopping on the boat. It's great having it so close, you could run over if you wanted to.

"Stena Line is one of the sponsors and they're going to be doing daily boats over so even if you go over just for the day and come back that night, it's handy.

"In boxing, the four nations – us, England, Scotland and Wales – will all be rooting for each other so unless we're fighting someone from Scotland, then there's bound to be good support from the locals as well."

When the competition begins on July 28 however, all talk will switch from inaugural competitors and team camaraderie to winning medals and Audley-Murphy is confident that the team can improve upon the haul from four years ago.

"Once you get in that ring anything can happen but we've worked so hard that the odds are for us," said the lightweight.

"The training that we've put in has been first class, both here at SINI and everywhere else that we've been, so I definitely think that we have prepared for this as well as we could be.

"If we perform the way I know we can then with a bit of luck we can bring even more medals back to our country." Now that would be a bit of history indeed.

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