Paddy Barnes returned home to Belfast last night having joined an elite band of Irish boxers after his European gold medal triumph in Moscow.
Not only is he just one of six Irishmen to have been crowned European amateur champion but also the first from Northern Ireland. With an Olympic bronze from Beijing, the fiery light-flyweight now wants gold in London 2012.
To a large degree Barnes is the embodiment of the well oiled machine that is the Irish High Performance sporting unit in Dublin.
Once Irish boxing hoped for a medal at a major championships but now it is to be expected.
Five medals from these championships broke all previous records, with middleweight Darren O'Neill picking up silver and bronze going to Ulsterman Tyrone McCullagh as well as Kenny Egan and Eric Donovan.
Irish head coach Billy Walsh has been there from the start, when seven years ago the Irish Amateur Boxing Association decided the time had come to transform the mindset and the technical ability of our boxers.
“We decided to take away all the excuses of Irish boxers as to why they couldn't succeed at the highest level,” said Walsh.
“We did that and gradually we have seen the change and now we are one of the most feared nations in world boxing.
“It used to be we went in to championships hoping for a good draw but now the other countries are hoping they don't face an Irish boxer. This has been a phenomenal achievement to bring home
five medals and to be second on the medal table behind Russia.”
While Walsh and former High Performance Director Gary Keegan were instrumental in the boxing revolution, the relatively unheralded Zaur Antia of Georgia has played a vital role.
Plucked from the Georgian set-up, he brought priceless technical expertise which helped those in the Irish vest to understand what is needed to win on the computer scoring.
Amateur boxing is now far removed from the professional sport in style, due to the emphasis on defence and picking up a scoring point to catch the eye of the one pressing the red or blue button and for many it has diluted the spectacle. The game had changed
and the Irish had to catch up. Now they are world leaders.
Barnes, a natural fighter, had to be polished into an effective boxer at this level and the evidence was there for all of the 14,000 to see in Moscow's Ice Palace on Saturday afternoon when he triumphed |4-1 over Azerbaijan's Elvin Mamishzade, becoming the first Irishman in 19 years to win European gold.
Blocking his opponent's blows and picking his own shots with clinical precision and intensity, he had coach Walsh drooling.
“Paddy stuck to the gameplan. His defence was fantastic. It was a world class performance,” said Walsh.
The professional ranks will beckon one day for Barnes and particularly if he has the title of 2012 Olympic champion.
Barnes said: “Some people might think that being European champion will put extra pressure on me going for London, but I don't see it that way. I've proved now that I can compete with the very best in the world.
“I proved it in Beijing and now I think I've proved it even more. Next year's World Championships in South Korea is the first of the qualifiers for the Olympics and that's my main target now. I knew going into the final that I had to
close Mamishzade down, make sure not give him space to breathe, and I stuck to the game plan.
“I felt calm and in control all the way. He would come in and then move away and I would close him down and catch him. I could tell in the last round he was not really attacking and I was catching him with the shots — it was all about sticking to the tactics.”
Now he will enjoy a short rest before looking ahead to the Commonwealth Games in India and a possible re-match with Peter Munkai of Kenya.
Defeat to Munkai at last year's World Championships in Milan sparked the angry protest which led to Barnes being sent home in disgrace by the IABA.
Today he is the king of Europe and one of our most successful amateur boxers of all time.