Two of the four Northern Irish boxers competing at the Olympics have lost out early on Monday morning, left to query what they felt were harsh calls from the judging panels.
Belfast duo Michaela Walsh and Brendan Irvine’s campaigns are both at an end, now left to cheer on Michaela’s brother Aidan in his opener on Tuesday and Kurt Walker in his round of 16 tie on Wednesday.
Walsh was beaten on a unanimous points decision by European featherweight champion Irma Testa in a last-16 contest. The verdict did scant justice to Walsh’s effort in a very tactical contest.
This was their third clash this year. They originally met at a training camp in Belfast in the spring and they fought for the gold medal at the European qualifier in Paris last month.
Testa won that contest relatively comfortably, so the Irish camp decided that a change of tactics was required.
“I knew her very well and Zaur (Anita, the Irish coach) had a brilliant game plan going in. In the first round, I think they told me it was 3-2, I thought I won that round comfortably. Then, obviously, she came on. Sometimes you don't know what the judges are looking for.
"Obviously, the game plan was to stand off because she's so fast, especially with the jab, and she's a good bit taller than me. So it was sort of stand-off to make her miss and then try to counter that. It worked out well in the first and then, obviously, she cottoned onto it and then it was all to play for in the third.
"I felt we both had our moments. I just think the 5-0 doesn't really do the fight much justice but, at the end of the day, that's boxing. This fight doesn't define me. As much as I wanted to win a medal, I will be back again, and I still think I'm up there with some of the best in the world in the 57kg category.”
A magnanimous Walsh wished her opponent well during the rest of the tournament. She will now turn her attention to supporting her brother Aidan – who makes his Olympic debut tomorrow - and the rest of her team-mates.
The two fighters stood off each other for most of the first round and it was surprising the referee didn’t order them to engage. But Walsh’s tactics paid off and she was up on three of the judges’ cards at the end of three minutes.
The Italian had to change tact, or her Olympics would be over. She went on the offensive in the second and was able to beat Walsh to the punch. She got the round on all five judges’ cards
And as often happens in an amateur contest, she now was considered to have the momentum in the eyes of the judges. In truth, there was little to separate them but all five judges opted for the Italian, who secured a 30-27, 30-27, 29-28, 29-29, 29-28 win.
"I felt the first round I was up. I probably won the first round clear. I wasn’t really getting hit. Obviously, in the second round she came on and caught me with a few good shots, so I felt going into the last round it was kind of level.
"I had my moments in the last round, she had her moments. The unanimous decision seemed a bit unfair in a way. But that’s boxing. I wish her all the best; I hope she can go all the way.
"That’s over and done with now and we move on to my brother and the rest of my team-mates and I will be cheering them all on all the way.”
She said it was unbelievable to have her brother as a team-mate.
"It is unbelievable. I was hoping we could both get medals but unfortunately not. Hopefully, my brother Aidan can take home a medal for the Walsh household.
“I was even saying to my brother there that if he hadn't qualified, I wouldn't have wanted to come. To be along with my brother, it's been special. We have a special bond with each other. I'll be cheering him and the rest of my teammates on all the way."
Meanwhile, Irish boxing captain Irvine exited in the first round of the flyweight division.
The devastated Belfast fighter questioned the judges’ decision to give the nod to his opponent Carlo Paalam from the Philippines. But after winning the first round, the momentum was with Paalam who won eventually on a majority 4-1 decision.
“It was a close fight,” Irvine said. “I thought he won the first round, but I won the second and third rounds. But that’s boxing. I’d need to get back and watch it. But I did think I did enough to get it. I’m just devastated to be honest with you.
“I knew he was going to be explosive from the get-go. I did study him coming into it – something I don’t usually do. I thought I managed him quite well at times. He caught me with a couple of stupid shots but nothing that was hurting me."
Irvine admitted he could have tried to relax a bit more.
"I’m not going to try and make up excuses or say ‘I could have done this, or I could have done that.’ You only get one shot at these and mine wasn’t enough.
“He was tiring from the second round; he was holding me a lot. I was trying to push him off and the referee was ignoring me a wee bit. That’s just the way it goes.
“What can you do. Everyone here is incredibly talented. They’re superb athletes. I gave it everything in there and it just wasn’t enough."
This is the second successive Olympics that Irvine failed to make it past the first round. In Rio five years ago, he was beaten by the eventual gold medallist, Shakhobdin Zoirov from Uzbekistan.
Though the Belfast fighter thought he had done enough to secure his passage to the last 16 the momentum was with Paalam after a dominant first round effort.
Irvine improved significantly in the second, though Paalam started the round very aggressively and for a flyweight packed a powerful punch.
But the Belfast man was definitely the busier boxer. It was a close call but only two of the judges gave the Irish captain the nod which left him needing a knock-out in the final round.
Paalam was experienced enough to navigate through the three minutes by frustrating Irvine and he went through on scores of 30-27, 30-27, 29-28, 29-28, 28-29.
Irvine has had a nightmare two years dealing with a succession of injuries before finally getting the all clear to resume his career prior to the Olympic qualifier in London in March 2020. He was the only Irish boxer to secure his spot in Tokyo before the tournament was abandoned due to Covid-19. But he was beaten in his first fight when the tournament resumed in Paris last month.
Meanwhile, Kildare referee Dermot McDermott officiated at one of the shortest fights in the tournament so far. He stepped in to stop a middleweight contest after just 83 seconds after one of the fighters was clearly out of his depth.