Nine things we learnt from the European Boxing Olympic qualifiers

Women's boxing on the rise, Great Britain rules and two magnificent middleweights unearthed.

By Ron Lewis

The European Olympic boxing qualifying tournament in Paris has just come to an end.

From Great Britain punching 11 tickets for Tokyo 2020 to the epic clash between Ukraine's Oleksandr Khyzhniak and Russia's Gleb Bakshi, here are nine takeaways from the event.

The rise of women’s boxing

The standard of women’s boxing will shock many when Tokyo comes around.

There were plenty of people who were not too happy when the decision was made to raise the number of women’s weight divisions to five at the expense of two male weight classes. It is not hard to see why.

As recently as 2000 in Sydney, there were 12 weight classes. Reducing that by a third risks sending more boxers to the professional ranks if they believe the chances of becoming an Olympian become so much lower.

The justification for this is equality, which is fair enough, but if there is no strength in depth in the women’s divisions, such ambitions are undermined. The fact that two of the three gold medal-sinners at London 2012 retained their titles in 2016, showed that.

But five years on, things are thriving. Action was competitive in the Africa and Asia/Oceania qualifiers, but in Europe that standard has gone through the roof, with the likes of Busenaz Surmeneli, the 22-year-old Turkey welterweight, showing themselves to be exceptional talents.

Britain’s 11

With so many powerhouse nations, qualifying through Europe has never been easy, but Great Britain is on the crest of a wave with 11 boxers qualifying.

It was an exceptional achievement, as the lack of a world qualifier meant that there was only one opportunity to make it. What is more, they all qualified in the ring by winning bouts. Uzbekistan have also qualified 11 boxers, although they had to rely on the ratings syetm distributing extra places for the world qualifiers to help boost that number.

Of the 11, Pat McCormack, Lauren Price and Ben Whittaker all look to be strong gold medal contenders in Tokyo. GB won three gold medals in London in 2012 with Nicola Adams, Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua, which sparked a huge rise in the sport’s popularity – could this team have a similar impact?

Russian powerhouse

Hot on the heals of Great Britain, were Russia, who qualified ten boxers, even though they will be officially competing as neutral athletes in Tokyo.

With such a talent pool to choose from, Russia will always be strong and the days when boxers from the East could be typified with robotic styles are along gone.

In Paris, they came with all shapes and styles, from the frenetic all-action punching of featherweight Albert Batyrgaziev, to the powerhouses of Zenfira Magomedalieva and Muslim Gadzhimagomedov.

Experience counts

One of the most interesting bout on the finals day was the female lightweight clash between Ireland’s Kellie Harrington and Great Britain’s Caroline Dubois.

The Great Britain boxer, younger sister of professional heavyweight contender Daniel Dubois, has long been seen as a sparkling talent. She went unbeaten during her junior career, winning a Youth Olympics gold and a Youth World Championships gold along the way.

But Harrington showed the value of experience. Her decision to switch from orthodox stance to southpaw, seemed to confused the younger boxer and she timed her attacks so well, not giving openings for the flashier combinations of Dubois.

But it was a vital lesson for Dubois, who had beaten the No 1 seed Mira Potkonen in her first bout in Paris. Both Harrington and Dubois will be among those fancied for gold in Tokyo and, should they meet again, it will be a fascinating encounter.

Clash of the titans

Talking about potentially wonderful rematches in Tokyo, another meeting between Oleksandr Khyzhniak, of Ukraine, and Gleb Bakshi, of Russia, would be well received. Their clash in the middleweight final was truly epic.

The action was non-stop, as Khyzhniak came rushing out of his corner at the first bell as stayed on Bakshi’s chest for the entire three rounds, crowding him but making sure he had room for his own punches.

There was clearly no love lost between them, as they exchanged blows after the end of round two and at one point ignored the referee to butt heads. Khyzhniak had a point to prove after he had been denied the chance to defend his World Championships gold medal by a Ukraine boycott of the 2019 event in Russia, which Bakshi won.

The toughest cut

The action in Paris was ridiculously intense. It is difficult to criticise the organisers in the circumstances, as they did very well to get the event on at all in the current situation around the pandemic.

However, the original schedule for London would have seen those five days of action spread out over eight. By reducing the gap between bouts, the result was a lot of tired boxers, who had to box (and weigh-in) on consecutive days and it was notable that the boxers in the finals who had been given walkovers in their semi-finals had a notable advantage.

The other problem was with cuts, which has been an issue in men’s boxing since headguards were disposed of seven years ago. With such a tough schedule, there was no real opportunity for boxers to heal.

One victim was Lancelot Proton de la Chapelle, of Belgium, who was cut by a clash of heads in the opening moments of his first bout, boxed tentatively in his second, only for the cut to reopen in the opening moments of his box-off.

Meet the Cubans

Many sports have got used with athletes changed allegiance over the years. In athletics, many distance events feature runners wearing multiple nations’ vests who originate from Kenya or Ethiopia. Likewise boxing.

In the past, we have seen Russians move west and there is also a notable talent drain from Cuba, where boxers brought up in the incredibly strong Cuban system seek their fortunes elsewhere.

The Azerbaijan pair of Lorenzo Sotomayor and Loren Alfonso were well known before this week, but less so Enmanuel Reyes.

The heavyweight was a contender in Cuba, even boxing for their World Series of Boxing team, until 2016. In 2019 he re-emerged in Spain and showed himself to be a medal contender for Tokyo this week, reaching the final and giving Muslim Gadzhimagomedov, the Russian world No 1, plenty to think about in the final.

If he was to meet Cuba’s Julio Cesar La Cruz in Cuba, it would be interesting.

Professional influence

The presence of professional boxers in the amateur ranks continues to create plenty of division.

This week in Paris, the impact was mainly in the female ranks, where some big name professionals discovered how tough it was to adapt from boxing ten two minute rounds in the professional sport, to three-three minutes rounds in Olympic boxing.

Christina Hammer, like Delfine Persoon when the tournament began in London, found that she could not adapt. But Maiva Hamadouche, the IBF super-featherweight champion from France, was able to book her place in Tokyo through sheer hard work and determination. Only Kellie Harrington, in the quarter-final, found a way to beat her. But even she was dragged into a slugfest in the final round. She completely overwhelmed her other opponents with punch output and fitness.

Irish eyes

Ireland qualified seven boxers – one, Kurt Walker courtesy of his world ranking in the absence of the world qualifying event. But that is an impressive return for a small nation and goes to show the importance of tradition.

Over the past three summer Olympics, Ireland has won a total of 11 medals – seven of them came in boxing. Success breeds success.