Joe Ward: "I don’t think it’s the right time to go when you’re down and out"

The Irish boxer talks about almost turning professional after Rio and becoming a leader

Joe Ward

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The lure of the professional ranks will always be a temptation for amateur boxers.

A chance to fight in some of the biggest venues in the world and, of course, the carrot of bigger paydays are obvious reasons for any amateur to become a prizefighter.  

Brendan Irvine last week admitted that he had considered turning professional on a family holiday to the United States.

Last year he had the option to stay with family in the US and they offered him the platform to pursue a career as a pro.

"It’s not an easy thing when guys are throwing huge amounts of money at you," says Irish amateur boxer Joe Ward.

Especially after Rio. Ward watched on as 2012 Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes all turned pro.

The Irish team's performance in their most successful Olympic sport was poor their own high standards. No medal places, no boxer made it further than the quarter-finals.

Of the eight boxers Ireland sent to Rio, five bowed out after just one fight.

"Rio was a very disappointing Olympic Games for all of us, but overall in the last couple of years we’ve been successful.

"One tournament isn’t going to make us a really bad team. Things didn’t work out for us. Some of us didn’t perform. Others suffered from things that were out of their control.

"We can become a successful team again, but it’s going to take time. We will be at the top again."

Rebuild

And so the rebuild began. Having suffered a cut in funding from Sport Ireland after the Rio Review - which examined the successes and failures of the Games in Rio - the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) installed a High Performance Director for the first time since 2008.

Former boxing world champion Bernard Dunne is now tasked with facilitating the growth of Irish amateur boxing and rebuilding after the loss after three of the programme's best fighters.

IABA CEO Fergal Carruth has also ensured that organisation would retain the services of highly regarded head coach Zaur Antia - but missed out on keeping coach Eddie Bolger in the fold.

Dunne's appointment has been heralded as an 'important one in the history of Irish boxing' and his reputation has garnered the respect of this current boxing team.

"He’ll bring a lot to Irish boxing. Someone like him on board, who knows the ins and outs of boxing, will help us along the way.

"It’s about transitioning now. We’ve got some new boxers and some new coaches. It’s a new system."

A New Era: Bernard Dunne (centre) is pictured alongside boxers (l-r) Darren O'Neill, Christina Desmond, Brendan Irvine and Joe Ward at the new home for Irish boxing at the National Sports Campus in Abbottstown. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

But the question remains that in the shadow of Rio and with offers to turn professional, why did Ward stay within the amateur ranks?

"I felt like it wasn’t the right opportunity for me at the time. I want to be a leader," he explains.

"It’s a sport that I love being involved in. I’ve been successful and very lucky to a certain extent.

"I don’t think it’s the right time to go when you’re down and out. It’s time for someone to stay around and take responsibility to drive the new team to success.

"I feel like I was the person to do that. I’m young enough to stay around for another few years and I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt."

Leader

The role of leader is one that has appealed to Ward. The 23-year-old has been representing Ireland on the global stage since 2009 and despite his youth, feels he has the ability to drive the next generation of Irish boxers.

"I know what I need to do and how much effort I have to put into everything I do. There are guys behind me who look up to me and try to learn from me.

"When you’ve had success, you have to take responsibility with you."

He adds: "It doesn’t mean I’ll still be around for Tokyo - I don’t really know myself - but I’m focused on the European Championships now. That’s my main aim and after that we’ll see where we go from there.

"I’m here to be a leader and show the guys what it takes to be successful."

The European Championships in August may come too soon for their to be a full and evident impact by Dunne, but this year is more about putting the framework in place for Tokyo 2020.

As for those who have left, Ward says they owe nothing to Irish amateur boxing.

"It’s a huge loss but then again these guys have their own careers, their own ambitions.

"They gave a lot to Irish amateur boxing. You can’t fault them for going pro. They’ve been here a number of years and have been successful.

"It’s not good for Irish boxing to lose their top two or three boxers, but we have to rebuild to be successful again."