Ireland’s Joe Ward and Cuba’s defending champion Julio De La Cruz renew acquaintances over three,three-minute rounds in tonight’s light-heavyweight final at the AIBA World Elite Championships in Hamburg, Germany.
Ward, the No 3 seed, beat Uzbekistan’s No 2 seed Bektimer Melikuziev on a 3-2 split decision — 30-27,27-30,29-28, 28-29, 30-27 — in an all-southpaw battle last night to book his ticket into his second successive final, and La Cruz, the No 1 seed, beat Ecuador’s No 4 seed Carlos Mina to reach his fourth consecutive decider.
Both finalists are guaranteed at least silver in Hamburg. The pair have have won three fights apiece since last Monday and have barely dropped a round between in 15 frames of boxing each.
Melikuziev , who claimed middleweight silver at the Rio Olympics but has since moved to light heavy, certainly put it up to Ward, who dropped to his knees in celebrations after reaching another World final after the verdict was announced, but the Irishman’s heavier and cleaner shots, particularly in the last round, did enough to convince three of the five judges.
The durable Uzbek, who was in tears after the verdict was announced, suffered a nasty gash under his eyelid. De La Cruz also picked up a cut near his eye against Mina, with both boxers receiving public warnings for ignoring the ref’s instructions late in the final frame.
“I thought it was a good tough fight. Joe dug out the win and he obviously has another big fight ahead of him again tomorrow. No cuts to Joe, he’s very healthy,” said coach John Conlan, who is working Ireland’s corner with head coach Zaur Antia and Dimitry Dimitruc.
“The Uzbek was very strong, big punches. We expected that as he’s an aggressive fighter. Joe performed well and he’s through to another world final. He did what he had to do to get there.”
De La Cruz, 28, is the current Olympic champion and a two-time Pan American gold medallist who is aiming for his fourth successive title at this level in the 81kg class.
Twenty-three-year-old Ward, a three-time European Elite champion, claimed bronze and silver at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds where he was beaten on by La Cruz in Kazakhstan and Qatar on unanimous verdicts.
The Central Asia win was deserved, but the Cuban was on the canvas in the first round on the Arabian Peninsula but it was ruled a slip, although a punch from the Westmeath man clearly helped De La Cruz on his way to the floor.
If the ref had ruled that a legitimate knockdown, which it appeared to be, Ward could have been the defending champion tonight and his great rival the challenger.
But as it is, the Cuban holds the keys to the 81kg vault and Ward must once again cross swords with the best pound-for-pound Elite fighter on the planet.
Boxing begins at 5pm today (Irish time). Ten finals will be decided to bring the curtain down on the 19th edition of the World Championships since the inaugural tournament in Havana in 1974.
Ireland, courtesy of Ward, and France are the only western European nations in today’s finals.
Meantime, AIBA World Elite champion Mary Kom will meet Irish light-fly Kristina O’Hara in an Ireland versus India women’s Elite international at Dublin’s National Stadium tonight (7pm).
Kom is the only female boxer to win five World gold medals along with Katie Taylor. European and Olympic Youth medallists Christina Desmond and Ciara Ginty, like Joe Ward an ex World Junior champion, also box for Ireland in the 13-bout international.