Punches were finally thrown in the ring at the National Stadium last night as a mooted box-off to decide Ireland’s super-heavyweight representative at next month’s European Championships resulted in a split-decision victory for Dean Gardiner.
Clonmel clubman Gardiner, the former Irish champion, will now be on the nine-man team that will travel to Ukraine on Monday ahead of the continental championships, which get underway in Kharkiv on June 14.
With verbal blows being launched between two warring parties in Irish boxing over the past week, definitive confirmation the box-off would proceed was only officially issued by the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) less than three hours before the 8pm bell.
Gardiner had been selected by the IABA’s Central Council for the European Championships team last week, with that call leading to a major dispute. An IABA statement last night reinforced the view the council’s call went against the original suggestion of High Performance director Bernard Dunne.
With the boxers receiving relatively late short notice the bout would indeed go ahead, it was fought at a frantic pace. Both fighters struggled to land cleanly and Gardiner landed the most eye-catching punch of the fight in the final minute of the second round with a clean left hook to the head following up two punches to Keenan’s midsection.
While Keenan put up a brave fight, refusing to take a backwards step, Gardiner’s size and experience edged him to a 4-1 split-decision victory.
“I’m delighted. It’s good to get a fight in before the Europeans, but I would’ve rathered if I didn’t have to fight because it would’ve made life a bit easier,” said Gardiner. “But it is what it is and I did what I needed to do.
“We got told at three o’clock today it was on and we were ready,” he added.
Keenan – the reigning Irish champion – was left frustrated by the IABA’s bungling in terms of scheduling the box-off, however.
“I was [under pressure]. Sure they were saying to me, ‘it could be on Monday’ and then they suited themselves to have it on Wednesday when I was ready on Monday,” said Keenan.
“There was a load of problems with the IABA selection process, but at the end of the day I should’ve been the one picked because I won the senior elite championships and he never stepped into the ring,” continued the Rathkeale clubman, referring to Gardiner’s failure to enter this year’s national championships due to injury.
“Dean is a lovely lad - I’ve not a thing against Dean - but he shouldn’t have got that box-off at all,” added Keenan.
The selection of who would represent Ireland at super-heavyweight was among a number of contentious issues to divide the sport and the IABA over the past week.
Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O’Donovan was present for a meeting with IABA officials and representatives of Sport Ireland yesterday morning as they attempted to iron out a number of ongoing problems in Irish boxing.
Minister O’Donovan later labelled the meeting as “difficult”, while he later admitted he does not know who is running the IABA – a matter he wants the boxing association to clarify for Sport Ireland.
Both the minister and John Treacy, Sport Ireland chief executive, have set a June 30 deadline for the IABA to introduce a new rule book, which would ensure the autonomy of the High Performance Unit and ensure Dunne’s sole right to make team selections in keeping with recommendations made in the post-Olympic ‘Rio Review’.
When asked if the IABA’s funding is at risk should they not meet that deadline, Treacy told RTÉ Radio: “I would say it is at risk, but that’s a matter for the board of Sport Ireland.” However, there is a major power struggle within the IABA which is likely to hold up the introduction of a new rulebook as it could dramatically change the traditional selection influence of the IABA’s Central Council - many of whom appear to be linked to a rival group on the IABA’s Board of Directors.
IABA chairman Joe Christle and chief executive Fergal Carruth have faced opposition from the rival group, with Waterford’s David O’Brien claiming to have been elected chairman. O’Brien gained the support of four other members of the IABA’s board in a vote taken last March, although Christle and Carruth have both questioned the legality of that move.
The convoluted issue is further complicated by the fact that both sides also question the eligibility of certain members of the IABA board of directors. O’Brien claims to have the backing of members of the IABA’s Central Council and significant support from Irish boxing’s grassroots, while the Waterford man has called for both Carruth and Christle to resign.
And the Munster Council secretary yesterday called for Sport Ireland to appoint a mediator to oversee talks between his side and Christle.
“I’ve asked Sport Ireland to intervene and to bring Bernard Allen on board and for him to sit down and mediate between Joe Christle and myself,” said O’Brien.
It is believed an IABA board meeting has been set for June 14 – the same day the European Championships get underway in Ukraine – although it appears O’Brien will not be in a position to attend that meeting as Carruth and Christle reason O’Brien’s term as a board member has expired.
Referring to the remaining board members, IABA chief executive Fergal Carruth last night said: “I would be very hopeful the full board would attend [the June meeting] as this is a very important issue for the whole organisation.
“I think it requires everybody to come together to try to work to the best of their ability in reaching a resolution in this matter.” Further muddying the waters, IABA president Pat Ryan last night refused to go on record in support of either Christle or O’Brien as chairman after both men yesterday claimed to have Ryan’s backing.
“I would prefer to have this sort of stuff done in house,” said Ryan. “We have an issue with a box-off here tonight and that’s my only concern really. There’s a board of directors meeting convened for June and I think that’s the place where we will resolve our matters,” added Ryan.
Regarding future team selections, the IABA’s statement last night insisted their board will “use their best endeavours to facilitate” a change in the IABA rulebook “that would see selection rest with the High-Performance Management Team” by the June 30 deadline.
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