Aidan Walsh is one win away from an Olympic boxing medal after comprehensively overcoming Albert Mengue Ayissi of Cameroon.
The onus was firmly on the 24-year-old to arrest a run of three successive defeats for Team Ireland at Tokyo 2020, and he did so with aplomb, securing a unanimous verdict on scores of 29-26, 28-27 and three of 30-25.
The Belfast man will now box for a podium place on Friday at 4.51am Irish time, with Mauritius’ Merven Clair awaiting in that welterweight quarter-final.
Cheered on ebulliently by big sister Michaela, whose own in-ring journey ended yesterday, Walsh started this bout as he would continue, controlling matters from the off with a ramrod jab to head and body, following up with tripwire right hands.
Ayissi endeavoured to pressure Walsh all the while, but was increasingly made to miss for large swathes of round one, the Monkstown BC alum unflappably into his rhythm as he streaked ahead on the scorecards.
Walsh’s fleetness of foot ensured he remained an elusive target, priming him to set the table for his own crisp counters off front foot and back as Ayissi’s aggression failed to pay dividends.
To that end, the Cameroonian’s frustration pointedly bubbled to the fore as he was twice deducted a point for excessive punching behind the head, initially midway through the second round and again to begin the third.
Victory all but guaranteed, Walsh diffused any prospect of a home-run shot from his wilting opponent in the final frames, tying up in close where necessary while continuing to masterfully potshot Ayissi at will.
“It’s just brilliant, amazing to get the journey under way”, Walsh told RTÉ post-fight.
“I just have to take each fight as it comes now. Doesn’t matter if it’s an Olympic final, or an All-Ireland final … or an Antrim title! Every fight is important to me, I just have to listen to the coaches, listen to the right tactics, and go in there and implement them against my opponent. I just do as they tell me!
“It’s amazing (to have Michaela here) as well, I love when she is at my fights. She’s actually calmed down a wee bit from the last few fights! I think a few people must have told her off!
“But it’s great support. And obviously I'm disappointed for her, as we all are for every boxer who loses out here. We’re all one team, we’re all just here to win, so it’s sad when it doesn’t go our way. But we regroup and go again.
“For me, to share all this with my sister - and the whole team - is incredible. We qualified together, we came out here together. It’s just special; to me, it means a lot, and I’m just grateful.
“Like everyone here, our parents have played a massive role [in the journey], since we were no age. Girlfriends and partners as well, they sacrifice so much for us all, the coaches too.
“For the quarter-final, it’s all about getting back to recover, relax, regroup. The coaches will have the plan for the next day, I just have to listen to them and go out and do it again.
“I was actually talking to Hugh Russell (1980 Olympic medalist) before I came out here. He just told me to fight every fight like it’s your last fight on earth, give it your everything.” Hoping to follow Walsh into the quarter-final phase will be Kurt Walker and Aoife O’Rourke, both of whom are set for action in the last 16 on Wednesday.
Walker, who initially got Ireland off to winning ways with a polished performance last weekend, is pegged for a 4.36am Irish time start when he faces number-one-ranked featherweight Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov.
A similarly tough task awaits Castlerea native O’Rourke, who makes her Olympic debut at 10.18am Irish time against Rio medalist - and former world champion - Li Quan.