By: Oliver McManus
The pinnacle showcase of standout talent, every four years, the Olympic Games are designed to be a celebration of the elite. Emphasis on ‘designed’, you’ll notice, with recent editions being overshadowed by dodgy judging decisions, incompetent governance from the AIBA and a whole host of other dogged issued – to such an extent the sport may not feature in Tokyo next year.
Put politics to one side and each Olympic cycle brings forward flourishing prospects, many of whom will seek to replicate their success as a professional. The old adage goes that ‘a great amateur doesn’t necessarily make a great professional and vice versa’ which is true enough but let’s delve into it and take a look at what came next for Great Britain’s Rio 2016 boxers –and yes, weights are referring to their Olympic categories!
Galal Yafai – Light Flyweight
Yafai, the younger brother of Khalid and Gamal, went over to Rio at the young age of 23 having secured his place with a comfortable win over Samuel Carmona Heredia in the qualifiers. Once in Brazil the draw immediately looked difficult with Joahnys Argilagos – the World Amateur Champion from 2015 – his second round opponent. Yafai put in a good display against Argilagos, a prodigious Cuban, but lost out by 2 rounds to 1.
Since then the Birmingham fighter has shown a really impressive maturity, taking on that Olympic experience, to win Silver at the 2017 European Championships and Gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games – boxing well and working the angles throughout. Now aged 26, Yafai has built on his solid early foundations and has sought to move up to 52 kg over the last year – he’ll be in pole position to represent Team GB next year and will, surely, have plenty of promotional offers in the aftermath.
Nicola Adams – Flyweight
One half of Team GB’s female contingent in Rio, Nicola Adams strolled through the flyweight division to secure her second Olympic Gold medal before turning her attention towards the professional ranks. The distinguished amateur – 12 major medals, all told – signed terms with Frank Warren and made her debut in April 2017 against Virginia Carcamo.
5 fights in a year and a half represents frustration for Adams who, initially, had hoped to be a world champion by the end of 2018. Varying reasons were responsible for her periods of inactivity – none her own fault – but the Lioness from Leeds has looked the real deal throughout her professional career. Last time out, in October, Adams faced Isabel Millan for the interim WBO world title in a contest where she failed to capitalize on her vast technical superiority.
As fast as she has risen up the ratings, you could easily argue that the calibre of opposition hasn’t fully allowed her to showcase the full range of her ability. Almost inadvertently leading to the foot coming off the gas – and let’s be clear, that’s understandable. Luckily for Adams – who turned 36 in October – Arely Mucino will provide the first world title opportunity, in March, with full WBO honours on the line. After that it’ll be a case of unification, then domination.
Muhammad Ali – Flyweight
Born in 1996, Muhammad Ali was a regular with the GB Lionhearts in the World Series of Boxing prior to competing at the Rio Olympics. Possessing all the desirable attributes to attain success, the 20 year old looked visibly under-experienced in his first round bout against, eventual Silver medallist, Yoel Finol.
Ali tested positive for Trenbolone in April 2017 and was suspended by AIBA until May 2019. The 22 year old is said to be targeting a place in Tokyo but, given the firm anti-doping stance taken by those at the helm AND Galal Yafai stepping up in weight, it seems an unlikely endeavour.
Qais Ashfaq – Bantamweight
Another one of those to have come through the WSB programme, Ashfaq lost his first fight at the Olympics against Chatchai Butdee. Eager to turn professional, Ashfaq initially signed with Hayemaker Ringstar in the Summer of 2017 in a move that stalled – Eddie Hearn came along in early 2018 and, since then, the 25 year old has racked up four fights in quick succession.
A Commonwealth and European Championships Silver Medallist, Ashfaq beholds pedigree and has adapted with consummate ease over the first 12 months. An eye-catching knockout against, game, Jay Carney ensured the year ended in style and was a sign of the speed and power that Ashfaq holds at super bantamweight.
Incredibly likeable and with plenty of time on his hands, there’s plenty still to come from the feisty southpaw.
Joe Cordina – Lightweight
2015’s European Amateur Champion, the Welshman reached the Round of 16 in Rio before signing with Eddie Hearn – seemingly the go-to man for post-Olympic euphoria – in 2017. It’s fair to say that the 27 year old made an immediate impression with his first four fights ending inside the distance. The fourth, a first round stoppage over Jamie Speight, particularly notable for the punishing style in which he despatched with such an experienced counterpart.
Six fights in eight months set the initial tempo but Cordina was limited to just two outings over the course of 2018. That’s not to say he wasn’t mightily impressive in those outings and, indeed, he comprehensively out-pointed Sean Dodd in August to add the Commonwealth title to his WBA International strap.
Training with Tony Sims, Cordina has looked immaculate thus far with a maturity beyond his years. Certainly capable of flashy, eye-catching work it is always pleasing to see him revert back to his, equally adept, jab. For me, a wonderfully well-rounded fighter who should be in line for a massive 2019.
Pat McCormack – Light Welterweight
One of only two boxers who represented Great Britain in Rio to stick around as part of the GB set-up in Sheffield, Pat McCormack has stepped up to Welterweight and is likely our representative in Tokyo. Only 23 years of age, the Sunderland sensation has already been to an Olympics, won two Silver medals at the European Championships and a Gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth in 2018 – talk about setting the bar high! In all seriousness, McCormack should easily surpass the Round of 16 – where he lost narrowly in Brazil – and be a hot-tip for medal contention.
Josh Kelly – Welterweight
A 24 year old at the heart of a North East revolution – pivotal, alongside Lewis Ritson, in a resurgence of love for the sport. Only twice, though, has Kelly fought on North East soil with the unrelenting flamboyance reaching all four corners of the United Kingdom.
Kelly has partnered up with Adam Booth to produce some electric results, no less so than the seven round pummelling of Kris George in June. Offensively supreme, I would suggest that more variation is required and, indeed, the fundamentals of boxing to be displayed more frequently when Kelly takes a step up in level.
Having said that it doesn’t really matter at this stage of Kelly’s career because he’s getting the job done and he’s doing it in merciless fashion. With a keen eye on the punishing the body of his opponent, Kelly swings in hooks with venomous intent and does so with pace and precision – enough to sicken anyone.
Defensive fragilities but, offensively, nightmarishly unconventional.
Anthony Fowler – Middleweight
The man who divides opinion across my Twitter feed, the mere mention of his name seems to stir spirits. Whatever you think of him, Fowler has made an unblemished start to his career at super-welterweight with nine wins, eight of those coming by knockout. Against Ryan Toms and Craig O’Brien, Fowler took out back to back domestic fighters – O’Brien the Irish Champion, Toms a two-time Southern Area kingpin – as he mercilessly targeted the body of his opponents, finishing the job with show-reel combinations.
Confident in his own ability, the Liverpudlian has continually looked imperious and relaxed over the course of his professional career without ever, really, having to click into second gear. A real centre-of-the-ring fighter who controls the tempo of the bout, Fowler is a real hot talent emerging out of Merseyside.
A much-discussed contest with Scott Fitzgerald awaits on March 30th before the 27 year old turns his attention towards, European and British Champion, Ted Cheeseman. It’s nice to see Fowler wanting to prove himself domestically in a sport where, far too often, reputations are forged through regional rainbow belts.
Savannah Marshall – Middleweight
The only boxer to have defeat Claressa Shields, that contest in the amateurs, Savannah Marshall may well be on a collision course with the American as a professional. The 27 year old from County Durham signed a professional deal with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and debuted on the undercard of Mayweather-McGregor. A glimpse of the big time to, surely, whet the appetite.
Four bouts have followed over the course of 2018 – three in the United Kingdom and one out in Bulgaria – with Marshall collecting the WBA Inter-Continental belt whilst on foreign soil. Marshall has shown a dangerous finishing instinct with three stoppages inside the distance – all occurring in the second round – with the Silent Assassin establishing a firm left jab along the way.
Generally quite outside of the ring, it’s the skill inside the ring that makes noise for Marshall and it’s a crescendo that’s yet to reach its peak.
Joshua Buatsi – Light Heavyweight
For me, Buatsi is the cream of this particular crop – the fighter with the most natural ability and highest ceiling to reach. That’s no discredit to any of the other guys, either, all of whom seem certain to achieve good things in the sport but Buatsi is, in my humble opinion, something else. Entering the pro ranks with an Olympic Bronze medal was always going to place him on a slightly higher pedestal and, boy, has he delivered.
Calm and composed, Buatsi’s nerves seem unshakeable with the 25 year old’s natural ability coming through when fighting up close. It’s really enjoyable to watch the patience that Buatsi shows before finding an opening and then compare that with his instant burst of aggression when the moment is right. Much like Fowler and Kelly, Buatsi has hammered away at the body of his opponents with vast success.
Against Andrejs Pokumeiko (a late replacement for Ricky Summers), Tony Averlant and Renold Quinlan, Buatsi has blitzed through his counterparts with successive first round knockouts – make what you will of the opponent calibre, Buatsi gets in the ring and does the job in destructive fashion. Indeed I’m of the opinion that Buatsi is the best British light-heavyweight – better than Callum Johnson and Anthony Yarde.
Lawrence Okolie – Heavyweight
Okolie has carved himself the most materialistic success of all the 2016 Olympians with the British, Commonwealth and WBA Continental belts all, at one stage, gracing the shoulder of the Hackney hammer (new nickname alert). Standing mountainously tall at 6 ft 5 inches, the cruiserweight breezed past the cannon-fodder placed in front of him over his first seven bouts – Blaise Mendouo the only opponent to hear the final bell.
Then came Isaac Chamberlain, Luke Watkins and Matty Askin – Okolie’s trio of contests over 2018 – three domestic rivals in fights that could all have ignited into something special. Except none of them did. Quite the opposite, they were relatively forgettable. I won’t, however, join the merry brigade in writing off his fight aesthetics – he’s shown he’s adaptable and I’m confident that 2019 will be a turning stone.
All but Askin have been dropped en route to defeat, a clear demonstration of his punch power. Guided by Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua, you can have no doubt in your mind that Okolie is on the right path for success but the question for me is, can he become a genuine big show headliner?
Joe Joyce – Super Heavyweight
Years past without the heavyweight phenom making the transition into professional boxing – people were of the opinion he had, perhaps, left it too late. Rio granted him a Silver medal which should have, in a fair world, been Gold. The softly-spoken giant inked a deal with Hayemaker Boxing and smashed his way into domestic contention with a beatdown of Ian Lewison.
Then came the waiting game, Rudolf Jozic and Donnie Palmer were both exploited before the Commonwealth title came a-knocking with Lenroy Thomas on the other side of the door. That fight was over with in double-quick fashion, as were contests with Ivica Bacurin, Iago Kiladze and Joe Hanks.
Criticism has been levelled at him for a visually slow and ponderous fighting style with Joyce not having forced the pace of a contest, as of yet, despite opportunities arising. Not that I suspect him or his team will be fazed by this, Joyce is getting the job done and has looked untroubled in doing so.
The 33 year old faces Bermane Stiverne on February 23rd with the British fighter looking to move 8 and 0 and force his way closer to a world title challenge.
12 boxers represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the 2016 Olympics, nine turned professional and have since forged a combined record of 64-0. Who , then , has impressed you the most since Rio 2016 and who’s left you feeling a little deflated?
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