BOXING LOVES A trilogy. There’s something about the narrative arc, the lingering hurt and the shots at redemption that makes for compelling viewing.
The great ones roll off the tongue: Leonard-Duran. Gatti-Ward. Ali-Frazier.
Last night’s light-heavyweight decider at the National Elite Championships was the closest thing Irish boxing had to a modern epic; the third installment of the absorbing rivalry between Kenneth Egan and Joe Ward, a trilogy now closed with deafening finality.
(A quick primer: one of Ireland’s finest ever amateur boxers and an Olympic silver medallist at the Beijing 2008 games, among other honours, Egan won 10 straight national senior titles and was set for a record-breaking 11 out of 11 when he met Ward, then just 17 years old.
If this story has any sense of a fighter wronged, it came in that 2011 final, their first meeting. Egan was twice penalised by the referee and docked points in an 11-6 defeat. But there were no questions of what might have been 12 months later when the youngster from Moate, a year older and a year stronger, romped to a 29-10 win, defending his title and ending Egan’s dream of another Olympic shot.)
After the emphatic nature of his downing in 2012, the inevitable questions were asked of Egan and of his future in what now seems to be a young man’s division. No, he swore, he wasn’t ready to hang up his gloves; life in the old dog yet.
And so at 31, he paraded into the ring in Dublin’s National Stadium last night for his 13th straight final. As the boxers were introduced to the crowd, he shared a joke in the blue corner with Willie McLaughlin and then retired to the balcony, relaxed, to watch the opening fights on the 14-bout card disturbed only by some young fans in search of autographs.
Ward, on the other hand, was a picture of confidence, bordering on arrogance. Dressed all in red, rocking from side to side in time with the rhythmic chewing of his gum, here was a man who knew he had the tools in his arsenal.
Whatever mutual respect exists between these two — and there certainly appeared to be plenty when all was said and done — it evaporated with the opening bell. Within seconds Ward made a terrifying statement of intent, driving through the mat and launching his whole body into a wild swinging right. It missed but the tone for the evening was set.
The first round bore all the echoes of the past. Egan tried to stay just out of reach but Ward had the speed and agility to make him pay. When Egan tried to respond in kind, the youngster did just enough to draw him off balance and then catch him on the counter. It was the kind of move that would have made a young Egan proud.
If this was to be the man from Neilstown’s last hurrah, it would do a long and storied career a great disservice to go out with a whimper. Trailing 8-2 at the end of the first, he came to fight in the second round and this was where Ward came into his own. When they stood toe-to-toe, there could only be one winner and a vicious Ward flurry forced the referee to step in for a standing count.
There were punches to make Ward think, and when Egan landed a right shortly afterwards, the volume of the vocal Westmeath support briefly dipped a notch or two. It only seemed to anger Ward and he lashed back with a right hook that was designed as much to decapitate as to score points. Fortunately for Egan, and for the medics at ringside, it missed its mark.
But as the bell went and the scores flashed up 21-3, it became ever more apparent that this bout was descending from contest into slaughter. Whereas Egan had sought to stand his ground in the second, now the imperative was to see it through to the end. Only pride was at stake but that was all that mattered.
“I want to thank Joe,” Egan said after final bell in the final act, a 25-5 win for Ward. “He’s improving all the time. He’s going to be the next man and I’m glad I’m handing over the mantle to someone like that because he’s a legend in his own right.”
“I want to thank everyone who has come out over the last 13 years to cheer me on in 13 finals but tonight is the last of it. I’m retiring in the ring tonight.”
The torch passed, Egan left the ring — his ring — for the final time to a sustained ovation of appreciation and gratitude. Ward remained, soaking up the acclaim for his latest devastating show.