Team GB Boxing at the Rio Olympics: Looking back and thinking ahead

After 27 sessions across 16 days featuring 286 boxer from 76 nations, the curtain has finally been drawn on the Rio 2016 Olympics Boxing Tournament. Team GB returned from Rio with mixed results, with the joy of some surprising successes dampened by some disappointing defeats.

Home advantage is inordinately influential in the subjectively scored sport of boxing, so the team were never likely to match their record medal haul at London 2012 of three golds, one silver and a bronze. But they did achieve the three-medal target set by UK Sport, securing the sport’s funding for Tokyo 2020.

While some members of the squad have already declared their intentions, others face difficult decisions on their next step. The greatest amateurs do not always make the greatest professionals, and the generous funding provided to Team GB boxers may be a wiser choice than the risks of the ruthless pro ranks.

Other fighters will have their development better served by an extended stint in the amateurs. They can enjoy the elite facilities and coaching provided at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, and world-level competition in international tournaments without worrying about the damage a single loss can do to the career of a professional.

Joe Joyce

Weight: Super Heavyweight (91+ kg / 201+ lb)

Rio result: Silver medal

Amateur highlights: Bronze at 2015 World Championships. Bronze at 2013 European Championships. Gold at 2014 Commonwealth Games. Gold at 2015 European Games.

Age: 30

Hometown: London

Joyce was desperately unlucky to drop a decision in the final to French favourite Tony Yoka, but will be content coming home with a silver medal. He has a tremendous engine and bone-crunching power, but his technique remains relatively rudimentary. Shane McGuigan has been a vocal supporter on Twitter, and his technical acumen would make a good choice of coach who could also guaranteed world-level sparring with stablemate David Haye.

The articulate art school graduate has confirmed that he will be going pro after Rio. Heavyweights peak late in boxing, so the 30-year-old still has  time to make his mark as a pro. The domestic ranks are packed with heavyweight contenders, so look for him to be fast-tracked to a British title. If he makes it there unscathed, big-money showdowns against the likes of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua await.

Lawrence Okolie

Weight: Heavyweight (91 kg / 201 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights: Winner of 2016 European Olympic Qualification Event. Winner of English University National Championships 2015 and 2014.

Age: 23

Hometown: London

The Hackney pugilist has improved immeasurably during his short tenure on Team GB, and his performance against the classy Cuban Erislandy Savon was the perfect demonstration of his growth as a boxer. Savon knocked Okolie out in the opening round on their previous encounter in June. In Rio, the Cuban put him down again in the first round, but Okolie rose to his feet to perform admirably in a competitive loss.

Okolie, 23, only laced up the gloves for the first time in 2012, after Anthony Joshua’s gold medal triumph inspired him to take up the sport. Before that, he was clinically obese and working in McDonald’s. Okolie has hinted that he will remain with Team GB for at least the next year, a wise move for a raw talent with huge potential but technical holes that still need to be filled. With raw athletic ability, proven courage and an already solid skill set based around a ramrod jab, the sky is the limit for Okolie.

Joshua Buatsi

Weight: Light Heavyweight (81+ kg / 178 lb)

Rio result: Bronze medal

Amateur highlights: Bronze at 2015 European Championships. Winner of 2016 European Olympic Qualification Event in Turkey.

Age: 23

Hometown: London

The standout performer of the Team GB squad, big things are expected of Joshua Buatsi. Before the Olympics, the Ghana-born, Croydon-raised puncher was predicted to make an early exit, and there’s still work to be done sharpening his technique, as the crafty Kazak Adilbek Niyazymbetov showed in their semi-final bout.

That work looks likely to take place in professional boxing, which looks a natural fit for the heavy-handed Buatsi’s style. The hype around his explosive performances at Rio means he won’t be short of offers. if Okolie also turns pro, building a following for the two Londoners on the same cards looks a smart move for both Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren. Hearn has a Sky Sports deal and future showcase fight on an Anthony Joshua undercard to offer, so is likely to be the first choice for the exciting Buatsi.

Anthony Fowler

Weight: Middleweight (75 kg / 165 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in first round

Amateur highlights: Bronze at 2013 World Championships. Gold at 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Age: 25

Hometown: Liverpool

Fowler had a nightmare draw at Rio, facing reigning world champion Zhanibek Alimkhanuly in the first round. He was outclassed by the Kazakhstani but showed tremendous heart to last the distance after being dropped and badly stunned in the second round. Fowler has a big fanbase in Liverpool and his divisive personality has made him a big name in Team GB. But he’s failed to progress since the hype of his silver medal at the World Championships.

The Liverpudlian is well-schooled, strong and aggressive but prone to cuts. At 25, he is almost certain to turn pro, and his fanbase will not leave him short of suitors. Liverpool is a booming fight town, and Fowler could find himself on the undercards of one of two world champions in Tony Bellew at Matchroom and Terry Flanagan at Queensberry Promotions. A British title looks  a realistic target for now. Expect some fun scraps on the way there.

Josh Kelly

Weight: Welterweight (69 kg / 152 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights: Silver at 2015 European Games. Silver at 2016 AIBA Olympic Qualification Event in Azerbaijan.

Age: 22

Hometown: Sunderland

Kelly, who had his first competitive bout at 11, turned his back on boxing after losing in the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Championships, and became into a self-described coach potato. He struggled with injuries on his return to the sport, and was the last man to make the Team GB squad at the 2016 Olympic Qualifying event in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Kelly struggled through a virus to win his first fight at Rio, but in the second round was well-beaten by the outstanding Danilyar Yeleussinov, who went on to win gold. His good looks have already earned Kelly a modelling contract and he boasts a burgeoning female fan-base. A good talker with a growing skill set, Kelly could be a big ticket-seller in the future. He’s kept quiet about his future plans, and is likely target a run at the 2017 World Championships in Hamburg before embarking on pro career.

Pat McCormack

Weight: Light Welterweight (64kg / 141 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights:  Silver at 2015 European Championships. Gold at 2011 Junior World Boxing Championships.

Age: 21

Hometown: Birtley

McCormack is an exceptional talent who somehow flew under the radar in Rio. Despite a dreadful draw, he won his first fight against Ablaikhan Zhussupov of Kasakstan, and gave further evidence of his potential in a close loss to the experienced Cuban Yasniel Toledo in his next bout. He was named best boxer of the regular season at the World Series of Boxing (WSB) in April after wins over American Olympian Gary Russell and Raul Curie of Mexico.

The classy technician could be the pick of the bunch from Rio and will only be 25 when the next Games take place place. At his current rate of development, McCormack should be a serious gold medal contender at Tokyo 2020. The allure of an Olympic title should keep him in the amateur game for the next few years at least. The north-east has been crying out for a marketable boxer who can shift tickets and bring big-time boxing back to the region. In Kelly and Pat McCormack, they could have two of them before long.

Joe Cordina

Weight: Lightweight (60 kg / 132 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights: Gold at 2015 European Championships. Bronze at 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Age: 24

Hometown: Cardiff

The skilled Welshmen was one of the disappointments of the tournament. He was highly touted before Rio, but struggled to victory in first round bout and was soundly defeated by Hurshid Tojibaev in his next fight.  Eddie Hearn had previously named Cordina his pick of the Team GB squad, so a move to Matchroom could be in the offing. Cordina will mull over his options. He said after his second round loss that he was still considering a run for the Commonwealth Games in and perhaps even the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Cordina is a solid technician, but his tactics lacked variety at Rio. His performances raised questions about his stamina, and he admitted to being troubled by the power of Tojibaev. But he remains a talent, and if he does turn pro a European title is certainly a realistic ambition.

Qais Ashfaq

Weight: Bantamweight (56 kg / 123 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in first round

Amateur highlights: Silver at 2015 European Championships. Silver at 2014 Commonwealth Games. Bronze at 2015 European Games.

Age: 23

Hometown: Leeds

The awkward southpaw lost to the skilled veteran Chatchai Butdee of Thailand in his only bout at Rio. A counter-puncher who likes to switch hit, his style lacks professional polish and needs some significant adjustments if he’s to make a major impact in the paid ranks.

Ashfaq declared his intentions to turn pro prior to the Olympics. The growing star power of Josh Warrington in Leeds gives Ashfaq the perfect platform to build his career in his home city on Warrington undercards. A Matchroom contract would thus seem the logical choice, but Ashfaq is not a certain star, and Hearn may be reluctant to invest heavily in his career. The thoughtful fighter has the mind to develop his technique, and has time on his side.

Muhammad Ali

Weight: Flyweight (52 kg / 115 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights: Silver at 2015 European Championships. Winner of 2016 European Olympic Qualification Event in Turkey. Silver at 2014 Youth World Championships. Bronze at  Youth Olympic Games.

Age: 20

Hometown: Bury

“Mo”, as he has known by his teammates, qualified for the Olympics in the same month that his legendary namesake died. The youngest member of the squad was an outside pick for a medal at Rio, and was unlucky to lose his second round bout to eventual bronze medalist Yoel Finol of Venezuela, who continuously held the Brit without punishment. Finol, incidentally, was first trained by the infamous Edwin Valero, who was married to Finol’s sister Carolina. In 2010, Valero stabbed Carolina to death. He was found hanging in his police prison cell the next day.

Ali has made a rapid rise from the youth ranks to the Team GB squad.  His exceptional youth career would likely have even greater prizes if not for defeats in medal bouts to emerging American star Shakur Stevenson. Ali is expected to continue his development with Team GB, and will likely be a medal contender at international tournaments in years to come.

Galal Yafai

Weight: Light Flyweight (49 kg / 108 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in second round

Amateur highlights: Winner of 2016 European Olympic Qualification Event in Turkey.

Age: 23

Hometown: Birmingham

Yafai entered the Olympics with limited experience and impressed in his two bouts. After a dominant victory in his opening bout, he dropped a split decision to Cuban world champion and tournament number one seed Joahnys Argilagos in his second fight. Yafai left the ring in the tears after the defeat, and admitted soon after that he was unsure about his next career move.

He has only spent one year in the Team GB programme, and while he demonstrated sharp offense and impressive backhand from the southpaw stance, he was reckless defensively in both his fights. There’s little money in his weight division, but his two brothers Kal and Gamal are already established contenders on the domestic scene, and it would be no surprise to see Yafai join them on the Matchroom roster. He’s shown he has the talent to mix it with elite opposition, but will need to be moved slowly while he adapts to the professional game.

Nicola Adams

Weight: Flyweight (51 kg / 110 lb)

Rio result: Gold medal

Amateur highlights: Gold at 2012 Olympics. Gold at 2016 World Championships. Gold at 2011 European Championships. Gold at 2014 Commonwealth Games. Gold at 2015 European Games.

Age: 33

Hometown: Leeds

Adams was the first woman boxer to win a gold medal at London 2012. In Rio, she became the first to successfully defend an Olympic title in 92 years. It is another addition to a complete medal set of Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth golds.

Professional women’s boxing lacks both publicity and prize money. Adams change that, but at 33 and with a glittering career already on her CV, the challenge may appear more trouble than it’s worth. She has admitted to being tempted by a run at a third Olympics gold in 2020, and the celebrity circuit could also be a good fit for the popular fighter with the bright smile.

Savannah Marshall

Weight: Middleweight (75 kg / 165 lb)

Rio result: Eliminated in quarter-finals

Amateur highlights: Gold at 2012 World Championships. Silver at 2010 World Championships. Bronze at 2016 World Championships. Gold at 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Age: 25

Hometown: Hartlepool

Marshall made her amends for her shock first round elimination at London 2012 with an impressive showing in Rio. She comfortably defeated Anna Laurell of Sweden in his first fight before losing a close decision to eventual silver medalist Noucka Fonijn of the Netherlands in her next bout.

She remains the only woman to defeat Claressa Shields, the biggest name in women’s boxing. Marshall is likely to make one last run for an Olympics title in Tokyo 2020. She already boasts a World Championship gold medal and will be remembered as one of the trailblazing forerunners of women’s boxing in Britain whether she wins an Olympics medal or not.

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