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'I'm 18: is there a point in waiting six years to get cheated out of the Olympics?'

Irish boxing sensation Kane Tucker captains his country at the European Youth Boxing Championships in Italy, which begin this week.

KANE TUCKER IS an eight-time Irish amateur boxing champion, a Commonwealth Youth silver medalist and European Schoolboys bronze medalist.

The Newry middleweight last suffered defeat on Irish soil over six years ago, aged 11. As a result, he’s currently one of the most avoided 18-year-old fighters on this island.

By way of his two razor-thin reversals at the hands of Russia’s world champion in his age group – the second being especially scandalous if, naturally, not especially surprising – it wouldn’t be at all outlandish to rank Tucker among the world’s top two or three Youth-level middleweights.

His trainers include the venerable Gerry Storey, world-class operators in John Conlan and Billy McClean, and Ireland’s only ever male Olympic boxing gold medalist, Michael Carruth.

Tucker is a strikingly adept communicator, defying the tempered expectations one might have when scheduling an interview with an athlete – or indeed a person – of his age. He has sacrificed a conventional young adulthood to hone his burgeoning skills, training like a leather-and-sweat-craved maniac whether it be in Banbridge or Dublin, or both.

And he still had no idea he was going to be named captain of the team of young Irishmen which yesterday morning – alongside their Lauren Kelly-skippered female counterparts – jetted off for Roseto, eastern Italy, where the European Youth Championships take place this week.

“I didn’t see it coming – really,” laughs Tucker. “There’s a lot of good talent on the team: there’s about four European gold medalists, like, and for the coaches to pick me was just a great honour, you know?

“I suppose it just shows that the training is paying off.

“I’ve never been captain before, but I’ll be making sure everyone’s doing the right thing: eating right, sleeping right, and making sure nobody’s messing about.

But even like if someone needs to talk – if they’ve got a problem that they don’t want to take to the coaches for whatever reason – they might feel more comfortable talking to me, and I might be able to sort it out with them myself. It might be just a simple chat.

27332066_10215462401018931_1149105205090663497_n Kane Tucker with Gerry Storey (L) and Billy McClean (R)

What made the Irish middleweight champion’s anointment more special still was the fact that his father, Barry was on location at the team’s training camp in Edenderry, County Offaly for the big reveal.

The fact that he was present at all sheds a sliver of light on the extent of his own perpetual sacrifice, but for Barry – whose younger son, Jake, 16, is a seven-time Irish champ in his own right – such moments make each toil, road mile and phone bill worthwhile.

“I was lucky enough the way it fell that weekend,” he recalls. “Kane had to come back up the road for another wee award that he got off his trainer, Gerry Storey. So I went down there and stayed overnight in a B’n'B so I could bring him back up the following day.

“I was watching the training camp to see how they were getting on, and I happened to be there for the team meeting, because Billy [McClean, IABA Youth/Junior head coach] kindly told me: ‘Come on in, sure – you can hear the meeting.’

And just the words that they said about Kane before the announced him captain – it was lovely to hear. It was just amazing to hear things like that being spoken about your son; Michael Carruth – an Olympic gold medalist, Billy McClean, people like that – and with the champions they’ve trained over the years – to hear them say it, like. And what they said, basically, was that the way Kane goes on – the way he carries himself – he was the epitome of somebody who should captain their country.

“I think they said, as well, that… What was it? ‘If you were to leave a team of young boxers in a room, who would you like to be there with them, to look after them, to make sure everything was okay?’ And they said there’d be no better man than Kane – that he’s trustworthy and he’d give you everything you needed.

“The way he trains, the way he’s committed – they were just saying they were all the attributes they were looking for.”

Barry’s are trophy kids, but not Trophy Kids in the Netflix documentary sense: Kane and Jake have each won umpteen honours on both the domestic and international front, but have put in the necessary hurt of their own volition.

In a reversal of the usual trope, Barry lived the ordinary childhood that his sons would later decline; the brothers Tucker are obsessed more with their craft than a few cans in a field with the lads, each of them a driving force behind the other’s pursuit of a more extraordinary youth.

Barry recalls how, when he watched Jake fight in the recent Junior All-Irelands, his phone was hopping with inquiries from elder sibling Kane – himself deep in camp for the Europeans – as to whether his brother had yet stepped through the ropes:

‘Has he fought yet?’

‘Has he fought yet?’

These boxers’ father is a proud one, but not the type to be proud of himself for fulfilling what he perceives to be mere fatherly duties.

“Och, yeah, but you just do what any parent would do for their kid, you know? If they’ve got a sport, and they’ve got a talent for it, you support them.

“The boys drive each other on, of course. Unfortunately for Kane, in a way, Jake will learn from the mistakes Kane makes in his career, because Kane is kind of carving the path a couple of years ahead.

“You try not to make the same mistakes with both of them, really, but they’re a huge help to each other. They encourage each other, but there’s a healthy competitiveness to it, too.

“They’ve invested a lot of time into boxing. The way I always look at it, as far as my two boys go, is that they probably didn’t have the childhood that even I would have had. I played Gaelic football and things, but it wouldn’t have been at the same intensity and level as the boys are boxing.

In a way, they’ve lost their childhood: they weren’t able to go out with their mates, or what have you, because they were away training all the time, and by the time they’d get home their mates would be away to bed and all that, you know? So, I suppose when you come to that stage, now, you don’t want all that to go to waste. You want all that sacrifice to pay off for them in the long run.

27332052_10215462399938904_6448009253139511007_n Tucker (L) celebrates victory in Irish U18s decider at 75kg

If the boxing ring is a hard place by definition, school was the insurmountable rock in Kane Tucker’s line of vision. Last year, caught between the two, it was his schoolbag which made way for the heavy bag: Tucker became a full-time athlete at the age of 17, adjudging the spoils of his sport to be a more definite prospect than those which might have followed further study.

Importantly, athleticism is time-sensitive where academic learning is not, and the teenager was aware that the iron in his fists was heating up nicely. Crucially, he had the backing of his father when he determined he should prepare to strike with his paws and not a pen, for now.

“Kane did his GCSEs and he got seven GCSEs, which is quite high – it’s quite a good level of education,” Barry says. “But he was at a crossroads when he started his A Levels.

I think it was three weeks into school, he was taken away with the team on a trip to Russia. He came home from the trip, and he was a wee bit behind in course work. The school was a grammar school, so, really, they put a lot of pressure on him. He just cracked, like. He said: ‘I can’t do this.’

“The level of boxing he was at – he was going to the Commonwealth Youth Games that year, and all these different competitions. There was no way he was ever going to be able to balance both school – which was very competitive educationally – and then boxing at such a high level as well.

He told me: ‘Look, I can’t do this.’ I said to him: ‘Whichever route you go down, here – one way or the other – you need to go all-out with it, or don’t do it at all.’

“So we supported him in his decision to pursue boxing. You know, it is hard to be able to financially support him, but there’s a company there – Eagle Overseas – which helps the boys: it covers all their diesel costs and things like that for getting up and down to training. And then EOS IT Solutions, who sponsor Down GAA as well, and just so many who help out where they can. People are very good to the boys.

“Without that help, Kane and Jake probably wouldn’t be able to do half of what they’re doing.”

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Money isn’t the only logistical pitfall, mind.

“It’s very hard for Kane now – and Jake – because to be honest, because they don’t get club shows,” Barry explains.

Nobody wants to box them. They never get invited to club shows. Kane has qualified for a lot of national championships by getting walkovers in Ulster, because nobody wants to box him in Ulster, either. And people might think, ‘Aw, that’s great,’ but it’s not good at all: we’d love for him to have 10 fights going into the All-Irelands, you know?

“But in fairness, he’s with Gerry Storey now, and I don’t need to say too much about Gerry, because his name alone speaks for itself. Gerry’s putting a lot of time into the two boys – Kane and Jake – and he’s just brilliant.

“And as well, John Conlan [father of Michael, Jamie] has been instrumental in Kane’s development since last summer. It’s unbelievable how much he’s developed since the Commonwealths; John took him away with the Commonwealth Games team, and even since then he’s just grown into a man. It’s incredible.

“A lot of stuff that John instills in the boys is on a different level: even after the weigh-ins, taking the proper electrolyte supplements for rehydration and things like that. It’s extremely professional, and I think a lot of that has rubbed off on Kane. I’d rate him as one of the top coaches in the world – no question.

“He has a great way with the boys. He’ll have a training session going, have a bit of slagging, but nobody ever steps over the line. And he never has to raise his voice. He’s got an aura: the boys have the utmost respect for him, and he has for them, too. I’ve never seen anybody as good at doing what he does.

And even Michael Carruth: he and Kane seem to have struck up a bit of a bond. Michael took him down to the house – Kane stayed over – and Michael sorted him with some good sparring in Drimnagh.

18033490_10212857079447520_5203261505058293000_n Barry Tucker with his main men Kane (L) and Jake

Add to that, then, the fact that the 18-year-old Tucker already has the experience of medalling at several international tournaments, and thing don’t seem to be shaping up too shabbily despite the lack of domestic dust-ups.

The full-time fighter himself has fast become a student of the game, and while he’s hungry for further learning within the squared circle, he maintains past tests will help him pass his biggest examination to date.

“I’ve been boxing since I was… I don’t actually remember a time when I wasn’t boxing!” Kane laughs. “Since I was six years old. I don’t really feel any sort of nerves or anything like that anymore.

“Even the bigger tournaments – the Europeans, the Commonwealths – I feel I perform better at those. I’ve been in front of that before. I feel I perform better in front of a crowd, with the noise and atmosphere.

“I’m not sure why, but I suppose you raise your game to match the occasion or something like that.

“I’d rather get more fights at home, of course,” he adds. “More fights, more experience.

The only sort of fights I get – or even sparring, to be honest – I have to travel all over Ireland or even England and other countries to get them. Multi-nation competitions are the only real fights I get apart from the All-Irelands. I don’t really get provincial fights or get on club shows, or anything.

“So I just have to take the experience I get from the likes of these Europeans and carry that with me, because it doesn’t come along that often.

“It’s funny, though,” says his father, who though audibly proud of his puncher is keen to maintain perspective. “The here-and-now, you know: you want to win every tournament at Kane’s stage, at Jake’s stage, and it’s the end of the world if you get beat. But really, it’s all a stepping stone towards Senior, because nobody ever remembers what you win as a juvenile.

“I was actually having a conversation the other day with a guy, and he had a good knowledge of boxing. Big fan of [WBA bantamweight world champion] Ryan Burnett, he was: ‘Ryan Burnett is brilliant’, and all that. And he says: ‘Tell me this, here: did Ryan Burnett ever win anything major as a juvenile? I don’t think so, but he’s a brilliant pro.’

“And I’m like… ‘He was a Junior Olympic champion!” recounts Barry with a laugh.

Everybody can tell you Paddy Barnes went to three Olympics, but nobody remembers that he lost his first 12 amateur fights!

“You have to think of the bigger picture. Winning Boys titles was the be-all-and-end-all at one stage, but it’s nothing compared to what Kane is fighting for now. And five years down the line, what he’s fighting for now will pale in comparison to what he’ll be fighting for at senior.”

Even at 18, Kane has his own perception of careerism: it’s rooted more in immediacy than that of his father’s, but it’s equally grounded.

“Oh, no, no: I’m going to these European Championships to win gold,” he announces. “Like, for example, the Commonwealth Games, there [in 2017]: at the time, the silver medal that I got – I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t even want the medal, really.

“Looking back on it now, it wasn’t too bad because I was a year younger within the age group, but on this occasion I’m heading to Italy looking to win gold, and that’s it.

I sort of like to look at it like: ‘just take one fight, one competition at a time.’ At the minute, this is all I’m worried about. I’m not too concerned with Olympics or Seniors or anything: right now, I’m focused only on winning a gold at these Europeans, and if I do well there, my next target will be a gold medal at the Worlds, and my next target after that might be the Youth Olympics.

“But if I just keep focusing on the one thing, eventually it’ll build up towards Senior titles and going away with the Senior team. That’s the way I look at it, anyway.”

20229072_10213819955078809_8118894868469393937_n A dejected Kane draped in Commonwealth silver after final defeat last year

An old boxing adage says that you’re only as good as your last fight, and by that lofty standard Kane Tucker’s been fairly handy for his last hundred or so outings.

But even if he plans to take his next hundred one at a time, he’s still planning on doing a hundred; there are goals that stray beyond first bell in bella Roseta this week – short-term and medium-term for now, anyway.

Firstly, a top-seven finish at these European Championships will qualify Kane for the World Youth Championships in four months’ time – the venue for which is yet to be confirmed.

Secondly, a gold medal at these Europeans – and a gold only – will see him off to Buenos Aires for the Youth Olympics this October.

Irrespective if not entirely unrelated to both dangling carrots, there’s a call to be made closer to home: whether it’s time to take a swing at the king or instead put himself in line for the throne.

“Being realistic, Tokyo 2020 is a big ask for Kane,” says Barry. “He’s 18 there since last month. In order to reach the Senior Olympic qualifiers, Kane would have to win the next Irish Elites – which would be his first Elites – and up at 81 kilos, because he’s going to be moving up in weight. And there at 81 you have Joe Ward, who’s an exceptional talent.

You have to respect these guys. Joe Ward: is Kane ready for that level? You’d have to make that decision in January if he’s developed enough to compete with these boys. But you can’t be cocky: Joe Ward is on another level, a phenomenal talent, and one of the best amateur boxers Ireland has ever produced. You can’t disrespect those boys and think you’re just going to jump in the ring and do a job on them: you have to take these fights at the right time.

“It’ll all be down to Gerry Storey, anyway,” Barry adds. “He’ll know whether Kane is ready, and he’ll make that call.

“Tokyo is a target, but I would say the main target is the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022: that’s probably a more realistic, four-year goal for Kane.”

20245509_10213810151713731_4682391974421320709_n Kane poses with the six-foot-six Canadian he beat in the 2017 Commonwealth Youth semi-final

“I’ll take everything as it comes”, says the fighter himself, “but like, yeah – I’d love to go to Tokyo in 2020. If my coaches feel I’m ready, and if I feel I’m ready, I’ll go for it. But, you know, Joe Ward is a great fighter. I have to respect that.

“I feel like I’m building up into a good 81-kilo fighter – well, eventually, anyway!

“I think I’ve grown out as much as I can, but I’m definitely starting to fill out more. Also, I’ve stepped up my strength and conditioning a lot: I feel myself getting a lot stronger, so I’ve sort of got two sides of the coin working well, in terms of strength and then technical boxing ability.

“If Joe Ward goes to Tokyo and goes pro afterwards, that would leave the weight sort of ‘open’, and anyone could take it, then. That would be a good opportunity to go in and try and make it my own. If it comes to that then, yeah, it’d be great.

“2024 would be a good one for me, too,” Kane muses, his voice trailing off. “But maybe even then I might be thinking of turning pro, or… You never know. Maybe that would even be a little bit late.”

Michael Conlan following his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin Cheats (L)

Fittingly, Kane voices his reticence mere hours before eir Sport documentary Broken Rings opens old wounds in its dissection of Irish boxing’s Rio 2016 debacle on Monday night.

The likelihood is that he stands to wait six years before making his own senior Olympic bow; that’s a third of his life to date, and the destination is as precarious as the journey seems long. Not Paris, but rather the Olympic coliseum within which dreams die at the push of a button by the thumb of a charlatan.

He’s been slighted by the old Russian slight of hand a couple of times, too – or at least once per his father’s reckoning: Edgard Tcambov, the three-time European gold medalist and reigning World Junior champion, has a pair of hen’s teeth on his record having twice defeated Tucker by scant margins – the second of which was as shady as it was slim.

“Ever since I started boxing, I’ve never worried about the pro ranks or anything like that,” Kane says fondly. “It was always about the Olympics for me. If you won Olympic gold, you were the best amateur boxer in the world. Michael Carruth, for example: I always looked up to him as a boxer. And he’s training me now, which is unreal, like.

But what happened in Rio with Michael Conlan is one of the main reasons I would be thinking of going pro before I ever get to an Olympics. What’s the point in waiting four years to go to this competition – just like Michael did, he was waiting for the Olympics – just to be robbed? You’re wasting four years that could be spent building yourself as a pro, and getting good experience there.

“I was 16 watching that all happen, and I was gutted. I really felt for Michael, like. I’ve got them bad decisions with the Russians, as well. It’s really… It’s heartbreaking.

“When I was watching it, I was thinking, like: ‘What’s the point in me staying amateur?’ I know I was only 16, but I was thinking: ‘What’s the point in staying amateur if you’re just going to get cheated out of it?’

“And when you really think about it, I’m 18: is there a point in waiting four years, six years, to get a bad decision or get cheated out of the competition – out of the Olympics? It comes down to whether you want to take that risk or not. For me, we’ll just see how it goes.

“But you just have to take the experience from it. And fighting the Russians, like”, he laughs: “I suppose you just need to not worry about winning or losing. You need to try and take the positives from your performance, get the experience under your belt and move on.”

Kane Tucker is in for a penny if not quite a pound, yet. Perhaps he’ll one day choose to chase belt over medal, but whatever the shout, one suspects he’ll wear it well.

It’s partially for this reason he arrives in eastern Italy as captain of his country, and he’s only after one precious metal for the time being.

29790574_10216074038869495_84531515938003603_n

Irish team for the European Youth Championships, 18-27 April

Women’s Flyweight – 48kg
Daina Moorehouse (Enniskerry)

Men’s Flyweight – 49kg
Jude Gallagher

Women’s Flyweight – 51kg
Caitlyn Fryers (Immaculata)

Men’s Flyweight – 52kg
Dean Clancy (Ballinacarrow)

Women’s Bantamweight – 54kg
Mary Geraghty (Baldoyle)

Men’s Bantamweight – 56kg
Brandon McCarthy (St Michael’s Athy)

Women’s Featherweight – 57kg
Dearbhla Rooney (Sean McDermott’s)

Men’s Lightweight – 60kg
Alex Higgins (Fr Horgan’s)

Women’s Lightweight – 60kg
Aoibhe Ginty (Geesala)

Men’s Light Welterweight – 64kg
Callum Walsh (Riverstown)

Women’s Light Welterweight – 64kg
Evelyn Igharo (Clann Naofa)

Men’s Welterweight – 69kg
Edward Donovan (O.L.O.L.)

Women’s Middleweight – 75kg
Lauren Kelly (St Brigid’s Edenderry) C

Men’s Middleweight – 75kg
Kane Tucker (Holy Family GG) C

Men’s Light Heavyweight – 81kg
Edward Barrett (Olympic)

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