Saturday 18 November 2017

Ward is in superb shape for his semi

Antia and staff work out tactics for last-four bout

Joe Ward has many advantages going into tomorrow night’s semi-final
Joe Ward has many advantages going into tomorrow night’s semi-final

While yesterday was an official rest day at the World Boxing Championships in Hamburg, the Irish coaching staff, headed by Zaur Antia, were devising a strategy for Joe Ward's semi-final showdown against 21-year-old Uzbek fighter Bektemir Melikuziev tomorrow night (7.40 Irish time).

Significantly, both are southpaws which should mean a tactical showdown with the two protagonists trying to entice the other within range.

The Irish captain has a number of advantages. He is much more experienced than his opponent in the 81kg light heavyweight division.

Melikuziev established his formidable reputation in the lighter 75kg middleweight division - winning a silver medal at the last World Championships in 2015 where he defeated Ireland's Michael O'Reilly in the semi-final. He also won a silver at the Rio Olympics last summer before opting to move into the heavier 81kg weight division.

Ward is two years older and, more significantly, four inches taller, giving him a superior reach and he will use his favourite right jab to keep the Uzbek at bay, as well as score points. The Moate man needs to avoid allowing the contest to descend into a scrappy, holding affair.

In the wake of his gold medal-winning performance at the European Championships two months ago, Ward is in superb physical shape and looks focused.

The newly appointed Head of the IABA's High Performance programme, Bernard Dunne, deserves plaudits for convincing Ward to stay within the programme up until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Giving him the additional responsibility of being team captain has changed his attitude.

His preparations for major championships are now done in a much more professional way.

He is finally adjusting to the lifestyle demanded of a top-class world athlete, which dovetails neatly with his enormous reservoir of natural talent.

"I push myself really hard now and the training has gone really well. My dietician is very good and my strength and conditioning coach John Cleary is excellent. My physique is completely different and I am really enjoying my boxing," said Ward.

"Everything is very professional and that makes a big difference. Every fight is a challenge for me. I came here to perform; I have performed but there is still another gear left," he promised after his thumping quarter-final demolition of Rio Olympian Mikhail Dauhaliavets from Belarus.

But the Irish camp are mindful that the Uzbek squad has performed superbly in Hamburg. Together with Kazakhstan, they are guaranteed six medals, just one less than the leading country, Cuba.

The European nations have fared poorly. Armenia and Russia are the only European countries guaranteed more than one medal.

The other significant story of the championship is the re-emergence of the United States as a significant power in world boxing.

Under head coach Billy Walsh, they are assured of three medals, their best performance at this level since 1999.

Host country Germany, whose newly appointed head coach is Ireland's Eddie Bolger, had a less successful tournament. While five of their team were involved in medal fights, only one reached the semi-finals.

Ten semi-finals are down for decision tonight with the remaining ten, including Joe Ward's contest, scheduled for tomorrow night in the city's Sporthalle.

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