By Kevin Byrne (follow Kevin on Twitter @KevooByrne)
OLYMPIC BC heavyweight Gary Sweeney could take home his first Irish senior title tonight, and he’s well fancied to do it against Steven Ward if the bookies are to be believed.
This year is all about new beginnings for a boxer known as much for a failed drugs test as his European Youth silver medal in 2011.
Gary Sweeney, younger brother of professional Michael, was hit with a nine-month ban from December 2011 to September 18 2012.
His brother and coach Martin Sweeney took a 27-month suspension for administering the diuretic furosemide to the then-minor fighter, who was a significant prospect at light-heavyweight.
As Gary Sweeney moved on up, he has now become a fully-fledged heavyweight, at least in amateur terms.
He has put in three impressive performances at the 2014 Elite Senior Championships to book his place in the final.
The wins – against Ken Okungbowa and Bernard O’Reilly – showed a fighter in real form. Against O’Reilly, Sweeney was aggressive throwing big, leaping hooks from the off, leading his final opponent Ward – who was watching from the back – to compare him to Joe Frazier in his bob-and-weave style.
Irish-boxing.com caught up with the young prospect after his semi-final victory to talk about his chances in the final, his style of fighting, the impact of his ban and the stigma of being involved in a doping ban at a young age (Sweeney was 17 when he hit the headlines in 2012).
I-B: O’Reilly was strong and that was hard-fought…
“I knew his gameplan – it wasn’t going to be a clean fight. I attacked him well in the first two rounds, in the last round I was a bit tired. I take nothing away from him, he’s a good boxer. He beat me twice before, and this is my second time beating him as well. That’s four times we boxed, two apiece, but I’ll just focus on the next fight now.
“I’m into the final now for the first time and that’s a big thing. Hopefully I can take the pressure and if I can, I’ll be happy.”
Talk to us about your preparations, growing into a heavyweight.
“It’s a big thing. I boxed as a heavyweight in the 2012 intermediates. I boxed a lad from Holy Family and he was a top heavyweight. I got the decision though. I was coming up from 81kg.
“At senior level I’m one of the smallest heavyweights and it’s going to be very, very hard at 91, but I think I can take the pressure. I can take a good shot, I’m strong and I hit hard.
You’re very aggressive, almost like an attack dog in there.
“I love it. I love fighting. That’s my style and we’ll see how it goes in the final.”
You were making huge progress up to the European Youths…
“I got silver in that, that was at 81kg. And after that I went up again. It was a big jump but I’ve built into it. But I’m still a long way away from a proper heavyweight yet.”
…then you had a major setback with a drugs ban.
“I did yeah. I was banned for nine months, which meant a year out of boxing. Came straight back in to win the intermediates.”
How much of a blow was that failed test?
“It was a big thing. I stopped all my training. I didn’t do a bit.”
Tell us about where you were when you found out.
“I was actually weighing in for the intermediates in 2011 and I got a phone call saying they found something in my urine. I knew straight away. I said this couldn’t be happening. I said we’d leave it for a minute and focus on the intermediates. I got to the final then and weighed in and got a phone call. Then I came in and got the bad news. I’d had brilliant fights up to that at 86kg, I was boxing brilliant. But I got the phone call to say they wouldn’t let me box in the final. That actually kinda broke me in one way. I was heartbroken.
“I couldn’t box, and people were thinking I was taking drugs to win fights. “
Did that accusation follow you about?
“Yeah, a lot of people said I was taking drugs to win fights. But drugs… if I got tested now it’d come up clear. But it’s over now.”
What did you do during your ban?
“A bit of messing, I wasn’t training a lot. I was listening to my brothers Michael and Martin. They said ‘take it easy now and come back strong’. Bigger and better. And that’s what I’ve done. I took their advice and got stronger and bigger for the next time. I boxed brilliant then after that, so I’m happy.”
One fight now from heavyweight champion of Ireland.
“It’s a major thing. I’m boxing a good lad now in Steven Ward. It’s going to be tough. He’s been around a long time. It was on facebook before the tournament even started that Sweeney v Ward would be a great final. Now the two of us is in the final. Let’s get the show on and get it going. I’d say it’ll be brilliant.”