Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Olympic boxing: Headguards and heartbreak
"When I started everybody was scared of the Cubans. Now everybody is scared to box us"
Last Updated: 14/01/20 10:53am
The Boxing Road to Tokyo is an Olympic qualifying event to be held at London’s Copper Box Arena, the biggest Olympic boxing event in the capital since London 2012.
Seventy-seven Olympic places are at stake at the event from March 14-24 - up to 450 men and women from as many as 50 countries will descend upon London with their dream to qualify for Tokyo 2020 on the line.
Eight men and five women from the GB Boxing squad will be selected at The Boxing Road to Tokyo to head to the Olympics.
Gold medals at the past two Olympic Games have been won by a host of major names, including Team GB's Nicola Adams, Anthony Joshua and Luke Campbell. Ireland's Katie Taylor, Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko and the United States' Claressa Shields also scooped the top prize.
Light-heavyweight Ben Whittaker and heavyweight Cheavon Clarke are among the British hopefuls at The Boxing Road to Tokyo aiming to follow in the footsteps of those big-name gold medallists.
Whittaker said: "Truthfully it was not my dream because I never thought I'd get there. But now I'm close. I remember watching London 2012 and seeing the crowd, the gold medals, the emotion. I thought: 'I wouldn't mind doing that' so I started boxing properly.
"London 2012 was class - the crowd and the atmosphere. People crying when they won. It was mad, and I want that feeling."
But qualifying on home turf is not necessarily a help. Whittaker said: "Sometimes the judges will go against you, if you're at home. You need to prove yourself."
Clarke added: "When we fight somewhere else, any 50-50 seems to go to them! I hope that's the case here. The advantage I can see is that, for every punch we throw, the crowd will shout and that will be a boost."
Olympic boxing has been put through the ringer since Joshua et al eight years ago.
The sport's place at Tokyo 2020 was under threat altogether until AIBA, who governed it, was suspended by the International Olympic Committee.
"How could they ever take boxing out? It's too big," Clarke said. "How are they going to not do boxing?"
The defining image of boxing at Rio 2016 was Ireland's Michael Conlan's reaction to losing a controversial decision in the final. The 36 referees and judges used at Rio 2016 have been banned from Tokyo 2020.
"I believe that everything will come right in the end," Clarke said.
There are other controversies, not least the inclusion of professional boxers (they were welcomed at Rio 2016 too). Croatian heavyweight Filip Hrgovic, unbeaten in 10 pro fights after winning bronze at Rio 2016, is expected to compete again.
"It's weird but I wouldn't mind beating a professional, it would be something to add to my résumé," Whittaker said.
"But it's disappointing because amateur boxing is about starting low, going to the Olympics, then going pro and leaving the amateurs to the next kids. As amateurs, to beat a pro is win-win because they're coming to take our medals."
This will also be the second Olympics in a row where boxers do not wear headguards, which were previously worn for 30 years. Whittaker warns that "silly head clashes" now come into play.
Clarke explained: "If you are cut in your first fight and the doctor can say: 'you're not fighting again'. You have to be tactical with how you box. Some guys come in head-first so you have to be alert."
But the boxers largely prefer it.
"It's better [without headguards] because you see shots coming," said Whittaker. "The first time without headguards is like fencing but now everyone has found their feet. The shots are cleaner. Boxers don't rush because they think about getting cut and, with my style, I can pick them off."
Clarke added: "It's more relatable to the pro boxing that everybody sees. There is a stigma that comes with a headguard. When they first took headguards away there were a lot of cuts."
Whittaker, Clarke and other Team GB hopefuls will fight for inclusion in London and expect victory.
"We are the best," Clarke said. "We have the best facilities, coaches and boxers. People used to want to draw us at tournaments. Now? People are scared of us.
"When I started everybody was scared of the Cubans. Now everybody is scared to box us. When we turn up, we have a presence."