DURING the first few months of 2019 Christina Desmond didn’t feel like number one.
Despite landing her first Irish Elite title at 69kg in March, the Cill na Martra fighter (23) doubted whether she was actually the best Irish boxer in her weight class.
Those doubts stemmed from being the underdog going into her Elite final with the favoured Grainne Walsh in a bout that was televised by TG4.
The Fr Horgan’s BC southpaw had taken some time out in the lead up to the finals to focus on her studies and her career – 2019 was also the year she finished her training in Templemore to become a member of An Garda Síochana.
‘I should have been nowhere near her on that night,’ Desmond said.
‘I had only three weeks training done. Everyone thought it was a shock when I beat her. I wasn’t being treated as the number one boxer.
‘I didn’t even expect to be picked for the Europeans and the Worlds. I work six days on (as a Garda in Dungarvan) and on my four days off I was training in Dublin. It was a slog of a year and I questioned myself a lot’.
Any doubts about Christina’s ability to compete at the highest level were finally dispelled at October’s World Championships in Ulan-Ude, Russia.
Ulan-Ude is situated in the middle of Russia, around 3,500km from Moscow and just east of Lake Baikal. Founded in 1666, the city is famous for its large statue of the head of Vladimir Lenin in the central square.
Even as the Irish team arrived in Siberia and the draw for the first round of the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships was made, Christina questioned whether she belonged.
Desmond was handed arguably the toughest bout in the round of 32 when the high-profile Commonwealth gold medallist Sandy Ryan of England was drawn against her.
Ryan, who boasts over 14,000 Instagram followers, has become a poster girl for Team GB and has long been earmarked as a medal contender for next year’s Olympics.
‘She’s a bit cocky – I knew who she was. I knew I was going to be up against it. I was practically a nobody going in,’ Desmond says of her reaction to the draw.
‘I was very nervous going in there, more than normal. But I beat her comfortably. Coming out of the ring I couldn’t believe I was after winning because of all the hype (surrounding Ryan). But it was a nice win to get me started.’
Christina Desmond had arrived.
A dominant performance in the last 16 against her Canadian opponent guaranteed Desmond a top eight finish. There could be no more doubts that she belonged at this level.
That's Cork welterweight @Tina_Desmond through to the last 8, and medal fight, at the World Championships in Russia thanks to win over Canada. Earlier, @amybroadhurst12 got there with a win over Poland pic.twitter.com/wQZTuxsKuL
— Kevin Byrne (@KevByrneBox) October 9, 2019
Busenaz Sürmeneli was in the opposite corner for the quarter final. The hard-working Turk was fancied to blitz Desmond but as it turned out it was a questionable refereeing decision that ended up being the difference.
‘I was given a standing count in the first round, but it wasn’t from a punch – I don’t know what the referee was looking at. That ended up costing me the second round as well because I panicked. I won the third round so I knew I was going to be there or thereabouts,’ Desmond says.
The result ultimately went the Turkish fighter’s way and Sürmeneli would later secure gold – a strong formline for Desmond considering how close she’d run the soon to be crowned champion.
‘I went into the Worlds not knowing what to expect or where I’d finish. They’re all top-class girls training at a professional level,’ she says.
‘I went out there with two weeks training and a European’s behind me so to go out and beat some of the best girls in the competition, it was something I never could have dreamed of. It gave me a boost of confidence’.
The performance at the Worlds followed a similarly strong showing at the European Championships in Madrid back in August.
Following a comfortable win in the last 16, Desmond was drawn to box the number two seed, Darima Sandakova, from Russia in the quarter-final.
The Russian edged Desmond in what was a cracking, close-fought contest and went on to win the gold. Twice in 2019 Desmond had been knocked out of major championships by the eventual winner, further highlighting just how high a level she’s been operating at.
‘It’s only since the Worlds that people seem to be taking me serious,’ she says.
In the end, 2019 finished as it started.
Schedule changes on account of 2020 being an Olympic year meant the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) held the second Elite finals night of 2019 at the end of November.
In a repeat of March’s final Desmond once again squared off against her old foe Grainne Walsh. In another thrilling, world-class calibre contest Desmond beat her midlands rival via a split decision.
On commentary for TG4, Ireland’s former Olympic boxing captain Darren O’Neill argued Christina’s case to be named boxer of the night.
When the result was announced, Desmond held up her index finger to the camera as if to signify that she finally saw herself as the number one welterweight in the country and she wanted everyone at home to know.
As for 2020? With the 69kg category having recently been added to Women’s Olympic Boxing, a place on Team Ireland for the Tokyo Olympics is a real possibility.
Strong cases can be made for several members of the Irish women’s squad to contend for medals in Tokyo which naturally leads to a cut-throat level of competitiveness within the team environment.
‘It’s good to be training alongside elite fighters. It’s good going away together but we kill each other as well,’ Desmond says, with an air of mischief in her voice.
‘My main goal for next year is to try and get to the Olympic qualifier in London (which takes place from March 13-23). We won’t look past that’.
Working so closely with such talented fighters and coaches on a regular basis can only be beneficial to Desmond whose dreams of going to Tokyo as Ireland’s number one welterweight look more realistic by the day.