By Jay Mwamba
Olympic boxer Francis Barrett has decided to end his storied amateur career and turn professional.
Bitter at allegedly being denied another shot at Olympic glory by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, the London-based Barrett says he will announce his decision next week.
The Irish flag-bearer at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Games in Atlanta where he became the first Traveler to make it to the Olympics, Barrett told the Echo last week that he would have his last amateur bout in London on April 28.
He accused the IABA of forcing his decision by not sending him to this year’s Games in Sydney, where light middleweight Michael Roche will be the lone Irish representative.
"Why didn’t the Irish amateur boxing board not send me?" the 23-year-old Barrett, who’s 5-foot-7, wondered angrily from his London home. "It’s really, really annoyed me. That’s why I’m turning pro."
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The nine-time Irish champion had earlier planned to join the paid ranks in September after the Olympics.
A veteran of more than 300 bouts, Barrett said he had the best chance of qualifying for the Games from among all the fighters on the Emerald Isle, but claimed to have fallen out of favor with the boxing authorities there after the Atlanta Games, where he reached the second round of the light welterweight competition.
"Me and Neil Gough are the most experienced Irish boxers," he said. "I’ve had 30 international bouts and won 25. But ever since I came from the Olympics, they’ve never given me a chance."
But in Dublin, IABA President Brendan O’Conaire parried the fighter’s charges, saying the selection process for the Olympics was simple and straightforward.
"There’s no problem," O’Conaire said, explaining that Barrett had lost to Derry’s Paul McCloskey in Dublin last January in the semifinals of the Senior National Championships, which serve as a qualification competition for the Olympics.
"Francis is probably feeling sore that he didn’t make it," O’Conaire said.
Asked if Barrett was seeking a dispensation of sorts to bypass the association’s usual selection criterion, O’Conaire said: "It’s a level playing field for everybody. We just pick them from the national championships. We would have loved for him to make it. He’s such a nice person and he’s been a credit to his club and the association."
O’Conaire said he hoped Barrett would reconsider his decision to turn professional so that he could participate in the World Championships, which Ireland will host in Dublin from June 3-10, 2001. The host nation is allowed to nominate participants in each weight division.
Barrett, however, said his London trainer, Louie Luigi, believes he’s being snubbed because he’s a Traveler.
"But I don’t know," he remarked, suggesting instead that the IABA might have been displeased by the enormous publicity he received during and after the 1996 Olympics on account of his background.
Barrett overcame a hardscrabble upbringing to fulfill his childhood dream of fighting in the Olympics. His success in becoming the first member of the marginalized community from western Ireland to qualify for the world’s biggest sporting event turned him into an instant national hero.
The young fighter, whose life, leading up to and immediately after the Atlanta Games, has been documented in the evocative independent film production "Southpaw," which opened in the United States last Friday, disclosed that he’d been asked to box for England.
"I refused," he said. "I can’t represent anyone else but Ireland."
Barrett, who hails from Galway, has lived in London since August 1996 but plans to move back to Ireland once his professional career picks up.
He won the 1997 British Amateur Welterweight championship but plans to fight as a light welterweight in the pros.
"I have a good pro style. I use my hands and head well. I like to think in the ring," he said.
He’s a huge Wayne McCullough fan and admires the former World Boxing Council bantamweight titlist’s high-octane style.
Barrett, however, said his strategy in the pros would be a mixture of fighting and boxing. Fighting in the early rounds to wear down his opponents and boxing in the late rounds.
Among the managers, he says he’s been in touch with is Lou Duva, the septuagenarian patriarch of New Jersey’s Duva family, which until recently ran Main Events, Inc.
"Lou Duva is interested in me," Barrett said. "I want to see what he’s offering."
The third child born in a family of 11 children that still lives on a disputed campsite in Galway, Barrett began boxing at age 11.
He was followed into the ring, with varying success, by four of his five brothers: 22-year-old Jimmy, who won an Irish intermediate title; 20-year-old John, who triumphed in the Irish juniors; Dermott, who at 15, may be the pick
of the litter, with four Irish titles and a European cadet title to his name, and 11-year-old Richard.
"He’s one of the best juniors in Europe," Barrett said of Dermott.
The Barrett brothers have grown up in a trailer park home — bereft of such basic utilities as electricity and running water — in Hillside, and learned the fundamentals of the noble art in a second-hand container that they used
as a gym.
An important figure in the careers of the Barretts, especially Francis’s, has been trainer Chick Gillen, whose Olympic Boxing Club the siblings joined in 1989.
Francis, the second oldest of the Barrett boys, said Gillen would feature prominently in his professional quest.
Married with two kids aged 2 1/2 and 1, Barrett supports
himself by doing landscaping work in London.