Can anyone stop the Ukraine?
Ukraine had a sensational 2011 and the question remains whether anyone can stop this boxing powerhouse in this Olympic year. Following a magnificent performance at the 16th edition of the AIBA World Boxing Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan which doubled up as the first Olympic qualification tournament for London 2012, the Ukrainian competitors are absolutely brimming with confidence. Having secured four golds and one silver medal at the biggest event in the history of AIBA and with a set-up unrivalled, the boxing colossus could sweep the board at the XXX Olympiad.
The mighty Ukraine
The current Olympic Featherweight Champion, 23-year-old Vasyl Lomachenko moved up a weight class to test himself in the Lightweight category and preparations could not have gone any better following a string of sensational performances in Baku that saw him claim gold in one of the most heavily contested divisions at the AIBA World Boxing Championships last year.
Welterweight Taras Shelestyuk, Middleweight Evhen Khytrov and Heavyweight Oleksandr Usyk were the three other Ukrainians to claim gold medals in Baku while World University Champion Denis Berinchyk took the silver in the Light Welterweight category. Next to these exceptional five Ukrainian medals, the team achieved a further quota place for the 2012 London Olympic Games and with such an excellent pool of talent in the country, do not bet against them gaining another four places at the upcoming 2012 AIBA European Olympic Qualifying Event to be held in Trabzon, Turkey this April.
So who can stop the Ukraine from total domination?
The young Cuban squad finished in second position in the team rankings in Baku, underlining the excellent work undertaken by the Caribbean nation in rebuilding their boxing heritage and in many pundits view they have the boxers to challenge the Ukrainians for top spot. Team captain Julio Cesar De La Cruz and 20-year-old newcomer Lazaro Alvarez became Cuban national heroes with their gold medals in Baku while the squad achieved a further five Olympic quotas in the Azeri capital.
Asia's other leading boxing nation Kazakhstan was unable to make it to the top of a podium but finished third in the team ranking at the 2011 World Boxing Championships and with their athletes taking home a total of four medals and six quota places for the London Olympic Games, the future sure looks bright. Serik Sapiyev was thwarted in his attempts to become triple World Champion by the Ukrainian Shelestyuk but the Kazaks will have taken great pride in the performances of young team members Adilbek Niyazimbetov and Ivan Dychko. With the 2012 AIBA Asian Olympic Qualifying Event taking place on home soil in Astana, many expect Kazakhstan to reach all ten quota places for London.
You can never discount the Russian contingent who was uncharacteristically below par in Baku. European Champion Misha Aloyan fought all the big guns to become Flyweight World Champion, defeating Welshmen Andrew Selby in the final and securing his country's only gold medal. So look out for the country to look to set the record straight this year.
China's development after heavy investment before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games has started to bare its fruits. The hard work paid off with three quota places for London and Zou Shiming becoming the first ever boxer to become a three-time Light Flyweight World Champion. Newcomer Wang Xuanxuan was one of the tournament's big surprises when he took a bronze medal in the Heavyweight division in Baku.
AIBA World Boxing Championships host nation Azerbaijan celebrated as Super Heavyweight WSB star Magomedrasul Medzhidov took the gold medal against the impressive Englishman Anthony Joshua and with 19-year-old prodigy Teymur Mammadov securing a silver medal in the Heavyweight division and the nation taking a total of four Olympic quota places for London, look out for them to make a big impact this year. The average age of the Azeri squad is the lowest of all national teams at only 20.4 years so they will only get better.
As host of the Olympics, Great Britain will be amongst the favourites for medals and they will be counting on home support to overcome the challenge set by the tough Ukrainian outfit. They also have a statistic they want to put to bed, at the last two European Championships and at the AIBA World Championships in Baku, their boxers advanced to six finals but failed each time to take gold.
Brazil's Everton Dos Santos Lopes secured the first gold medal for the South American country in an AIBA elite event and his excellent results show that the 2016 Rio Olympic Games will come at the right time for the hosts. Lopes was immense in Baku and thoroughly deserved taking the Light Welterweight title.
Beijing Olympian John Joe Nevin became the first Irish boxer to win medals at successive AIBA World Championships and at only 22 the Bantamweight has every chance of growing his medal collection this year. With Michael Conlan also in their ranks, look out for the Irish to influence the battle for boxing supremacy.
With so many strong boxers out there, 2012 promises to be another excellent year for the sport. With all fighters primed towards the XXX Olympiad, expect fireworks as all nations battle to topple the mighty Ukraine.
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