Having never been beaten on Irish soil, Joe Ward is the hot favourite to secure his fifth national senior title when he takes on Anthony Browne in Dublin's National Stadium this evening (Friday).
The Moate boxer rejected offers to turn professional, saying he wants to become the driving force in amateur boxing in Ireland.
During his first interview since his Olympic Games disappointment in Rio, the 23-year-old said he travelled to America to speak to professional boxing promoters who were interested in working with him.
However, he ultimately made the decision not to follow Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes, and Michael Conlan into the pro ranks at this stage.
“I felt I would be running away from something if I went professional,” Ward told the Westmeath Independent.
“I underachieved at the Olympics, and I felt Ireland needed someone to stay (amateur) who has the experience to bring Irish amateur boxing back to where it was.”
Ward exited the Olympics after losing his opening contest, a scrappy bout against Ecuador’s Carlos Andres Mina.
Looking back on it now, he admitted that the occasion may have affected him. He hadn't boxed competitively in almost a year before the Olympics and he believes this inactivity also hampered his performance.
“It was my first Olympics and it’s not easy going there,” he said. “I was very disappointed with the result. My performance, as well, probably wasn’t up to standard.
“Everything was grand going in (to the Games). The preparation went really well. I was in decent enough condition and shape. It was just in the fight itself that it didn’t go right for me.
“(Mina) played a big part in that. He wanted to draw me into kind of a messy fight, and it worked for him. Maybe the occasion got to me at that stage and I couldn’t control it. The emotions and everything might have got to me.
“But things like this will happen, and you have to take it and make it a motivation for you. You have to make sure not to let it happen again on such a big stage, or let guys who are not on my level bring me down to their level of boxing, or their level of tactics.”
He said he wants to use his experience to help other boxers who are coming through the amateur system in Ireland.
“Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes, and me, learned from each other and we worked hard together. Now that they’re all gone professional, I think Irish amateur boxing needs someone like myself to stay around and show these new lads the way to success.
“I’ve been there in the European championships and the World championships. I know what it’s like, and I know how to win medals at that level. I want to be the driving force in Irish amateur boxing and show these new lads how to do it.”
The judging and refereeing at the boxing in the Olympic Games Rio was controversial, but Joe Ward said it hadn’t turned him against the amateur game.
“A lot of young lads turned professional because of what happened in the Olympics. I wish them all the best of luck, but I don’t think it’s the right option to run away from the amateurs just because of what happened at the Olympics.
“It’s a bitter thing to swallow, when you get a harsh decision, but you’ve got to move on and learn from it. Some days there might have been fights that you didn’t deserve to win but you got the decision and there wasn’t anything more heard about it. You wouldn’t be crying about that, you’d be delighted with it,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot more good in the amateur game than what people saw at the Olympics.”
When asked about his immediate goals, he responded: “My first target is the national championships. Then I hope to be going to the European championships in June, and I hope to retain my gold medal that I won in 2015.”
“The World championships are in August, so I’d like to go and win the gold medal that I haven’t got yet. I’ve won a World bronze and a World silver, but I’m missing the gold, so I need to go there and win that gold medal.”
He said he doesn’t want to look too far ahead yet, but if he secures the necessary funding support, he would be willing to remain amateur up to the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“At moment I am taking it one step at a time, and one year at a time. You never know what’s around the corner, so I’m just focusing on this year first.
“We’ll see how successful I am this year and then we can hopefully negotiate some terms and keep moving on towards the Olympics. I really have no problem staying (amateur) until the next Olympics if I get the support from the Sports Council and the IABA.”
For now, he is just looking forward to stepping back into the ring at the National Stadium.
“In the last twelve months or more I haven’t been active enough. I want to get more fights under my belt, because that’s where I’m lacking.
“I’d like to be back in the ring having more fights in the nationals, Europeans, and World championships. That’s what brings out the best in me, being active.”
So his hunger for the sport is still there?
“Absolutely,” he replied. “It’s very hard to lose that.”