Roniel Iglesias, the brilliant Cuban veteran, became a two-times Olympic champion when he beat Britain’s Pat McCormack on a wide and unanimous decision on Tuesday in the final of the welterweight division. The 32-year-old won bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing before becoming the light-welterweight champion at London 2012.
Iglesias is now one of 10 boxers to have won medals at three Olympic Games and the Cuban sealed his place in the pantheon with a sumptuous performance that showcased so much of the slick skill and fighting grit of the greatest amateur boxing country in the world.
McCormack, a 26-year-old from Washington in the north-east of England, arrived in Tokyo as the world champion, the No 1 seed and the clear favourite for gold. After winning world, European and Commonwealth Games titles, he has had an outstanding career and legitimate hopes before the first bell of securing the only gold medal that has eluded him.
He and Iglesias lost early at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and there were doubts the Cuban could roll back the years against a much younger opponent in his prime. But Iglesias has enjoyed a recent resurgence and in the semi-finals he was an impressive winner against Andrey Zamkovoy, the Russian who has been one of McCormack’s most testing rivals in recent years.
The opening round in Olympic boxing is often decisive and the initial action was cagey as the two fighters looked to gain a foothold. Iglesias has retained his hand speed and, boxing out of his usual southpaw stance, he looked crisp and composed. But McCormack had yet to be deterred and he even slipped into an audacious shoe-shine shuffle between skirmishes – as if to suggest he was about to enjoy a memorable Olympic final.
Iglesias was just as confident and he raised his hand whenever he landed the meaningful blows that edged a close round in his favour on four of the five judges’ scorecards.
McCormack went down early in the second round after Iglesias caught him with a sharp left cross. He was fortunate that, as his feet were also tangled beneath him, the referee ruled he had slipped. It was a generous call in McCormack’s favour but the pattern of the fight had already shifted. Iglesias looked the superior boxer and McCormack was reduced to using his physicality in an attempt to unsettle the Cuban. He was warned by the referee for pushing and urged to watch his head movement.
McCormack, however, is also skilful and had some legitimate success in the last minute of the round. He landed a solid left hook but Iglesias was not badly hurt. The round was awarded to the Cuban on all five scorecards meaning McCormack needed a dramatic stoppage in the third to win the Olympic title.
Iglesias looked the stronger and fresher as he landed the more effective punches. His tight defence also remained intact and it was telling that just before the final bell another stinging left hand made McCormack stumble backwards. It had been a competitive fight but Iglesias had won all three rounds.
At the bell the new champion pummelled his breast in delight. McCormack was gracious in defeat and while they waited for the result to be announced he applauded Iglesias.
It is a long way from the Birtley Amateur Boxing Club to Tokyo but McCormack and his twin brother, Luke, were selected for these Olympics. On Saturday, Luke lost in the last 16 against Andy Cruz, another Cuban, who is arguably the most gifted boxer at these Games. While he was wounded by his defeat Luke said he had been outclassed by Cruz. His brother lost a closer fight but it had been a Cuban masterclass again.
Ninety minutes earlier, Galal Yafai secured a record sixth medal for Team GB by winning a compelling quarter-final 4-1 against yet another Cuban in Yosbany Veitía. Yafai was pushed hard but he outworked, outhustled and, ultimately, outfought his determined opponent and he is now guaranteed at least a bronze medal in the flyweight division.
“A lot of people said I didn’t box great last time – which I don’t think I did,” Yafai said of his victory against Zambia’s Patrick Chinyemba in the previous round. “[Veitia] boxed brilliantly against the Ghanian and people doubted me. They said: ‘Aw, he’s not going to beat [Veitia]. He’s a class above.’ But I showed them.
“That’s the second time I’ve beaten him in the last two years. I’m just happy to win an Olympic medal and keep the family name going.”
The celebrated London 2012 team, led by Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams, won five medals at their home Games. Nine years on, the GB boxers in Tokyo have made history by eclipsing their illustrious predecessors.
Lauren Price, Ben Whittaker, Frazer Clarke and Yafai remain in the tournament as they try to change the colour of their medals, which are silver or bronze, into gold. They are lucky they will not have to beat opponents as skilful and experienced as the mighty Iglesias.