European Games: Northern Ireland's Kurt Walker captures bantamweight gold medal

Kurt Walker of Ireland celebrates his win over Mykola Butsenko of Ukraine during their Mens Bantamweight final
Walker was awarded the fight by all five judges

Northern Ireland boxer Kurt Walker has taken the bantamweight gold medal at the European Games in Belarus.

The Lisburn fighter will be Ireland's flagbearer for Sunday's closing ceremony after beating Mykola Butsenko of Ukraine by a unanimous decision.

The 24-year-old won all three rounds on three of the five scorecards to clinch Ireland's first gold medal in Minsk.

Team-mate Kellie Harrington was forced to withdraw from her lightweight final with a hand injury.

The reigning world champion suffered the injury during her semi-final win against Sweden's Agnes Alexiusson and had to surrender her chance of adding to her gold medal collection.

"I'm disappointed to not be competing but I understand that there's a bigger picture to be taken into account," said Harrington.

"It would be too much of a risk to go in there and have another setback. I totally respect the advice of the medical staff and the decision of the Performance Director [Bernard Dunne]."

The Irish team's Performance Director Bernard Dunne added: "It is unfortunate that hand injuries are part and parcel of boxing, but we need to manage it the right way to ensure a quick return to action.

"Kellie has Europeans and Worlds before the year is out and upcoming Olympic qualification events that we are looking forward to. In making this decision we had to take in the big picture to ensure that we don't further injure the hand."

Walker lands gold

The injury to team captain Harrington meant that Walker had to shoulder the gold-medal hopes for an Irish squad that had already secured five medals in Minsk but had yet to get a fighter to the top step of the podium.

The 2018 EU Championship gold medallist started brightly against his southpaw opponent as he used his longer reach and lightning speed to pick off his shots.

Kurt Walker beat Peter McGrail of Great Britain in the semi-finals
Kurt Walker also won silver for Northern Ireland at the 2018 Commonwealth Games

In a closer second round, Butsenko made his mark with a couple of crisp blows that rocked Walker but the Lisburn boxer regained his composure to finish the round strongly and held onto his lead on the scorecards.

A scrappy final round saw the referee step in to warn both fighters before Walker opened up a cut above his opponent's left eye, which briefly needed medical attention.

Having landed the cleaner punches throughout the contest, Walker was deservedly awarded the fight; 29-28, 30-27, 30-27, 29-28, 30-27 by the five judges.

"The coaches deserve so much credit for their game plan, which I knew was working," said Walker.

"I came back after the first round and they were both buzzing and they're never usually like that, they're normally looking for more and more from you."

Walker added: "Two years ago in the European Championships he beat me in the semis 5-0 and that just shows that I've grown so much as a boxer and as a man in the last few years. I've matured big time and it's good to see that hard work really does pay off."

The gold medal success caps an impressive tournament for the Irish squad, which also featured silver medals for Harrington and Michaela Walsh and bronze medals for Regan Buckley, Michael Nevin and Grainne Walsh.

The other Irish interest on the final day of the games was at the velodrome where Mia Griffin set a new personal best of 3:40.444 in the Women's Individual Pursuit to finish in seventh place, just five seconds outside the medal races.

Lydia Boylan and Lydia Gurley finished in fifth place in the Women's Madison with nine points as Great Britain's Jess Roberts and Megan Barker took gold ahead of Netherlands and Russia.

In the men's omnium, Jack Murphy finished in ninth overall with a total of 82 points.