Twenty boxers shadow box inside a big ring upstairs in St Catherine’s community sports centre on Marrowbone Lane in Dublin 8.

Half of them travelled from the north of the River Liffey where they train in Smithfield Boxing Club. The other half, meanwhile, have travelled almost 3,000 kilometres from their homes in war-torn Ukraine.

Boxing coach Ivan Yarovyi, a former international boxer in Ukraine, doesn’t speak any English but he can show with a flick of his arms and shuffle of his feet what combination of punches he wants the young boxers to practise throwing.

On the edge of the ring is Igor Khmil, the founder of Smithfield Boxing Club who moved to Ireland in 2001 from Ukraine to become a boxing coach. He is 44 and a sports officer for Dublin City Council in the inner city in Dublin. For the last eight years he has organised a boxing festival in Smithfield that has attracted thousands of fans and allowed hundreds of emerging boxers gain valuable experience from Ireland and overseas. 

This year however is different. Russia has invaded Khmil’s home, so he got the idea to bring a group of young boxers from Ukraine to Ireland for a week-long training camp in Galway and Dublin. It all builds up to a fight this Saturday in St Catharine’s community sport centre.

“We’ve brought over eight boxers from all different parts of Ukraine – Kiev, Donetsk, Odessa, Western Ukraine,” Kmil explains. “The youngest is 12 and the oldest, a girl, is 20. Obviously, the men are all underage as otherwise they are not allowed.”

Speaking through Kmil, Yarovyi said his challenge as a coach was to try and keep things as normal as possible for his charges. “We carry on and do our business,” he said. “We have to get on. Everything is as open as it can be.”

By bringing the young boxers to Ireland, Khmil said they were exposing them to leading amateur fighters here and allowing them to focus on their sport. The Ukrainians are training in Galway with the Olympic Galway Boxing Club, where two of Ireland’s most talented boxers Aoife and Lisa O’Rourke train out of, as well as Gabriel Dossen. “Everyone from Ukraine is national team standard,” Yarovyi said. “Some are already in the national team, and some are very close to it. They want the chance to train with and fight good Irish boxers.” 

According to Khmil: “Smithfield box fest has been in existence for 12 years. We always had different teams coming from all over the globe but given what is going we wanted to demonstrate support for Ukraine so this year we are only bringing the one team over there.”

Yarovyi said: “Obviously these are young people who are facing difficulties as all people are in Ukraine. The kids themselves are highly motivated. They want to excel. They are doing their bit for the country – and their bit is to compete at the highest level. Some of their parents and relatives are fighting on the front line but they want them to be here. They demonstrate their support for Ukraine by doing what they do best. That is what drives them.”

Yarovyi travelled to Ireland as Russian president Vladamir Putin announced four regions in Russian occupied Ukraine were now part of Russia, as Ukrainian forces continued to gain ground against him. What is morale like in Ukraine? “Everyone is shoulder to shoulder,” Yarovyi said. “There is high spirit and morale despite everything.”

Smithfield Boxing Club, Dublin City Council, Dublin City Sport & Wellbeing Partnership, the Ukrainian Crisis Centre, the Galway Sports Partnership and The Currency are sponsoring this year’s festival. 

Khmil said he was hoping to attract more corporate sponsorship ahead of this Saturday’s fight night in Dublin. “We need businesses to support these young people,” he said. “You can see them. They are not asking for anything but for them to know and feel that someone else in the world cares and is behind them and Ukraine is a big deal. It all helps.”

Boxfest 2022 takes place at 8 October at the St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in the Liberties. Tickets are available at the link or for information about sponsorship email [email protected]