BIRTLEY duo Pat McCormack and Calum French will be the stars of the show when Britain’s best amateur boxers head to the North-East in February.

The British Lionhearts, which feature some of Team GB’s leading hopefuls for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, will take on the Croatian Knights at Gateshead Leisure Centre on Friday, February 16.

The contest will form part of the World Series of Boxing (WSB), a global team competition contested by the world’s leading amateurs. It bridges the gap between Olympic and professional boxing, with fighters competing without vests or headguards over five three-minute rounds, and next year will see the British Lionhearts fight outside London for the first time.

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McCormack was one of Britain’s most successful fighters in last year’s WSB competition, and having opted to remain in the amateur ranks after competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the two-time European Championship silver medallist sees February’s date in his native North-East as a key staging post towards the Tokyo Games.

“I love competing in WSB and cannot wait to finally get the chance to box for the Lionhearts in the North-East in front of my family and friends,” said McCormack. “I have a great record in WSB and was voted ‘Boxer of the Season’ in 2016 so am hoping to continue my unbeaten run in the competition.

“The WSB events are much more like a professional show with a weigh-in the day before, face-offs and a ring-walk on the night so it creates a really great atmosphere.

“As a member of the GB Boxing squad, I usually compete overseas, and it is more than six years since I boxed in the North-East, so to be able to box at home and in a WSB event is going to be brilliant.

“My previous WSB fights have really set me up – I’ve beaten some great fighters both at home and abroad. I still want to try to win that Olympic gold medal and set myself up for life, and fighting in WSB is a big part of that.”

Like McCormack, French also competed at this year’s European Championships, winning a bronze medal. The lightweight has made major strides over the last 12 months, and is hoping to continue his progress in 2018.

“I have only ever competed in WSB either overseas or in London so to have a match right on my doorstep in Gateshead is going to be fantastic,” he said. “WSB is a really great format of boxing and I hope that fight fans in the region get behind it and come out to support the team which will contain a strong North-East contingent.”

The WSB is increasingly regarded as a key stepping stone to the professional game, and as well as competing in Gateshead, the British Lionhearts squad will also fight in Liverpool and Newport next year.

As well as being the head coach of the Lionhearts, Rob McCracken also coaches World Heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, and the GB Boxing performance director sees the value of taking amateur fighters out of their comfort zone.

“WSB is a top-class competition,” said McCracken. “All of the leading nations and the best boxers take part in it and WSB shows feature five, evenly-matched, high-quality bouts.

“Pat and Calum are very talented boxers with a good track record in the competition, and it is great that they are going to get the opportunity to compete in the WSB in front of their home fans.

“The North-East is one of Great Britain’s boxing hotbeds and has consistently produced boxers that are part of the GB Boxing squad, so it is great we are able to take this competition to the region and put on a show for the fans.”

Recent North-East fighters to have emerged from the GB amateur ranks include Tony Jeffries, Bradley Saunders and Josh Kelly, and the region’s boxing pedigree was a key reason why Gateshead was chosen to host February’s meeting with Croatia.

“We are very pleased to be taking WSB to such strong boxing areas as Liverpool, South Wales and the North-East of England,” said Matt Holt, chief executive of GB Boxing.  “The local authorities in each of these three areas have been extremely enthusiastic about hosting the Lionhearts and we are looking forward to working with them on these events and putting on a great show for boxing fans in the area.”

* Early-bird discount tickets for British Lionhearts vs Croatian Knights at Gateshead Leisure Centre on Friday, February 16 are on sale now, priced £15m at www.gbboxing.org.uk/tickets.