Friday 30 September 2016

Walsh's belief in a better way still the light to follow

Another glorious week for Irish boxing emphasises the huge impact of Wexford coach

Published 15/08/2015 | 02:30

The sight of Billy Walsh at ringside while Irish boxers are winning medals has become as familiar as Kilkenny in Croke Park every September
The sight of Billy Walsh at ringside while Irish boxers are winning medals has become as familiar as Kilkenny in Croke Park every September

On Thursday, Kenneth Egan marked five years of sobriety with a simple Tweet celebrating the beautiful paradox of accepting "defeat" to come "out the winner."

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Egan's life lurched into public chaos after the Beijing Olympics, contaminated by flaring celebrity and the phoney friendships that that engenders. As he put it in his autobiography, "There were people touching me as if it was going to heal the limp in their legs."

For two years, alcohol was his refuge as Olympic silver transported him to a place that, in his dreams, had been all he ever wanted it to be but, in reality, became a prison.

His troubles were brought to a head one morning by a mother's intuition and terror. Maura Egan got him to drive them to the graveyard in which two of her sons were already interred, got down on her knees and cried angrily at her Olympian boy that he was running away from himself.

And that was the evening Kenneth Egan did the only thing that felt natural to him in a time of crisis. He rang Billy Walsh.

Watching the boxing from Bulgaria yesterday as Ireland's European Championship medal profile glistened ever brighter, the thought struck that we have become so blithely accustomed to athletes produced by that High Performance academy on the South Circular Road distinguishing themselves at major championships, that Walsh is already a kind of national heirloom.

But this tournament will have been particularly special for the Wexford man, having seen his own nephew - Dean - box to light-welterweight bronze.

Billy's own late father, Liam, was Dean's original corner-man, but was gravely ill the night he won his first national senior title last year. The IABA honoured him with a presentation that evening and, seeing his grandson emulate the achievement of his son, Liam remarked: "I can die happy now".

Two weeks later, he passed away.

The RTE panel found easy unanimity yesterday in their assessment of Billy Walsh's place in Irish boxing. He has become the public face of a programme setting standards of competitive integrity that would have been unimaginable in the amateur boxing scene of his own youth.

"He's one of those guys who's constantly learning," said Olympic champion, Michael Carruth. "Just priceless," acknowledged Mick Dowling. Bernard Dunne spoke of the quiet authority now cultivating the "ethos" that has turned Ireland into an international boxing power.

And that, ultimately, will be Walsh's greatest legacy. The ethos that he and Gary Keegan fought for at a time when Irish amateur boxing was, as he himself remembers it, drowning in "a culture of drink, amateurism, low self-belief and under-performance on the international stage."

For a time, Kenneth Egan was a virtual poster-boy for that culture.

In his autobiography, he writes of an infamous trip to Poland in '02 when he and other members of an Irish team showed more interest in the local bars than in boxing. It was Walsh's first trip as coach to the national team and he became so disgusted by Egan's behaviour that, rather than allow his opponent a mortifying bye, he pulled on some shorts and headgear himself and prepared to climb into the ring at the age of 38.

He was subsequently talked out of it, but Egan was one of three boxers who had their funding suspended for six months afterwards on foot of a report submitted by Walsh. That report forced Egan back into part-time work as a waiter in Citywest.

But it also jolted him into an understanding that, in Billy Walsh's world, there could be only one acceptable way to represent your country. And that was by committing every single fibre of your being to it.

By the time, Egan went to the '08 Olympics, his embracing of that ethos was total, his relationship with Walsh closer to that of two brothers than a boxer and a coach.

So, that August day in 2010, as the walls of Kenneth's world came tumbling down, there was only one number he was ever going to dial. He had gone to Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time four months earlier and recalled to Ewan McKenna in his autobiography how he met Walsh in Sundrive Park and, in the lashing rain, they "strolled around for an hour and hugged and cried".

That was the day Kenneth Egan decided to stop drinking.

On another beautiful week for Irish boxing, that seemed worth celebrating as much as any medal.

Indo Sport

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