The expertise of Irish boxing is being tapped into by GAA teams, but it's become a two-way relationship, as John O'Brien discovers
Back in 2004 when he was hauling Crystal Palace from the foothills of the First Division to a coveted place in the Premiership, Iain Dowie was, for a time, one of the most lauded men in English football. Dowie was widely applauded for his willingness to look beyond football's boundaries for inspiration at a time when British coaching was viewed as staid and conservative. The boxing drills he implemented were hailed as enlightened and revolutionary.
For all their enlightenment, however, they were hardly revolutionary. As a player at Selhurst Park, Dowie would have first donned boxing gloves a decade previously under Alan Smith and he might also have imbibed a few notions on his travels back to his father's native Belfast to play for Northern Ireland where GAA coaches, particularly in Queen's, had been borrowing ideas from boxing and other sports for years.
The ties between Irish boxing and the GAA stretch back more than a century although it is only really now – with the addition of Bernard Dunne to the Dublin football back-room team, the presence of Michael Carruth with the hurlers – that they have become truly visible. Given the glorious recent history of Irish boxing under an ambitious and hard-working high-performance set-up, it's hardly surprising that an increasing number of GAA teams seem eager to tap into it.
Billy Walsh, Irish boxing's head coach, has lost count of the number of times he has been invited to conduct sessions with GAA club and county teams over the past number of years. When his schedule allows, he is generally happy to oblige and when Liam Dunne got in contact to ask if he could take the Wexford hurlers for a session last Sunday, it was an offer Walsh couldn't refuse.
When he addresses teams, Walsh inevitably begins with his own GAA roots, the DNA that courses through his family history, the cruel beating he took as a Wexford minor at the hands of Kilkenny in a Leinster final that swung his mind towards a future in the ring. He'll talk about the boxing team he took to London last summer and how a core of GAA experience ran through it and give a flavour of the history that has always bound the two codes together.
"Most Irish people, including boxing people, grow up in a culture of GAA," Walsh says. "It's no accident that the structures of the IABA are very similar to GAA structures. They're built on the same principles – central council, county boards, presidents and so on. A lot of boxing clubs have used GAA clubs to train because they didn't have their own facilities. So there's always been a massive connection between them."
Walsh has always seen it as two-way relationship. He is a passionate advocate of kids growing up in multi-sport environments, less concerned about burnout and playing too many sports than too few, seeing cross-pollination as the route to more skilled, all-round athletes. "I've seen fellas who couldn't progress past national level because they didn't have the co-ordination or the agility. They'd focused too much on boxing too young. They'd missed those moments in your life when you pick up those skills and you can't retrain that beyond a certain age."
Encouragingly, he sees boxing's appeal grow now through the public channel of white-collar events and, in the GAA, through the fundraising fight nights that increasingly pockmark the landscape. For Walsh, such nights are more than simply cash-generating gimmicks. Players receive the benefit of serious boxing training and, at the end of it, the character-testing experience of facing a determined opponent in the ring, a near-perfect simulation of what happens between the white lines of a GAA pitch.
"It's a mental as much a physical test," he says. "Like, do you have the gumption for battle when it comes to it? You see a fella turning his head or walking away. Is that the kind of lad you want when you're in the heat of battle against Kilkenny in a Leinster final? When we asked the players last Sunday what they thought, one lad stood up and said, 'I learned an awful lot about myself today'. It's a place that asks serious questions of you."
As a kid, Walsh's imagination was fed by hearing stories of the legendary Jem Roche, who had fought for a world heavyweight title in 1908 before training the Wexford footballers to six Leinster and two All-Ireland titles over the following decade. Even then, that connection was far from unique. Two decades previously, Maurice Davin had been a champion boxer before branching out into other sports and becoming a co-founder of the GAA.
When he was a young boxer in Portlaoise, Pat Ryan came under the wing of Billy Blackwell, a guard who had trained Laois to the 1936 All-Ireland football final. Blackwell's team lost that day to a Mayo side conditioned by Dick Hearns who happened to be Blackwell's regular sparring partner. More recently, Ryan recalls Peter Ford, the former Sligo and Galway manager, running the great Jim O'Sullivan close in a senior final at the National Stadium.
Those connections run through GAA and boxing history like a sweet-flowing brook. It was in 1965 that the Clare County Board first asked Colm Flynn to train the county hurlers. Clare hurling was at a low ebb at the time. Flynn could see the talent was there but the players lacked fitness and when it came to the winter months they often had nowhere to train. For that problem he offered an instant solution.
"I'd a boxing gym in Ennis and we started bringing the hurlers there. The boxers would be finished by 9.30 so two or three evenings a week the hurlers would train from 9.30 to 10.30. I remember people saying this was madness. Indoor training was unheard of at that time. But a year later Clare were in a Munster final for the first time in years. So we must have been doing something right."
Over the holidays, Flynn bumped into Mick Slattery, a Clare hurler from that era, and they reminisced about those days, how groundbreaking they seemed. Three decades later, Flynn would be approached by Tony Griffin, keen to acquire more boxing knowledge. Flynn put him in touch with Chick Gillen, Francie Barrett's trainer, in Galway where Griffin was studying and Griffin would attest with great enthusiasm about the benefits those sessions brought him.
Ryan's own GAA credentials are impressive. He has, he states proudly, coached seven different football teams to county titles. He was involved when the Laois ladies team reached the 1996 All-Ireland final and when the Timahoe ladies won a Leinster club title in 2009. In 1992, he guided Ballyroan to a fairytale Laois senior title and returned 14 years on for an equally unlikely encore.
Yet, like Flynn, Ryan is first and foremost a boxing coach, part of the high-performance set-up on the South Circular Road. Segueing between the two has never been problematic. "Because the key elements are the same," he says. "Explosive speed and a certain amount of acceleration and the strength and endurance. These are trained to the max in boxing because everything is required to get you through the distance, through the rounds."
Whenever he watched Joe Higgins perform for the Laois footballers, Ryan couldn't help thinking back to the kid who had been a champion underage boxer. What made Higgins a potentially great boxer – fast hands and quick feet – were, for Ryan, the same things that ultimately made him an All Star corner-back. The two sets of skills were almost indistinguishable. In ways, he thinks, Higgins was a prototype for the modern footballer.
"I've always said there's nothing like boxing drills to teach somebody how to tackle. One of the reasons Joe Higgins was one of the finest corner-backs in the country, apart from his natural ability, was the skills he'd developed in boxing, the speed of his movements. He was able to get in around you and then he was out, gone. He had phenomenal reaction time and reaction speed, the two components required to excel in any sport."
In idle moments Ryan often wonders if they could take all that shared history between them and forge something concrete from it, a link that would nurture and enrich both parties. It is a broad and daring vision. " Boxing needs to be in every village in Ireland," he says, "and the best way to do that is through a partnership with the GAA and building an annexe in every club in the country."
The puzzled reaction he gets when he relays his dream to people never deters him. "The first thing they say is, 'Arra, you must be joking. The GAA would run a mile from it'. But I don't believe that. I think the GAA has the ability and the vision to take a minority sport like boxing with it. They see there's no threat from boxing. GAA people have had the opportunity to step inside the ropes and see what a wonderful sport it is. There's so much they can take from it."
It is an argument that has a century and more of history underpinning it. Flynn read recently where the GAA is to make the wearing of gumshields mandatory in games, a practice he has been advocating for years, and another small example of the association taking something useful from boxing. He remembers it was around this time last year too that Davy Fitzgerald and his players came knocking on his door and spent five productive weeks under his supervision in the boxing gym in Ennis.
Just like it was almost 50 years ago when the county board first came looking for his services. A link that has endured and will endure, you sense, whether Pat Ryan's beautiful vision bears fruit or not.