High Performance Unit finally reaches the Promised Land
In the dying weeks of 2002 Gary Keegan accepted challenge of establishing a new High Performance Unit funded by the Irish Sports Council to cater for Ireland's elite amateur boxers
Even though six Irish boxers had reached the quarter finals of the World championships in Belfast the previous year and Jamie Moore ended up winning a bronze medal, Irish amateur boxing was floundering at elite level.
Earlier in 2002 at the European Championships in Russia the six man Irish team – including four of the boxers who had reached the quarter-finals in Belfast – failed to win a single bout between them.
Indiscipline was rife. Future Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan missed the trip to Russia as he was suspended at the time for a breach of discipline at a training camp in Poland. It was against his background that the IABA set up the High Performance Unit.
In the spring of 2003 Keegan made what turned out to be one of the most significant decisions in the history of Irish sport – he appointed Billy Walsh, an Olympian in Seoul in 1988 and a Georgian Zaur Antia – who could speak six words of English at the time – as the coaches in the new HPU.
The distance that Irish boxing has travelled since is epitomised by the fact that at the first World championships following the establishment of the HPU the six man team won two bouts between them in Bangkok in 2003.
Now, 12 years later, Ireland will bring home three medals from Doha. But while much has been achieved there were still some peaks to be scaled. An Irish Elite male boxer had never won either an Olympic or World gold medal under the auspices of the HPU.
All that changed in Doha last night. So no wonder Billy Walsh's heart missed a beat when Michael Conlan lay prostrate on the canvass after he was on the receiving end of the boxer described himself 'as a peach of a right hook.'
“We stayed cool. But what was going through my head was “My God, a world title has just gone down the drain. This is going to be devastating.” But then his professionalism kicked in and he urged Conlan to refocus and take the standing count. After all there was only 20 seconds remaining so the odds were than the favourite would survive despite the knock down.
Like the fight itself, the knock down hadn't been scripted. In an effort to prolong the longevity of Conlan's career Walsh and Zaur Anita had urged him to out-box rather than out-fight his opponents in Doha and avoid going to war as likes to do.
“Michael has lot of cuts and scars from going to war. But there is no need for him to go to war unless he has too. He boxed impeccable throughout the tournament and had no hairy moments.”
But Conlan calculated after the initial exchanges that his Uzbek opponent was just too strong for such as approach. “Michael is very adaptable like that and he decided to go into the trenches and see what he's got and he beat him at his own game,” explained Walsh.
In the end the knock down was mere blip but in the long term it underlined the challenges Conlan faces if, as expected, he turns professional after the Rio Games.
Last night was about the coming of age of the Irish Performance Unit. Walsh paid tribute to the system that nurtured the boxers from a young age and thanked the administration, coaching and support staff of the IABA as well as the Sports Council for the funding.
He studiously avoided any reference to his own position but surely no organisation in their right senses would allow Walsh to leave Irish shores just when they have reached the Promised Land.