Friday 21 July 2017

'It was very hard to watch': Billy Walsh talks to Vincent Hogan about Ireland's Olympic struggles and rebuilding Team USA

Billy Walsh greets Claressa Shields with a smile after the American wins gold in the middleweight final at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Billy Walsh greets Claressa Shields with a smile after the American wins gold in the middleweight final at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When the call came through to USA Boxing from Lausanne, Billy Walsh's instinctive reaction was to enquire "For what?"

Mike Martino, the CEO who'd staked so much on getting him to Colorado Springs, was beaming from ear to ear. Their man had just been named AIBA World Coach of the Year and his presence would be required at an awards ceremony in Geneva one month later. Somehow, Walsh couldn't quite resist the lure of self-deprecation.

Maybe it's the natural reflex of someone conditioned by years spent in the repressive company of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association. In America, Billy has felt liberated by working with people who, as he puts it, "allow me to express myself, to go out and do my business and even say to me, 'Is there anything else we can do to help you?'".

He is laughing as he completes that sentence. The novelty of working with people focused solely on facilitating their Head Coach has been a revelation. Yet what is the natural Irish response to being paid a compliment?

USA coach Billy Walsh (left) runs into his successor, IABA High Performance head coach Zaur Antia, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
USA coach Billy Walsh (left) runs into his successor, IABA High Performance head coach Zaur Antia, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"I hope this isn't an omen!" Billy chuckled to Martino. "You know the fella who won this last year (Russia's former world and Olympic champion, Aleksander Lebziak) got sacked after Rio!"

The trophy is the weight of a cement block and came with the kind of metal case in which you imagine the White House might store the nuclear codes. And to have it in his home now in Corish Park just over a year after effectively walking out into the unknown seems scarcely believable to Walsh.

Hence his emotion in Switzerland on December 19, dedicating the award to two men from the Wexford working class estate of Wolfe Tone Villas. Eddie Byrne, the man who began coaching him to box from the age of seven. And Liam Walsh, his father, "who coached me in life".

"In stuff like honesty and integrity, the values that you'd want to have. But also in not taking yourself too seriously. He always said you needed to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. And I do. I fully enjoy life now, every minute of it."

It all seemed a small eternity removed from his journey to Memphis last October 12 months to the US trials and his first working day as head of a programme that had become unwieldly and dysfunctional.

As Walsh recalls, "I knew I had a massive uphill battle. I didn't know if I was going to be accepted. I didn't know if I was going to make an impression at all on these guys. They had to completely change their style of training and boxing. It was a big undertaking, especially with a group that was settled and had become prima donnas and were allowed be prima donnas.

"So for an Irishman to come in, tell them what to do, try to change them, that was always going to be difficult. As I found out with Claressa (Shields)."

After her successful Olympic defence in Rio, Shields - now a pro - texted Walsh a simple message. "Thanks Coach Billy, there's a few things I did learn off you in the end!"

The fraught nature of their initial relationship (they scarcely talked for the first few months) has been well documented, but Walsh remembers it as a time when he was fighting wars on many different fronts.

Shakur Stevenson, who would win bantamweight silver in Brazil, was sent home in his first week working under Walsh's guidance. So too Paul Kroll, a welterweight who did not make it to Rio and has since been jailed on a charge of attempted murder. So too Gary Russell junior, "a nightmare".

"They just wouldn't conform to good practices as I saw it," remembers Walsh. "So they had to toe the line and I had to hang tough and, in fairness to the CEO and the performance director, they stood with me when I needed them to stand with me.

"Because I wasn't going to take it anymore. I was being paid to implement a system that works and some of these lads weren't willing to follow. No point in me barking forever if fellas weren't going to listen. When they backed me on Claressa, that was the key.

"They had promised me they had my back and that's I suppose when they proved it."

After a couple of barren Olympics on the boxing front, the US took three medals home from Rio with five boxers making the last eight of their weight division. At the recent World Youth Championships in Russia, the US claimed two gold and two bronze, placing them second in the medals table. And that youth team greatly excites Walsh with a view to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

"I think we've a real good chance of being the best team in Tokyo," he says flatly. "Because of the talent that's in the country. The whole secret is consistency of training and training in a system that's geared towards Olympic-style boxing."

The palpable health of the programme he now runs casts a pretty stark light on the condition of an Irish system that bottomed out so shockingly in Rio.

Walsh says he was an uncomfortable observer as, arguably, the strongest Irish team ever to go to an Olympics came home empty-handed.

"It was very hard to watch because you know the quality of all those guys, you know what they're capable of," he reflects now. "I know there were some bits of hard luck along the way as well but to see them not perform to what we expected was very sad.

"It was difficult because it took us a long time to get that team to where it was at. To see them not perform like they had at the previous two Olympics was. .. at the end of the day I'm an Irishman. I was part of that system since I was a kid. I wanted Ireland to do as well as they could.

"And it was a tough place for Zaur (Antia) to be. His mind needed to be just focused on coaching and tactics, which he's very, very good at. The other side of it he probably wasn't used to because I managed all that part of it before."

Three of Ireland's Olympic team - Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes - have turned professional since and Walsh says he understands the reasons why. But he stresses that they are moving into an entirely different domain now.

"The difference is you're trying to take people out," he explains. "You're trying to hit as hard as you can, you're not just tip-tapping, get in and out, move, change direction. It's more about just getting them out of the ring as quick as you can. The gloves are smaller, punches are a lot harder.

"I've seen guys who I didn't think could punch as amateurs and they're knocking people out as pros. If anyone hits you with those gloves, you're going to feel it. Then obviously there's no headgear, that must be a big difference.

"I remember Paddy and Michael at the World Championships in Kazakhstan in 2013 and they just felt naked without the headgear. It was completely different. They actually said it was scary. They felt very vulnerable."

Walsh's admiration for Taylor and how she conducts herself in terms of lifestyle and preparation needs no repeating here and he believes that, with the proper management, she may well get a shot at a world title.

Yet he does have reservations about the loss of her experience and that of others like Barnes and Beijing silver-medallist Kenneth Egan to the High Performance programme.

"At this stage, I would have thought their experience would be priceless," he suggests. "Because now the group that is coming in would have looked up to those guys. Maybe took up boxing because of them. That was always the dream I had. Kenny especially was the one I thought would be head coach after my time. Or at least some stage along the way.

"Always first man back to the gym. Always trained diligently and was always trying to improve. He had that High Performance mindset.

"I did think that back in the day but unfortunately he had to go and find another career for himself. He got fed up waiting for something to happen with the IABA."

In Conlan, Walsh has little doubt we have a future world professional champion. "He has all the tools and all the character to do it," he says of the Belfast bantamweight. "I think he will be a world champion in a short space of time. You can't blame them. You know there is some big money out there. There's not many who make it, but the ones who do..."

Walsh has been pleased by the progress in the pro ranks through 2016 of two of his former pupils, Carl Frampton (23-0) and Jason Quigley (12-0).

Frampton defends his WBA super featherweight title later this month with a much anticipated rematch against Leo Santa Cruz. His success hasn't surprised the Wexford man, albeit Frampton spent much of his time in the Irish High Performance programme as number two to David Oliver Joyce.

He did win a couple of national titles and would have gone to the '09 World Championships in Milan but for turning professional with the McGuigan camp.

"I was sad to see him go," remembers Walsh now. "Carl was always a lovely guy, comes from Tiger Bay, a tough enough area in Belfast, married to a Catholic. Paddy Barnes was his best man. A real good kid.

"In the High Performance, you could see that he adapted and learnt very quickly. The thing about him being small is he has long arms so, when he puts his defence up, he covers up brilliantly. He's a puncher as well, he can hit for a small guy. There's another three or four good years in him too where he could secure his future."

Walsh is equally enthused about the progress of Ballybofey's Quigley, a former European Youth, U-23 and senior champion before turning pro after taking silver at the 2013 World Championships in Kazakhstan.

"We were very sad to lose him too," explains Walsh. "Being selfish, I really wanted him to stay till Rio. We really had high expectations of him being one of our gold medallists in Rio. He was very unlucky to only take silver from those Worlds because he had to fight back-to-back wars whereas his opponent in the final had a walkover in the semi. Jason was exhausted by the time he got to the final.

"I wanted him to stay but his father had other ideas and, to be fair, the time might well come when he'll say he was 100pc right. I just think, if he stayed, he could have got any signing-on deal he wanted after Rio. Michael O'Reilly wouldn't have been seen. He'd never have been near the programme. This guy would have been the man.

"A real class act, lives the life. A gentleman inside and outside the ring. He just keeps working and working, will torment you until he gets something right. A really great pupil. I'd love some day to go and see him win the world title. He's the real deal."

Walsh hopes for better things in 2017 for John Joe Nevin whose career seemed to stall somewhat with just a single contest in the last calendar year.

"One of the greatest talents I've ever had the pleasure of being in the corner with," he says of the Mullingar bantam now based in the US. "His performance in the semi-final in London was the best Olympic performance I've seen from an Irishman."

As to the future of amateur boxing, given that blazing controversy over the judging in Rio resulting in all 36 judges being suspended, Walsh is somewhat sanguine.

It has been decided that all five ringside judges' scores will count in future, yet can that logically resolve an issue that, in Rio, seemed to have reached the level of absurdity?

"I know that there's a massive emphasis from AIBA to make sure that what happened in Rio never happens again," he says.

"Because boxing's place in the Olympic Games is at risk here. It happened before in 1988, they were kept in by one vote. So there's a big push to educate and re-educate judges. Are poor decisions something we're just going to have to live with at times? Probably.

"The problem in Rio was there was so many of them. But the 36 judges that are still suspended were the best. They were going around giving seminars. So it's hard to say for sure how they're going to solve this problem."

As to his own immediate future, Walsh returns to Colorado next week where he will have 20 male and ten female boxers under his care. He is slightly embarrassed that he became so emotional in his Geneva acceptance speech, one that must have been uncomfortable for the three IABA committee members in attendance.

"I didn't say all the things I wanted," he smiles now. "I got too emotional as I usually do. To me, it was all about where I came from. Wolfe Tone Villas, every house two up, two down, six or seven kids in every one.

"And the two men who shaped my life. One who coached me in boxing. The other who coached me in everything else."

Irish Independent

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