Rolling with the punches in changing environment
Boxing chief Walsh insists Ireland must adapt to professional ethos or fall behind, writes John O'Brien
Billy Walsh frets. It is a quality Irish boxing's head coach excels at and that has helped keep his team of fighters at the forefront of European and world boxing for the past half-decade and more. Last week his boxers returned from the European Championships in Minsk laden down with more medals and glory and now he worries how they will push on and extend the boundaries of success even further.
And right now Walsh has good cause for anxiety. The amateur game he loves is falling apart at the seams and undergoing a transformation he could never have countenanced in his 40 or so years in the fight game. "It's completely changing," he says. "It's heading towards full-scale professionalism." The rueful tone in his voice tells you this is something he does not exactly welcome with open arms.
It is an unstoppable train now. Under the leadership of Dr Ching-Kuo Wu, the AIBA has shed the amateur connotations of its title and branded itself the International Boxing Association. As part of this aggressive commercial approach, the Irish ruling body, like all national federations, must reconstitute itself as a professional entity and how that process unfolds will undoubtedly have implications for the future of the sport at all levels here.
None of this is exactly news, of course. The AIBA took the first major step away from amateurism when it started the World Series of Boxing (WSB) three years ago, a team-based competition in five weight categories where boxers contested bouts of between five and seven rounds wearing no vests or head-guards. Walsh, a traditionalist right down to the marrow in his bones, hated it.
And yet, the challenges imposed by the new world order invigorate him. "We have two basic choices," Walsh says. "Either adapt and change with the times or be left behind. It may go against the grain and ethos of amateur boxing. But it's our sport, our business, and if we don't embrace the changes we'll find ourselves lagging behind and playing catch-up with all the other guys."
Walsh is concerned that may already be happening. The first bouts in the AIBA Professional Boxing (APB) series are scheduled to take place in Korea in September and, as of yet, no Irish boxer has been signed up to participate and there has been little discussion as to how a professional set-up might be incorporated in this country. Walsh is anxious that progress is made before rival countries steal a march.
Essentially, the APB is the AIBA's audacious attempt to establish its own professional wing and cash in on the big money that swelters around the pro game and not everybody is enamoured with the venture. Although there are strict regulations governing participation, the loophole allowing current professionals to enter has raised eyebrows. Wu's none too subtle courting of Manny Pacquiao and the raising of the Olympic eligibility age to 40 has led to speculation that the Filipino veteran will be one of those signing up.
For all the uncertainty, though, Walsh is keen for the IABA to embrace the new set-up. Already, there has been a stampede of some of the world's top amateurs – among them Ukrainian legend Vasyl Lomachenko and Andrew Selby, Michael Conlan's conqueror in Minsk last week, to sign up and with six Olympic qualifying spots available in each weight category, Walsh regards it as the quickest and safest route to Rio.
"Any of our lads going that road would have a great chance of qualifying," he says. "That's why we need to move quickly because there's Olympic places on the line. If we don't, if we stick with the old amateur system [AIBA Olympic Boxing], there's only one qualifier for them. So you're limiting the number of places you're going to have at the Games."
For the fighters themselves, of course, the APB would appear to represent a glorious opportunity, a way of earning a good living while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of the conventional pro route. The contracts on offer are said to be worth in the region of €80,000 per annum. There is the chance to fight for a world title every year and more money to be made the more bouts a boxer wins.
Where that money will come from isn't exactly clear. An aggressive marketing campaign and a determined push for television rights will be the dominant strategy and it will encourage Wu and other AIBA chiefs that after two years of losses and a critical failure to capture the public imagination, the WSB actually turned a profit last year.
Of the Irish team, it is understood that John Joe Nevin will become the first boxer to sign an APB contract and Walsh confirms that a number of other boxers approached him in Minsk last week also expressing an interest. Apart from Nevin, the likes of Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward would be sufficiently highly-ranked to be eligible for the new venture.
Should they sign up, it will raise a number of interesting questions as to their status in the high-performance system as well as their funding entitlements. Walsh insists the boxers would remain in the set-up and that he and Zaur Antia would remain in their corner during APB bouts. Under APB rules, the fighters remain under the control of their own national federations.
He also believes fighters should not compromise their funding arrangements. Under the carding scheme, it is not unusual for professional athletes – Nicolas Roche and other cyclists for instance – to receive assistance. "It's an avenue for Olympic qualification," Walsh adds.
"And in fairness the Sports Council supports that. It's something we'll discuss and hopefully they'll continue to do this."
Still, he frets. The high-performance unit, essentially, has become a victim of its own success. Compared to most sports Irish boxing is well-funded, but given the breadth of their ambition, it is never enough. Even before the boxing world changed, the deficiencies were keenly felt: not enough coaches, not enough support staff to cater for demand. Now they have become little short of chronic.
"We've just got to put a few proposals together and go to the Sports Council and our own Boxing Council," Walsh says, "and decide where we as a sport need to go with this and the funding that has to come around that. Because we need an increase in personnel to be able to cater for all this. It's as simple as that."
His eye remains firmly on Rio and his avowed plan to climb to the top of the medal tree. Getting there, though. That remains the tricky part.