Thursday 22 February 2018

Boxing: Producing world class fighters . . . and world class people

Ireland's John Joe Nevin, second from left, and Jason Quigley, second from right, who won gold medals alongside Paddy Barnes, left, and Michael Conlan, right, who
won silver medals at the European Championships
Ireland's John Joe Nevin, second from left, and Jason Quigley, second from right, who won gold medals alongside Paddy Barnes, left, and Michael Conlan, right, who won silver medals at the European Championships
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Maybe the biggest mistake we can make with Ireland's boxers is to edit their story down to medals. And, if you listened to Jason Quigley this week, you will understand precisely why.

The new European middleweight champion came home talking of an assortment of abstract debts he now owed, to his dad, to his hometown, to anyone who might have cleared the tiniest pebble from his path.

And it was remarkable to hear a kid with so much living still to do express his love in such a simple, unabashed manner.

He bore two black eyes, yet seemed genuinely startled to be the subject of a commotion. Speaking on Newstalk's 'Off the Ball', Quigley described it as "absolutely overwhelming" to encounter the scale of his homecoming crowd in Stranorlar.

He talked of the recession, the perpetual negativity of news broadcasts, the absence of money and jobs in so many homes and – hence – the pleasure of becoming a temporary distraction.

AMAZING

"It's amazing for myself to be able to give something back to the community that gave so much to me," he said. Jason, by the way, is 22.

In London last August, you might remember John Joe Nevin (Ireland's other European champion from Minsk, incidentally) stepping out of the Olympic ring, having just missed gold by a hair's breadth. Almost instantly, John Joe was expressing his condolences to families left bereaved that same day by a horrific car accident in Tullamore.

"I'm here standing with a silver medal and those poor families are arranging funerals," said Nevin. "My heart goes out to them." John Joe, at the time, was 23.

In London, Michael Conlan talked about boxing as pretty much a choice between living and dying. He'd seen Belfast friends stumble to the wrong side of the tracks and watched the spirit filter out of them. Conlan was still 20 as we sat listening to him spin his gentle parables.

Conlan's closest friend in the High Performance unit is Paddy Barnes, the first Irish boxer ever to medal at different Olympiads. Both of them brought home silver from Minsk last week, Barnes quite possibly deprived gold by a medical decision to stand him down for the light-flyweight final.

Then there's Joe Ward, who would probably have won light-heavyweight gold but for that freak dislocation of his knee. Joe, a European senior champion in 2011, remains a teenager.

The beauty of these boxers isn't simply that they find themselves pulled by an almost psychic tug to glory now. It is in how they conduct themselves outside the ring, in how – to a man – they seem so out of sync with a cynical world.

For Billy Walsh oversees the perfect meritocracy on Dublin's South Circular Road, the High Performance gym now operating with unshakable belief, yet ironclad humility too.

Billy is an inspirational figure, but one who laughs a lot and counsels everyone in his care against growing too big for their boots. His personality is the programme's DNA.

So it's not just world-class boxers that Walsh and his coaches have come to nurture, it's world-class human beings.

Billy's collaboration with Zaur Antia has become one of the most coveted in Europe and it's not difficult to see why. Because the Irish aren't underdogs anymore; the kids who fight them are.

And in an age when the gentlest probing seems to require mental bench-presses from extravagantly rewarded professionals, Ireland's boxers throw open the doors to a world of sincerity and grace. So Quigley talked with radiant love about his dad this week.

Conor, a High Performance coach himself, didn't make it to Belarus because of visa problems. "Gutting," was the word Jason used to describe his absence.

But they Skyped endlessly through the tournament and their eventual embrace at Dublin Airport represented something far deeper than the bond between coach and boxer.

"Only for my father, I wouldn't be where I am today," he said, a sentiment often echoed by his great Irish rival, Darren O'Neill, whose own father, Ollie, has been his inspiration.

Yet one specific Quigley answer should, in this column's estimation, be printed out and put up on every school dressing-room wall in Ireland.

Asked about coping with the stress of competition, he replied: "Look, boxing is a sport, we're not going to get a death sentence or anything if we lose."

Sports psychologists charge money for a good deal less.

Irish Independent

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