Tuesday 22 January 2019

Vincent Hogan meets Billy Walsh - 'If there is no boxing at the Olympics, amateur boxing is dead'

Saturday interview

Ring master: Billy Walsh looks on from the edge of the ring during the last Olympic Games when Claressa Shields took gold. Photo: Sportsfile/Getty
Ring master: Billy Walsh looks on from the edge of the ring during the last Olympic Games when Claressa Shields took gold. Photo: Sportsfile/Getty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was March last in New Hampshire when Billy Walsh was finally re-assured that his divorce from Irish boxing had lit the touchpaper on revolution.

For a week, he'd found himself almost unwittingly analysing every last strand of conduct from Bernard Dunne's team during a triple-header of meetings on the US East Coast with his own American selection. The contests had almost all been high-calibre and seriously contested.

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Left: Walsh at the recent Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards alongside horse racing trainer Aidan O’Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Left: Walsh at the recent Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards alongside horse racing trainer Aidan O’Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

After 8-4 and 7-3 US wins in Boston and Springfield, their final match at the Manchester Downtown Hotel ended in a 4-4 tie, five of the contests resolved by split decisions.

As Dunne and new IABA operations manager Rachael Mulligan were about to depart, Walsh called them back for a private word, keen to communicate just how impressed he'd been with what he'd seen of the Irish boxers.

Autonomy Specifically, he'd been struck by the professionalism of the group and the clear, coherent autonomy of their management team.

"I was really impressed," he says now. "Absolutely amazed by where they'd taken things and I said that to them, that if it took my leaving to create a fantastic, professional operation around the Irish team, then I was thrilled to see it happen.

"Thankfully, having spoken to Bernard, he's being allowed to do all of the things that myself and Gary Keegan weren't allowed to do. There don't seem to be any restrictions on him. He doesn't really have to answer to the IABA. That's heartening and maybe, in some ways, it's a legacy piece from my point of view.

"But I've been really impressed by what I've seen. I think he can take the sport to another level."

It seems scarcely believable that it's three years now since Walsh's patience with the IABA finally snapped and, to a backdrop of broad consternation stretching even to a heated Oireachtas Committee hearing, he left for a new life in America.

Within ten months, he'd led the US to a three-medal haul at the Rio Games (they had not medalled since Deontay Wilder's bronze in Beijing) whilst a star-studded Irish team slipped into virtual meltdown, returning home empty-handed and with one of them - Michael O'Reilly - becoming the first Irish athlete sent home from an Olympics for a doping violation.

Walsh was subsequently named World Coach of the Year for 2016 and, one year later, was declared leading coach at the World Championships in Houston (where the US had their best medal haul since 1999).

Yet, when he thinks of that October Thursday in 2015, media cameras tracking his every step towards departures at Dublin Airport, Walsh's abiding memory is a sense of uncertainty and loneliness.

"It was a very lonely feeling at first," he acknowledges now. "I was really going into the unknown. Like the only expectations I could have were around myself and what I knew I was capable of delivering. The first thing I had to do was get the coaching staff on my side because what I'd be doing was going to be very different to what they'd seen previously.

"It was much more technical. We had to bring them up to the 21st century, show them what world class looked like. And that was a difficult one. Like I'm sure a lot of them, for a long time, were wondering what the benefit would be. I had to find a group of people that were pretty loyal to me.

"There was also the fact that I'm white, coming into this space that had mostly blacks and Hispanics. That's the demographic of boxing in America. Here, it's working class, lots of people from the Traveller community. They all knew me, we all had broadly similar accents.

"But, for the Americans, this was a completely different language now. Not just the accent, the language itself...different words having a completely different meaning. My attempts at humour went completely out the window. The only one laughing was me! They were all looking at me blankly and I trying to crack jokes.

"It got to the stage where I decided Americans had no bloody sense of humour whatsoever. They just didn't understand the words. They didn't know what a gobsh**e was!"

Walsh had long considered the US a 'sleeping giant' of amateur boxing, but he knew too that the sport in America was freighted with a cultural bias towards the professional game, that most people saw the amateur side as simply a means of building some kind of record that would be rewarded with a pro contract.

To that end, the style of many US amateurs was largely indifferent to the science of the sport. Rather than learn the technicalities of clever footwork, ring movement, of intelligent defence, many fighters just went in swinging, looking for a knockout.

In the comparatively thoughtful, truncated world of amateur boxing, this was exposing them to self-harm.

For Walsh, the problem was that he inherited a young, incredibly inexperienced group of boxers. So much so, he chose not to expose them to World Series of Boxing tournaments for the last couple of years (though they will compete in 2019 as WSB carries the carrot of Olympic qualification).

Compared to the Irish team he was leaving behind, it had to feel a bit like stepping back from third-level college into secondary school.

"When I left Ireland, we had one of the best teams in the world," he reflects now. "We had half a dozen ranked in the top two or three on the planet. You had Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor, Joe Ward, Michael O'Reilly. You know we had a team that was phenomenal and we were gearing up to try and be number one in Rio.

"What I started with in America was a bunch of kids by comparison. The team we brought to the Olympics, the most international contests any of them would have boxed in was five. Five! In Ireland, we could have had those five internationals in a single week. Some of them had only one or two. A few were actually making their international debuts in Rio. It was extraordinary."

The star of the group - naturally - was London gold medallist Claressa Shields.

An Olympic champion at just 17, the girl from Flint, Michigan was strong-willed and innately distrustful of the new coach now calling the shots in Colorado Springs. Walsh considered her behaviour in the gym disruptive, soon challenging his new employers to back him in the conflict. When they did, he knew he was dealing with people who kept their word.

"We sat down in January 2016 and, like, I was going home," he remembers. "It was either her or me. I was genuine in saying, 'I'm out of here unless we sort this out because I can't be putting up with this!' Training was being completely disrupted.

"Now, whether I'd actually have gone or not, I don't know. I just felt I had no choice at that stage. I was at my wits' end. The system I was trying to instil and the discipline and structure around it, they were just going to fall apart. In fairness to Mike Martino (CEO) and Matt Johnson (high performance director), they backed me.

Clause "Up to that point, they would have been inclined to back the athlete. Claressa was the gold medallist from London and, more than likely, going to be the gold medallist in Rio."

Walsh had insisted on a clause being inserted into his contract that, if he wasn't happy in Colorado or if, for whatever reason, USA Boxing wasn't happy with him, he would walk away with one year's salary. That, in a sense, was his safety net. But he didn't need it.

"I think anyone who knows me, knows I don't give up too easily," he smiles. "My plan wasn't to go. But I did need to see how genuine these guys were. Were they going to support me and back me all the way? That was the day they showed they were 100pc behind me."

Shields, of course, eventually reconciled herself to Walsh's way of working and was duly crowned Olympic middleweight champion again in Rio. Today, she is an unbeaten professional, world super-middleweight champion and a frequent visitor back to training at the US Olympic base.

Something Walsh and fellow coach, Kay Koroma, have changed about the Olympic gym is the relationship between amateur and professional. Previously, there was a gulf between the two, as if jumping into the paid ranks represented some kind of betrayal of the amateur ethos.

The walls in Colorado now carry images of some of boxing's greatest professional world champions, but only if they've also been Olympic medallists.

Hence the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather can be seen alongside images of Shields and Rio bantamweight silver-medallist Shakur Stevenson, who is expected to fight for a professional world title in 2019.

Shields, Stevenson and another unbeaten professional, Mikaela Meyer, often work out now with the US Olympic hopefuls. "We use them as sparring partners," explains Billy. "That's how we sold it to USOC.

"They're helping our Olympic team get better."

Mention of Tokyo 2020, inevitably, brings up the sense of uncertainty hanging over boxing's Olympic future as the IOC continues its investigation into the governing AIBA and, specifically, the alleged organised crime links of its president Gafur Rakhimov.

That investigation is expected to run until next June, the IOC recently writing to boxing federations all around the world, advising them to disregard a December 5 statement from Rakhimov, claiming that AIBA had "finally and fully left the troubled past behind us."

It has been suggested that the Olympic boxing tournament in Tokyo might even be run independently of AIBA. Either way, Walsh is confident that boxing will remain on the Olympic schedule.

Over the last couple of years, he has become familiar with AIBA chief executive Tom Virgets, believing the American to be "an honourable man".

Yet, the governing body's credibility is clearly on the line now, not simply because of questions about Rakhimov's integrity, but the farce of 36 of their referees and judges being stood down after widespread disquiet over how that 2016 Olympic tournament was run in Rio.

Walsh believes that common sense compels AIBA to fall in line now with whatever the IOC demands.

"I think we're all pretty sure that boxing will be in the Olympic Games," he says emphatically. "It's always been there, going back to ancient times almost. AIBA may not run it, it could be run by the IOC. But I know that people at the helm of AIBA are making changes rapidly to come up to speed with what the IOC is asking for.

"What happened in Rio was outrageous, but the 36 referees and judges who were stood down haven't been since. Now maybe I'm a bit naive in the sense that I always believe everyone is honest when they sit down outside a ring. But that, seemingly, wasn't the case in Rio.

Skulduggery "I found that hard to believe because some of those guys I'd become very familiar with, friendly with even. But there was skulduggery going on in the background that I never thought would be the case. It was like a cancer running through the system. And there's obviously been a history of that, going right back to '88."

And AIBA's seeming indifference to the IOC's concerns about Rakhimov?

"They've got to show a little bit of common sense," says Walsh of boxing's governing body.

"If your major stake-holder, which is the IOC, is telling you to do something and you don't listen...worse if you more or less give them the two fingers and do the opposite to what they want you to do... how can you expect to be left alone with that?

"That's surely the first sign of madness. You've got to listen to what your paymasters are saying. I mean, if there is no boxing at the Olympics, amateur boxing is dead. It'll be the end of the sport in so many ways. The card for amateur boxing is the Olympic Games. Take that away and the sport is virtually over."

In an ideal world, Walsh hopes to bring a full complement of US boxers (eight men and five women) to Tokyo next year, though the qualification process offers abundant tripwires and zero guarantees. After that, it becomes a question of how well an individual deals with what he calls "the fantasy world" of an Olympic Games.

Is he a better coach today than the one who left Ireland in October 2015?

"Well, it's been an interesting journey," he says soberly. "There's been a lot of self-discovery along the way, figuring out who I am, what I'm capable of doing. I was always reasonably confident in what I could do, but this was about learning a different culture and how I could get into the psyche and get the best out of these guys.

"And that doesn't stop. You're constantly twisting and changing, constantly developing. As people get comfortable in it, you try to take them out of that place of comfort. Myself included. Tokyo will be a big Games for us. Whereas I had just ten months going into Rio, I'll have no excuse, having had four years for Tokyo.

"That means all of us being on our toes. We've gotta perform, gotta produce."

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