Tuesday 12 December 2017

Billy Walsh: 'It'll be like an out of body experience if I go into the ring against my own'

Now settled into his new role with USA Boxing and impressing his charges after a difficult start, former Ireland head coach Billy Walsh suspects he could find himself in an uncomfortable place at the Olympics

Head coach of USA Boxing Billy Walsh pictured with USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields
Head coach of USA Boxing Billy Walsh pictured with USA Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields
Ireland's Katie Taylor after receiving her gold medal. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Home is a single-room; spartan, functional, one bed, an open-plan wardrobe, a desk and, on the floor, two weighing scales for the boxers to come to every morning.

"Room 101, Olympic Plaza," Billy Walsh recites with a smile. On the desk sits a memorial card for his late father, Liam. Everything else is business: a laptop, files, some logoed training gear.

To begin with, he could feel the walls of this place close around him every evening and sometimes he'd slip into a deep sleep by 7pm, left physically and mentally ransacked from overseeing up to five or six often fractious sessions in the gym.

It felt, at times, as if he was at war.

USA Boxing brought him here to rewire the culture of what it is they do and, inevitably, interference made some big cats bristle. So there were days that left him wondering about the sanity of being in Colorado Springs. "I'd be thinking 'F**k me, I think I'll get a flight home!'," he says now, breaking into laughter.

What changed?

Everything really. Maybe his own mindset more than anything. One morning, in the midst of all that turmoil, he remembers walking to the canteen, glancing to his right and there, glistening under a perfect cornflower sky, the snow-capped beauty of Pike's Peak.

At that moment, it was as if some voice in his head told Billy Walsh that there were grimmer places to be in this world. That, if war was what was demanded now, he shouldn't be the one to equivocate.

And, six months on, he is grateful that he didn't.

Some years ago, in a newspaper interview, Walsh described America as "the sleeping giant" of amateur boxing. He said that if he ever left Ireland to spread his gospel, the US would be the chosen destination. Finbarr Kirwan was working for the Irish Sports Council at the time and stored that thought away. And, when he moved to the US equivalent, Finbarr never let it go.

Billy's loss to Irish boxing convulsed the airwaves last October. The Monday of his resignation, it was RTE's lead story on the SixOne News. Later that week, just after he and wife Christine checked in for an early morning flight to New York, they ran into a blizzard of news people. Riding an escalator to the security landing in Dublin Airport's Terminal Two, they were intercepted by the sound of running feet and interrogatory media voices.

"Billy, Billy, Billy. . ."

And, at that moment, he felt uncomfortably resentful.

"I just felt it was very much an invasion of my privacy," he remembers now. "I was upset by it, very embarrassed to be honest with you. I was angry. I hadn't done anything wrong, yet I was being made to feel almost as if I had. I was just leaving the country to go and further my career and it wasn't very nice to be left feeling as if I was on some kind of wanted list.

"I was reading articles after, telling people what clothes I was actually wearing. . . it was crazy. I'm not David Beckham!

"Maybe people just wanted confirmation that I was really going, that it wasn't all some kind of charade. But you're coming up an escalator and, suddenly, all these people are in your face at seven in the morning! Christine was petrified.

"She's a quiet person anyway and couldn't believe what she was seeing. I ignored the questions and kind of broke into a run. My only thought was 'I've got to get the hell out of here!'"

In an office in Olympic Sport House on Cimino Drive, that was the day they'd feared might never come. Matthew Johnson had been appointed USA Boxing's High Performance director ten months earlier, put in charge of a programme that everybody knew was not fit for purpose.

Once the great world power of amateur boxing, America's men's programme especially was in disarray, even denied Olympic funding because of the prevailing dysfunction. Not long before Johnson's appointment, they flew Walsh in to try selling him their ambition.

During his four days in Colorado Springs, Billy took a couple of training sessions, and two of the girls who participated broke down in conversation with him after. Articulating their frustration with a system that had no consistency or direction, Marlen Esparza - a bronze medallist at the London Olympics - and Christina Cruz talked of feeling "lost".

They weren't articulating anything that Johnson didn't already know.

"A lot of fingers get pointed at USA Boxing for what's gone wrong over here and for good reason," he reflects now. "Before Billy came on board, we were without a head coach for about a year and a half. And I think I'm the fourth High Performance director that has sat in this chair in as many years.

"So USA really stopped competing internationally."

Mike Martino, their CEO, had identified Walsh as the first part of a solution, but spent most of last year not knowing if he could get him. It was February when Billy first told the IABA of his American offer and the months that followed just bounced his emotions about like a pinball.

The point of no return came in mid-September when he and his advisor, Fergus Barry, believed they had shaken hands on a new deal with the IABA that would be formally delivered within 24 hours, only to wait three days for receipt of a risible contract that effectively confined his autonomy to management of the High Performance gym.

Walsh's solicitor requested in excess of 60 amendments - all to do with autonomy - and the vast majority were rejected.

"That was the moment I knew it was over," Billy recalls now.

Soon after, he travelled to Assisi with Ireland's World Championship team before moving on to Doha for a tournament that would prove the most successful in our history. There, he roomed alone.

"I had to get on with it, couldn't tell anybody," he says. "And I had a few lonely nights over there. I knew my time was up.

"Mentally, I had quite a bit of stuff going on, but the programme has been very good at teaching people how to adapt in stressful situations and I've used a lot of that myself. Psychologically, we've become very good at staying in the moment.

"It was when I was on my own, I probably had a feeling of disarray and even despair at times.

"But I had to make the decision for myself because I felt really I couldn't go back after the way they (the IABA) were behaving. Deep down, I suppose I probably knew from the first day in February when I told them about the offer. . . I had a real gut feeling that they didn't want me.

"Why? I don't know. I suppose it's been said on many occasions, by the then president and a few people around there, that there were 30 coaches in Ireland who could do my job. And maybe there are. The best of luck to them if that's their feeling.

"I just thought records should speak for themselves. . ."

Martino's grace and patience had been a revelation to Walsh. Even though the American programme effectively hung in abeyance while awaiting his decision, they never once communicated impatience.

On the contrary, just after the European Championships last August, Martino told Walsh in a phone call that his dilemma was understandable and that, whatever his eventual decision, he hoped they'd forever more be friends.

"This is a guy who has staked his reputation on getting me," reflects Walsh now. "And that was a very big moment for me. It was at a time when the negotiations at home were getting really frustrating and I remember thinking 'Well, these people really want me. . .'"

Johnson was sitting next to Martino when the phone-call they both yearned for came. They had finally landed their prize.

"For me, it had been difficult," Johnson reflects now. "Because we'd identified the coach we wanted, but never really knew until that moment if he was coming. And I don't have an extensive boxing background. I wasn't a boxer myself. I guess we were in survival mode.

"You'd go through times where it seemed like everything was on pace. . . then he's going to the World Championships with Ireland. . . so at times it was frustrating. If he wasn't coming, you could at least go in a different direction and start preparing for the worst. And I always had that in the back of my mind. The need for a back-up plan.

"So it was a huge sigh of relief really. Just a big thing taken care of, knowing that (1) we had a coach and (2) not just any coach, but one of the best in the world."

He knows his way around town now in the ten-year-old maroon Ford Windstar they gave him once assured that he was ready for a left-side steering-wheel.

On Sunday, his only free day, Walsh sometimes drives out to The Incline, a hiking trail staircased into the hill above Manitou Springs with 2,000 steps that many of the Olympic teams like to use for shuttle runs.

"I walk up," he smiles. "Maybe if I was a bit younger. . . " He plans too to explore Pike's Peak soon but, often, his drives just take a random path out into the country.

He misses family, of course, but Christine has been out a few times and his contract facilitates regular trips home.

Last Easter, he visited the new facility in Abbotstown he helped design for Ireland's High Performance boxers, a facility the IABA only began to formally use this week. He'd been hoping to meet Gary Keegan for a guided tour but Gary was elsewhere that day, so he made the tour alone. He describes the facility as "world class", suggesting it will energise the team and "make them proud" now being able to host other international teams in such splendour.

And seeing it set him thinking about the primitiveness of their beginnings in '03, of how they'd sleep on blow-up beds beneath a glass roof in the South Circular Road gym, risking hypothermia in winter, feeling oven-baked in summer.

From there, they moved to sleeping on a changing-room floor, 10 or 12 at a time before the boxers moved upstairs to bunk-beds in a dormitory while the coaches took a room downstairs, sleeping three.

It was from those beginnings, they sowed the acorn.

That seems an eternity ago now and, in many ways, it is. At the US Olympic Training Centre, almost 20 sports are housed on a campus developed from an old army base stretching to nearly 35 acres. In matters of nutrition, sports science and strength and conditioning, the facilities here are cutting edge.

But boxing is playing catch-up.

When Billy first arrived, they worked with a single ring and just six punch-bags. In the next month, they hope to have three, maybe four rings, 15 bags and extended floor space. He feels he has the absolute support of his CEO and HP director in fighting what battles he needs to.

Billy's first job pre-Rio has been to manage the women's programme, but he's been hands-on with the men too and, in his first week, sent two male boxers home. Johnson admits there was a natural "push-back" from some as Walsh set about getting to grips with a culture and style of boxing that is perhaps more easily aligned with the professional game.

Last week, the women were in camp, preparing for this month's World Championships in Kazakhstan. Two of them, Claressa Shields and Mikaela Mayer, have already qualified for next August's Olympics.

Shields, the child of a Michigan nightmare, is the programme's billboard face. With a father jailed for seven of the first nine years of her life and a drug-addicted mother, she was raped at the age of five by one man, sexually abused by another. Yet, at 17, Claressa was Olympic middleweight champion, and Universal Studios are planning a movie about her tumultuous journey to that throne.

When Billy first landed in Colorado, he knew who Claressa was, just hadn't an inkling of what she'd been through. And Shields quickly became his biggest challenge.

"I wasn't aware of her story when I came," he says now. "I was just treating her like anybody else, apart from the fact obviously that she was Olympic champion so young. Not that I would have treated her that differently anyway but, knowing the circumstances of her upbringing, you could certainly understand a bit more why maybe she didn't trust me. Why maybe she didn't trust men in general.

"It didn't help that, at the time, none of them understood a word I said. I'd be talking slowly, but they'd be standing looking at me with these blank expressions.

"After a while, I came to realise they were actually trying to lip-read me! So I'd stop and say 'Everybody got that?' And there's be just this shuffling of feet. 'Okay, I'll start again!'.

"So it was daunting because the shutters were down. Claressa certainly put the shutters down. She just wasn't going to co-operate at all, she was going to do her own thing. It got to the stage where she was going to go home to Flint to her own gym and prepare there.

"I was trying to get the message across that the Olympic champion in London won't be good enough to be the Olympic champion in Rio if she just keeps doing the same thing. I'd say to her 'Everyone's watching you, studying you, trying to beat you. They're all improving . . . '

"That didn't sit well with her. She'd tell me 'Anybody out there. . . I can beat them all'. So she'd just shake her head. On the floor, she wasn't doing the same work as the other girls, not putting the effort in. And that didn't sit well with me. I had to hold my counsel on many occasions."

Although she was injured and couldn't compete, he insisted on Claressa travelling with the team to a pre-Christmas test event in Rio and a subsequent training camp in Sheffield. Their relationship subsequently thawed with better communication and Walsh describes Shields now as "a different woman".

He wasn't especially happy with the quality of her performances when winning the Olympic qualifier in Buenos Aires last March, believing that success to have been down to sheer physical strength and natural ability.

On March 17, Claressa celebrated her 21st birthday in Argentina, Billy joking to his bemused fighter that she ought really have been christened Patricia with such a date of birth.

It's taken time, but Shields now acknowledges how much the Wexford man has been bringing to her game.

"I mean I know I'm slick," she smiles. "But the only thing I ever thought about faking was the jab. Coach Billy's faking the right hand, he's faking the hook, he's faking the uppercut and I'm like 'My mind has never even thought that far!' So he's giving me knowledge, I see that now.

"I've met a lot of coaches who wanted to change my style completely. I'm an aggressive fighter and they want me to move, move, move away from my opponent. But that's not my game, I don't box like that. Even against a shorter fighter, I'll still go get them. Somebody my height? I go get them. Somebody taller? I go get them.

"I've always been a person to kind of press the action and when I saw that Coach Billy wasn't trying to take anything away from that, that he wanted to add to it and just make me pay more attention to my mistakes, I started thinking 'Okay, these are things I need to fix.' You know, he's very knowledgeable, very smart."

For Walsh, his salvation through all this early turmoil was the unflinching support of his employers.

Even if it had come to the wretched scenario of having to remove their star boxer from the programme, USA Boxing were willing to do that in service to a new philosophy. At no point, thus, was Billy left feeling isolated.

"Bear in mind that they had to stand up to this too," he reflects now. "Because it was a case of the tail wagging the dog here. In January, we did this physiological screening of all the boxers and our findings were that Claressa needed more or less to be rebuilt from the feet up. Because she just wasn't conditioned enough for the intensity of training we were doing.

"But she's good as gold now, and I now see an amazing person. I can sit down and have a real conversation with her and she's incredibly knowledgeable about boxing. I don't think Claressa ever realised that she was a leader in this group, but they all look out for what she does.

"I just think there's been a pattern here for a number of years that she did very little training, that she turned up whenever she wanted. You can imagine why. This is a girl who was 16 when she won the American trials to qualify for the London Olympics. That wouldn't even be allowed now, she wouldn't be old enough.

"Now she's always in on time, she's working hard, she has a great heart."

Mikaela Mayer is the American girl who could put Walsh in the opposite corner to Katie Taylor.

The tall Los Angeles lightweight was a long-shot for Olympic qualification going to Buenos Aires in March, the only one who needed a gold to make it. But gold she won. A tattoo inked into her left forearm reads 'perseverance', reminding her of the day in 2012 she narrowly lost an Olympic trial to Queen Underwood.

Mayer was immediately spirited to a room by USADA testers and remembers sitting there with only one thing on her mind. "I had tears in my eyes, I think my nose was broken," she smiles now. "But I was like 'You know what - I'm going for 2016!'"

Now half-way through her pursuit of a Business Degree, Mayer says she is "so thankful" for Walsh's arrival into her boxing life.

"He's really brought the best out of me," she reflects. "There's just something about him, the way he talks to you that demands your respect. You want to impress him, you want to make him proud, we all felt that from him immediately.

"And technically, he's brilliant. The simple things he's brought to my style, like the feinting and throwing punches long, using my reach, I love the techniques that he's showing us. He can be really funny too, but he demands respect. So you can get along with him, relate to him, laugh with him but, when we're in the gym, he means business."

Asked about Taylor's failure to secure Olympic qualification in Turkey last month, Mayer says she fully expects the defending champion to be in Rio (as does Walsh).

"I don't look at that loss (to Yana Alekseevna of Azerbaijan) as a negative thing," she says. "I've always been a fan. You know, when I first started, Katie was the girl. So I've always looked up to her and that hasn't changed. It's just the competition is rising, there's a lot of tough girls coming through."

Could she beat her?

"I know that if we face off, I'm going to have to bring my all," she smiles ambivalently.

So you come around to picturing the nightmare scenario here, Billy Walsh in the US corner against an Irish boxer. Incredibly, through 13 years of High Performance, Ireland never once got drawn against American opponents in a major tournament. Something in Walsh's gut tells him that that's about to change now. How will he deal with that? He has no convenient answer.

The Sunday last month that David Oliver Joyce qualified for Rio, something suddenly jolted Walsh out of a deep sleep. Instantly, he reached for his phone, picking up the live AIBA coverage from Turkey. "We'd been messaging the night before," he says of Joyce. "I'd been just sending him some motivational stuff.

"David Oliver was what we'd describe as a 'High Performance baby', came in to us at 15, him and John Joe (his cousin). And both have gone on now to become Olympians."

Walsh was in Joyce's corner in 2012 during that agonising Olympic qualifier when an ultra-harsh warning maybe ten seconds from the end of his contest effectively cost him a place in London. That evening, David Oliver was ready to walk away from his Olympic dream.

Now, four years later, Billy stood in a small room thousands of miles away, willing his old pupil home.

"The battery was gone in the phone, so I had to plug it in and stand by the sink," he recalls laughing. "And I'm standing there, rocking over and back, nearly boxing the fight for him. I knew he won the first round, then lost the second. And I'm thinking 'Jesus . . . fighting a Turk in Turkey? This happened us before with Joe Ward!' Then, when he got the verdict, I just broke down crying. I was so delighted for him."

He has joked with Joyce since that he'll be bringing a decent lightweight (Carlos Balderos) to Rio and told Brendan Irvine he's on the look-out now for a doughty fly too (like Ireland, America have six boxers qualified so far). He still enjoys banter with those he's left behind, but the idea of trying to beat them now? Honestly?

"Joking about it is the only way I can deal with this," says Walsh. "At the end of the day, it's sport. We're not going to try and kill each other. I'll be doing my best for whoever is in my corner and they'll expect that from me. If it happens, I've got to try to step away from the emotional side of it.

"I've no doubt it would be daunting going to that ring against my own. I'm an emotional guy at the best of times and I'm always emotional at ringside.

"I'd say it'll be like an out of body experience if it happens. And it's f***ing Murphy's Law, isn't it? It's probably on the cards!"

He keeps in contact with Zaur Antia, the wily Georgian with whom he soldiered for so long in High Performance and who replaced him as Ireland's head coach. They have exchanged congratulatory texts on recent qualification achievements and their friendship remains strong.

But there are undeniable threads of a rivalry building too now. "He's doing well, he's working hard," Walsh says of Antia. "Zaur's very competitive and there'll always be that little bit of competitiveness between us.

"He wants to beat me and, if we do draw each other, I'll want to beat him. Win or lose, we'll still be friends. He's now carrying the baton for Irish boxing that Gary Keegan handed on to me. Ireland has had great success in recent years, but I just hope they don't forget what it was like before High Performance started.

"I mean the IABA are calling it a 'golden era' of Irish boxing, as if this group of fellas just miraculously came along from their clubs. But when I boxed, I was part of a golden era. Was Mick Dowling before me not part of a golden era? Bear in mind, the team I was on ('88), went on to win gold and silver at the '92 Olympics. It won a European gold when we weren't winning any.

"Was that not a golden era too? But there was no system or structure around them. Nicolas Cruz was on his own. Like we (High Performance) took it from nowhere. People forget we had one boxer at the 2000 Olympics and one boxer at the '04 Games. What was the legacy of '92 then? Absolutely nothing.

"We got four boxers qualified in '96, but I often say in presentations that we had almost become the dodo (flightless bird) of the Olympics. Then, in four years between 2008-12, we win seven medals. In the history of the state, we've won 28 Olympic medals in all sports. We won a quarter of them in four years!

"Something happened. What was it? High Performance happened."

Irish Independent

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