Friday 25 May 2018

Vincent Hogan: Boxing's biggest blow of all has roots in Walsh exit

Katie Taylor talks to her coach Zaur Antia after the final bell of her quarter-final bout against Mira Potkonen of Finland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Katie Taylor talks to her coach Zaur Antia after the final bell of her quarter-final bout against Mira Potkonen of Finland. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was no place for a champion to fall, a pitifully populated arena against a boxer who once carried all the threat to her of a gym bag.

But, lately, the certainties in Katie Taylor's world have been diminishing with worrying momentum. An aggressive but nondescript Finnish opponent, once brought to a Bray hotel as convenient work-out material for Katie, yesterday surely brought the curtain down on the most remarkable career in women's boxing.

Superficially, it might be argued that the defending Olympic champion simply fell into a familiar trap, that of the great fighter trying to subdue the relentless march of time.

Read more: I'm not finished yet, vows Taylor

But that simply is not the story here. Mira Potkonen is five years Katie's senior, a mother of two who had never won a championship medal before this year's bronze at the World Championships in Astana. In skill and pedigree, her career has unspooled at an entirely different latitude to that of the Bray boxer.

This was not a fight lost over four untidy rounds in Riocentro Pavilion Six yesterday.

Cursed

It was one cursed for Taylor some time ago by a mix of personal circumstance and the truly bewildering vacuum of leadership within boxing's High Performance unit that the Irish Amateur Boxing Association must now be compelled to answer for.

Anyone who has documented Katie Taylor's career this past decade and more will know how important the presence of her father and mentor, Pete, had been to that story. For reasons still private, that presence was removed from her corner within the last year.

And when a girl who has accumulated 18 consecutive golds across an 11-year stretch then mops up a solitary bronze in her next three championships, it becomes apparent that something pretty fundamental is amiss here.

If Pete had been here in Rio, if whatever turbulence entered their personal lives had been magically removed like an eraser taken to a cartoonist's sketch and all was as it used to be in Taylor's world, it is simply inconceivable that she would have lost to a boxer of Potkonen's limitations.

Katie has enormous respect for Ireland's head coach at these Games, Zaur Antia.

But the intimacy of preparation available in the past has been missing to her here.

I understand that she has found this Olympic experience frustrating, not through any specific fault on Antia's part, but through the palpable sense of a High Performance programme unravelling before everybody's eyes through the absence of coherent management.

The Michael O'Reilly fiasco still has many unanswered questions and it does seem quite remarkable that the boxer's coach, IABA president Pat Ryan, has yet to make any public statement on the matter.

Read more: Irish coaches cry foul as off-key Katie crashes out

But other small signals from within the Irish camp have spoken of a programme that seems to have lost its way. Like Paddy Barnes' scarcely credible struggle with his weight. Like Joe Ward's shambolic octopus tactics.

It is clearly a sensitive issue to those in authority when the abject circumstances in which Billy Walsh was lost to Irish boxing last October get recycled.

But until and unless the IABA ceases to exist as some kind of closed, neurotic organisation, routinely hostile to those who fund them and ambivalent to the very energies required to sustain a fit-for-purpose High Performance system, those circumstances need to remain front of every discussion on what has happened here.

This week, Sports Illustrated ran a story on the Wexford man they describe as having "a huge part in USA boxing's Olympic revival".

Walsh's presence wouldn't necessarily have rescued Katie from defeat here, but it is hard to imagine the sense of spiralling chaos now so palpable within the Irish camp ever being allowed gather such momentum on his watch.

John Conlan's claim on Sunday about O'Reilly's absence from camp in the week's immediately leading up to these Games served, unwittingly, to simply italicise that chaos.

And Antia's expressed fury with the judging system that pitched Taylor out the wrong side of a split decision yesterday missed this fundamental point.

When, in late 2011, Potkonen pitched up in a function room in Bray's Royal Hotel for an exhibition bout with a London-bound Olympic favourite, those of us who waited to interview her after a comprehensive defeat encountered a faintly star-struck visitor.

The Finn spoke simply of the "privilege" of sharing a ring with someone whose dominance of the world's lightweights looked all but impregnable.

So, as Katie herself put it yesterday, she "really should be beating these girls".

It was harrowing to witness the depth of her upset and there was certainly no sound of trumpets accompanying her post-fight declaration that defeat would not be the end of the story. No Irish athlete has ever followed their dreams with a clearer articulacy of what it takes to be an elite athlete and it is to be hoped that Katie's strong faith will be a consolation through these next difficult days.

But she was not beaten by ringside judges yesterday and Irish boxing has not suddenly found itself beset by some freak constellation of misfortune.

The bad news breaking so relentlessly in Rio these past days had a provenance that needs to be held up to the sharpest forensic light.

And those who pay the bills must be the ones doing it.

Read more: Kenneth Egan: Katie has nothing to prove to anyone and should walk away

Irish Independent

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