Sunday 18 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Walsh pays dues to old mentors as US protégée bids for history

Former Ireland boxing coach Billy Walsh. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Former Ireland boxing coach Billy Walsh. Picture: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Eddie Byrne will have whooped softly from somewhere over Rio last night as a young black woman from Michigan moved closer to Olympic history.

Claressa Shields won't understand the light he's tossed upon her story but, if she becomes America's first ever double gold medallist in boxing tomorrow, she should probably know the name.

Eddie's presence was never required ringside at an Olympics though when Billy Walsh qualified for Seoul, some locals fund-raised until they had enough to put him on a plane to South Korea. He went there as a tourist and had the time of his life.

To this day, Billy says nobody taught him more about boxing than Eddie Byrne in St Joseph's Community Centre, Wexford town. Their families lived just a few houses apart in Wolfe Tone Villas, Billy good friends at school with his son, Eddie Jnr.

If there was a secret to Eddie's wisdom, Billy suspects it was that he never stopped bringing other coaches to the gym, always re-educating himself, listening, learning. He coached more than 30 national title winners, yet Eddie then left this world far too early.

Within one month of Eddie Jnr dying in February 2008 at the tragically young age of 44, his da slipped away behind him after a short illness.

White uncle

"I still hear his voice in my head," Walsh told me this week. The Irishman, who Shields now calls "my white uncle", has overseen a fine Olympics for the US team, with three medals won after their ugly blank in London. He declares unequivocally that Byrne has had a hand.

"The things he taught me are still as relevant today as they were 30 years ago," he says. "I find myself even using the same expressions. I was always learning off that man."

Sometimes an Olympics can feel like society's last stand against mature adulthood. The Games parachuted so many rotten, delinquent types down upon Rio this last fortnight, an already agitated city has begun to feel like a pot neglected on a stove. Make no mistake, cariocas will be glad to see the back of us. They don't believe the "legacy" cant of people in blacked-out limousines rolling ambivalently past the clogged nightmare that is non-Olympic traffic.

All they see is a great, big glitzy show that's about to turn their national debt nuclear. And the only thing they seem to read about is crookedness.

Whether it's the suddenly frail IOC man now detained in Bangu prison, the crooked boxing judges, the drugs cheats (we've been a bit of a superpower this time haven't we?), the stubborn adolescence of lying US swimmers or the empty stadium seats priced so wildly beyond their means, locals don't see much here beyond a lasting promise of stadia they'll never fill and souvenir stalls they'll never use.

More than most, Walsh was shocked last week to read an interview with Nicolas Cruz in the Irish News, detailing a crippling sense of isolation that drove the Cuban to the brink of suicide.

For context, it's maybe best to know that one of Cruz's first acts on his appointment as an IABA coach in '88 was to name Billy as his captain. Once the No 2 ranked light-heavyweight in Cuba, his Olympic dreams had been crushed by Fidel Castro's boycott of the LA Games in' 84.

Although he wasn't sent to Seoul, Cruz did go to Barcelona in '92 where, manning the Irish corner with Austin Carruth Snr, he was a critical tactical presence behind Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough reaching Olympic finals.

But that Cuban stamp on Ireland's success in the Olympic ring disturbed Castro, who saw to it that Cruz was despatched to Puerto Rico to conduct seminars. And he, thus, disappeared off the Irish radar until '96 when persuaded to return for the Atlanta Games

On discovering this, Cuba warned the IABA that there would be repercussions if he was not cut adrift and, cravenly, they acquiesced. And, for Cruz, that was the beginning of a wretched downward spiral.

Cruz ended up just pulling pints in The Ringside Club, sweeping the floors after bingo and working the door at weekends. And he was reduced to sleeping in the National Stadium, a friend supplying a bed and mattress.

When Walsh was contemplating walking away from the IABA last year, he sometimes spoke of an image he had in his head of Cruz, sweeping the Stadium floor. One of the most gifted coaches to grace our shores, marginalised to the role of janitor. As the IABA squeezed him harder and harder last autumn, it was an image Walsh just could not shake.

For Cruz, the struggle that followed makes harrowing reading.

Barred from re-entering Cuba for six years, he could not return for his father's funeral and, eventually, lost his marriage.

"I felt like a failure," he told Neil Loughran. "I couldn't come back to my own country, couldn't have any contact with my family. It was nearly impossible to make a phone call to Cuba. I considered long and hard at the time just to leave the planet.


"I had a rope and I had made up my mind what I was going to do with it. I had already picked the branch of the tree at the back of the stadium. The only thing I had in my mind was death. It was just something I started to think was okay to do. I felt I had betrayed my family, let my country down.

"There was no recovering from that, I was a traitor."

A chance meeting with a Shaolin monk eventually rescued Cruz, but his sense of alienation from the sport that so defined his life had him telling Loughran that he would not even watch the boxing tournament in Rio.

The Olympic Games have become preposterous, of course, we know that. But a lot of good people park their lives just to get their shot at the five-ringed circus and it's a pretty rotten thing when their stories get washed away in all the effluent flowing through.

Yesterday, you could only smile at the AIBA's flaccid response to a boxing tournament that, not unlike Seoul's in '88, has been threatening to crash out of control. The decision to 're-assign' their executive director was just a reminder of the delusional language used by people who blithely assume that their audience must have porridge for brains.

It proved a shocking tournament for Irish boxers and, maybe, corrupt judging played some part in that.

But just as the tint of dusk came creeping down on Rio last night, Claressa Shields celebrated her place in the Olympic final by exchanging cursory fist-pumps with a Wexford man. Tomorrow, she goes for gold and a place in history.

Eddie Byrne won't need to be told the time.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport