Flame still burning for Walsh

July 26, 2011

No-one has made it to London yet. That’s one of the first things Billy Walsh reminds people when he senses another eulogy about the Irish boxers coming along and how the medal conveyer belt is bound to roll along all the way to London and beyond.

Ireland have a proud record of winning medals in Boxing at the Olympic Games:

1952: (1) McNally

1956: (4) Tiedt, Gilroy, Caldwell, and Byrne

1964: (1) McCourt

1980: (1) Russell

1992 (2) Carruth, McCullough

2008: (3) Egan, Sutherland, and Barnes

People have no idea how tough it is to make it to 2012. Last time, you had three tournaments, three chances, to make it. This time there’s only two. First up are the world championships in Azerbaijan in September. There’s going to be a huge entry at it; you’ll probably have to win four fights in only six days to qualify for the big show next summer.

Then you have one more chance at next April’s qualifying tournament in Turkey. And even making it to the last four there mightn’t be enough; if six Europeans make the last eight in your weight in Azerbaijan, you’ll have to take gold or silver in Turkey. Even Katie Taylor isn’t a certainty; if she doesn’t string five good performances together in China next May, if she’s food poisoned that week, that’s it, it’s gone for four more long years.

The good news is they’re now in a much better place than they were with two qualifying tournaments to go the last time. Back then they were stumped. They’d gone to Chicago for the first qualifying tournament with all their big names and only Paddy Barnes had qualified. How was that? They’d been given the best of everything — biomechanics, psychology, nutrition, coaching, the lot had been laid on for them. When Walsh and the rest of the backroom team reflected on it, that was the very problem.

“We’d over-coached the boys,” said Walsh.

“They were training at 11 every morning, training again at three or four every evening. It was all very comfortable. No one was being challenged, no one was able to make a decision for themselves. Kenny Egan had got to the stage where he was standing there between rounds, waiting for me to call out the instructions what punches to throw.”

After Chicago, everything was turned on its head. They were all brought up to Ballybofey where on the first morning they were woken up at 6am to go run up a mountain. The next morning they were stirred even earlier to hit a nearby gym. They loved it. They were being challenged and when they were being questioned they were coming up with answers themselves. In between rounds Walsh would ask them, not tell them, what they were going to do next. Sometimes he’d say nothing at all, his silence prompting their thoughts, their decisions.

It was all about getting to know what made them tick. Darren Sutherland liked for Walsh to text him every day, just for that bit of reassurance, so every day Walsh would ask Darren how was he and how he was finding training. He got to know which of them liked to stand between rounds and which of them preferred to sit, which of them liked to be all serious before they entered the ring and which of them liked to keep it light.

Most of them liked to keep it light. That’s still the default setting for the medal factory on the South Circular Road. At tournaments everyone gravitates to the physio room in the team hotel and it’s comedy central. Even in Beijing the changing room before medal fights was regularly filled with laughter.

“The HQ physio Phil Glasgow was there and said to me afterwards that he couldn’t get over it. He’d been with the track and field athletes, the swimmers and so on and said the tension in those changing rooms was unbelievable.”

What the boxers have copped is that nervous tension can drain you. You need to be relaxed to perform. So in that changing room they’ll have their favourite music playing, they’ll have the craic and banter and, then, about 20 minutes before showtime, most of them will do some padwork with Walsh, throwing moves and punches they’ll be throwing in the ring. Ten minutes of that and their heart rate is up. They’re almost ready.

The worst part is the tunnel, waiting to go out.

“Last month in Turkey at the Europeans you could hear the crowd above you baying, they’re really into their boxing there. And I was standing there thinking, ‘This is like Gladiator, we’re going into the lion’s den here’. We play the Gladiator soundtrack a lot in our changing room and that’s the first thing I thought. And the boys must have been feeling like that as well.”

That’s where he came in. The art of coaching is knowing your athlete and knowing the right thing to say to them and that’s what makes this most humble of men probably the best coach in all of Irish sport today. So in that tunnel he kept talking to them. If a guy wanted a bit of fun, Walsh would give him a bit of fun. If a guy wanted a quick reminder about his opponent and the game plan, he’d give him all that.

Paddy Barnes tends to be all business at that point. But others, they want fun all the way to the bell. Take young Ray Moylette, who won gold at those Europeans. Just as the referee is making his way over to their corner and Walsh is putting in his gumshield, Ray’ll ask Walsh to tell him the same corny joke his club coach back in Mayo cracks before every fight.

“Go on, Billy,” he grins, “tell me the one about the two mice.”

So Walsh obliges. Two mice live in a tyre. The tyre gets punctured. Now they’re living in a flat. Boom, boom. Moylette is ready after that.

Kenny Egan’s a lot like that as well. A good few years back, Walsh overheard another coach tell his fighter while he was giving him water, “Let’s give this fella a few slaps and see what way he goes!” So he said it to Kenny one time and Kenny cracked up so now just before every fight that’s Kenny’s trigger.

Walsh knows just what to say to them largely because he had no such guidance when he himself boxed on the biggest stage.

Pretty much from the moment his father sent him down to the local boxing club as a seven-year-old, he’d dream of the Olympics. The family back garden ran into Wexford Park so he was always going to play hurling and football as well, which he did, lining out for the county as a minor and with the club right up until he was 40, but early on boxing was number one for him.

“We played Kilkenny in the Leinster minor final. We were five points up with six minutes to go. The bastards beat us by a point. That sort of made the decision for me. I’d won four Irish titles in boxing at that stage so I threw my hurl down that day and said, ‘To hell with this, I’m going to go to the Olympic Games instead of relying on 14 other fellas’.”

He had his heart set on ‘84. The winter prior to it he’d had an offer to go pro and to New York but the national championships and the Olympics were just around the corner. He retained his national title but it wasn’t enough to get on the plane for LA.

“That really gutted me. I should have been there but I was a country boy. They sent five lads out and of the six of us I had the second-best record. It still hurts me. People say, ‘Ah don’t worry, next time’. There is no next time! Four years, especially in boxing, is a long time. But thankfully I kept at it and made it to Seoul.”

Looking back on those ‘88 Games, it was both the best moment of his life and the most devastating defeat of his career.

“Standing on that track when they were lighting the flame, Michael Carruth beside me, it was an amazing feeling, to be able to say, ‘You’ve made it, you’ve fulfilled your dream’. The other side of it was the devastation of not performing. I lost in the first round and I was gutted for many, many years after it. I’d still be very emotional about it.”

Oddly enough, his countdown to disaster kind of began at that glorious opening ceremony.

“The last team to walk into the arena that night were the Koreans, the host nation. There were 587 of them. And Koreans, without sounding racist, look very similar to Irish eyes. But there was this one guy I recognised. I had boxed him at the pre-Olympics six months earlier. Knocked him out — cold. He’d had head gear on him that time and yet I could spot him in a crowd of 587 Koreans in the Olympic Stadium.

“The next day the draw was made. Guess who I got. Psychologically I hated fighting somebody I had beaten before because I felt they’d have learned more from it. Everyone else then was expecting me to beat this guy again.”

Now he’d know what way to think, know what things to say. Your opponent doesn’t matter. Let’s focus on Billy, what Billy’s good at. Let’s focus on process, performance, the outcome will take care of itself.

“Instead I had a big problem which I didn’t realise at the time was a problem. I was the way I thought you were supposed to be — I wanted to win so much, I’d have gone through a brick wall, I’d have killed to win. That restricts performance. Instead of being more relaxed, I was too tense.”

He hung up the gloves for four months only to take them down again a week out from the national championships to knock out Gordon Joyce and Paul McCullagh. Over the next couple of years he’d keep winning national titles and keep competing in major competitions only to keep losing at the medal round. He came to a realisation. At international level he was that bit too small for light middleweight. If he was going to make a proper assault on Barcelona, he’d have to box at welterweight.

But just as he was going down a weight, a friend decided to move up one. Whenever Walsh would come up to Dublin he’d invariably stay with Michael Carruth’s family. Michael’s mum, Joan, would cook and bake him the most wonderful meals and cakes: “I’m your Dublin mummy!” she’d often tell Walsh.

Austin was his Dublin Daddy, leaving him full use of the club gym, while Michael was like a brother, calling down to work out and hang out with him in Wexford. After the draw for the 1991 national championships that all came to a halt. First two names out of the hat — Carruth and Walsh.

“It was terrible, not being able to hang out with each other those few years. That fight in ’91, I beat him and then Eddie Fisher in the final. Then the following year me and Michael ended up back fighting each other again in the final. The moment the fight was over the two of us threw our arms around each other and said, ‘Thanks be to f**k this is finished’. We could get back to where we were.”

Six months on Walsh was back in the Carruths’ sitting room in Drimnagh. It was the morning of Michael’s gold medal fight against Cuba’s Juan Hernandez and Joan had wanted her Wexford son to be there to watch it with the family.

“I had a fear of being in the house that morning because nobody but Michael and his dad expected him to beat Hernandez. I was thinking, ‘God, this house is going to be devastated when Michael loses’. But after the second round Michael was still level and then it hit me — Michael’s going to win! Michael Carruth’s going to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games! Because I could see [Alcides] Sagarra, the great Cuban coach, eating the bollix out of Hernandez and I said, ‘He’s going to play into Michael’s hands. He’s going to start running after Michael’.

“Michael was a counter-puncher. And sure enough, Michael boxed the head off him in the last round. It was great, just great. Because there was a crowd of us who had been together for a long time and finally one of our teammates had done it, he’d done it for Irish boxing.”

For all that pride and delight, there was a bit of envy too which would drive Walsh to have one more shot at the Olympic dream. But it wasn’t to be, as a fighter anyway.

He always seemed to have a flair for coaching. He remembers going to the European championships in Bulgaria as a 19-year-old studying the footwork of the host nation’s fighters while Nicholas Cruz would often tell him he’d make a great coach some day.

For Seoul ’88, the Irish boxing team prepared in Ireland. Twenty years later the Irish boxers had a training camp in Vladivostok, then flew to Beijing a week before everyone else, left all their gear in a nearly deserted Olympic village, went back to Vladivostok for more training before breezing back into Beijing again, skipping all the accreditation queues and already familiar with their surroundings.

They know they have something special going on in that gym beside the National Stadium. Darren made them realise that all the more. The professionals were meant to take care of him but they weren’t anywhere near as professional as the setup he’d left. They didn’t know him, didn’t text him, wouldn’t enquire if he was okay.

“He was back here six weeks before he died. He had a bad cut on his eye. I had seen the fight on telly on holidays in Bulgaria. He’d won but there’d been a clash of heads and 10 weeks later he had an eye infection still. So they’d never brought him to the doctor.

“He had to look after it himself and Darren, probably looking after his money, hadn’t gone and got it stitched up properly. The day he came in here he wanted to have a chat with Gerry Hussey, the sport psychologist, but Gerry wasn’t around. He used our physio. And he said to the boys, ‘You don’t know how lucky you have it here. I’ve got to pay for everything while you have everything’.

“It’s so sad. Looking back the warning signals were probably being flagged there but when guys go pro, you tend to just shake hands, wish them the best of luck and tell them to make sure to keep in touch.”

Kenny’s had his problems since Beijing as well, outside and in the ring where Joe Ward has overtaken him in the pecking order. Last month Egan reportedly said that Ward was getting a bit ahead of himself and avoiding him in sparring. Walsh gently pulled him up on that.

“I just said, ‘Ken, I thought you were a bit out of order. It’s not like you and I know it was probably off the cuff and blown out of proportion but always be respectful of everyone in here’.

“But it’s difficult for him. They’re all chomping for the one position but that’s what makes everyone better.

“You’re dealing with people. Next week we’ll have 30 lads here and inevitably there’s something wrong with somebody! But in general it’s working. They all want to be the best they can be. I probably left the game myself not achieving what I should have. I don’t want any of these guys to do that.”

The internal flame still burns.


In an interview with Keiran Shannon Irish Examiner

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