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‘I often thought of writing the IABA a letter and thanking them'

Billy Walsh sheds light on his acrimonious exit from Irish boxing, ‘killing generals’ in the USA, and a potential future in GAA.

Billy Walsh.
Billy Walsh.
Image: INPHO

BILLY WALSH APPEARED on screen only for a millisecond but it was still surreal to see him clad in blue, walking straight past Kellie Harrington who was having her hands wrapped in the boxers’ shared dressing room.

There sat Harrington of Ireland, mulling over her date with destiny, a 60kg Olympic final at the Tokyo Olympics. And there went her former national-team trainer Walsh, now the head coach of the USA, tending to his own business without so much as a glance toward the Irish corner.

The time for talking and back-patting would be afterwards — or so it seemed.

In reality, this was a moment in time which felt even weirder for Walsh than it appeared to those of us who caught it in a seconds-long, behind-the-scenes clip released on social media.

“There were only four fights on that day — and we had two guys in finals after Kellie,” Walsh tells The42. “And I’m trying to give my focus to my own boxers but at times, I couldn’t, because I was distracted by her. I mean, she was going to go and possibly win a gold medal for Ireland!

“There’s also a TV screen in the changing room and while her fight is on, I’m trying to warm up one of my kids but one eye is on her fight on the TV,” he laughs.

Before she went in there, I just gave her a hug and said, ‘Lookit, do us proud. Go in and do Ireland proud.’ And she did.

“In many ways, I am still part of that team,” Walsh explains. “A lot of those guys were my colleagues, I was their head coach. I hired John Conlan, I hired Dima (Dmitry Dmitruk). Zaur [Antia] came in a few weeks after me and he didn’t even speak English; the bad English he has is Wexford English! And we grew together. We grew a program together, we made lots of mistakes together but we grew, we learned, we adapted and we developed together.

“I started boxing as a seven-year-old at Wexford CBS. I went on to become a national champion, I went on to captain an Olympic team; I went on to become head coach, High Performance director… I wear a different cap when I’m with the USA and do we want to beat Ireland when we fight them? ‘Course — I don’t want to lose at tiddlywinks. But I’m all Irish — anybody will tell you, I’m completely and totally Irish.

“What the Irish team do is still a huge part of me. That’s difficult.”

kurt-walker-consoled-by-coach-billy-walsh-after-he-was-defeated-by-duke-fagan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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Walsh was first approached by USA Boxing in 2014, about a year before his eventual departure from his role as Irish boxing’s head coach and de-facto high-performance director.

By then, a Cork man, Finbarr Kirwan, had ascended to the position of director of performance with the US Olympic Committee.

Kirwan, having for several years worked alongside Walsh in a previous role with the Irish Sports Council, knew just the man to fill the USA’s boxing-coach vacancy. He also suspected that Walsh might have reached the end of his tether with his employers, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA), having seen first-hand the rot that had beset that particular relationship.

Just under two years out from the Rio Games felt as good a time as any for Kirwan to chance his arm and try to lure one of the world’s most coveted coaches across the Atlantic.

“I put them on hold”, says Walsh, “because I wasn’t really sure. To be honest, I kept dragging it along…

“Fin says to me, ‘Will you come over and have a look?’ — as in, have a look at the Olympic Training Centre. And I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never been to Colorado Springs.’ So I went over. But I still had really no intentions of leaving Ireland.

“I spent three days there between Christmas (2014) and New Years while we had a few days off work. I saw the setup, blah blah blah. They made me a really good offer.

I just went to the IABA and said, ‘Hey, I’m after getting a really good offer, here, from America. I don’t really want to go, but I just wanted to let you know…’ And I needed an increase [in pay]. I had three kids going through college at the time. I was doing two jobs at the time between head coach and high-performance director — because they never replaced Gary [Keegan], so I assumed his role and did all the work. I knew of four or five guys in other sports who were earning 50 grand more than me and they were winning no medals. But I didn’t want 50 grand — I didn’t ask for even half of that.

“That was January 2015 and it went on ’til fuckin’…August, or maybe afterwards,” Walsh says. “And then, eventually, there was a back and forth. Kieran Mulvey (then chairman of Irish Sports Council) came in to try and help negotiations — I sat with him on a Saturday. We agreed on terms. The IABA sat with him on the same Saturday. Agreed. We had all the terms, the money and all that, agreed.

“Then, on Tuesday, the IABA wanted to change some of the contents of the contract — things around ‘control’. They sent me a list of 60 things…

“At the end of the day, I would have been managing the gym. I wasn’t a facility manager anyway, but that’s really all I would have been doing in the contract. I had no control over selection over the team. I had no control over the finance; every year, we’d do the costs of the program, present it to the Sports Council for funding. That was taken away.”

Asked who would have done it in his stead, Walsh replies: “Well, the CEO was Fergal Carruth, the president was Dominic O’Rourke. The IABA would have done it. Those guys wanted control over that.

“So, after meeting with a solicitor, we sent some amendments to those proposed terms,” Walsh continues. “All of those amendments came back: ‘No. No. No. No. No. No.’ They just rejected them all.

We were in a training camp in Assisi before we went to Doha for the World Championships in October ’15. I knew it was over, then, when those amendments came back. I knew I was finished. I was in a room on my own over there and I have to say I cried. As I fell asleep, I knew my term with Irish boxing was finished. And we went and had our best World Championships, finished in the top four. Michael Conlan became Ireland’s first and only ever male world champion.

“I came back from Doha, the press were in the airport to greet the team and I didn’t want to steal the thunder of the three guys who had won World Championship medals (Conlan, Joe Ward and Michael O’Reilly).

“I just went like that” — Walsh pretends to half-duck for cover — “and I went home.

That was on the Friday. On the Sunday, I wrote my resignation. I sent it by email to Fergal Carruth and Joe Christle (IABA chairman). I rang both of them. I said, ‘Look, I’ve just sent you a reply in relation to the contract and I’m going to release it to the media at some point today, so you might get some calls.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we just got that.’ And I said, ‘Well, have a read through it. Okay, bye.’

Walsh puts down an imaginary phone.

billy-walsh-celebrates-as-michael-conlan-is-announced-as-the-winner Walsh in Irish colours. Source: Kostadin Andonov/INPHO

There wasn’t a great deal of dialogue required to explain his position in real life, either.

My wife, Christine, wanted me away from the IABA. She knew what it was doing to me, the stress it was causing me.

“…Maybe she didn’t want me going as far away from them as America,” Walsh laughs. “But it ended up that way, y’know?”

His departure brought Irish boxing into the public consciousness 10 months before schedule. It was a front-page scandal, the subject of an episode of RTÉ’s Prime Time, and discussed frantically at even a political level. On 21 October, Sports Council chairman Kieran Mulvey gave the IABA 24 hours to reconsider the original contract tabled in August — the one initially agreed upon before the amendments that broke the camel’s back. “Billy Walsh gave up in frustration,” Mulvey said at the time. “All you had to hear is his statement of a man who does not want to go to America but is being forced, by the petty indignities forced upon him, to leave this country.” He threatened to review the Sports Council’s funding arrangement with the IABA if the issue wasn’t resolved.

“Ah, I couldn’t believe it,” Walsh says of the extremely public nature of the fallout.

“I left pretty soon after that because America flew me over to see the national Olympic trials.

“Myself and Christine were packing for the airport and someone rang saying, ‘There’s going to be some media attention in the airport,’ right?’ I said, ‘Fuck…’

We checked in, we were standing around, no sign of anybody. I said to the missus, ‘Looks quiet enough here. ‘Mon, we go.’ So we went up the escalator [to Departures] and next thing it’s ‘click, click, click!’ Cameras everywhere. TV cameras running after me. I just took off — I left Christine for dead!

Walsh laughs. One of the memories that stands out to him from the reporting of his physical departure was that “they describe what clothes you’re wearing, what shoes… Crazy, crazy stuff.

“That’s not the way I wanted to get publicity for Irish boxing.

billy-walsh-makes-his-way-through-the-departures-of-dublin-airport Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But at the end of the day, it’s the best decision I ever made,” he says.

I often thought of writing the IABA a letter and thanking them.

“I have to say, USA Boxing have been fantastic. Being allowed to do your job and people having respect for you, it’s been an amazing feeling to be able to work in that environment.

With the USA team, we’re in the combat sport area of the Olympic Training Centre — we’re called Team 5. At the start, this guy Ron Brant would come down chatting to me every day; I knew he was some sort of a boss but I didn’t know exactly who he was. And at the end of it he’d always say, ‘Do you need anything? How I can help you? What do you want?’ And I’m saying to meself, ‘This feckin’ fella’s up to something.’ D’you know what I mean? The typical Irish scepticism. ‘This guy is looking for something…’ And then I realised, ‘Actually, I can have almost anything I want here — I just need to ask for it.’ Now, there is a problem with that: people expect me to deliver success!

Walsh knew straight off the plane that that success wasn’t going to come easy.

When he arrived in Colorado Springs with less than a year to arrest the USA’s recent Olympic slide —- they had medalled just once at the last two Games — the average age of his American team was 19.1. The average age of an Olympic boxing medalist is 25.

And that was the least of his problems. Walsh was, after all, a blow-in with a funny accent; the new teacher whose seven Olympic medals with Ireland meant nothing to a group of young American boxers, most of whom simply wished to gain more technical acumen before eventually trying their hand at the pros.

“It’s funny, actually,” he says. “Fin Kirwan came over to Ireland to visit me before I left. He said to me, y’know, ‘How are you going to cope with the anonymity?’ I said to him, ‘What do you mean the anonymity?’ And he says, ‘Sure there’s loads of world-class coaches in all sorts of sports over in the Olympic Training Centre — nobody’s gonna know ya!’ I said to him: ‘Give me a week. They’ll all know me!’

“But seriously, the key thing was that the culture within USA Boxing wasn’t good at the time. That was the problem behind having no success. It needed to change — change completely. They didn’t know what ‘good’ looked like. I had a vision of where it needed to go and where I wanted it to go and I’d had success with Ireland in a similar way. It was difficult for them to see that.”

If the USA program and its protagonists lacked vision, Walsh made one of his first statements, much to his new team’s ire, when he nearly had the ears blown off him in Colorado Springs: he banned the music that used to pump through the gym.

“I genuinely couldn’t hear myself think. ‘Turn off that shit!’ I said,” Walsh laughs. “I couldn’t do my work and, like, I’m soft-spoken anyway. They were having difficulty hearing me and it was hard enough for them to understand my Wexford accent.

Look, I knew I was going to have to chop a few heads. Kill a soldier and nobody looks at you, right? Kill a general and everyone takes heed.

Shakur Stevenson, one of the team’s leading medal hopefuls, was heading home one day when Walsh told him to either make sure he was on time for future training sessions or find a new place to train.

“He was only a kid, 17 or 18, and he looked at me like [Walsh pulls a shocked face]… And so did his coach. And the funny thing is his coach, Coach Kay [Koroma], went on to become a full-time coach with me for a while.”

Then there was Claressa Shields, the reigning Olympic champion at 75kg (who has in the past told The42 of how she was on the verge of quitting the team before eventually buying into ‘Coach Billy”s methods). “I just gave her the option,” Walsh recalls. “I said, ‘When you go home over Christmas, have a think to yourself. If you’re going to behave the same way, don’t come back.’

“And she came back, and we became good friends and she won her second Olympic gold medal. And I wish she could have stayed for a third.” (Shields is now an undisputed world champion as a professional, while Stevenson, who did become punctual, will fight for his first pro world title in October).

billy-walsh Welcome to High Performance. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

These ultimatums and others were huge gambles by a trainer who had been handpicked to deliver medals: Walsh was recruited largely because the States had drawn a blank at London and won only a solitary bronze at Beijing, while Ireland had in the same time period won seven Olympic medals under his guidance. But they were gambles that paid off, not only with Shields’ second gold but with Stevenson’s silver and Nico Hernandez’s bronze. Having more than stirred awake the sport’s sleeping giant, Walsh was subsequently named World Coach of the Year for 2016.

I know I was going to the Olympic Games within 10 months of arriving but I didn’t do any of that for the Rio Games. It was for the future. This was setting out the right stall for the future of USA Boxing to create a culture that would give them continued success for many years to come, long after I’m gone. If I was going to bend to the needs of these couple of individuals, prima madonnas you might have called them, it wasn’t going to be any better than having an American coach there. It was this exact kind of thing that was causing the problem to begin with.

“It was just people doing their own thing,” Walsh adds, exasperated. “There was no team, there was no sense of ‘Team USA’. I told them: ‘We’re a team: we’re going to train together, we’re going to work together, we’re going to help each other when we’re down, we’re going to push each other in sparring; we’re Team USA.’

“Because some of my best mates today are the guys I boxed with for Ireland back…100 years ago,” Walsh smiles. “I always cherished having those team-mates around me even though we competed individually.

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“‘Each one of your fights”, I said, ‘even you weighing in, gives us points to make Team USA better. Someone else’s victory is also your victory. We share that victory because we’ve all been a part of helping that person get there.’”

Incidentally, what Walsh is willing to say about Ireland’s comparatively disastrous Rio 2016 campaign, he puts down to that same sense of team dissipating: “I obviously speak with the coaches and it was a combination of a lot of things, y’know? I have my thoughts on it. Look, I know what happened. But all I can say is that it became a fractured team. The environment wasn’t conducive to producing the performances that the talent in the team was capable of.”

Walsh and the Irish team cross paths plenty on the international circuit and they inevitably did, too, in Rio: indeed, it was the Wexford man, having been told over the phone by an Irish journalist, who first informed his former Irish colleagues that middleweight Michael O’Reilly had failed a drug test. (“‘Get out of here, get the team on a bus and get out of here,’” he warned Zaur Antia and John Conlan. “It was terrible. It was terrible for that to happen. For them [the IABA] to know about it in Dublin and to never inform the coaches… Not releasing a statement… They hung them out to dry.”).

However, by dint of Michael Conlan being robbed of a Rio semi-final showdown with Shakur Stevenson, it would be five more years before Walsh cornered an American against an Irish boxer in an Olympic bout.

kurt-walker-dejected-as-duke-fagan-wins Duke Ragan is announced the winner over Kurt Walker. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Following Duke Ragan’s slenderest of split-decision victories over Ireland’s Kurt Walker in their 57kg quarter-final in Tokyo last month, Walsh cut a broken figure when speaking to journalists in the mixed zone.

Nine years earlier, he had drafted Walker into the Irish High Performance setup — then aged just 17 — with exactly this occasion in mind. But when the occasion arrived, Walsh found himself the mastermind of Walker’s broken dream, advising Ragan past the Lisburn man to an Olympic medal.

Ragan, who had guaranteed himself Olympic bronze and went on to win silver, spotted Walsh crying in the dressing room. In his own moment of jubilation, he went to comfort his coach. He had no qualms with Walsh’s mixed emotions. He knew the scéal. “I suppose, that’s how much it meant at the time,” Walsh says. “He was sort of feeling sad for me because I was sad — it was like fighting one of my own kids, y’know?

“But I thought about it after and I said, ‘D’you know what? I know I feel bad now but I’d have felt worse if we’d lost!’”

Walsh lets out a hearty laugh. “It is something I had to really think about.

“Kurt was the form man going into it, like. He’d beaten the world no.1 (Uzbekistan’s Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov) — he was flying it.

“And we know the stats: Alan Swanton was our stats guy in Irish boxing and we know that 80% of boxers who win the first round go on to win the contest. So, I said, ‘Duke, we’ve gotta win this first round. If we have to chase Kurt, it’s over. We’ve gotta win that first round and then get him to come to us.’

“And the thing is, Duke hadn’t been doing this, starting fast. Truth be told, he got a bit of a doing by the French guy (Samuel Kistohurry) and by Kurt on the first day of sparring, because he’d come back in from the pros (Ragan turned professional with Top Rank when the Games were postponed by a year, winning four fights before returning to the US amateur setup for Tokyo).

“We learned so much in that training camp together.

A few days later, then, Zaur and I were chatting about it and he was raving at me: ‘You feint me! You feint me!’ he said, meaning I fooled him. And I just says, ‘You know, Zaur. First round. First round.’ We can afford to have a bit of banter about it then but it was tough for Kurt. Very tough.

Ragan’s silver was one of four Olympic boxing medals won by the USA this summer, their best tally in the ring since Atlanta 1996. It brings Walsh’s haul as USA head coach to seven, levelling his total at the helm with Ireland.

adam-nolan-and-patrick-wojcicki Walsh and his former colleague, Zaur Antia. Source: Cathal Noonan

“I suppose the challenge is, I’m going to start with a whole new team when I go back next week,” Walsh says. “A whole new team.

“I’m trying to reflect on where we can be better. I’m the only really full-time boxing coach there. We have a pool of coaches that we use, but Ireland has like four full-time trainers whereas we have one, which is ridiculous. We need to expand. There’s a coaching-education program which is now being rolled out for future successes. We need to get people delivering that around the country, we need to get regional centres; there’s a lot of work to be done there, still.

“We had three men reach finals in Tokyo but I’m not happy. We didn’t win a gold medal. I’m actually gutted over that. Three of them were capable. That’s been a bit hard for me to deal with — everyone else is happy but I’m not so happy because these opportunities only happen once, both for that individual kid and for that team. That’s the nature of the beast.

“At the moment, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’ve had contract negotiations and we’ve agreed that I’ll stay. I’ll be 61 come the Paris Games and look, it is a lot of work.

Like, I was absolutely exhausted after Tokyo. And I mean completely mentally, physically worn out. The boxers laugh sometimes and I’ll say, ‘You guys are only fighting one fight at a time — I’m fighting fucking 10 fights!’

Beyond Paris 2024, Walsh has an eye on home — but real home as opposed to Abbotstown.

“My back garden is Wexford Park,” he smiles. “I’ve lots of ties with GAA.

I’ve been on a steering group with Wexford GAA for the last year or two, which is a group of Wexford people from different areas — different sports and businesses. I’ve been sort of helping in that capacity: setting up programs and structures, long-term athlete development and stuff like that. Again — for Wexford to have consistent, future success.

“That’s probably where my future may lie at some stage,” he says.

And just for the sake of argument, if things in Irish boxing were different?

“The only way to answer that is to say that if things were different, I would have never left. It’s as simple as that, really.”

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