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The ghost of Billy: Stop blaming Walsh saga for Irish boxing's ups and downs

Donnelly win shifts the mood in the Irish camp as Conlan and Taylor prepare to open their medal bids.

Billy Walsh celebrates Team USA's first boxing medal of the Rio Olympics with his fighter Nico Hernandez.
Billy Walsh celebrates Team USA's first boxing medal of the Rio Olympics with his fighter Nico Hernandez.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

– Niall Kelly reports from Rio de Janeiro

WE ALL HAVE bad weeks. It’s just infinitely preferable if we don’t have them during the most important fortnight of a four-year cycle.

Steven Donnelly’s win in the welterweight division on Thursday afternoon must have come as sweet relief to all associated with Irish high-performance boxing, and especially the team and coaches at the Olympic Games in Rio.

Our boxers are our standard bearers, the ones who give us the most concrete and consistent hope of major honours on the international stage.

So when a disastrous week got unexpectedly worse with Joe Ward’s shock exit from the light-welterweight division, the hand-wringing wasn’t far behind.

And no matter where you turned, the ghost of Billy Walsh loomed.

It didn’t help that the man himself was standing there at ringside just minutes before Ward’s defeat, already focused on his next target after watching Nico Hernandez clinch Team USA’s first medal in the ring earlier in the day.

On RTÉ, the post-fight analysis quickly moved from Ward to Walsh. Michael Carruth — whose brother Fergal is the CEO of the IABA, let’s not forget — and Kellie Harrington played down the impact of the loss.

Let’s make one thing clear: Irish boxing would be much better off with Billy Walsh in its corner.

And once more for emphasis: Irish boxing would be much better off with Billy Walsh in its corner.

Those still fuming with the IABA for the cack-handed way in which they handled talks with Walsh have every right to seethe — we can only hope that the anger stops similar mistakes from being made again down the line — but the disappointments of the last few days cannot be pinned on his absence.

Paddy Barnes said as much in the hours after Ward’s defeat. “Anyone that thinks Billy Walsh is the reason for any Irish loss doesn’t (know) anything about Irish amateur boxing and that’s a fact,” he wrote.

Would Walsh have stopped Michael O’Reilly from making the biggest mistake of his sporting career and taking an illegal supplement on the eve of the Olympic Games, unbeknownst to his team-mates and coaches? He would have been just as powerless to prevent that stupidity.

Barnes pinned his own sudden exit on problems making the weight at 49kg, but remember that Walsh was still in charge when the double Olympic medallist decided that he was sticking to the light-fly division and began to pursue qualification through the World Series of Boxing.

Could he have stopped Ward from running himself into problems with an over-zealous referee and costing himself a fight that, in the eyes of the ringside judges, he had won unanimously? Perhaps his emphasis on discipline might be greater than that of Zaur Antia or Eddie Bolger or John Conlan, but once that opening bell goes, there’s only so much influence a coach can have.

“I’m a little bit disappointed for Joe and a little bit disappointed with Joe,” Bolger said on Thursday. “He’s a young lad, he’s not developed in all the areas yet.

“You don’t listen to a good referee and it might cost you; you don’t listen to a bad referee and it will cost you. We should have been able to deal with it.”

Again, nobody is contesting the superlative work that Billy Walsh did, or the strong legacy that he left behind, but to divine his absent influence in every misstep and setback is misguided.

Not only that but it does a gross disservice to Antia, Bolger and Conlan, the work that they are doing, and the testimony of the people most directly impacted by all of this — the fighters themselves.

Take this from Barnes, back in April:

Zaur has never got the recognition he deserves. He’s a tactical and technical genius. Irish boxing is where it is now because of Zaur Antia, and that’s a fact.

Or this from David Oliver Joyce, immediately after his defeat to Albert Selimov, another result that would hardly have been any different under Walsh’s stewardship:

The guys are great coaches, absolutely the best coaches in the world that you could have in your corner. Zaur Antia, Eddie Bolger and John Conlan — the three best coaches in the world.

Or this from Steven Donnelly, who lifted the cloud as he set up Ireland’s first medal fight of the Games on Saturday, albeit against the reigning world champion and top seed Mohammed Rabii:

In the last few days, things haven’t gone our way and the pressure was on Zaur and the coaches, but as I said all along these lads are world-class coaches and they deserve all the praise they get. I did that for them.

Of the eight boxers Ireland brought to Rio, only four are still standing — and three of them haven’t even set foot in the ring yet.

“As long as we learn a lesson from yesterday and fix that today, hopefully we’ll have something cornered off that we keep improving our performances,” Bolger said.

“We’re in a good place.”

A couple of days from now, there will be plenty of time for post-mortems and recriminations.

But as a nation turns its lonely eyes to Katie and Michael and Steven and Brendan, it might be best to stop looking for ghosts in the shadows.

‘I’m a little bit disappointed for Joe and a little bit disappointed with Joe’

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Niall Kelly

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