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Dublin: 10°C Thursday 22 October 2020

The shy Georgian genius behind nearly a quarter of Ireland's Olympic medals

Billy Walsh recalls his time working with Zaur Antia, Irish boxing’s media-shy head coach who has played a key role in almost 140 major international medals.

Zaur Antia.
Zaur Antia.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

“Our first Olympic Games together, Zaur and I, was Beijing. When Beijing began, there was a war in Georgia. The Russians invaded South Ossetia and the Abkhazia mountains, and his family were there in the middle of that. He was wrecked because he was up half the night every night — he couldn’t find his family, get in contact with them… He was going through a nightmare. None of the boxers knew about it. And we had, at that time, our most successful Games…” — Billy Walsh on Zaur Antia

HE FIRST LANDED into Dublin in late 2002. He had traversed the continent for a job interview which was to be conducted in a language he didn’t speak. His best friend from their hometown of Poti, Georgia — an international boxing referee named Zorab Tibua who was friendly with a Corkonian equivalent, Dan O’Connell — accompanied him on the journey as a translator.

Almost immediately following his interview, he hopped in a cab on the South Circular Road and headed straight for Dublin Airport, Zorab in tow.

Ultimately, however, it seemed for all the world as though their 10,000km round trip had been made in vain: Zaur Antia didn’t get the job.

“Zaur and I interviewed for the same position on the same day,” says Billy Walsh, the eventual winning candidate. “I’d never come across him before — he wasn’t on the international scene much, I don’t think, at the time. Even though he had coached some guys to win medals at international level, he wasn’t involved with the Georgian team that much and, in any case, Georgia wasn’t that big a boxing nation — to us. We figured out later on, obviously, that I think three of the Soviet team were from Georgia and Zaur had trained some of those guys.

“But I actually only came across him for the first time on the day of the interview. I met him at the Ringside [Club] at the back of the National Stadium. There’s a bar there, so we had a drink together even though he didn’t speak any English and I wouldn’t speak much Georgian! We had a conversation through Zorab.”

zaur-antia Zaur Antia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Antia’s Irish connection had actually been forged sometime prior when Dan O’Connell found himself in the Georgian port city of Poti for a refereeing course. He had returned to IABA HQ with word of some kind of masterful sweet scientist; a friend of a friend whose luminescent training methods he had spied from across a local gym, the depth of whose CV greatly impressed the IABA’s newly fledged High Performance Director, Gary Keegan.

Ultimately, Keegan chose former Irish Olympian Walsh over Antia to assume the role of IABA head coach. The Georgian, though, had more than left his mark. And so, as has always been his wont, Keegan expanded the picture: even though he had advertised only one vacancy, the Dubliner hunted down funding to create a second position, that of ‘technical coach’. It wasn’t long before Antia was packing his bags for Ireland once more, this time with a one-way ticket sandwiched between the pages of his passport.

And so began one of the most glorious eras that a single Irish sport has ever produced on the international stage: from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 alone, Irish boxers male and female took home seven medals — almost a quarter of the nation’s current Olympic tally which stretches back to Ireland’s first Games as an independent entity in 1924. In all, since 2003, Irish boxers have pocketed almost 140 medals at ‘major’ tournaments (Olympic Games, World Championships, European Championships, European Games, EU Championships, Commonwealth Games).

“The makings of the team” to Walsh’s mind were Antia’s connections in Eastern Europe which opened the doors for Ireland to some of the best boxing programmes in the world — but only after Keegan, Walsh, Antia and the fighters of the early 2000s had rebuilt the squad’s image through rigorous camps in countries nearer to home.

Absolutely none of the success which followed came easy, a point accentuated by the fact that of the holy trinity who breathed life into Irish boxing nearly two decades ago, only the Eastern European remains in situ.

coaches-billy-walsh-and-zaur-anita-celebrate Billy Walsh (L) and Zaur Antia (R) celebrate after John Joe Nevin wins his Olympic semi-final in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I started with the Irish team on 2 February 2003,” recalls Walsh, who ultimately departed the setup 12 years later following a highly publicised fallout with the IABA.

“So, just before Zaur arrived in April of that year, we moved the whole thing to Dublin — even though there were only a few fellas from Dublin on the team.

The way it worked was that without having the finance for a bed-and-breakfast or a hotel, we ended up going down to a hardware store and buying some blow-up beds. We all slept on the floor of the National Stadium gym to begin with. Eventually, we converted the attic out the back and put in bunk beds; the team stayed there, and then we converted one of the rooms on the bottom floor — that’s where the coaches stayed. That’s how it all started, you know? People forget the sacrifice and commitment that everybody had to make in order for this to work.

“The top teams in the world were all full-time, professional trainers, so we had to go full-time and become professional.

“Zaur arrived and, obviously, the big problem was that he didn’t speak English. He had no word of English — absolutely nothing. But what he was trying to deliver technically, I was able to understand and communicate for him. And after a while, we didn’t have to explain: the guys [boxers] began to recognise Zaur exhibiting movements and they were able to pick it up from there.

“But Gary was the boss, you know?” continues Walsh, now head coach of the USA’s national boxing team. “He’d question us — regularly: why we were doing this, why we were doing that. He challenged us. But then he took on board our opinions with regards to training and training camps. We were involved in all of his work and all of his decisions, and then also the battles he was having to fight for us with the IABA while trying to make us a world-class outfit. People were obviously trying to interfere, trying to take control and whatever went on in that time which eventually resulted in Gary leaving [in 2008] and, then, me leaving [in 2015].

“Zaur is still there, honing the hotseat,” he chuckles.

“But there was a great camaraderie — not just between the three of us but with the office staff, with the support coaches that we brought in, with everybody. We were all just focused on becoming one of the best teams in the world and Gary was driving that every day, with all of us.

“Gary put together exactly what Irish boxing needed. We had myself: ingrained in the culture, I knew what ‘good’ looked like in that I had been an Olympian and fought in a few World Championships, and I knew the psyche of the Irish people. And obviously Zaur, then, knew the technical aspects of what ‘good’ looked like. He was a phenomenal addition.

“It was a special group of people whose mission was to put Irish boxing on top of the world.

All of us grew throughout that time because none of us were world-class, you know? All of us learned a hell of a lot about ourselves and about each other because we actually lived together. Zaur and I roomed together everywhere. The bad English that he did learn, he learned it from me!

zaur-antia-and-billy-walsh Antia (L) and Walsh (R). Source: Cathal Noonan

During Walsh and Antia’s reign in tandem as head coach and technical coach between 2003 and 2015, it was the Wexford man who ascended to national-treasure status; his treatment at the hands of certain figures at the IABA and subsequent departure for the States less than a year out from the Rio 2016 Olympics warranted an inquisition on RTÉ’s Prime Time, an acknowledgement of his position within wider Irish society, not to mention sport.

The disaster that was Irish boxing’s Rio campaign only bolstered that reputation and, at this stage, requires no further unfurling, but under Antia (now head coach) and new High Performance director Bernard Dunne, Ireland have won 31 medals at major international tournaments in the intervening four years.

That considerable success has perhaps been obscured from mainstream public view by the shadow still cast by all that went before it — both good and bad. And yet, despite the removal of Walsh’s own considerable shadow from the equation, the general sport-consuming public knows no more about Antia now that he has the floor than they did when he was operating in greater obscurity.

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Walsh, though, is happy to lift the lid on his old friend.

“The biggest piece that people maybe don’t realise about Zaur is the character that he has. He has a massive personality.

If you put him in front of a camera, he’ll shy away from it. Coming back from Olympic Games, I’d be like, ‘Here, Zaur, stand beside me, now, when the cameras are there. I want them to ask you questions; I want you to be able to speak’ — just so people would know him, you know? ‘Yeah, okay, bro. Okay, bro,’ he’d say. And then when we get there, he’d fuckin’ jump back. He’s just too shy for it.

“He’s probably…not embarrassed, but aware of his English”, Walsh adds, “and he’d maybe get confused sometimes when somebody asks him a question, so…

“But behind all that, he’s a massive character within the team, which is something people maybe don’t realise. He’s a funny, fun-loving guy, well able to have the craic and have a few jokes and all that.

He can play the piano, he can play the guitar. He’s a good footballer! We used to play a bit of soccer sometimes just to warm up and he loves it — typical Georgian. But he’s very good. Now, he won’t chase around the pitch for you a whole lot; he’s almost like another goalpost where he’s just hanging on the end-line and you hit the ball up towards him. But he’s very gifted in all of those aspects.

“There were some funny times with Zaur — some really funny times: I remember one day early on, he was downtown in Dublin and had to get a bus somewhere, and he couldn’t think of the name of his stop. He was going around Dublin on the bus for fucking half the day. He had no English whatsoever — he couldn’t ask the driver where he was going, where he should get off, and he was gone for half the day trying to get back to where he was staying.

And I remember one day, his son was graduating out of DCU. He rang and got a taxi. Obviously, his English is coming on a bit and he went, ‘DCU!’ to the taxi driver… So, the taxi driver pulls up in fucking Phoenix Park — outside of the Zoo. ‘Why are you hanging on?’ the driver says to him. He says, ‘NOOO! DCU! DCU! NOT THE ZOO!’

irish-boxing-coach-zaur-antia Antia on the phone during the 2013 Irish Elites. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It wasn’t all a barrel of laughs either, though, as Walsh stresses with a quick change of tone.

“The thing is, people forget the troubles that Zaur went through, just being in Ireland. He was there on his own, his family had to stay in Georgia for years, he didn’t speak the language. It was a very difficult time for him.

“Zaur didn’t go to the first Olympic Games [in 2004]. We had only one boxer, Andy Lee, and it was one boxer, one coach, so me and Andy went together. Zaur didn’t go to our first World Championships, either, in Bangkok, because he didn’t have a visa in time.

Our first Olympic Games together, Zaur and I, was Beijing [in 2008]. When Beijing began, there was a war in Georgia. The Russians invaded South Ossetia and the Abkhazia mountains, and his family were there in the middle of that. He was wrecked because he was up half the night every night — he was trying to find his family, get in contact with them. We were sharing a room together so I says, ‘Lookit, man, you stay in bed, I’ll get up and do the weigh-ins; you do whatever you need to do and when you’re ready, get up, but get your rest and all that’. He was going through a nightmare. None of the boxers knew about it. Some of them probably still don’t know about it. And we had, at that time, our most successful Games, winning three medals and our first Olympic [boxing] medals since 1992 which was a fantastic achievement. But he went through a lot of trauma in that time.

“His family were up in the mountains hiding. He eventually got in contact with them or found out where they were; he knew at least that they were safe, so he was able to relax a little bit more. But you can imagine the nerve-wracking experience that he had to endure, you know?

“Another thing, as well, and it’s more simple: back home in Ireland, there weren’t many Georgians. Like, no matter where you go in the world, you’re going to find an Irishman or an Irishwoman; you can find a pub or you can find somebody to talk to or relate to. He was in Ireland for years on his own and he didn’t have anybody to even go and speak his own language with.

“It was over five years before his family came over. It was very difficult to get visas to come in from Georgia. Because it was a former Soviet state, there are all sorts of refugee-status things going on; there was a fear that people were jumping ship once they got to Ireland — or they (government authorities) were afraid that that was going to happen. Thankfully, through us working with the Department [of Foreign Affairs], people got to know Zaur; we were getting visas regularly to travel abroad from Ireland and eventually we got him an Irish passport, so they realised he was legit and that he was bringing his family in and so on. That made it easier.”

zaur-antia-with-kellie-harrington Antia speaks with Kellie Harrington. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Naturally, Walsh and others bent over backwards to help Antia settle into life in Ireland prior to his family’s eventual arrival, but quintessential to his adaptation to life here were his personal relationships with his boxers.

No matter how many of them to whom you inquire about Antia — even those who have been retired for several years at this point — you hear the same thing: ‘Ah, sure I was only talking to Zaur the other day — he rang me. We must’ve been on the phone for about an hour and a half’.

They all wax lyrical about his character as Walsh does, but it’s not long before the chat morphs into something altogether more technical: nearly all of them have a specific career-altering punch or ring manoeuvre for which they credit Antia, and they don’t spare detail in explaining exactly how and why the Georgian instilled it in their arsenal.

And while the question ‘what makes him so good’ produces different answers from each of them, it is that piece of coaching parlance — ‘the how and the why’ — which tends to feature without exception. Not only does Antia teach his boxers how to do something, but he also ensures they understand why they need to be able to do it in the first place.

zaur-antia-682016 The Georgian Genius. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Of course, the success of such methods is commensurate only to success in the ring. But invariably, Irish fighters find that the practical application of Antia’s coaching garners success that they could previously have only dreamed of. They love the happy-go-lucky, piano-playing sometimes-footballer whose dry wit transcends his limited English, but they’re fonder still of the tough taskmaster whose demonstrative advice tends to lead to a piece of metal being draped around their necks.

That’s plainly evident, too, when you ask Billy Walsh if he borrowed a few of Antia’s methods and brought them across to the States.

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. All of us in that group — or anyone who is worth their salt — we learn every day. And I learned a hell of a lot, technically, from Zaur. We set up a system in Ireland which became one of the best in the world which everyone had a part to play in, but a key piece to it, a lot of it, was the technical part of it.”

Fittingly, they remain close — separated these days by the Atlantic but forever melded by a symbiosis which culminated in their both being recognised as two of the best boxing minds on the planet.

“We all grew together throughout that time but the stuff that he was teaching is very, very relevant,” Walsh says. “We spent, I’m just trying to think is it 12 or 13 years [12 and a half], working together, side by side. It just becomes second nature — you don’t even give it a second thought — where you got something from or who you learned it from. But it was just the pair of us being at each other’s side, living together during those periods of time. He was an unbelievable addition to the scene and we became nearly one.”

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