Plan that gave us a fighting chance
BOXING:The preparation of Irish boxers has been transformed since 2003 and a close-knit team environment continues to produce outstanding results, writes JOHNNY WATTERSONin London
BOXING HAS cracked no secret code. It has not found an underground method that has been eluding other sports. When the Chinese athletes rocked out of their training camp in the hills in the 1990s and their coach, Ma Jungren, claimed his brand of turtle soup had unlocked the deep mysteries of distance running and put motors in their legs, the world struggled to believe it.
Boxing has no secret elixirs or keys to unlock the door to medal riches. But it does have a plan that has been uncompromising and at times harsh. Yesterday in London we saw the fruits of that, with John Joe Nevin showboating in the final round of an Olympic semi-final against the Cuban world champion.
Boxing has always been a first-past-the-post sport. When Ireland looks at the US and watches their national championships, which decide who goes to the Olympic Games, it is brutally simple. Athletes are picked according to where they come in the race and if they are not in the first three they stay at home.
This year former Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner is watching London 2012 from home. Dan O’Brien, the great American hope and world record holder in the Decathlon, suffered the same fate in 1996.
Closer to home, Joe Ward, the European light heavyweight champion, remains in Moate. One poor tournament in Baku and a bad decision in Turkey removed him from his Olympic dream. There are no off days, no injury issues, no excuses. Boxing has always been like that.
But it is only in recent years the sport has become professionally focused. Gary Keegan, now in the Irish Institute of Sport, and head coach Billy Walsh sat down to put a stout framework on boxing, one that has now come to be an Olympic medal delivery system.
This week it was again shining, just as it did in Beijing, where Ireland collected a silver and two bronze medals. With Katie Taylor’s appeal, boxing has also shifted from worthy and respected to popular and appealing and has probably outstripped athletics in the Irish psyche as the top Irish Olympic sport. Four Olympic medals, including a gold for Taylor, is nothing short of a spectacular return from a team of six athletes.
The discussion and decision to change took place prior to 2003. The question they asked was how to make the sport medal-winning and keep an elite line of athletes moving through.
It was immediately apparent that within boxing there was going to be great resistance to tearing up a traditional method that had served well. It wasn’t easy. It was hearts and minds stuff from Walsh and Keegan, whose job was to convince the sport that the new system would work and to believe in it.
“The programme started in 2003. It took us a few years,” explains Walsh. “Change is very difficult. For people to change you have to make incremental successes early.”
Ireland won no medals in the 2003 World Championships in Bangkok. Two years later in Mianyang, China, that was repeated. In 2007, when the Chicago World Championships returned nothing, there was a mini-crisis. But boxing had faith and held its nerve.
The change was the system. Nutrition, psychology, technical expertise, identification of talent and – critically – the boxers had to conduct their lives in a way that did not compromise the programme.
Beijing silver medallist Kenny Egan was one of the harder cases to convert. What they were asking him to do was to accept sweeping cultural change, one where personal responsibility was at the heart. Money from the Irish Sports Council, based on merit and medals, was the support mechanism.
“Kenny would have fallen down there,” says Walsh. “We threw him out of the gym on a few occasions. He came back and he got to where he is. That now goes for everybody. They all know that. Everyone is treated as an individual as well but there is that team ethos. You cannot break it and if you are not willing to put in the work, the hours, then there is no place for you here no matter how good you are.”
Andy Lee was the first boxer in the system to show promise. The middleweight from Limerick, now fighting professionally in the US, won a bronze medal in the Croatian European Championships in 2004. To have thought of Olympic gold at that stage would have been an outlandish thought. But Lee’s medal was feedback. The coaches took it as a compliment to what they were doing.
“We were winning single medals, medals at multi-nations,” says Walsh. “It started off with bronze. Then we cast the bronze aside and said we wanted to go for gold and silver. So we were going for gold and silver in multi-nations.
“Then we were going for major championships. From 2006 onwards you could see the amount of medals increasing right throughout the system and the belief . . . there was a whole culture change in the squad and in the team.
“Guys would have been on the piss. Guys would have been enjoying themselves, having a good time. There was no full-time coaching. There were no follow-ups of their performance. They weren’t responsible for their performances. Now they are brought back in and they get their performances analysed . . . You need sometimes to lose to learn from it.”
Boxing also benefited from its natural resources. The clubs were strong. The coaching was selfless and enthusiastic. Boxing does have its internal squabbles but at the heart of the sport in Ireland, passionate and educated coaching repeatedly turns out talent.
The weight divisions also help Ireland identify where boxing is strong. The genetic material at the disposal of people such as Walsh has traditionally suited the lighter weight categories.
Ireland does not produce many 6ft 8in basketball players, or swimmers with the large dimensions of Michael Phelps or Alexander Popov. There are not many athletes in the country with the frames or the high twitch muscles of Caribbean sprinters. Often Irish fighters have trouble making weight but the athletes can choose the weight limit that naturally suits their physique. They compete against like opponents.
The last four standing this week were lightweight Taylor, bantamweight Nevin, flyweight Michael Conlan and light flyweight Paddy Barnes – all sparring partners. At 60kg, Taylor was the heaviest of the four, with Barnes having to make a weight limit of 49kg, one reason for his occasionally chippy nature.
Of the 11 boxing medals won at Olympic Games prior to London 2012, only one – light heavyweight Egan – has been above middleweight. Barnes is light flyweight, John Caldwell and Hugh Russell flyweight, Wayne McCullough and Freddie Gilroy bantamweight, Tony Byrne and Jim McCourt lightweight, Michael Carruth and Fred Tiedt welterweight and the late Darren Sutherland middleweight. We are a nation of boxers and jockeys.
Raw material is one thing but the experts brought in have been the best. The shaping process from rough stone to championship gem takes much expertise. Even professionals can destroy the perfect stone if they cut it the wrong way.
“We continue to strive and to improve ourselves,” says Walsh. “Myself, Pete Taylor, Zaur Antia, we’ve continued to educate ourselves in different ways and to have progress. If we stand still, the programme becomes stale. Everybody passes it by because sport evolves. It moves fast every four years and we have to keep improving, with new techniques. One key piece is psychology.
“When I was boxing there was a lady at one stage, but nobody really bought into it. ‘We’re boxers, why do we need psychologists?’ Now it’s a key part of what we do, as well as sports science, strength and conditioning, nutrition, physiology.”
The whole team supported every Irish boxer in action this week at the ExCel Arena. Darren O’Neil and Adam Nolan were first out but they did not go home to lick their wounds. They are not tweeting their encouragement from some faraway beach. They roll up to be seen to be supporting. It’s a two-way thing. Their energy goes out to the boxer and his comes back.
When Nevin outclassed the Cuban Alvarez yesterday, he immediately turned to his boxing team in the gallery. Nolan, O’Neill, Pete Taylor were there. Sonia O’Sullivan was there. It was hard green core in the 10,000 capacity arena, Nevin’s team.
Boxing is an individual and selfish sport like any other. The athletes always get their own house in order first but Walsh, Zaur, manager Des Donnelly and the back-up team have successfully created a close team environment from a disparate group of people.
Earlier this week when Katie Taylor was still fighting, Walsh saw the value of the group. The heavy lifting preparation had been done and the finer details were shaping the week.
“The boys love it. They’re thrilled for her and they’ll be there cheering her on,” he said. “She’s part of the team. They love sparring with her. The three lads who are left fighting for medals are her sparring partners. They’ve all bounced off each other and made each other better.”
British boxing pundit Steve Bunce stood up yesterday in the ExCel before the afternoon session and began a long colourful stream of consciousness lauding the Irish success. He spoke of the gym in the National Stadium and called it Ireland’s “centre of excellence”. Boxing has indeed come far.