Zauri Antia: The Georgian ‘mastermind’ behind Ireland’s Olympic success in boxing

Zauri Antia moved to Ireland from Georgia 20 years ago to train Irish boxers - he says this country has ‘opened doors’ for him

The month of August 2008 will forever remain etched in Zauri Antia’s mind. The Georgian boxing coach, who had been training Irish boxers since 2003, was living his dream of travelling to the Beijing Olympics with Team Ireland.

The boxers, who went on to win three medals at the games, had just arrived in China after a pre-Olympics training camp in the Russian city of Vladivostok.

Meanwhile, nearly 6,000km away, Antia’s wife and children flew from Dublin to Georgia to visit the family’s hometown of Poti on the shores of the Black Sea.

On August 8th, the day of the Olympics opening ceremony, Antia awoke to the news that war had broken out between his home country and Russia over Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region. The conflict, which became known as the five-day war, would go on to kill hundreds of people and displace tens of thousands from their homes.


When he discovered Russia forces had occupied Poti, Antia panicked.

“I could not find out where my family were for three to four days. There was no phone signal, what could I do?” Antia says.

Determined not to distract his athletes from the competition, Antia kept quiet about his personal crisis and continued to lead training sessions in the days that followed. Behind the scenes he stopped sleeping and spent each night calling every person he knew in Georgia, trying to track down his wife and children.

“The boxing training saved me; with no training I’d go crazy,” Antia recalls.

“It gave me a focus and stopped me from feeling what I might feel. Nobody knew about what was going on in my personal life. It was a very difficult time.”

Eventually, he discovered his family were hiding in his wife’s sister’s home in the Georgian mountains and, with the help of the Irish government, he got them back home to Bray.

“They got them home so quickly. How can you forget this kindness? I often say, this is why I love Ireland so much, because they know respect,” he says.

Antia’s relationship with Ireland dates back to 2003 when a friend recommended he apply for a job with the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA). He was already a seasoned boxer and coach, having fought and trained for years in his home country.

“I was six-time Georgian champion, I was a bronze medallist at the Soviet Union level, I was talented,” Antia says with pride.

In the 1980s and 1990s, boxing contests and training camps brought Antia across the former Soviet Union.

“Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, I went everywhere – plus Moscow of course,” he says.

“Russia was a very strong boxing country. I loved travelling to different countries with different people, seeing different cultures. You get that curiosity when you love your sport.”

Antia admits that working in Georgia in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union was often difficult.

“There were times with no light, no heating, no water but I kept working,” he says.

Antia was head coach of the Georgian youth national team when he was introduced to an Irish boxing coach called Daniel O’Connell in the early 2000s.

“He met me at the club in Georgia, saw my work and that’s how everything started. He said there was a job interview for a new high performance coach in Ireland. I’d had big success in Georgia but I wanted to continue to challenge myself,” Antia says.

Antia, who spoke no English, travelled to Dublin in February 2003 to interview for the job. While he was not offered the position – the job went to Billy Walsh who went on to become Irish boxing’s head coach – Antia was offered the role of head technical and tactical coach. One month later, he moved to Ireland, leaving his wife and three children behind in Georgia.

“My wife supported me, she told me to go but leaving my family was not easy. When you’re going somewhere for your favourite job, it’s good for your career. But I travelled home a lot; every six months I’d visit,” he says.

After two years, Walsh asked Antia to stay permanently. He was keen to accept but missed his family and needed them by his side. The boxing association responded quickly and within a few months, they had secured visas for his wife and children to join him in Bray.

“We had a great relationship with Katie Taylor’s family and they showed me Bray. It’s on the coast; Poti is on the coast too. Here we have the Irish Sea; there it was the Black Sea. Bray is a fantastic place,” he says.

Antia continued trying to improve his English. He taught boxing through actions.

Following the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Antia and his colleagues started preparing athletes, including Taylor, for the 2012 London games.

“We had great talents and everybody worked very hard. We had the right competitions, the right timing, the right lifestyles. Everything was in harmony,” Antia recalls. Irish boxers won four medals, including Taylor’s gold.

“The success was fantastic,” says Antia with a smile.

Then, things got more challenging. In 2015, Walsh stepped down from the IABA and moved to the United States, and just four months later, a dark shadow settled over Irish boxing following the shootings at the Regency Hotel boxing weigh-in in February 2016, escalating the Kinahan-Hutch gangland feud.

Another six months later, at the controversial 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil, Ireland failed to bring one boxing medal home. While Antia was named head coach following Walsh’s departure, he remembers that year as “turbulent”.

“You know in the movies, when people say it’s not about how hard you hit, but how hard you get hit but then keep moving forward? Well, we kept moving forward. Difficult things happen and you just have to simplify, intensify and work,” Antia says.

“Ireland can be the number one boxing country in the world when the system works well and everyone unites.”

Now an Irish citizen, Antia was one of a small number of Georgians living in this country until recently. Numbers seeking asylum in Ireland have risen significantly, increasing from 338 asylum applications from Georgian nationals in 2021 to 2,710 last year. Antia is conscious how lucky he was to come here with a work visa rather than fleeing his country.

“I came here, not because I had no money, but as a coach to develop and improve boxing. I was also able to bring my family to give them more freedom. Ireland opened doors for me,” Antia says.

“When you have to leave and have no choice, it’s very different. It’s a sad thing when people like doctors must leave their country and desert their profession because of poverty. I hope one day everyone can go back but they should also be grateful for what this country does for them.”

Antia was recently honoured with the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s president’s award and was described at the ceremony as the “mastermind behind Team Ireland’s success in boxing”.

Asked whether he believes Irish boxing can recover after years of being associated with criminal gangland activity, Antia says the sport is becoming stronger and more respected.

“I promise you: in six years’ time, Ireland will be number one for boxing in the world,” he says. “And I think that will unite everybody.”

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