Billy Walsh award sums up year where Irish amateur boxing lost
Coach of year is fitting end to year that saw Ireland’s elite boxers flee to pro ranks
USA boxing coach salutes Claressa Shields during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Four days after Irish Boxing (IABA) announced its strategic plan, where it acknowledged (or at least the independent review did) that there was a deficit of robust corporate governance and communications in the organisation, Billy Walsh was looking over his shoulder at a large screen in Switzerland.
Walsh commented that the picture of him on the screen was incorrect. For most in the room watching as he received the International Boxing Federations (AIBA) Coach of the Year award, his comment seemed unremarkable in an otherwise emotional acceptance speech.
Walsh said as he glanced around: “Help me out here . . . IRL . . . it should be USA actually, but it’s a great system I come from, Ireland. ”
The photograph of him was an old one with IRL beneath but he was winning the award as coach of the USA. Walsh referred to his “New family, USA boxing”, adding that “USA boxing are working hard to put USA boxing at the top of the AIBA table to dine with the best teams in the world”.
It was the day after Michael Conlan was fined €9,300 by the AIBA for calling the organisation that was honouring Walsh “corrupt from bottom to top”, over a week after Katie Taylor won her second professional fight, several weeks after Paddy Barnes won his first professional fight and months before Conlan steps out for his first professional venture in New York.
But as the year moves towards a close, Walsh’s award has resonance. It is welcome that Irish boxing now claims to be ‘cleaning house’. But then, that is a question of faith and perhaps we should have some.
Just over a year ago in a blazing four-hour meeting of thunder and fire in front of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, the prevailing IABA culture was laid bare as one of procrastination, petty envy and internal fighting.
The IABA said the Walsh issue was about money. John Treacy, CEO of Irish Sport, said that it was about everything but money.
“I would say our confidence [in IABA] is shaken,” said Treacy. “I want to be clear that finance wasn’t an issue here.”
It was through those cracks the Irish career of Walsh fell. Before he hit the ground, the USA caught him, brought him to Colorado and put him in charge of their women’s programme.
That evolved into sorting out their entire amateur boxing regime. At the Olympic Games in London 2012, for the first time in US Olympic boxing history no American male from a team of nine reached the podium, with two women, Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza, winning inaugural medals for the women’s team.
Prior to that, USA boxing had one of the most decorated programmes in US Olympic history with 111 medals. As soon as Walsh arrived in Colorado he did what he had been doing in Ireland. He integrated the personal coaches of the top prospects into the national programme and he man-managed boxers as individuals.
Troubled golden girl
It was Walsh who convinced John Joe Nevin to travel to London when he didn’t want to go. Shields, the troubled golden girl of the US team, almost returned to her home town of Flint after a frank exchange with Walsh. But she stayed and won her second gold medal in Rio.
The USA went from zero medals in the men in 2012 to two in Rio and from two women’s medals in London to one in Rio. All from an eight- or nine-month input from Walsh. His throwaway comment afterwards was telling.
“This is a project for Tokyo 2020, really,” he said.
The USA is seen to be emerging from the slumbering giant it had become and they believe in Walsh’s ambitions for Tokyo.
He has been gracious about grassroots Irish boxing but Walsh was the man driven out of the sport and country. Being recognised in Switzerland as the best in the business is a fitting climax as well as a final counterpoint to the saga.
The independent review has shown the IABA organisation to be lacking in critical areas. The elite boxers that suffered have fled to the pro ranks, the individual who was most hurt has been told he is now the best in the world. No wonder Walsh was emotional.