IABA’s failure to keep coach Billy Walsh a serious mistake

Coach’s departure to USA a real blow to the chances of Ireland’s elite boxers in Rio

On September 9th of this year Billy Walsh conducted the perfect interview for a job that at the time he did not want.

He sent Irish boxer Ceire Smyth into a bout at the Feliks Stamm Tournament in Warsaw against the reigning world champion and bronze medal winner at the London Olympics in 2012, American flyweight, Marlen Esparza.

After four two-minute rounds, the Cavan boxer left the ring with her biggest scalp to date after a stunning performance and a split decision in her favour. Largely unnoticed, it was a magical win.

The Americans in the blue corner took notice. On their website they had a job advertised for an elite coach for their women’s boxing program. Walsh was already in their sights.


This week, the USA couldn’t believe their luck. They landed their man, or rather Irish boxing (IABA) lost theirs. After a series of feints and stand-offs by the IABA, Walsh was KO’d.

As far as we know the IABA don’t seem to mind. Walsh will leave for the USA on Thursday to take up a new job less than a year out from the Rio Olympics.

“Leaving the Irish team has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” he said.

There are reasons Real won’t sell players to Barca. Walsh leaving not only creates a vacuum in boxing but with insider knowledge of Ireland, one of the USA’s main rivals, he’s now a threat. Ireland were ranked fourth out of 69 nations at the recent World Championships in Doha.

That he is going is no surprise as the IABA has shown itself to be an incoherent organisation and immune from public and official opprobrium. The culture is that people like Walsh should be grateful not necessarily respected. Respect in this case meant an appropriate contract. Too much.

Mysterious suits

He is leaving because an agreement devised, constructed and endorsed by the Irish Sports Council (ISC) and paid for by them was not acceptable to the mysterious suits.

The ISC represent the state and ergo, Sports Minister Michael Ring, who has publicly supported Walsh. The IABA has disrespected Mr Ring too. “Every effort within his authority” wasn’t enough.

The boxers who are preparing for Rio, and who Walsh helped to get there, are being disrespected. The boxing family, who would like to know why the most successful Olympic coach in the history of Irish sport is leaving but are being told nothing by faceless administrators, they are being disrespected.

There is a view that with Pete Taylor looking after Katie, John Conlan coaching Ireland’s first male world champion, his son Michael, Eddie Bolger with European Champion Joe Ward and the technically brilliant Zaur Antia still in place, there’s no panic. That’s simply more disrespect, again to Walsh.

But the world of the IABA is one of indifference to the vitriol that comes at them from the media, one they largely ignore and then wonder why rugby and GAA get the lion’s share of attention and commercial activity.

When have the IABA ever publicly expressed responsibility for the financial welfare of their boxers, or, any interest in or roll to play in their inclusion, economic needs and welfare after boxing. When have they ever tried to use Walsh, a former employee, to generate income?

There is another view. The world class attention that Pete Taylor (the bridges between the IABA and Pete and Katie have been burnt a long time ago, even before an IABA official publicly insulted Katie at a press conference.) and John Conlan impart to their boxers has nothing to do with Walsh, that he manages ready-made jewels through World and European Championships and Olympic Games.

Much credit

That is missing the point, childishly so. It’s to say Joe Schmidt should get no credit for Paul O’Connell playing well for Ireland because he is coached by Munster’s Anthony Foley.

It’s impossible to find reasons to support a theory that Walsh’s leaving doesn’t fatally hurt Ireland’s Rio chances. The IABA have now a leaderless, rudderless Olympic boxing program with nobody accountable for it.

The Sports Council and IABA will sit down and find someone to take over. The Sports Council will be pragmatic but there is a much-changed nuance to the discussions that will soon take place. Boxing has embarrassed its largest commercial partner and its head, John Treacy, and it has also embarrassed the relevant minister Mr Ring.

Both are seething and will carefully monitor who Walsh’s replacement will be. Worryingly, that name will come from Irish boxing.

The Sports Council won’t engage in direct intervention, not just because of the past – the athletics court case – where they have been badly burned but also because of legitimate accusations of ‘Big Brother’ political interference.

What is disconcerting is that the Sports Council and Minster for Sport cannot influence the IABA even though they are the money chute and the salary providers for the executives who drove Walsh out.

But despite their genuine efforts to keep Walsh in Ireland, they have failed here. The Minister, despite his intervention, has failed here. The IABA has failed the Minister, failed the Sports Council, failed their elite boxers, failed their boxing family and failed the people who tune in to boxing only when medals come tumbling home.

Walsh is gone and a winning mindset with him.

The boxing landscape has critically altered. Not the IABA.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times