Tokyo 2020: Bittersweet for Irish boxing as Kurt Walker falls just short

Billy Walsh oversees Duke Ragan’s win as injured Aidan Walsh is forced to pull out

Every Olympic boxing bout ends in emotional overflow, depending on which arm is raised, this one ending in some bittersweet symphony too.

Kurt Walker lost a split decision to his American opponent Duke Ragan, a featherweight quarter-final which guaranteed him a bronze medal had he won. Overseeing that American victory was Billy Walsh, the former Irish boxing coach who first nurtured Walker in the Olympic arena in the first place.

Days like this were bound in fate once Walsh, the man who oversaw the golden age of Irish boxing during both the Beijing and London Olympics, was headhunted by US boxing, also citing a lack of support from the Irish boxing federation.

Walsh later described his task of getting Ragan in the frame of mind and spirit to beat the Irish boxer as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

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It was late 2012 Walsh first identified the talent of the boxer from Lisburn: “We brought Kurt into the Irish program, for this day, for the chance to win a medal” said Walsh “And today I was part of preventing him achieve that. Kurt has been the stand out in this division at the Olympics, his coaches are the best in the world. They were my colleagues for 12 years. It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

Walsh left the Irish set up in the autumn of 2015, just before the Rio Olympics, Sport Ireland later criticising the Irish boxing federation for letting him go, his former coaching partner Zaur Antia, now head coach of Irish boxing.

There was another subplot to this bout as Ragan had spent much of the last year in the professional ranks, allowed under revised Olympic rules introduced before Rio. Walsh was also the man to coax him back in the amateur ranks just in time for Tokyo.

Bernard Dunne, the man now overseeing Irish boxing, had his own view on that.

“I don’t agree with professionals fighting in the Olympic Games,” said Dunne, “But that’s not my decision to make.

“It was a great fight. It could have gone either way, and I personal thought we performed exceptionally in the second and third round, it was a great fight. I wish him (Ragan well), Billy is there, so we want them to go on to succeed now.”

Indeed it was close beyond near reason: Walker would have won it had one of the five judges awarded him the last round, as four of them did. “I’m devastated but that’s boxing. 3-2, that’s the way it goes,” said Walker. “I’ve done well in this tournament and I’m proud of myself.

“He’s smart, he’s a professional, he knows what to do, he knows how to tidy up. That’s the rules. It’s an amateur game but that’s the rules. I’ve beaten pros before so I can’t complain about being beaten by a pro.”

The day was bittersweet in another way too, as earlier, Aidan Walsh was forced to withdraw from his welterweight semi-final against Britain's Pat McCormack, due to the ankle injury sustained after jumping several feet in the air in delight after his quarter-final win over Merven Clair of Mauritius on Friday, which had guaranteed him a bronze medal already.

Dunne didn’t deny it was awkward moment for Walsh, who wanted desperately to fight, his ankle injury simply too severe to allow it.

“You couldn’t legislate for something like that happening,” Dunne said of the freak injury. “We tried to give Aidan as much opportunity as we could, we literally left it to the last minute this morning to make a decision on it. Aidan wanted as much as he possibly could, to get into the ring but, unfortunately, his body would not let him and we’ve got to make those decisions that protect the athlete.

“He’s performed exceptionally well in this competition. He’s joined an elite club of Olympic medallists and that’s something we’re all proud of. If you look at two years ago when he came into the programme, his springboard now is really limitless. He’s a young man, he has shown he can perform at the highest stage by winning European and now Olympic medals.

“You know he is a young man who had just achieved Olympic success. He will get over it. He is a member of 16 (Irish) boxers who have ever medalled at Olympic Games. That is an incredible achievement. His application since he has been in the programme, his attitude, his ability to listen and perform when asked too has been brilliant. They are things I want to focus on.

“We have an Olympic medal. We still have a little bit to go in the journey, with Kellie (Harrington). And it’s been a great tournament, it really has. A couple of decisions we lost were the toss of a coin. And I think it’s just shown that Irish boxing is still very strong.”

Indeed Harrington is now the last of the seven Irish boxers in Tokyo, and if she wins her lightweight quarter-final is also assured of bronze, looking more capable of gold. Walsh and Walker were the only other two to win bouts, Emmet Brennan, Brendan Irvine, Michaela Walsh and Aoife O'Rourke all losing their opening bouts.

“I think all seven athletes have been exceptional; they have all performed. There is no regrets coming out of this. We are not going back ‘Jesus we could have done this...’ This group have applied themselves in the right way. They have followed the plan and you can listen to them when they speak themselves. It is a good team we have.”

Just a little bittersweet on the day for them all nonetheless.