Billy Walsh foresees Michael Conlan thriving as professional
Boxing coach insists he won’t break his contract in America to return home
Billy Walsh believes that both Shakur Stevenson (red) and Michael Conlan are destined to make it to the top echelons of professional boxing. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Although Billy Walsh’s name has been linked to a vacancy within the Irish Institute of Sport with director Gary Keegan leaving in September after eight years, the current USA boxing coach has two more years to run on his contract with US Boxing.
Walsh is aware, through the media, of being linked to the organisation that helps elite athletes achieve their potential in international events. But he maintains that nobody in Ireland has made formal contact with him about the job.
“Yes, so I see in the papers. First I’ve heard of it,” said Walsh after the Olympic bantamweight final in the Riocentro Arena. “No, I haven’t had any word yet. I’m staying [in the US] for the next few years anyway. I’ve a contract that says I’m staying. My contract is until 2018.”
From his base in Colorado, Walsh will be in a good position to watch the progress of one of his former Olympic medallists, current world champion bantamweight Michael Conlan.
Conlan won’t fight again this year as he considers the professional offers that are currently coming his way. It is possible the Belfast 24-year-old will go to the USA to learn the different skill-set required to make it in the paid ranks.
The irony there is that as a professional fighter, whether it’s in the UK or USA, Conlan may soon get the chance to meet the fighter he should have met in Rio, America’s Shakur Stevenson.
Cut to his head
Had he been given the controversial decision over Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin, Conlan would have faced Stevenson in the Rio semi-final. Nikitin was due to meet the American for a place in the final but withdrew because of a cut to his head that had significantly worsened after his bout with Conlan.
Stevenson, who has just turned 19-years-old, was beaten in a split-decision on Saturday by Cuban Robeisy Ramirez. It was the first time the American had ever lost a fight.
“That’s where his future is, that’s where he wants to go,” said Walsh on his fighter’s move into the professional ranks. “We’ll try and keep him for another while. He’ll only be 23 come the next Games. If he decides to go, he decides to go. It’s for his future. It’s for his family’s future. If there’s an offer out there and we can’t tempt him to stay, so be it.”
Walsh believes that both Stevenson and Conlan are destined to make it to the top echelons of professional boxing and in a few years time has little trouble envisaging both of the bantamweights contesting for a world title shot.
“It’ll be a world title fight down the road,” says Walsh.
“Without a doubt. No doubt. Michael Conlan’s maturity and physicality would probably get him there quicker than Shakur at the moment, and then yeah, it could be a multi-title, big show in Las Vegas somewhere.
“If he was going to be in with Michael [in the Rio semi-final] it was going to be a massive, hard fight.
“But he [Shakur] is one of the best, he’s class. He has some things to work on. Obviously a bit of maturity as well, but the ability, his movement, his timing, his distance. We just have to work on his work-rate, get more flurries of punches, but he has all the tools to be great.”
Whatever the opinion in Ireland is about Walsh, he has had an impact on American Olympic boxing despite being in place for a relatively short time.
The USA won a bronze medal in boxing at the Beijing Games in 2008, their worst performance in Olympic history and no medals in men’s boxing in London. Claressa Shields won a gold in the women’s middleweight division and flyweight Marlen Esparza took a bronze in London.
In Rio the US have a gold, silver and bronze, with Shields successfully defending her title yesterday evening.
“Yeah,” he says. “They had no [male] medal at the last Games, one bronze in 2008, so we’ve got three medals here – two male medals – which is an improvement.
“I suppose, in many ways, there’s a lot more talent where I went to. We’ve a smaller group of talented guys [in Ireland], where you have a bigger pool where I’ve gone to.”
What Walsh brings to the team is his broader knowledge base and his familiarity with Kazak, Russian, Chinese and Uzbeki fighters, which is a counter point to the insular view of the American boxers, who do not always look beyond the USA.
Stevenson was so distraught when he lost to the Cuban Ramirez that he was unable to conduct a press interview afterwards. As ever Walsh confidently stepped up.
“The belief in the USA ... sometimes it baffles me because some of them haven’t had any internationals and they think that once they become champion of America, nobody exists outside of America.
“Technically, we’ve got a lot of work to do to improve to fight in this style of boxing. It’s different from professional boxing, Olympic style boxing is different. That’s the big difference.
“In Ireland we have a good group of amateur boxers that are amateur boxers and who fight like amateur boxers.
“In America we’ve got to turn that around and put a system that teaches these guys how to fight like amateurs until they eventually go pro.”
For now, Walsh remains in America. He’s not for turning. After the Irish performance Rio that seems the safer place to be.