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Walsh only missed by Irish boxing once he was gone

By Vincent Hogan

Published 13/08/2016

American dream: Billy Walsh at the Rio Olympics in his role as Team USA boxing coach
American dream: Billy Walsh at the Rio Olympics in his role as Team USA boxing coach

One of the last, spiteful gestures of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association as they lost Billy Walsh to America last October was a needless refusal to allow him to keep his mobile phone number.

It captured the tenor of what had been a wretchedly sour attitude towards the Wexford man during negotiations that he came to interpret eventually as no more than a dilatory process designed to exasperate him. Denying Walsh's request to keep his number became the final act of hostility.

It made a mockery of the subsequent IABA spin to an Oireachtas hearing, depicting them as a body enduring only pain at losing a "friend" to foreign shores.

Walsh never wanted to leave Ireland, nor did he ever seek to get rich on the back of the country's amateur boxers. It is important to make those points again now as a futile, belated clamour grows to question how on earth he was let go.

Of all the High Performance directors in Irish sport, Walsh was the worst paid up to the time of his departure. In financial terms, that was the only thing he sought to address. He wanted parity with his peers.

The eventual trigger for his departure had nothing to do with finance, as the IABA so shamefully implied.

It was to do with a refusal on their behalf to grant him proper autonomy to do his job.

In Rio these last few days, Walsh has been in regular contact with Zaur Antia and will have taken little satisfaction from the spectacle of Irish optimism unravelling so fiercely in Riocentro Pavilion Six.

Stephen Donnelly's split-decision victory on Thursday certainly became a welcome respite for Antia after the disastrous showings of medal prospects Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward, and the expulsion of Michael O'Reilly for a failed drug test.

But, as interim head coach of the team, Antia has looked increasingly worn by events of the past week, beginning with that media circus at the boxing draw triggered by news of O'Reilly's failed test. News that was leaked to a journalist by somebody in authority at home.

There are serious questions still to be answered about the O'Reilly fiasco, not least how much if any of it had been signposted to his coach, the IABA president Pat Ryan.

In the statement released on the boxer's behalf last Tuesday, it was said that he disclosed his consumption of the critical supplement to testers, which leaves more questions than answers.

Meanwhile the Georgian coach is a big talent whose abilities are of interest to many other nations - rumour this week is that Canada may have made an offer - but as English is not his first language his skill-set is clearly more suited to the business inside a ring rather than any complicated web of stresses and emotions outside it.

The standard of coaching afforded to Ireland's boxers by Antia, Eddie Bolger and John Conlan is not in question here but the absence of definitive leadership within the camp seems to be.

The Barnes and Ward defeats were, remarkably, the first examples of Irish boxers falling at the first Olympic hurdle since Sydney 2000.

And it was remarkable to hear Belfast fighter Barnes talk in the immediate aftermath of defeat to a 20-year-old Spaniard - who subsequently bowed out in the next round - of not actually making the 49kg light-fly weight since 2014.

Under WSB rules, those struggling with their weight are allowed the grace of a half kilogram over. The franchise gets a fine, but the boxer is allowed to fight. In other words, Barnes secured Olympic qualification at 49kg without actually making that mark on the scales for more than a year.

His admission that he weighed 58kg just seven weeks before these Games was astonishing. Put in the simplest terms, imagine having to lose a sixth of your body weight in that time-frame? Worse, imagine having to then perform at the highest level immediately?

For some time now, Barnes' weight issues have been an issue for the High Performance nutritionist yet, the situation drifted. Given how utterly brutal he had to be on himself in the build-up to Monday's fight, it is hard to see how he ever hoped to be a serious medal contender here.

It can be argued that, before his departure, Walsh facilitated Barnes' stubborn insistence on fighting at an unsustainable weight, but it is inconceivable that he would have allowed the two-time Olympic medallist to gamble right to the wire.

The tactical incoherence of Ward's performance on Wednesday will have confounded those who understand the scale of his talent.

But Joe is clearly at a crossroads in his career now. He is just 22, tempted by the professional route, but his record in APB has been poor and it is a moot point if he will ever fulfil the potential that seemed so luminous in his late teens.

Indeed, of the eight Irish boxers in Rio, as many as six may be lost to High Performance after these Games, meaning a potential dearth of senior talent to set standards for the next Olympic cycle.

As of yesterday, the US team Walsh is leading in Rio had won six of seven fights and already secured their first medal.

In London four years ago, the Americans drew their first blank in an Olympic ring, but there is a bullishness about them here that prompted the Los Angeles Times to commission a feature this week on the man considered responsible for that change.

That man is Irish. And he won't be coming home any time soon.

Belfast Telegraph

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