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Local heroes: Ireland’s Aidan Walsh (red) in action with Merven Clair (blue) of Mauritius. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

Local heroes: Ireland’s Aidan Walsh (red) in action with Merven Clair (blue) of Mauritius. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

©INPHO/James Crombie

Lisburn’s Kurt Walker. Credit: Getty Images

Lisburn’s Kurt Walker. Credit: Getty Images

Getty Images

USA coach Billy Walsh. Credit: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

USA coach Billy Walsh. Credit: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

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Local heroes: Ireland’s Aidan Walsh (red) in action with Merven Clair (blue) of Mauritius. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

Aidan Walsh experienced the best of times and the worst of times at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo yesterday.

Within an hour of him being confirmed as Ireland’s 17th Olympic medallist in boxing he was being wheeled from the stadium by his sister Michaela after suffering what has been officially described as a slight ankle sprain.

Replying to queries about his condition a spokesperson for the Olympic Federation of Ireland said he would be fit to fight in the Olympic semi-final tomorrow.

It is believed that Walsh sustained the injury when landing awkwardly after he leaped into the air to celebrate his quarter final victory over Mervin Clair from Mauritius.

Understandably Walsh was close to feeling overwhelmed at joining his Belfast friends and heroes, Hugh Russell, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes as an Olympic bronze medallist. After all, he was on the point of quitting the ring just three years ago.

“I was ready to pack in boxing three years ago, seriously I was. My family, girlfriend and coaches, supported me, since I’ve moved down to Dublin (to train) they have supported me massively.

“It’s just been amazing since then, an incredible journey. I won the Ulster elites, I won the Ireland elites, qualified for the Olympics and now I’m an Olympic medallist three years on.”

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Walsh revealed that due to what he described as a lot of stuff going on in his personal life at the time, he contemplated quitting. But with the support of family and his club coach Paul Johnson he stayed involved.

Walsh is familiar with his semi-final opponent Pat McCormack, the number one seed and 2019 World silver medallist. He is a classy performer who will be used to Walsh’s counter attacking style. The pair clashed in the 2018 Commonwealth welterweight final in Brisbane which the British fighter won.

“I just have to reset myself and go again. I just live moment to moment. I’m not worried about the next day,” he said.

Unquestionably he will be underdog going into tomorrow’s night and his fate could depend on whether his ankle stands up. His fight strategy depends on his lightening fast footwork. But McCormack cannot afford to take him for granted.

Meanwhile, there will be no old pals act when Lisburn’s Kurt Walker renews acquaintances with his old mentor, Billy Walsh.

Walsh recognised that Kurt Walker was a special talent when he was still at school in Lisburn.

He was only 17 when Walsh, then the Head of IABA’s High performance programme invited him to come to Dublin to train with the Irish squad then preparing for the London Olympics in 2012.Walker demonstrated his potential when winning a bronze medal at the World Youth championship that year.

Initially he came to Dublin one day a week to spar against Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and went to school the other four. But before long he had ditched school and he has been a full-time amateur fighter ever since.

Now, in an ironic twist of fate Billy Walsh, currently the Head of USA Boxing, is plotting Walker’s downfall in tomorrow’s featherweight quarter-final in Tokyo. From the moment the Wexford native left the IABA six months ahead of the Rio Games in 2016 it was inevitable that this moment would arrive – Ireland v the USA at the Olympics.

It was avoided in Rio primarily because the Irish team suffered a meltdown. But tomorrow in the Kokugikan Arena the tactical battle between Walsh and Zaur Anita, who learned English after listening and talking to Walsh after he arrived from Georgia in 2004, will be as interesting as what happens inside the ring.

Walker is coming off the back of a sensational performance in the last 16 when he knocked out the World champion, number one seed and gold medal favourite Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov on a majority 4-1 decision.

The task facing the Irish coaching staff is to bring Walker back to ground level again and prepare him for a different kind of challenge on Sunday.

Walker’s US opponent Duke Ragan is something of an accidental Olympian. Eighteen months he opted out of the US amateur programme and turned professional. But through a series of incidents related to Covid-19 he finds himself in Tokyo.

The Americans Olympic qualifying tournament which was due to be staged in Buenos Aires last spring was cancelled due to Covid-19. Instead, all the Olympic fighters from the continent were chosen from a ranking system.

Based on is record before turning professional Ragan was eligible; the 23-year Ohio native re-joined the programme and is now nine minutes away from a podium finish.

Even though Walker and Ragan have never clashed competitively they are familiar with each other having trained and sparred together art a pre-Olympics training camp in Myasaki.

“It will be a great fight” predicted Walsh.

“We’ve got two of the best fighters in the world right now and they’ve made that point here. It’s really going to be exciting.

I’ve known Kurt since he was a kid. He’s an exceptional talent and we’re really looking forward to the challenge. He’s beaten the number one seed and for me and plenty of other people that puts him in the number one position now.

“So it will be a tough battle for us but we’re really looking forward to it and at the end of it we hope that the best man wins and we’ll shake hands and still be friends.”

Walsh was delighted to welcome Ragan back to the US camp after his 18 month career in the professional ranks during which he won four low-key fights.

He has an orthodox stance which ought to suit Walker who does his best work when countering from the back foot.

“Kurt boxes in the classical style, Duke has more of that American style, close distance and all that, so it’s going to be interesting tactics between myself and Zaur. We know each other so well and I’m really looking forward to it.

“There’ll be a bit of pressure and the stakes are higher, I suppose because it is a medal fight.

They’ve beaten people they shouldn’t have beaten on the way here. They both have two wins under their belt and beaten guys who were medallists in their own continent,” said Walsh.

This is his sixth Olympics having made his debut as a boxer at the 1988 Games in Seoul. He has attended five others in his capacity as team coach, three with Ireland in Athens (2004), Bei¬jing (2008) and London (2012) and with the US (2016) the now the Tokyo Games.

“This is my sixth Olympic Games but obviously they’re different from any final I’ve ever been to, and the years leading into it have been extremely tough for everybody.

“It has made the team more resilient. I always had a belief that this was going to happen, even when there was a doubt that it was, we had to be ready.

“There could be no excuses because of Covid-19. When we get in that ring, the whole world is looking at you. So, we could have no excuses. we were pre¬pared. We were ready.

“The whole team has been ready because even when they didn’t want to be ready, we made sure they were because we knew the Olympics was going to happen at some stage.”

Walsh was last at home in Wexford at Christmas and he looking forward to returning after the Games and having a few pints with his home town mates. But tomorrow he has to take care of business which means helping Duke Ragan win an Olympic medal at the expense of Kurt Walker.


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