Behind the scenes look at boxing's big success story
Billy Dodd visits the High Performance Unit in Dublin
Published 19/05/2015 | 00:00
Anybody with an interest in sport will be well aware of the tremendous success of Irish boxers on the international stage over the past decade.
The reason for the success has been attributed to the establishment of the High Performance Unit at the I.A.B.A. headquarters in South Circular Road in Dublin, the home of amateur boxing in Ireland.
But what is the High Performance Unit, what makes it special and how does it continue to roll out champions at the highest level on the world and European stage? With my inside contacts I went along to try to shed some light on this unique sporting enclave.
The idea of the High Performance Unit was developed by a forward-thinking retired boxer from Ballybough in Dublin called Gary Keegan, a man who had a unique vision and passion for the sport. He also had the intelligence and the drive to convince the powers that be within amateur boxing and the Irish Sports Council to back him in his proposals.
He always felt that Irish boxers had the ability and skill, but that lifestyles, preparation and attitude dictated that we would never consistently produce champions on the world stage.
Gary had the administration and organisational skills, but he knew that one of his most important appointments would be his head coach to lead the programme.
He knew he needed a coach who was familiar with the environment and culture of the sport in this country. One of the first calls he made was to our own Billy Walsh, a former seven times Irish champion who had represented Ireland 47 times at all major boxing tournaments including the Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
At the time Billy was a self-employed milk agent and was coaching part-time with his club, St. Ibar's/St. Joseph's. I remember him telling me at the time he would have walked to Dublin to do the job and that this offer was a dream come true.
'Imagine,' he said, 'they are going to pay me to coach people, and I'll be the Willie Wonka of boxing'.
The dream began in 2003 and a dormitory was set up above the gym beside the stadium to house the boxers and coaches during weekly squad sessions. I remember seeing the facilities for the first time that year and to say I wasn't impressed was an understatement.
The changing rooms and showering facilities were pretty basic, and the sleeping accommodation reminded me of a dormitory in a school that your wicked stepmother would banish you to, like something out of a Dickens novel except with a television!
However, boxers are a resilient bunch of athletes who are not used to the pampering enjoyed by other sports stars, and they immediately bought in to the set-up. The conditions also served as a test of character to the potential champions.
The next important appointment was the acquisition of the Georgian Zauri Antia to work as Head Tactical and Technical Coach. Zauri has a similar C.V. to Billy as an amateur boxer, but crucially had already coached Olympic medallists. The nucleus of the team was in place as they set out in the pursuit of excellence.
Major changes were introduced to the elite amateur boxers in Ireland. Reigning champions and their closest rivals were invited to be part of the programme. Bear in mind these were all unpaid athletes who chose to move to Dublin to be part of something new. Their living expenses were covered but that was the extent of their remuneration. Kenneth Egan, Andy Lee and Paul McCloskey were among the first to commit.
In essence what Keegan and his team sought to achieve was to copy the methods of the dominant nations, mainly Eastern European, and then to improve on and out-perform them.
Over a period of time boxers were introduced to new ideas and ideals that had previously been alien to their way of behaving, preparing or thinking. Standards were set and minimum expectations included some of the following: full-time training which is bench-marked against the world's best; removing all excuses and thinking world class; always being professional inside and outside of the gym; continuous analysis of performance in training and in competition.
Success was not immediate and there were a lot more setbacks than successes in the first few years. As Billy Walsh often says, it took at least five years to become an overnight success.
The unit has had its detractors both within and outside the I.A.B.A., but subsequent results have shown the system to be a conveyor belt of world class performers.
Visiting the boxing gym at the National Stadium now is a different experience to my first visit in 2003. The building is still old and in need of major repair but inside the equipment is modern. Three full-sized rings dominate the floor and there is an atmosphere of professionalism within the entire group.
The intensity of their training sessions has to be seen to be believed. Every minute of every session is tailored to suit individual needs and help develop world class levels of skill and fitness. Sessions are divided into strength and conditioning, technical/tactical and general fitness levels.
The most striking aspect when you enter this cauldron of activity are the quotations that adorn the gym walls. The spaces for these quotations are reserved only for boxers who achieve a medal at European, World or Olympic Games.
This right has become a badge of honour within the boxing squad and is seen as a major achievement to have your quote displayed. An indication of the importance was made clear to Billy in the 2008 European Games in Liverpool.
When Ross Hickey won his bronze medal he walked over to the corner and the first thing he said to Billy and Zauri was 'does this mean I get a quote on the wall?' It's just a small psychological tool that is used to motivate these finely-tuned athletes.
The boxers now stay in a local hotel, a right they have surely earned after a few years of fairly archaic accommodation. The support network is made up of professions which include coaches, medical, physiotherapy, physiology, nutrition, strength and conditioning, athlete education and psychology. Boxers receive advice on lifestyles, how to deal with outside pressures, using social media and many other personal support issues.
This year Wexford has a large representation within the high performance unit. Billy Walsh now leads the programme since Gary Keegan moved to the Institute of Sport as a director in 2008. He is now in charge for longer than his mentor was and has overseen the constant improvement on the world stage.
His job description in a nutshell is that he is now responsible for everything, a high-pressure occupation. I can vouch for the fact that it is a seven days a week job and that his mobile phone supplier will shortly be suing him for overuse of their network.
Eddie Bolger from Wexford C.B.S. B.C. has recently been appointed as a full-time High Performance coach, another man now living his dream. It may seem like glamorous work to some but since last November they have clocked up almost 100,000 air miles between them chasing Olympic qualification for some of the squad.
A sample of the countries they have visited includes Kazakhstan, Venezuela, U.S.A., Russia, Mexico, Azerbaijan and Puerto Rico. None of the trips include any sight-seeing or sunbathing as it's a continuous cycle of travel, rest, train, rest, fight and then travel home.
In between the trips the rest of the squad are catered for in intensive training camps. Without stating the obvious, both of them are married to saints who are officially classed as boxing widows.
Making up the rest of the Wexford contingent are boxers Dean Walsh and Adam Nolan, two men who are about to embark on the Olympic qualifying trail. Both are in full-time training during the week in Dublin and train together in Wexford at weekends.
The H.P. squad is made up of full-time paid athletes and those who are on no funding. Funding is only available to boxers that win medals at specific world class ranking events. Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan and Joe Ward are at the top end of the scale on maximum funding and other lucrative endorsements, while the two Wexford lads are at the other end of the scale receiving no financial incentive.
They have to juggle their careers to achieve their dream, Adam as a Garda and Dean as a part-time barman. Despite the financial inequalities within the squad, there is no animosity or jealousy between them. Those without funding know the effort it has taken for the others to get to their level, so they are nothing but supportive of each other.
The camaraderie and team ethic amongst the group is really evident to any visitor. This may be an individual sport but they understand that teamwork has got them to their current position amongst the world's elite. Some of the boxers may be more famous and successful but inside the gym walls all are equal.
Attention to detail and a constant mission to improve are two of the main ingredients of the success of the High Performance set-up. They have improved their medal tally at every major tournament they have taken part in since 2008. On their immediate return from training camps or tournaments, a full video and performance analysis is carried out on each boxer.
Behaviour patterns leading up to a fight are monitored to discover which habits and rituals lead to the best performance for each individual athlete. This includes when to eat, when to rest, how to prepare and even covers individual superstitions. No stone is left unturned.
When the team returned from the most successful games ever for boxing, London 2012, they didn't sit back to celebrate and bask in the glory. Within six weeks the support staff and boxers met a number of times to debrief and set their goals for the next Olympic four-year cycle. High standards and high expectations were set.
To date those goals are on the way to being achieved. Despite the defection of world class boxers John Joe Nevin and Jason Quigley to the professional ranks, European and World medals have been achieved by both new and veteran heroes.
Barnes and Conlan recently qualified for Rio through the W.S.B. route and the team are confident that Joe Ward and David Oliver Joyce will follow suit in the next six weeks through the A.P.B. tournament.
Katie Taylor will surely qualify and shortly the remainder of the squad will begin their quest to qualify through the traditional route of the European and World championships. It's all work, rest and no play.
Going forward the High Performance Unit will eventually move to a new home at the Institute of Sport in Blanchardstown. The training and accommodation complex will be purpose-built to suit the needs of the unit to help continue the production of champions.
When Gary Keegan had his vision many years ago, I wonder did he really believe that Irish boxers could be so successful on the world stage over a sustained period of time? His foresight and imagination created a legacy of success for Irish sport that is the envy of every other sporting association in the country.
Thankfully it is set to continue with the help of an organised, professional and hard-working team, densely populated and led by Wexford men.