Tuesday 17 September 2019

Billy Walsh interview: leading the American revolution

MAN WITH A PLAN: Billy Walsh arriving in Rio last week.
MAN WITH A PLAN: Billy Walsh arriving in Rio last week.

David Looby

TWENTY EIGHT years after Billy Walsh fought at the Seoul Olympics, he is the man in the corner for the American boxing team in Rio de Janeiro this week.

Following a whirlwind year in which the Wolfe Tone Villas man departed the Irish set-up having been left frustrated by the unwillingness of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) to fund his work has never been busier, he has become the head coach for America's up and coming male and female boxers.

Speaking to this newspaper from a balmy Rio de Janeiro on Friday ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Walsh was in buoyant form, eager for the action to begin.

Having attended the draw where he inadvertently raised his hand when they called out the Irish team's name, Walsh has been getting his eight fighters (six male and two female) battle ready for the bouts ahead.

He said the Rio Olympics has had more bad press and problems than he has encountered previously, but it remains a massive event.

A motivational speaker by nature, he has been encouraging his fighters to appreciate the competition's importance.

'It's the greatest show on earth. You still get a buzz walking around the Olympic Arena. The best in the world are here. All of the boxers in America think the Floyd Mayweather Mani Pacquiao fight was the biggest ever but 3.6 billion people tuned into the London Olympics, more than half the world's population. This is bigger than anything they will have if they fight professionally, even if you are world champion.'

Recalling his own brush with boxing immortality at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Walsh said: 'It's 28 years ago next month and it feels it! I've a lot of miles under the belt since. It was the greatest time of my life to be at those games. It was fantastic. I was the first from Wexford to do it and thankfully another Wexford man represented the country in 2012 in Adam Nolan.'

Walsh was hired as head coach of women's boxing in America with a view to taking over as head coach of the men's team for the Tokyo Olympics. For the Rio Olympics he has been involved in training both teams.

'I'm really looking after both whch was always going to be the case. The reason why I was given the women's coach role was because the Olympic Council in America were only fundnig the women's programme at the time.'

His road to Rio was a strange and tortuous one. He describes sleepless nights over his decision to leave the project he had worked so hard on, namely to make Irish boxing number one in the world.

'Some of the Americans came to Dublin to meet me. They took me to a restaurant and offered me the women's coach job. At the time I was the head of the High Performance Unit and my vision was to help Ireland get from fifth best in the world at London to best in the world at Rio. I came through a review and we had had our best ever year.'

Walsh travelled to Colorado Springs in Christmas 2014 and was given a tour of the facilities there. He met with the CEO who asked him what it would take to keep him in America.

On his way to the airport he was emailed a contract, with an astronomical wage attached.

'I hoped more than believed we could work a deal out (with the IABA). In February 2015 when I walked into the office to talk of the chairman and the CEO and they started talking about an amicable media release I knew it was the beginning of the end. I wasn't looking for anything astronomical or anything. I just wanted to be appreciated.

'I knew other high performance sporting directors who had no success who were getting paid far more than I was and they were going to break up the programme I developed.

'I went to Memphis in October to the American trials, came home for a few weeks and went back to Colorado and I've been there since.

'The transition has been massive. I left my homeland. I left all of my family behind as well. You're working in a different culture and because of the lack of success the American boxing team has had in the past three Olympics, securing just one bronze medal in the mens.'

Never one to forget where he came from, Walsh has a Wexford jersey in his locker at Colorado Springs. The purple and gold jersey will soon adorn the wall of a bar owned by an Irish publican in the city.

One of Walsh's greatest difficulties initially was being understood.

'Even though you may think you can speak English, you find they don't understand a word that you are saying. You have to slow it down and repeat yourself hundreds of times. I don't think I have a Wexford accent, but maybe I do! But it's all fun and we slag each other off. I call the girls the lads.

'It's been a massive challenge and it's also been very enjoyable. I only had a few months to get these guys ready for the games. It's not perfect by any means yet, but it's a different team today than what it was when I started: a different mentality. In America if you become US champion they think that's it.'

Walsh found that American boxers were very far behind their European counterparts in many ways, including technically.

'The whole system here was really based on professionals. A lot of coaches see fighters as their meal ticket to get them out of where they come from.'

Walsh has managed to convince the USA Boxing Association to provide more funding for boxers and for the sport at amateur level. 'Boxers need to be funded so they can have a life and become Olympic style athletes. It won't happen overnight. The oldest guy on the men's team is 20 and when you consider that the average age of an Olympic medallist is 26, most of them have a lot of experience to go. In America there is an expectation that they'll be number one. The country always throws up the talent at a young age so these kids are talented but they don't have the experience or the technical expertise.'

He said he would be delighted if the two American women fighters won gold at the Rio Olympics and if one of the six men won a medal, adding that his main role will be major success for American boxing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

His initially encounters with returning gold medal Olympic champion Claressa Shields did not give him cause for optimism.

Walsh said she has achieved amazing things and initially she was slow to take advice from somebody she had never heard of. He often jokes with her that he is related to a Shiel, saying they could be related.

He said coaching women after decades of coaching men was a big change.

'It was a big change, but boxing is boxing. The psychology is a little bit different. Sometimes it's a little bit tricky to figure them out. The biggest challenge for me was that I was coming from outside and telling them what to do. I wasn't known or respected (by them) so initially I was at loggerheads with all these kids. Claressa was like "I've won gold medal, what are you going to teach me?" But they began to see then that I could teach them to be better and could add to their armoury and not take away from it.'

Walsh told the Irish High Performance coach Finbar Kirwan many years ago that he would only ever work in one other country and that was America.

'I always felt it was the sleeping giant of amateur boxing. When I got over there I found things were like what we had in the Irish set-up pre 2003.

'The difference in America is the vastness of the country which means athletes are flying four or more hours to training so you have to keep them there longer, but give them more time at home. You also have to reward them: they need to get paid.'

Having arrived in Rio de Janeiro on July 20, Walsh has been enjoying training his teams.

He says he has no bad feelings towards the IABA, adding that he wishes the Irish team every success.

'I arrived in Colorado Springs and it was 25 degrees like it is here today and I was looking out the window at this big, beautiful blue sky and at a mountain top in the Rockies, Pikes Peak, with snow on top, and I thought: I should write the IABA a letter of thanks for what they did for me. I am a product of the IABA. I started boxing as a 7-year-old kid at the CBS in Wexford and ever since my love for the sport has grown. I went on to be reasonably successful and to be a coach and manager of the Irish team so it has been the greatest sport and thing to ever happen to me.

'I'm a fitter who went on to be a milkman and here I am sitting in Rio and the only problem I have is that I can't get a good cup of tea.'

Wexford People

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