The golden age, then? Not necessarily so, says current High Performance Team coach Billy Walsh.
“Jimmy Magee, a great advocate for boxing in this country, was asked that question. ‘No’, he said. ‘The golden age of Irish boxing is now’. And he’s right. We’ve never had so many world champions — we won seven world titles in the last few years, we’ve won four Europeans, we’ve won three Olympic medals.
“This is the golden era of Irish boxing. With all those titles we’ve built confidence, we’ve built belief; the young kids coming into the team now have that head-start. They’re thinking, ‘I’m training with these guys and they’re competing with the best — I can beat anyone in the world’. That’s the culture we’re building within the squad.”
It’s working too, with three boxers; Darren O’Neill (75kg), John Joe Nevin (56kg) and Michael Conlan (52kg) already qualified for this year’s London Olympics, possibly more to come.
“We have a few more who are well capable of doing so. Could or should aren’t words we use very often — you either will or you won’t, that’s all that matters. But we have at least three who are well capable of qualifying — seven have a chance, but three in particular; 49kg (Paddy Barnes), 60kg (Michael McDonagh) and 81kg (Joe Ward), we have a great chance in those.”
That’s not Billy writing off the other four boxers who will be heading for the last-chance qualifying saloon in Trabzon, Turkey, in April, rather it’s down to numbers. In two of the other divisions only the gold medallist will qualify, while in two more they will have to make the final. That’s a tall order.
“It’s going to be tough. We’re not the only ones on our last chance, all the other countries are in the same situation — it’s going to be dog-eat-dog. It’s in Turkey, and Turkey don’t have anyone qualified yet, they’ll have one fighter in each weight division and those boys don’t take any prisoners. We’re going to be in great shape physically, mentally, tactically. If we can perform, do our best, we’re capable of competing against anyone and we can beat anyone in the world.”
There aren’t too many international sports in which we can say that, are there? But that is how far Irish boxing has come and the strength in depth was evident at the recent Irish Elite Senior Championships finals.
“It’s not just the finals either,” Billy points out. “There were some really good fights in the semi-finals also, excellent competition in every division. We’ve had Olympians, world medallists, who couldn’t get through to the Irish senior final, which just goes to show you the talent in boxing now within the country and within the squad. The challenge now is to get them to another level.
“We’re gauging them at home against the best in domestic competition but you’re going up against the best in Europe now and if we’re to qualify more boxers we’re going to have to raise the bar again. You need the bit of luck, and you can bring your own, but that’s beyond our control. We try to control the controllables. Perform to the best of your ability and if King Kong himself turns up in the other corner, that’s beyond your control. You’ve done your own job to the best of your ability.”
Ireland of course have their own King Kong — teenage light-heavyweight star Joe Ward, conqueror again of Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan at the national championships and one tipped for qualification.
“Joe left his chance behind him in Baku [at the world championships], he should have qualified there but didn’t. As long as he qualifies that could be a good thing, he will have learned a valuable lesson.”
It’s going to involve a lot of sacrifice — not least from the coach himself.
“Home for me is Wexford, in the sunny south-east, and I don’t see a lot of that. I’m either in Dublin or in a training-camp somewhere. On August 12, when the Olympic Games are over, I’ll be able to put my feet up for a few days — hopefully!”
And by heavens, he will have earned his rest!