Billy Walsh stands in way of Ireland's next medal hunt

Now USA coach, Walsh helped mastermind a golden era for Irish boxing’s high-performance unit
Billy Walsh stands in way of Ireland's next medal hunt

Ireland’s Aidan Walsh goes over on his ankle after his jumping celebration of his win over Mauritius’s Merven Clair, which guaranteed him a bronze medal. Walsh fights Britain’s Pat McCormack tomorrow. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It had to happen sometime. The only wonder is that it took this long.

When Kurt Walker and Duke Ragan meet in the quarter-finals of the men’s featherweight division in the early hours of tomorrow morning it will be the first time Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia stand in opposing Olympic corners.

The pair had been shoulder to shoulder for a dozen years, masterminding a golden era for Irish boxing’s high-performance unit. The seven medals they mined from the Games in Beijing and London were only the most obvious of the nuggets.

Walsh’s move to the USA in October 2015 brought the partnership to an end and now, having passed each other by like ships in the night at the Rio Olympics, the old allies will bid to outfox each other on the greatest of stages.

“It will be a great fight,” said 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 and has come right through the performance programme in Ireland.

“So he’s an exceptional talent and we’re really looking forward to the challenge. He’s beaten the number one seed (in Uzbekistan’s Mirazizbek Mirzakhailov) and for me and plenty of other people that puts him in the number one position now.”

Ragan has returned to the amateur ranks after a spell in the pros where he won four bouts. A 23-year old with good speed, he is a powerful man for this division and Walsh describes him as a fighter with good awareness and tactical appreciation.

Antia will have noted all that and much, more more.

“I’m excited to see it because they’ve got two contrasting styles,” said Walsh. “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.”

Ragan and Walker will take to the ring at the Ryoguku Kogukican tomorrow just over half an hour before Aidan Walsh is due to face Britain’s top seed, Pat McCormack, who has beaten the Belfast man three times, in the welterweight semi-final.

Walsh appeared to do some damage to at least one ankle when leaping in the air to celebrate his defeat of Merven Clair in yesterday’s quarter-final but he has been declared fit, publicly, and appeared bullish when asked about his chances in the next bout.

In Walsh’s case, the greatest obstacles have already been faced. He spoke after securing a medal in that last fight about things in his personal life that had to be overcome, and how he hasn’t even been a part of the Irish elite squad for a full Olympic cycle yet.

“I was ready to pack in boxing three years ago. Seriously, I was. My family and girlfriend and coaches supported me. Since I’ve moved down to Dublin (the coaches) supported me massively.

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

If there is a dominant theme emerging from Ireland’s participation in these Games, then it isn’t so much the quest for medals as the perspective with which the athletes here have used to frame what it is they are trying to do.

Kellie Harrington very nearly didn’t make it here at all. A former world champion, she endured injury torment and Covid delays but has now positioned herself one bout shy of a guaranteed medal with the defeat of Italy’s Rebecca Nicoli yesterday.

“Look, this is a great achievement for me to be competing in the Olympic Games but if it happened, it happened because I’m more than just a boxer. I’m Kellie Harrington, I’m a giving person, I have a fantastic family and a great job at home.

“I just want to say hello to everyone in St Vincent’s Hospital,” she said. “That’s who I am. This is just a part of me and a part of the journey I’m on in life, it’s not the destination. What I’ll do after this, I don’t know.”

It was an intriguing comment but, going by what she added when pressed on this thought process, one that seemed to be simply an understanding that this can’t be the only ship on her horizon.

“I’ve been saying this to a lot of people lately, that you need to have a life outside of boxing, because there is more to life than sport. Anything can happen in sport and you need something to fall back on.”

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