Billy Walsh: Michael Conlan's bid for gold in Rio was "hijacked"
The former Irish boxing coach spoke to Off the Ball about what went wrong in Rio, and Paddy Barnes turning pro17:42 Saturday 17 September 2016, 17:42 17 Sep 2016
Ireland's boxers had a tough time at the Olympics in Rio 2016, and when they turned to their corner for help, the familiar face of Billy Walsh was nowhere to be seen.
The Wexford man had lead Ireland's High Performance Unit and their boxing team to incredible success, with Katie Taylor, Michael Conland and Paddy Barnes all flourishing under his guidance.
Along with the rest of the team, they were looking forward to once again proving their position as the most successful of Ireland's Olympics contingent, but it wasn't to be.
Speaking to Off the Ball, Walsh stated that it was hard not to be affected by what happened to the team and to the Irish boxers in particular that he had spent so many years working with.
"I was absolutely disgusted and disheartened for my fellow colleagues and my former team-mates. I felt really really bad for what happened. At the time I was in contact with Zaur [Antia] regularly and I have been since I left [...] we all remain friends, we didn't fall out or anything.
"We actually shared a training camp 10 days out there in Brazil prior to the Games. The lads were in good form, seemed to be in good form, we trained together, sparred together. They were looking forward to the Games and they obviously things didn't go the way the boys had planned. I really can't make a comment on it because I wasn't part of the training process for the last 10 months."
Walsh added that the moment that left a lasting impression on him was what transpired in the fight between Conlan and Vladimir Nikitin, after which the Belfast boxer stated that he would never fight in the amateur ranks again.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
"Michael Conlan was hijacked," said Walsh. "It was very sad because I sat with Michael after London, sat down with him and said: 'Micheal you're 20 years of age, you're going to be 24 at the end of this year  and you've plenty of time to go professional. We're going to broker a deal, we're hopeful the Sports Council will support us and the IABA will support us and I really feel you could win a gold medal in Rio.'
"He was on track to be that gold medalist, and for it to be taken from him in that manner was very, very cruel and very, very sad because he put four years of his life on hold to make that happen."
Conlan's loss to Nikitin wasn't the only controversy that Ireland had to deal with in Rio either, after Michael O'Reilly took a supplement which resulted in a positive drugs test.
"The drug thing, that's hard to fathom," said Walsh. "It's hard to believe because we're in that squad, and all those guys are so well drilled around their anti-doping. It's constant stuff; they're filling in their whereabouts everyday, if they're moving from one place to another they've got to let everybody know where they are. An individual in the team decides to take something that is banned an then everybody has alight shone on them.
"He would get the same education as everybody else around anti-doping. All of them were very clear on it, If any of them had any questions was to got o me or whoever else is there now to ask can I take this substance."
"The whole team would have lowered the atmosphere or the tone within the team, because they took pride in being the most successful sporting team that we've had over the last 10 years."
Furthermore, Paddy Barnes also failed to perform to his highest level, clearly flagging in his fight against Samuel Carmona Heredia, and later stating that the weight cut was too much for him.
Having trained Paddy for so many years, Walsh echoed that sentiment, saying "e was in good shape when he was in training camp, he was sparring well [but] I was 14 when I was 48 kilos, Paddy is 28-years-old. The hardest part of boxing is making your weight a lot of the time, and Paddy had that difficulty.
Although Barnes did try to move up to 51 kilos at World Championships in 2015, Walsh stated that "his size, his stature was of a light flyweight for amateur boxing," and that timing played a major role in what happened.
"Fighting at 11am was a difficult piece for them, because you're weighing in at seven in the morning. You've only got three or fours hours to get rehydrated, get some fuel into you, and I think that could have been where the problem was."
Asked whether or not he felt he could have made a difference, Walsh added: "What happened, happened, I was focused on something else. I had to be 100% focused on my job, or we wouldn't have gotten what we did [with Team USA]. You've got to be in the set up to see what really happened."
Barnes will now move into the professional game, and Walsh is also convinced that he can make a success of his time there too.
"It's a new chapter in his life, he is an exceptional talent," said Walsh. "He's an exceptionally hard and dedicated trainer, and it's about how he adapts to the professional game, which is different to the amateur game.
"Knowing Paddy, he can punch, he's a hard puncher. He has a great work rate, and there are not too many flyweights out there who are going to be able to stick with him over eight or ten rounds, if he can extend his stamina to last that long. He's a world-class boxer.
"It's really like starting all over again, in the amateur he was maybe getting a bit long in to the tooth for it, but now, this is really a fresh start for him, and there needs to eb a fresh imptus, but if he's going to make this wrok, he definitelty has the tolls to become a world champions if he's managed properly.
With Conlan also declaring his intention to turn professional, the future of the Irish boxing team looks uncertain, but Walsh emphasised that all these changes can have a positive impact as well.
"There's some world class coaches, there. Yes, they're going to have to start with a new team, they're probably going to lose five or six of that team that went there, with retirements, professionalism whatever it is, and they're going to have to start building again.
"But, you know, Irish boxing has lots of talent in it and it has produced talent over quite a while. Maybe it's no harm that we're starting afresh with a new team, and give them an opportunity to go and build that new culture, heading towards Tokyo."
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