Billy Walsh knew he was taking on a big task when he left Ireland to try and revive the United States as an Olympic boxing power, but four years into the job and 11 months away from the Tokyo Games things may be starting to turning for the better.
The World Championships are taking place in Yekaterinburg, Russia, now. After years in the doldrums, the US could be about to emerge as contenders once more.
There was a time when the Americans had been ones to avoid in Olympic boxing. Few countries can compare to the US when listing former gold medallists. From a young Cassius Clay, to Frazier, to Foreman, to Leonard, Spinks (x2), the team of ’84, De La Hoya Any list would be full of legends.
But then, Claressa Shields apart, former glories are all there tends to be. Only one American male boxer, Andre Ward, has stood on the top of the podium at an Olympics this century.
To Walsh, raising the sleeping giant was a dream job, but it wasn’t until he arrived in Colorado Springs.
“I didn’t realise how bad it really was,” Walsh said. “When I first got here, my first question is ‘where is Team USA?’ They had a brand but no team. The boxers trained all over the place, they all had their own coaches.
“All they did was have a ten-day camp. In the Eighties they could get away with that sort of thing, but things had moved on.”
For years the US had got by on raw talent, but the sport had passed them by. The low point came at London in 2012 when the men’s team of nine boxers failed to win a medal and only won five bouts between them.
The preparation was shambolic. Dominic Breazeale, the super-heavyweight, admitted once going into a bout not knowing whether his opponent was orthodox or southpaw. A decision was made to invite some top professional trainers to work with the team, but some saw that as an opportunity to snap up some talent themselves for the pro ranks. “Everyone wanted to work with Errol Spence,” Freddie Roach said.
Walsh’s time as head coach of Ireland’s squad was synonymous with success. He was in charge of a team that included the likes of Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan, John Joe Nevin, Padding Barnes and Joe Ward.
“It’s different,” Walsh, 56, said. “We have a diverse team from a lot of different places. We had to put in place the team behind the team too. There has been a change of culture.
“We were successful in getting them some funding and the boxers had to be full-time like they were everywhere else. We had to sell them the dream of the Olympics.
“We lost a few people at the start who didn’t buy into it, but we have a very tight team now, it’s like a family.”
As well as Shields winning her second gold medal, there were two medals in Rio among the men for Shakur Stevenson and Nico Hernandez. But the move on, the US needed to build a squad that travelled the world together.
“Experience is so important in amateur boxing,” Walsh said. “We got two medals in Rio, which was probably ahead of what we expected. The average age of boxers at the Rio Olympics was 25 – the average age of the US team was 19.1 – they were a bunch of kids.
“The style of boxing is completely different. They have all learnt a pro style, but to do well at the Olympics you need to be quick and capable of getting in and out. When I was at Ireland, we never thought of coming to the US for a training camp, because we never thought they could give us any good work. Our last camp we had 96 boxers here.”
“In Ireland we looked to keep the boxers for two Olympic cycles. Here we look to keep them together for one. We had to sell them a concept. So many of those great names who came through to dominate professional boxing came through the Olympic Games.
“The main part of the team is the one that boxed at the World Youth Championships in St Petersburg in 2016.”
These World Championships are the first big test on the way to the Olympic qualifying events in Buenos Aires and Paris next March and June.
So far, so good, as the US team of seven have won their first five bouts – Javier Martinez winning twice, with successes also for Delante Johnson, Michael Angeletti and Keyshawn Davis.
There is plenty of talent in the squad – among both the men’s and women’s squads – so much so that Khalil Coe, the light-heavyweight who caused something of a sensation last summer by knocking out Julio Cesar La Cruz, the Olympic and world champion from Cuba. Atif Oberlton beat Coe at the national championships to earn his spot in Yekaterinburg.
If there is one name to pick out from the team for future stardom it is Davis, a 20-year-old lightweight from Norfolk, Virginia – the same town that produced Pernell Whitaker, who won lightweight gold in Los Angeles in 1984. “He is going to be an exceptional boxer,” Walsh said.
Walsh was boxing the last time the World Championships were held in Russia in 1989, although it was still the Soviet Union then. Some things don’t change, though. Back in 1989, the Cuba were battling to be top of the medal table, as they will this year – all their seven boxers are seeded No 1.
After problems outside the ring risked the sport’s very future in the Olympic movement, things are getting back on track now. Walsh was an Olympian himself, boxing at Seoul in 1988. After 12 memorable years coaching in the Ireland set-up, the USA job was a challenge he couldn’t turn down and he has no regrets.
“I always said that the US job was the one I could see myself leaving Ireland for,” he said. “They’re a real sleeping giant.
“Colorado Springs is a wonderful place to be. Never too hot, never too cold. I’m loving it. But inside the gym it is like any boxing gym in the world. It has been a big challenge but it has been the greatest experience of my life.
“At Ireland we used to be also-rans, then we became a team that was respect. When I joined the US team, they were also-rans. The Cubans are very strong again, but now we are chasing their coat-tails.”