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inside track Ex-Ireland supremo Billy Walsh could help to derail Kurt Walker's march to a medal

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Kurt Walker is accompanied by coach Billy Walsh to the ring during the 2015 European Games. Photo: Sportsfile

Kurt Walker is accompanied by coach Billy Walsh to the ring during the 2015 European Games. Photo: Sportsfile

Kurt Walker is accompanied by coach Billy Walsh to the ring during the 2015 European Games. Photo: Sportsfile

Billy Walsh recognised Kurt Walker was a special talent when he was still at school in Lisburn. He was only 17 when Walsh, then the head of IABA’s high-performance programme, invited him to come to Dublin to train with the Irish squad who were then preparing for the London Olympics in 2012.

Walker demonstrated his potential when winning a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships that year.

Initially, he came to Dublin one day a week to spar against Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and went to school the other four. But before long he had ditched school and he has been a full-time amateur fighter ever since.

Now, in an ironic twist of fate, Billy Walsh, currently the head of USA Boxing, is plotting Walker’s downfall in tomorrow’s featherweight quarter-final in Tokyo. From the moment the Wexford native left the IABA six months ahead of the Rio Games in 2016, it was inevitable this moment would arrive – Ireland v the USA at the Olympics.

It was avoided in Rio, primarily because the Irish team suffered a meltdown. But tomorrow in the Kokugikan Arena the tactical battle between Walsh and Zaur Antia, who learned English listening and talking to Walsh after he arrived from Georgia in 2004, will be as interesting as what happens inside the ring.

Walker is coming off the back of a sensational performance in the last 16, when he knocked out the world champion, No 1 seed and gold medal favourite Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov, on a majority 4-1 decision.

The task facing the Irish coaching staff is to bring Walker back to ground level again and prepare him for a different kind of challenge.

Walker’s US opponent Duke Ragan is something of an accidental Olympian. For 18 months, he opted out of the US amateur programme and turned professional. But through a series of incidents related to Covid-19, he finds himself in Tokyo.

The Americas’ Olympic qualifying tournament, due to be staged in Buenos Aires last spring, was cancelled due to Covid-19. Instead, all the Olympic fighters from the regions were chosen from a ranking system. Based on his record before turning professional, Ragan was eligible; the 23-year-old Ohio native rejoined the programme and is now nine minutes away from a podium finish.

Even though Walker and Ragan have never clashed competitively, they are familiar with each other having trained and sparred together at a pre-Olympics training camp in Miyazaki.

“It will be a great fight,” predicted 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.

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“I’ve known Kurt since he was a kid. He’s an exceptional talent and we’re really looking forward to the challenge. He’s beaten the No 1 seed and for me and plenty of other people that puts him in the No 1 position now.

“So it will be a tough battle for us, but we’re really looking forward to it and at the end of it we hope that the best man wins and we’ll shake hands and still be friends.”

Walsh was delighted to welcome Ragan back to the US camp after his 18-month career in the professional ranks, during which he won four low-key fights.

He has an orthodox stance, which ought to suit Walker as he does his best work when countering from the back foot.

“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.

“There’ll be a bit of pressure and the stakes are higher, I suppose because it is a medal fight.

“They’ve beaten people they shouldn’t have beaten on the way here. They both have two wins under their belt and beaten guys who were medallists on their own continent,” said Walsh.

This is Walsh’s sixth Olympics, having made his debut as a boxer at the 1988 Games in Seoul. He has attended five others in his capacity as a team coach, three with Ireland in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012) and with the US in Rio (2016) and now the Tokyo Games.

“This is my sixth Olympic Games but it’s obviously different from any others I’ve ever been to, and the years leading into it have been extremely tough for everybody.

“It has made the team more resilient. I always had a belief that this was going to happen, even when there was a doubt that it was, we had to be ready.

“There could be no excuses because of Covid-19. When we get in that ring, the whole world is looking at you. So, we could have no excuses. we were prepared. We were ready.

“The whole team has been ready because even when they didn’t want to be ready, we made sure they were because we knew the Olympics was going to happen at some stage.”

Walsh was last at home in Wexford at Christmas and he was looking forward to returning after the Games and having a few pints with old friends. But tomorrow he has to take care of business, which means helping Duke Ragan win an Olympic medal at the expense of Kurt Walker.

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