Speaking to Dean Walsh, one could easily forget that he is just 26 years old.
The Wexford boxer has lived a life, has had perhaps more downs that ups, but is promising big ahead of his move into the pro game.
An outstanding amateur, Walsh had four Irish Senior titles and a European bronze to his name by the age of 22 but the past few years have been rocky to say the least.
Snubbed, he feels, by the Irish team and subsequently overtaken by the likes of Kieran Molloy and Aidan Walsh, ‘Deano’ has had his troubles.
In the relative boxing wilderness, Walsh found himself losing in National quarter and semi-finals rather than adding to his collection of titles, fighting in Box Cups rather than major tournaments, and appearing in court rather than the High Performance Unit.
Now signed to Boxing Ireland Promotions, it is a new chapter for Walsh and an opportunity to move on from an amateur career that he still views with some bitterness and regret.
The Wexford Town native can still pinpoint where it all started to go wrong – April 11th 2016 in the Turkish seaside town of Samsun.
Walsh had just put in one of the performances of his career versus Cuban defector Lorenzo Sotomayor in the European Olympic qualifiers but lost out on a contentious split-decision to the boxer representing Azerbaijan.
“To be honest,” he recalls, “that was the biggest downfall of my boxing carer.”
“I can genuinely still remember when the decision was made, the travel back to the hotel, the last couple of days on the trip, it was absolutely terrible.”
“Even when the Olympics were on, the month before the Olympics, and a couple of months after the Olympics, I’ll never forget it. Every single day I was thinking about it, talking about it with my dad, he was upset about it, I was upset about it.”
“To be straight with you, I thought on that day, one judge gave me 30-27. the others gave it 28-29 against me, I still feel like that I should have won that fight. It wasn’t a blatant robbery but I still did enough to win that fight. I did everything that was asked of me.”
The defeat came at a time of flux for Irish boxing. Billy Walsh, head coach and uncle of Dean, had left his role to link up with the U.S. boxing team the previous November in one of the great modern Irish sporting scandals.
Technical coach Zaur Antia would assume the mantle of head coach and de-facto team manager – before former European professional champion Bernard Dunne took up the logistical role in 2017 following the disastrous Rio Olympics.
The approach that day in Turkey, without the input of Billy, still confuses Walsh.
He notes how “it was crazy because we went to three or four camps in Assisi and that Cuban guy was there. When I was sparring him, I used to walk him down, push him back because he was very tall, he was 6’3″ or something.”
“Then, 15 minutes before the fight, Zaur turned around to me and said ‘just box him, really long, hands down, elusive’, for some strange reason. But I went out and did it, the first, second, third round and I thought I just won the fight. I would have had to box Greece then [to qualify for the Olympics], which I would have beaten but that just the way it goes.”
Things then started to go south. Immediately.
Infamously, Walsh and Michael O’Reilly were sent home early from Samsun and fined €5,000 (later rescinded to just flight expenses). This then would develop into the contentious box-off and selection drama that was the talking point in Irish boxing in May and June of 2016.
He accepts he is no angel, far from it, but the saga still pains Walsh who notes how “I thought that, not that I was hard done by, I wasn’t really hard done by – but there were a lot of things they should have let go. There was a lot more than just one person on the team that was having a bit of craic.”
Asked if he felt he was a scapegoat, Walsh agrees: “I thought I was, especially after the thing about Billy went out.”
“That had nothing to do with me, he didn’t tell the fighters, he didn’t tell me, or Mick [Conlan], or Joe Ward exactly what was going on, we were just seeing what was going on in the news, going on in the papers.
“It was just a couple of months after Billy left that the box-offs with Ray Moylette happened.”
Ah, Dean Walsh and Ray Moylette. The last great rivalry in Irish amateur boxing. Having beaten the Mayo man in the 2015 and 2016 Senior finals in bouts of increasing controversy and debate, Walsh was then ordered to box-off with Moylette for a spot in the World Olympic Qualifier in Azerbaijan.
It was a punishment rather than a more natural selection process – with O’Reilly, widely viewed at the time as one of the best middleweights in the world, also having to box-off with Conor Wallace.
It was all set for a Monday night at the National Stadium before, of course, the box-offs were cancelled and the rivals jetted off together to Baku.
Here, the real action happened – and while it sounds like an incredible few days of competition, Walsh believes it left him hamstrung.
“It wasn’t heard, but we sparred over in Azerbaijan, a couple of times,” he reveals.
“You had to spar and train alongside your opponent for 16 days then they pick one of the two of you and whoever they picked then represented Ireland the next day in the World qualifier in Azerbaijan – and they sent the other one home.”
“I was picked over him but then my head wasn’t really focused on qualifying for the Games, it was more about bating him.”
“It’s fine, I was picked and I didn’t qualify, but I came back and won the national championships and they never boxed me off with Steven Donnelly.”
Walsh and Rio Olympian Donnelly may not immediately spring to mind as a pressure point in recent Irish boxing history but, for the Wexford fighter, it effectively marked the end of his top-level amateur career.
Ballymena’s Donnelly had withdrawn from 2017 Elite Seniors due to illness and, moving up in weight, Walsh claimed the 69kg title and the Best Boxer Award.
However, these were ‘just’ awards, rather than a pathway out of Ireland.
Walsh laments how “I beat Brett McGinty, Tiernan Bradley, and Mark McCole, and me being a champion, I still didn’t get a box-off.”
“After winning nationals at light welterweight three years in a row then pushing up to welterweight – Steven Donnelly was already pretty drained at the weight and I was all guns blazing.”
“I was pushed off the team, shafted out of the team by Bernard Dunne and Zaur Antia. That’s being straight, they picked Steven Donnelly over me in 2017 [for the European Championships].”
“Ever since that it kind of turned me off. I always wanted to box for Ireland but I ended up going to championships like the Celtic Box Cup and the Smithfield Box Cup. There’s nothing wrong with those tournaments but when you’re coming from Junior to Youth to Elite, representing your country, going to European and World Championships, Olympic qualifiers, back down just to that… it was a big knock for me.”
“The Irish team stuff, it affected my head, it affected my mental health, not every single part of it, but it did. I never really got over that part of it.”
“It destroyed boxing for me, my heart wasn’t in it. It felt like that no matter what I do, if I won the national championships, they’re going to have me boxing off, you’re going to have to win a box-off for another box-off.”
Things started to go off the rails from here. There were fights where there shouldn’t have been fights and appearances in the wrong sections of the newspaper. People began to write Walsh off.
Indeed, even now, even reading this, many won’t believe that the man from Wolfe Tone Villas is capable of succeeding in the isolated, disheartening pro boxing game.
“I just want to get straight down to work, everyone has a past and I don’t live there anymore,” he pledges.
“Everyone gets chances and everyone makes a little bit of mistakes in their lives but that doesn’t define who the person is. That’s the past and I’m just looking forward to the future.”
Boxing and the St Ibar’s/Joseph’s club is Walsh’s continued saviour. When he starts his career he will have his father Dónal and coaches Albert Saunders and Nicky Keane right there with him, like they always have been.
“Boxing grounds me,” he explains. “It takes me away from me. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
“It’s a thing that I’ve always done, it’s a thing my family have always done, it was just always there. At the end of the day, I don’t know any different.”
“It’s a tough grind at the start and I’m aware of that, I’ve been told that, but I just know that my talent and my will to box and to become a World champion is there,” promises the new Boxing Ireland man.
“I do know I can definitely become a European or World champion, I just know I can. Whatever’s there, I want to take it.”