Boxing

"I told him then ‘this will be me and you in four years', only with gold medals around our necks"

When the action gets under way in the Gold Coast later this week, Aidan and Michaela Walsh will become the first brother and sister to have boxed at the Commonwealth Games. Elder sibling Michaela (24) won silver in Glasgow four years ago, while Aidan (21) finished top of the podium at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa. Neither has considered returning to Belfast with anything other than a gold medal around their neck and, before jetting off Down Under, they sat down with Neil Loughran to talk boxing, Burnett and unshakeable belief...

Aidan and Michaela Walsh will make history when they become the first brother and sister to box at the Commonwealth Games. Picture by Hugh Russell

Neil Loughran: Guys, you sit here on the cusp of making history, but let’s go right back to the start first. How did you get both come into boxing?

Aidan Walsh: My daddy [Damien] boxed for St Agnes’s and he brought me down to the club to try it out when I was eight or nine. You have to be 11 to box but he was just drifting me in and out to get a feel for it, and then Michaela…

Michaela Walsh: ...I tortured them. I was tomboyish so I was always out playing football with you, we sort of had the same friends, but back then women didn’t really box

AW: There was a woman in the club but it was more like keep fit, so my daddy said he’d have a word with the head coach at the time, Sean Canavan, and Sean was like ‘of course, bring her down’

MW: It all went from there...

NL: Your dad was the one that introduced you both to boxing then, but your mum took a bit longer to warm to it?

MW: She didn’t like it at the start. Me and Sarah Close was the first women’s fight at the Ulster Hall and she went to see it and sat with her hands over her eyes the whole time. Now she loves it.

AW: I think it was just because we were smaller then, we were only wee kids. Mummy’s wee son or mummy’s wee daughter.

MW: When you start going away to different countries and boxing for Ireland, I think she realised then ‘flip, they must be good’. At the last Commonwealths she was looking at it all, saying to me ‘this could be a career’.

AW: It’s like anything too because once Michaela got to an age and she didn’t work, then I didn’t work, she was a bit like ‘right, you need to get a job now’. Which is only natural, that’s what happens – you grow up, go to school, get a job.

She was thinking it was going to make it harder when you go into the real world and you’ve no job and no qualifications, but when we started winning she saw the other side of it. Now we’re both going to Australia, you don’t hear too much talk of jobs any more!

NL: Reaching this point is the reward for years of hard work, as you both enjoyed success right through the different age grades. Would you be competitive with each other? Or do you drive each other on?

AW: Well I think – in fact I know – I get my competitiveness from her. Even though I started boxing first, she was always fighting before me in the likes of the All-Irelands because she was that bit older.

If Michaela had got to a certain age and then packed boxing in, I probably would have packed it in too because I just followed along with what she was doing. But even when I was younger and all my mates were out doing stuff kids do, Michaela and my da were like ‘right, you’re going to boxing tonight’.

I was always seeing her going down to Dublin, or going away with the Irish team, so when she won an All-Ireland, I wanted to win an All-Ireland, and so on. She was setting my goals

MW: When we were younger we were around the same weight and in sparring I’d be trying to kill him. When he was about 42 kilo I just jabbed the head off him

AW: But it was always like a positive competitiveness. Obviously we were competitive in training but because we both wanted the same thing, we’d be pushing each other on. Maybe if we’d been the same weight we’d have been sparring more and there might have been a bit of an edge, but not now at senior level.

Michaela was my role model, and then when you even look at the professional ranks you have the likes of Ryan Burnett...

NL: …who you would both have trained alongside for years at Holy Family?

AW: Yeah, I always looked up to Ryan. Even when he was younger and hadn’t really won anything, I always copied Ryan. I remember one night actually…

MW: I know what you’re going to say [laughing]

AW: …Ryan had got a new pair of jeans and a new pair of shoes

MW: Timberland boots

AW: Yeah, and then a week later he was in the gym and I walked in with exactly the same clothes as what he had on

MW: Everybody was laughing their head off

AW: He was loving it. I always remember that – the exact same boots and exact same jeans. Same top and all. I just wanted to be like him. I’m coming across as a total Ryan Burnett fanboy here!

Both Aidan and Michaela Walsh sparred Ryan Burnett during their days at Holy Family. Picture by PA

NL: What did you learn from him? And could you tell even then he was headed for the top?

MW: You knew he was special

AW: You see Ryan, see when you went into the gym, he wouldn’t have spoken to anyone

MW: He was there to train. Before and after he’d have talked away but during a session he just got on with it

AW: Even if there were no coaches there, he would have worked away. He was young and he had that discipline even then. You just always knew. It’s easy saying that now he’s a world champion, but I always knew

MW: I remember someone saying ‘what is it you want from boxing?’ and he said ‘I want to be a world champion’. He was probably only 13 or 14

AW: He always had that self belief and that drive

NL: I’ve heard he doesn’t take any prisoners in sparring either?

AW: Any night we were waiting for a coach to come into the club, Ryan would always have said to me ‘right, bounce in, stick the gloves on’ and we’d try to kill each other. Before you’d even done a warm-up that was like a full session.

I was only a kid and I was always a good mover. That’s probably where I got my movement from because he was so strong compared to me that I had to be sharp on my feet

MW: He was vicious. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl, he was spiteful. When I first went I was sparring Burnett nearly every night. I remember once he hit me an uppercut and near broke my nose. I went into school the next day and my nose was black – every time I sneezed it was aching. But then I went down the next night and had to spar him again.

It did bring me on too though because where the first week you might have been saying ‘I caught him with four punches’, a week later you might have caught him with a few more shots.

The likes of him and Paddy [Barnes] wouldn’t take it light on you and that’s what I wanted. I just wanted to be treated like anyone else

NL: Since Katie Taylor turned over to the pro ranks, you are probably one of the most well-known female boxers in Ireland having been at it for so long. Have you noticed a gradual change in attitudes? And, if so, where are we at the minute?

MW: Definitely. Women’s boxing’s getting bigger every year. In the early days when you went down to the stadium, there’d have barely been anyone there. But now you’ve got the likes of me, Kelly Harrington, Grainne Walsh, Christina Desmond… big names who people want to go and see.

The talent is there and while it’s still not there 100 per cent, we’re starting to get treated more like the men, which is the way it should be. The gap’s closing

NL: Michaela obviously shot to public attention in Glasgow four years ago. Aidan, were you there or watching on TV back home?

AW: We went over to Glasgow for the first fight and the last fight, it was too expensive to stay the whole time. But it was great

NL: So you went back home after the first fight – did you have a return trip already booked for the final before coming home?

AW: We actually did. We were that confident, we had everything sorted. We booked the first one and the last one at the same time

NL: No pressure on you Michaela…

MW: I know! But I believed I was going all the way, I trained that hard, no-one was going to take it away from me. Even after I got my medal, I said to him ‘we’ll make a promise now that we’re both going to the Gold Coast’. That was after the medal ceremony. I told him then ‘this will be me and you in four years’, only with gold medals around our necks

AW: It doesn’t surprise me that we’re both sitting here now. That’s how confident we both are. Even when I broke my hand twice in the last couple of years, even when Michaela broke her rib last year, we were still training every day

For us, this isn’t just a career, it’s a lifestyle. The morning after her Commonwealth final, she was out for a run. We make so many sacrifices - so does everyone on the team - but you lose out on so much in life, like when your friends are going out partying. We don’t do any of that

I have a girlfriend, Michaela has a boyfriend, and we just keep everything simple

Michaela Walsh turns away in disbelief after her controversial defeat to Nicola Adams in the 2014 Commonwealth Games final

NL: You met Nicola Adams in the final, the reigning Olympic champion who would go on to win another gold medal in Rio two years later. She got the nod after a close fight - how do you look back at that day now?

MW: I still believe I won the fight. That morning I had to check weight and when John Conlan asked how I was feeling, I told him ‘today I’m going to beat the Olympic champion’. After the fight, when I got back to the corner he told me ‘what you said this morning? You’ve just done it. Hold your head high’.

I look back now and it is what it is. I’ve watched it a few times and every time I’m more convinced I won the fight, but there’s no point crying about it. It was a big learning experience and it showed people I was at that level

NL: You have made it clear you want to turn that silver into a gold this time around, but how special is it for you both – and your family – to be doing this together? Will you watch each other’s fights?

AW: It’s great. For us, family’s everything. I want her to succeed as much as I want myself to succeed. It’s harder for both of us when the other one’s fighting because you’re not in control

MW: That’s right, you can’t do anything. In your [Ulster Elite] final against Brett [McGinty], I remember going into the last round and you had the flu all that week. You were in the ring and I was shouting in ‘this is your dream, do not let him take your dreams away’.

That was easy for me to say, but really you felt like saying ‘give me the gloves and I’ll finish the last round for you’

NL: I think everyone could hear you that night Michaela…

MW: Haha, I know, I was near in the ring, flip sake

NL: The likes of Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes have since moved on, and you, Alanna Nihell and Steven Donnelly are the only survivors from Glasgow. This is a young but talented team – how does it compare to four years ago?

MW: This is a really strong team. The last one, they said a lot of us were inexperienced but we brought home nine medals. The talent in this team is unbelievable – Olympians, Commonwealth youth winners, European medallists. Everyone on this team is capable of winning a medal

AW: Like, look at Steven Donnelly – this is his third Commonwealths. He’s been giving me wee hints and tips along the way

MW: Yeah because it’s all new. When you go into the village, you’re walking down the street and there’s Jamaicans playing music and dancing, everybody’s doing their own thing. There’s all free food in the canteen, which is the last thing you need. It would be easy to get caught up in all that but you just have to remember you’re there only there for one thing

AW: You’re not there for a holiday

MW: People say ‘that’s amazing, you’re going to Australia’ but, to be honest, it makes no difference to me whether it’s Glasgow or Australia. You can enjoy all that after. I’d rather be able to look back and say ‘I went to Australia once – I won a gold medal there’

IIIIIIIIIIIOOOOOIIIIIIIIIII

Pat McCormack is an established force at 69kg and will be a major threat Down Under

DANGER IN THE DRAW

69kg: Pat McCormack (England)

LIKE Aidan Walsh, McCormack also has a sibling on the same team as brother Luke will be gunning for glory at the weight division below. Pat is the more experienced of the pair, and has two European silver medals to his name, as well as qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Bowed out at the last 32 stage in Glasgow after losing to Welshman Joe Cordina

Australia's Skye Nicolson looks to be one of the strongest in the 57kg weight class

57kg: Skye Nicolson (Australia)

NICOLSON hopes to emulate the brother she never met by medalling on home soil. Jamie Nicolson became the first Australian male to win a World Championship medal when he took bronze in Moscow in 1989, and repeated the trick at the Commonwealth Games the following year. Jamie was just 22 when he and younger brother Gavin (10) died in a 1994 car accident, a year before their sister was born. Skye has proved that the fighting gene runs in the family, landing bronze at the 2016 World Championships. She boxed at 64 kilos in Kazakhstan, but enters the Commonwealths at 57kg

IN TOMORROW'S IRISH NEWS

Neil Loughran talks to Kristina O'Hara about her ambitions ahead of the biggest tournament of her life...

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