'Now I have something to fight for': Patient Kurt Walker stepping out of Michael Conlan's shadow at Commonwealths
AS roadblocks go, Michael Conlan presents a fairly significant one when you’re trying to make a name for yourself on the international scene.
The odd tournament here, another there, but when the big competitions came around there was only one man getting the nod at 56kg.
Two years younger than Conlan, they were just close enough in age for Kurt Walker to get caught in the west Belfast fighter’s slipstream.
Commonwealth Games came and went, so too Worlds, Europeans and Olympics where Conlan – though not for the reasons he may have foreseen – hit the headlines across the world, his middle finger salute becoming one of the iconic images of the Rio Games.
Walker followed his rise to the top with interest, always telling himself that eventually, one day, his time would come.
“I remember being on work experience with my coach Jim [Russell and we went to his house to watch Mick fight in Delhi when he lost on a countback.
“By the time the next Commonwealths came around I was 19 and part of you was thinking ‘I wish I was there’, but instead I watched his final in a bar in Magaluf.
“I just knew I had to bide my time.”
At one stage the pair looked to be on a collision course but, despite sparring hundreds of rounds, they never shared the ring in a competitive bout – something Walker regrets.
“I would’ve loved to fight him, even though I probably wouldn’t have won,” he smiles.
“It would have been good just to share the ring with him. I think it would’ve been close because of the way I fight.
“But I learned a lot from him. Mick’s got that winning mentality so if you were drinking or anything he’d be slabbering, but if you were doing good he’d be telling you to keep it up, encouraging you.”
Having played the waiting game for so long, Walker knew that Conlan wouldn’t be hanging about after Rio 2016. The finishing line was suddenly in view, even though it was only then that his race would truly begin.
At 23, he is now established as Ireland’s number one bantamweight, announcing his international arrival with some superb performances en route to claiming a bronze medal at the European Championships.
Now, though, comes the pressure of expectation.
As part of the Northern Ireland team that headed out to Australia earlier this month for the 2018 instalment of the Commonwealth Games, Walker is one of the major medal hopes.
Yet boxing was not Walker’s first love. Initially flourishing in Taijitsu, reaching purple belt standard, it wasn’t until his teacher relocated to Carrickfergus that he had to look elsewhere.
“I did Taijitsu from six to nine but when it moved I had to find something else because I was just running about mad.
“I was hyper as hell, I had to do something and it was me who suggested boxing. My mum didn’t want me to go. She still hasn’t watched any of my fights yet. She likes boxing but she won’t watch me fight.”
After starting out at Lisburn Boxing Club, near his home in Knockmore, Walker later relocated to Canal. It soon became clear that he had the potential to go far, a belief further underlined by the bronze medal won at the 2012 World Youth Championships in Armenia.
“That’s when it started getting really serious,” he said.
“Before that I was still playing Gaelic football for St Patrick’s right up to U16s - I just played for the craic, I wasn’t very good like.
“I played left half-back mostly and enjoyed it, but when I had to choose it was always going to be boxing.”
Former Irish head coach Billy Walsh liked what he saw and had Walker down in Dublin at every opportunity. He gave up school and dedicated his life to the sport.
This is his time, he hopes. Conlan ensured Team NI brought gold back from Glasgow last time out, and Walker is determined to make sure that bantamweight medal remains on Irish soil for another four years.
“When Mick was there I sort of messing about, but in the last year or so I’ve improved 100 per cent. I was still learning but, because Mick was there, there was nothing for me to do.
“I always knew he’d be picked for everything, that’s just the way it was. But now I have something to fight for.”
DANGER IN THE DRAW
56kg: Peter McGrail (England)
ONLY 21, McGrail enjoyed a 2017 to remember. The talented Scouser won a silver medal at the European U22s in 2017 and followed that up with gold at the European Elites. McGrail went on to take bronze at the World Elites, losing out to the talented Kazakh Kairat Yeraliyev. Previously beat Walker in the semi-final of the 2015 Gee Bee Tournament.
There were scenes of celebration in Coalisland last week when heavyweight Frank Lowe brought an Irish title back to Frank Gervin Clonoe ABC.
A student at St Mary’s University College in Belfast, Lowe is relatively new to the sport but came up trumps in his first major championships to take the Irish Athletic Third Level Association 91kg title at the National Stadium.
“Big Frank’s only at the boxing a couple of years but he has come on leaps and bounds,” said one of the coaches at Clonoe, Aidan Gervin.
“It was him who suggested entering the university championships and he went down there and did very well. It’s a great boost for Frank, Coalisland and everybody at the club.
“Hopefully he can build on that win at the national novices.”
CONOR Quinn bowed out of the European U22 Championships yesterday after coming up short against Russia’s Maksim Stakheev in yesterday’s last 16 clash in Romania.
The Clonard flyweight boxed well on the outside, landing some beautiful left uppercuts, but the aggressive, come forward style of Stakheev clearly caught the eye of the judges.
In action today is highly-rated Galway middleweight Gabriel Dossen, who takes on either Hambardum Hakobya (Armenia) or Edin Avdic (Austria).
THERE are two Belfast-Derry battles in the finals of the Boy 1 Championships at the National Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.
At 50kg, John McConnell of Holy Trinity takes on Eoghan Quinn (St John’s, Derry), while Thomas McCann (St Paul’s, Antrim) faces Ethan McCaul of St Joseph’s, Derry in the 57kg final.
There is two more all-Ulster clash deciders in the Boy 2 Championship, as Ryan Roy (Lisburn) and Aaron Rush (Maydown) go toe-to-toe at 44kg, while Padraig Downey (St John Bosco) and Craig Bigger (Cookstown) contest the 48kg final.
Holy Family prospect Jake Tucker was hugely impressive in his semi-final, scoring a first round stoppage win over Palmerstown’s Jack Young. He meets David McDonagh (Elite Mullingar) to decide who takes the 70kg title.
Selected Boy 4 finals (11am)
31kg: D Owens (Holy Trinity) W/O
36kg: K Kelly (Maydown Olympic) v N Keegan (Mayfield)
39kg: S Stokes (Fr Horgan’s) v D McMonagle (Letterkenny)
42kg: B Williams (Drimnagh) V M Donohue (St Michael’s)
50kg: P Convery (St John’s, Derry) v S Edris (Monkstown, Dublin)
54kg: P Donovan (Olympic) v M Brady-McCullough (Gleann)
Selected Junior 1 finals (2.30pm)
50kg: J McConnell (Holy Trinity) v E Quinn (St John’s, Derry)
57kg: E McCaul (St Joseph’s, Derry) v T McCann (St Paul’s)
60kg: S O’Gorman (St Malachy’s) v S Cairns (Legacy)
66kg: W Hayden (Crumlin) v T Mayse (Two Castles)
70kg: F Duffin (Loughshore) v J Cox (Enniscorthy)
75kg: J Myers (Olympic) V C McKiernan (Castleblaney)
80kg: P McDonagh (Cookstown) v T Doherty (Baldoyle)
Selected Junior 2 finals (6.30pm)
44kg: R Roy (Lisburn) v A Rush (Maydown)
48kg: P Downey (St John Bosco) v C Bigger (Cookstown)
50kg: N Horrigan (Hyland Academy) v J Gallagher (Two Castles)
52kg: C Reddy (Portlaoise) v O Treanor (Emyvale)
54kg: D Duffy (Immaculata, Strabane) v D Clancy (Ballinacarrow)
60kg: K Shydenko (Monkstown D) v J McGivern (St George’s)
70kg: J Tucker (Holy Family) v D McDonagh (Elite Mullingar)
80kg: P O’Hagan (St Joseph’s, Derry) v J Ward (Monivea)