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Friendship endures despite real rivalry

Michael Carruth v Billy Walsh

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FAMOUS DAY: Michael Carruth had to beat Billy Walsh in a box-off to make the 1992 Olympics, where he would claim welterweight gold after beating Cuba’s Juan Hernández Sierra (right) in the final in Barcelona.

FAMOUS DAY: Michael Carruth had to beat Billy Walsh in a box-off to make the 1992 Olympics, where he would claim welterweight gold after beating Cuba’s Juan Hernández Sierra (right) in the final in Barcelona.

FAMOUS DAY: Michael Carruth had to beat Billy Walsh in a box-off to make the 1992 Olympics, where he would claim welterweight gold after beating Cuba’s Juan Hernández Sierra (right) in the final in Barcelona.

It was a perverse wind that blew Billy Walsh and Michael Carruth into the one ring, chasing a single, all-consuming dream in 1991.

The desolate act of best friends being compelled to punch one another in the face for that golden Olympic ticket had never been something either envisaged on so many trips rooming together as Irish team-mates. Billy, after all, was a middleweight; Carruth a light-welter.

Two cats chasing different prey.

Billy won his first Irish elite title in '83 and had been to the Seoul Games five years later. But every time he spoke about those Games of '88, he found himself crying. Why? Because plunged into the overwhelming world of an Olympics, Billy froze.

Cuts above and below an eye led to a second-round stoppage in his only fight against local boxer, Song Kyung-sup.

Devastated, Walsh all but slipped into hiding in the Olympic village afterwards until eventually receiving a three-word telegraph from his worried mother at home in Wexford. It read: "Please ring home!"

He should probably have gone to the Los Angeles 'Games in '84 too, but fell victim to the dubious proclivities of a system indifferent to any concept of human care or understanding.

Billy had been one of eight boxers nominated for selection and, despite having the second best record of those proposed, he was one of the two rejected by a cash-strapped Olympic Council of Ireland.

These were slapstick days for large swathes of Irish sports administration. Prior to the LA Games, the OCI spent £2,000 on an advertising campaign seeking public donations for the Irish team. A campaign that raised £740.

So Barcelona '92 would be Billy's last shot at climbing Mount Olympus and he knew it.

Carruth? He'd gone to Seoul as a lightweight and - struggling with the nine stone, six pounds limit - had been stopped in the first round of his second fight by eventual silver medallist, George Cramme of Sweden.

As he told Seán McGoldrick in 'Punching Above Their Weight - The Irish Olympic Boxing Story': "I was absolutely disgusted with myself. I'm convinced I would have won a medal in Seoul had I moved up to the ten stone (light-welter) category."

And it didn't seem an idle claim given Carruth's subsequent bronze medal win in that division at the '89 World Championships. Yet metabolism was now slowly bringing these two friends to a harder reckoning than either truly understood.

Boundary

One marking the uneasy boundary between friendship and rivalry.

Because Walsh - a middleweight looking to come down in weight - and Carruth - a light-welter contemplating another move up - were now on a 67kg collision course.

And this would change one simple fundamental of their relationship.

Having always stayed with the Carruths when in Dublin where Walsh regarded Michael's mother, Joan, as his "Dublin Mammy", Billy now had to find alternative accommodation. Because, as Carruth remembers "He was now my enemy!"

With no seeding in place, they were drawn to fight in the first round of the '91 National Championships, a tight verdict going to Walsh who would go on to win the welterweight title. One year later, they met again - this time in the final - Carruth emerging the new champion on a 12-9 score.

It was Billy Walsh's tenth senior final and, having won seven, he now declared himself ready to "go off and have a real life!"

He thus resumed his GAA career back in Wexford, playing both hurling and football, and settling back into the carefree rhythms of a social life freed the tyranny of the weighing-scales.

But it was then that the IABA's Central Council came up with their idea of a box-off to decide which welterweight they would send to the Olympic qualifiers in San Pellegrino that March. The champion, they announced, would have to box his friend again.

Stabbed

"They stabbed me in the back as far as I'm concerned," Carruth would tell this writer one month after the St Valentine's night fight.

Or, more precisely, what proved a lamentable pretence of a fight.

With Carruth already at a fighting weight, Walsh had to lose a stone within a week to get that last shot at Olympic glory. Incredibly, he weighed in lighter than his opponent on the night, but Billy - now gaunt and dehydrated - had left all his energy in the sauna.

So, the ring just a stage-set of denial, Carruth won 24-3 and he has always regretted declining Walsh's invitation to go for a conciliatory pint afterwards.

Six months later, he became Ireland's first boxing Olympic gold medallist, outpointing the supposedly invincible Cuban, Juan Hernandez, at the old Pavello Club in Badalonia.

And Billy Walsh, always known in the Carruth household as "the seventh son", watched that final with Michael's family as well - it seemed - as every other resident of St Peter's Road in Greenhills.

All of them under the glare of RTÉ TV cameras.

He'd seen Hernandez win the previous year's world title in Sydney and, much like Carruth's own father and coach, Austin, Walsh reckoned that silver was a '"great" achievement. Gold seemed almost impossible.

But gold is what Michael Carruth won. And Billy Walsh - still many years from re-incarnation as one of the world's great boxing coaches, a man who would help revolutionise Irish boxing - cheered as loud as anyone for his old room-mate.

They had, he declared that August morning, a good rivalry but a great friendship.

In a new series, our writers recall their favourite sporting rivalries that have brought colour and drama to the games we love