When you think of Irish boxing and the triumphs this small nation has enjoyed, the 2012 summer Olympics stands-out as a highlight. A select group leading the way to Ireland's most successful games since 1956.
Champions and challengers, forged in the renowned High Performance Unit to deliver monumental silverware. It was a unique collection of world-class operators in every role, from boxers to coaches and physios. It is seven years this week since we were in the midst of that delirium. A unified blow momentarily stunning the despondent mood that had gripped the country and its dreadful economic climate.
The aftermath would bring much heartbreak and trauma for the majority of that team. Yet, like the best of their craft, they endure. Tonight one of them looks to take a step closer to a world title. This is the story of the 2012 Irish Olympic boxing team and the remarkable routes they pursued in the aftermath. That unprecedented glory proved to be the beginning of a journey, and the end for some.
"We could not have wished for two better coaches," explains Adam Nolan. He's now retired from boxing, working as a Garda and hurling with his local club, Oulart-the-Ballagh. The five-time National Senior Elite champion competed at welterweight in London and credits the environment forged by the High Performance Unit (HPU) for this successful stint.
The HPU was created by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association to nurture Ireland's cohort of world-class boxers. It would soon become known as 'The Medal Factory'. A moniker well-earned, between the date of its establishment in 2003 and June 2015 HPU coaches trained Irish boxers to 241 medals.
By 2012, it was an established route to the top.
"Every young fighter wanted to be part of the High Performance Unit. To get your foot in the door, you had to win an Irish senior title. Every amateur boxer strived for it. That’s all I wanted to do. To train under the best coach in the world, Zaur Antia. To work with Gary Keegan who formed it. He is a top-class operator. It’s a pity we couldn’t hold onto him.
"If you’d problems outside the ring Billy (Walsh) was there, Gerry (Hussey) was a huge help. You came in and you were part of this environment, it is not something you got at a local club.
"A sports psychologist in Gerry Hussey who was second to none. A physio like Conor McCarthy who was second to none. A strength and conditioning coach in John Cleary who was world-class. Billy and Zaur there on the floor with you every day, learning your trade under them.
"Billy and Zaur did not rule with an iron fist either. It was a culture. An actual unit. They allowed us to make our own rules, we were big and ugly enough to do so. At the same time, if you stepped out of line, that was not tolerated by either coaches or the team. That is one thing I kind of miss even now. You learn more as a boxer and as a person."
Walsh's role was all-encompassing. His loss to Team USA remains a sore point amongst the Irish boxing fraternity. The dream-team was not only made up of boxers but coaches too.
Their wherewithal is best reflected in how they managed the period prior to those games. In February of that year, medal hopeful John Joe Nevin was dealt a devasting blow when his cousin and training partner David Nevin died suddenly from a heart attack. By the time Walsh sensed something wasn't right Nevin had decided he did not want to go to the Olympics.
Hussey stood in and himself and Nevin went on a long-distance run along the South Circular Road. Nevin agreed to stay after poring over his doubts and insecurities. When he eventually got to London, the atmosphere at the first open session shocked him.
Hussey stood in and recorded the sound on his laptop. Later he loaded it onto Nevin's iPad and made him play it back to become accustomed to it.
John Joe Nevin won a silver medal at those games. After overcoming a double leg-break inflicted upon him in a family dispute and court appearances due to drunken incidents, he is finally progressing through the paid ranks. Gerry Hussey is still a performance psychologist working with elite Irish sports.
Eventually, a six-strong team made the trip including Ireland's first-ever female Olympic boxer in Katie Taylor. John Joe Nevin, Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes, Adam Nolan and Darren O'Neill joined her.
There could have been more. Joe Ward had launched an 11th-hour appeal for a place in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport after his dream came to a controversial end in Trabzon, Turkey when he was beaten by home fighter Bahram Muzaffer. The 19-year-old was unsuccessful, but it hinted at the sport's scorecard inadequacies that would later enrage the nation at the following games.
The team physiotherapist was Conor McCarthy. His role, under Walsh's direction, was comprehensive. Every I dotted and t crossed.
"Billy had ingrained in the lads that the tournament was going to be treated like any other," McCarthy tells Balls.ie.
It was about everything. I remember we went over for a pre-tournament in November and we met the staff that were still there. So we knocked craic out of that, Billy was brilliant for this. Chancing his arm with people in a friendly way. There was a media zone where the boys would come through after leaving the ring post-fight. NBC would get the first interview as boxers left the ring and then they’d go down the line to TV and print media.
I managed to wrangle my way into the media zone so I could throw the lads their recovery drink, towels and robes then. They wouldn’t be caught for 40 minutes doing no recovery. Recovery between fights started straight away.
We got that thanks to a 'nod and wink' type stuff. The accreditation is obviously fairly tight but we got friendly with the lead guy so I would pop in, get to Katie or whoever and then skidaddle.
McCarthy first worked with the team in 2006 under Johnson McEvoy. His importance increased as 2012 approached and Walsh continued to create a finely tuned outfit.
"I hate that 'marginal gains' term because Sky have ruined it," McCarthy declares through gritted teeth. "We were trying to reproduce the same patterns and systems that they have used before. Normalise what could be seen as the biggest thing they will ever be in, but make it seem the same as all the other tournaments. Billy and Gerry also spoke about that, don't let the occasion takeover."
"This is really clichéd but it was all the same things. They set standards and it wasn't regimented military precision type set-up. That would not work with boxers. They are mavericks. Some of them are headbangers. You could not put them in a regimented type set-up and expect them to do the same thing day in, day out.
"They have to be let have their crack and express themselves. Billy got the lads because Billy is a boxer. He also played sport at a team level so he had a great marriage in dealing with individual athletic sports while building a team or squad set-up.
"All the staff were singing off the same hymn sheet. It was great craic. You don’t go to those places in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Russia if it wasn't very enjoyable. Boxers don’t go where rowers or swimmers go, to Italy or the likes. Where we go, you would not last too long if the craic wasn’t good. There was a massive element of fun there. That is easy to have when everyone knows what their job is.
"I think Gary Keegan, Billy and Zaur deserve enormous credit for what they helped to build."
Of the six boxers at the tournament, four medalled and five would later turn pro. Nolan broke through at the same time as a teen Michael Conlan as they both won senior titles in the same year. Tonight Conlan fights for the WBO and WBA Inter-Continental titles at Féile an Phobail on Falls Road in front of a sell-out crowd.
It's a remarkable rise and no less than Nolan expected.
Katie, in my opinion, is the greatest sportsperson in Ireland. But leaving Katie aside, of all the fighters I trained with, hands down Michael Conlan and John Joe Nevin were the two most talented. For the first few weeks, I was in awe of them. Their ring craft was second to none. Especially Mike. He could box orthodox or southpaw, back foot or front foot.
I knew from training with the likes of Katie, Michael and John Joe, they were a cut above. Domestically it is hard to judge that but when you are in training camps they really stood out. They boxed powerhouses of Ukraine, Khasazatain, Russia.
The likes of myself and Darren O’Neill, Ray Moylette, Jason Quigley, we could be on the receiving end of a tanking by the cream of the crop in our weight. Those three were always able to mix it with the very best in their weight. That’s what stood out for me.
"You knew with Michael from an early age," McCarthy explains.
"It’s the Gaelic football youngster who can kick with his left or right foot. He had those kinds of skills and then going into 2012, 2013, he just got better and better. He grew up a little bit. He started developing his man strength. That came from his training, he was always a brilliant trainer.
"Kind of from the Paddy Barnes school, they would hammer each other in training! The weight for smaller lads is always an issue, but what the likes Paddy and Michael did well was they know they have to go through that shit. They have to have that in them. They almost have that ability to torture themselves."
What started as a local rivalry become a strong friendship. Barnes also turned pro and will box on the undercard of Conlan's fight tonight. The Belfast boxers had heard of each other prior to 2011 but only really clicked the first time they met in the gym:
"Paddy was trying to talk to me when I came into the gym, but I wouldn't look at him I was so focused. We got into the ring and he battered me. He wouldn't stop punching me. We have been close mates since," Conlan told Sean McGoldrick for his book, Punching Above their Weight.
Taylor is now a unified world champion. Conlan is on an upward path. Last week, Darren O'Neill announced he was going pro. Nevin and Barnes are looking to kickstart something special.
Nolan is the only one no longer in the game.
I was there 2011 to 2015 and you train with the same guys, I mean I went on so many trips with them. Even though you're in a ring on your own, all the training, eating, bunking is together. We'd have the craic and sometimes fight, but we were together.
I don't know if I appreciated it at the time. I look back and I got to three major tournaments and I still think if I had won a major medal…
But to qualify for London was special particularly because there was so many Irish there. The buzz walking in for my first fight against a guy from Ecuador, the place was just full of us. It was awash with green, white and gold. That felt like a sense of achievement, a real occasion. I won’t forget that anyway till my dying day.
Despite winning a national title, Nolan did not qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as Steven Donnelly took his spot through the semi-pro World Series of Boxing route. It left the Bray man devastated and disillusioned. By the time the summer games came about and it all came crashing down, he was dreaming of other pursuits.
"I remember my mother coming in one day and saying 'isn’t it better you are not part of that shambles over there.' I said 'No Mam. I would still give my left leg to get over there'."
To be honest, I always wanted to hurl with Oulart The Ballagh at some stage. I come from a strong GAA family and that background. The idea of representing them was more appealing.
At the end of the day, in hurling if you have a bad game you get the curly finger but if you have a bad day in the ring, and I had a few, you would take a beating and come away with a bruised ego, literally.
Yet in hindsight, that team met remarkable adversity in the years that followed. Katie Taylor endured a public fall-out with her father and coach before her biggest career disappointment, failing to retain a medal in Rio. Paddy Barnes strived for a world title shot and fell short. Last December, having completed a full fight camp, there was no time for his swing bout on the Carl Frampton versus Josh Warrington undercard and he did not get to fight.
Michael Conlan had the heartbreak of Rio 2016 and John Joe Nevin had his personal issues too. At 33, last week Darren O'Neill finally got his chance and turned pro. All of them prevailing through adversity.
Still fighting, in every sense of the word.
"That is instilled in you. They are durable characters, it is resilience. That is bred into you as an Irish boxer. You are not going to nice places. You go to tough places, physically and mentally. You build resilience and carry that forward going into the pro game.
"They bounce back. It’s something you have in common. Overcome. Endure. If I was in such a situation would I react in the same way? I like to think so. That team and group of people are a testament to the amateur game. Overcoming obstacles, you carry that sense into the pro ranks and beyond. Prove people wrong. They all have."