'Bring it on': Ryan Walsh interview
Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Ryan Walsh is on the verge of a record breaking spell as British featherweight champion. He talks to Oliver McManus about carrying himself with dignity, why his face doesn't always fit and his desire to prove just how good he is...
Embarking on a sixth defence of his British title on Friday night, Ryan Walsh finds himself at a crossroads in his career; having enjoyed a distinguished spell as domestic kingpin.
At 33 years old, the featherweight is acutely aware of the need for urgency in pursuing greater challenges. Despite his desire to "see how good [he] really is" he insists nothing can ever quite match the thrill of winning the Lord Lonsdale belt and his lengthy reign; his next challenger is Lewis Paulin on Friday, and Walsh begins by telling Boxing Monthly why this is the most exciting test of his time as champion.
“I’ve not been able to see much of him so I’ve just got the obvious bits - that he’s a southpaw and things like that - but we’re looking at getting the basics right and then adapting on the night. I’ve not been great at that throughout my career but that’s something I’m looking forward to and it’s kind of like an amateur fight, really, just rolling up and seeing what I’ve got.
"If I’m the champion I think I am then I should be able to adapt and get the better so the proposition of learning on the job excites me because it’s not often you get to fight a complete unknown; he’s the biggest banana skin and dark horse that I’m going to get at this stage in my career. In general, as humans, we don’t like the unknown but I can’t wait.”
The fight itself will go down as a voluntary defence but, for Walsh, it is yet another case of his career being stagnated by mandatory challengers unwilling to dance with the champion. Jordan Gill and Isaac Lowe both turned down potential paydays against the 33 year old but Walsh, limited to two fights in two years, insists he is used to that feeling by now.
“I have been waiting on mandatories since I was champion, it feels like. I was lucky early on because I knew there was a final eliminator between Darren Traynor and [James] Tennyson so when my opponent fell through for the first defence, Ryan Doyle, we approached the board and asked if we could have one of them and then fight the other so that was a good patch of fights
"[Marco] McCullough stepped in, fair play to him, and then we had to keep on waiting for mandatories to be called because no-one has been willing to face me for it. I’ve heard people say they were waiting for me to vacate but that’s not something I want to do - this is the British title, not some Intercontinental belt, it means something.”
Walsh seems to reluctantly accept his fate as the bogeyman of the featherweight division - an odd case of a champion having seemingly few fighters chomping at the bit to face him - but it is not necessarily a role he relishes. Yet, as he discusses the upcoming bout there is a tangible enthusiasm to be fighting back in Bethnal Green - the setting for nine of his previous fights.
“Personally I just can’t wait to fight at York Hall again: it was my first title defence [against Darren Traynor in 2016] and I haven’t fought there since so it’s a good stomping ground. I’ve got good memories at the Copper Box and the O2 but, without a doubt, York Hall is the best of them all - for the atmosphere, prices for the fans, the memories - it’s the MSG of England.
“The penny dropped when I went to watch Prizefighter and I can remember thinking 'I get it', I was on the balcony and you can hear the fighters breathing, the punches landing. It was the one where [Martin Joseph] Ward got knocked down after [Maxi] Hughes nutted him and Jono Carroll lost to Gary Buckland and I remember I was excited to watch it and that’s when I started to really appreciate how good York Hall is.”
As mentioned, this is Walsh's sixth defence of the British featherweight title - a belt won Walsh outright against McCullough in 2017 - and should Walsh be successful he’ll be the first featherweight since Howard Winstone in 1966 to achieve such a feat. No featherweight has ever defended it a seventh time, however, and upon realising this Walsh is eager to stake his claim as a history-maker.
“I wear a seven on my shirt but that’s because I’m a United fan and Eric Cantona was an amazing player so I’ve got an affinity with the number seven and now I know that, I’ll be wearing it for an extra reason.
"It’s all about the opportunities that open up because I just want to have good fights and the British [title] will always be my proudest achievement but if the fights aren’t there then I’m going to have to try something different. That bit of history, though, it’s something I want and I know I am capable of; it would be so much easier if we had a British European champion, though, so I can kill two birds with one stone and keep going in the right direction.”
Part of a rare flock of fighters, nowadays anyway, with a genuine passion and knowledge for the history behind the British title, Walsh insists it will always be his crowning achievement but that crown isn’t as bejewelled as perhaps it should be; in part down to questionable decisions that have left Walsh befuddled with the state of the sport.
He labels decisions against Denis Ceylan (a split decision loss for the European title) and Isaac Lowe (ruled a draw with one scorecard for both fighter) as “absurd”, but it was his most recent fight, a split decision win against Reece Bellotti, that stands out as a real head-scratcher.
“I was took back with the Bellotti one because you’d be lucky to give him three rounds in that whole contest. In situations like that there needs to be more accountability, the referees need to justify the reasoning for their scorecards. Maybe they need to start giving judges earphones to stop them getting swayed but, whatever they [governing bodies] do, the referees need to be scrutinised more.
"You see iFL want to show everyone the fighters and behind-the-scenes and I’d like to see them speaking to the referees whether they gave a good card or a poor one - just to normalise it and then get some accountability.”
Even in the face of such understandable frustration there is no resentment from Walsh who remains typically reflective; a true ‘everyman’ of boxing and a gentleman at that, too.
“If you’re not in the clique then it’s very, very difficult and I wouldn’t change anything but it’s very frustrating because I’ve worked with two of the biggest promoters in the world - Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren - but my face just doesn’t seem to fit for them.
"I think you need a big mouth and I’m probably a bit too honest so I’ve got to take a little bit of the blame; I’m not going to start having a big mouth now, though, it’s just not me and I want to show my kids how to respect themselves and carry themselves with dignity.”
As he enters what could be the twilight stage of Walsh’s career - though he won't be drawn on hypothetical time frames for retirement - there is, however, someone flying the featherweight’s flag with unabashed patriotism and passion: managerial heavyweights MTK Global have thrust their support behind both Ryan and, brother, Liam in a move the British champion hopes will help him maximise the returns on his ability.
“Now I’m with MTK I’ve got someone pushing for the bigger fights and I’m not one to look past 28 June but I want to be involved with some real fights. I can’t say I’m that fussed about what the belts are, either, yeah they help get a fight made but as long as I’m testing myself then I’m happy with that. I want to know how good I am because I’ve only had one crack at an elite fighter and I didn’t have enough but that was six years ago and I know I’m a different man since then. What can I say but bring it on, it’s time for me to see what I can achieve and if I’m as good as me and MTK believe.”