Ireland’s former Olympic champion pulls no punches in a revealing interview. He talks about the relationship with his father, his friend Billy Walsh, winning Gold in Barcelona, the frustration of his professional career and he provides some sound advice for the Irish Olympians turning pro.
Sons are extensions of their father, yet people used to tell Michael Carruth he was nothing like his dad Austin. They would tell him that he didn’t look a thing like his father or share any of his personality traits but what he did have was Austin’s calmness and that was huge for a boxer destined for glory in the Olympics.
Michael Carruth won the Gold medal in the Welterweight division at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. It was a historic victory that saw him become Ireland’s first Olympic champion since Ronnie Delany won the 1500m in 1956. Moments before the final Michael turned to his father and told him, “I’m going to win this fight, Ronnie Delaney’s time is up.”
With that Michael Carruth went out and fulfilled a promise that he had made as a seven year old. That he would win an Olympic Gold medal and that he would do it for his father.
The Michael Carruth story remains an inspiration to Irish athletes and central to that success is the relationship he enjoyed with his father.
Michael Carruth affectionately describes his father as, “My mentor and my tormentor.”
“Sometimes we were more like brothers rather than father and son. When he needed to be my father, he was my father, but we had a relationship based on absolute mutual respect. That’s how the pair of us got on so famously.”
Austin Carruth was the head coach at Drimnagh ABC, in South Dublin and had served as his son’s trainer for his entire amateur career. He was a master tactician, a meticulous planner and he had an unwavering eye for detail.
During the 1992 Olympics Austin Carruth was his son’s room mate while they stayed in the Olympic village. Barcelona was Michael Carruth’s second Olympic Games. He suffered the disappointment of an early exit in Seoul in ’88 boxing in the Lightweight division he struggled with dehydration while trying to make the weight.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of Seoul, Austin would rise each night in Barcelona at 3am and wake Michael with a glass of water to keep him hydrated.
“He’ll never know how close he came to concussion,” laughs Michael.
“He would wake me up from the depths of sleep to drink that water, but it worked. I was spot on my weight.”
Carruth firmly believes that his father was ahead of his time in his training methods and approach to amateur boxing. He introduced Michael to weight training, something the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) questioned, but a move that helped deliver underage and intermediate titles to Michael in his late teens.
“My father was thirty years ahead of himself in terms of strength and conditioning training. It took people a long time to realise what he was doing before the High Performance Programme kicked in.”
Austin Carruth’s innovative coaching practices were crucial in ensuring his son made it to the Olympic finals in 1992. In the lead up to the National Championships that year Michael broke his hand while incorporating gymnastics into his training. With his hand in plaster until Christmas he was unable to spar.
Undeterred Austin devised a cunning plan for his son. He took Michael to a sports psychologist in Dublin who used a series of relaxation techniques that got him visualising how he would handle his upcoming opponents. Michael sparred over four hundred rounds in his mind’s eye.
Without having physically sparred one round of boxing Michael Carruth was aiming to regain the Irish National title from the man who had beaten him the previous year; his close friend Billy Walsh.
Michael drew Martin McBride from Edenderry in the first round and won in style. “My father said he never saw me throw so many punches before in my life.” Michael recalls.
“My mind-set was perfect. A week later I drew Billy in the final and I never boxed as well. I knew I won and if I am being honest he knew it as well. I got the score and it was 13-9.”
Despite beating Billy Walsh in the National Championships the Central Council decided that Carruth would have to fight his friend once more in order to qualify for the Olympics. It was the third meeting in two years. It was a hard fought battle for Walsh on the scales, as he came in nearly seven kilos overweight but in the ring Carruth beat him on the same score as the previous meeting. Any doubts about Michael Carruth’s place on the Olympic squad were quashed.
Carruth and Walsh may have been rivals in the ring but they were very much firm friends outside of boxing;
“Billy was like another son in our house. When he used to come up from Wexford to Dublin for training he would stay in our house. He called my Mam his ‘Dublin Mam.’ When I was getting married his name was the first name on the guest list.”
After his own amateur career Walsh would go on to have a ‘second career,’ as the head coach of the IABA’s High Performance Unit and senior team. He led Irish boxers to Olympic, World and European gold medals, but in 2015 he resigned and left Ireland moving to Colorado to become the head coach of USA Boxing.
“I was surprised by the way he handed in his notice,” Carruth admits, “but Ireland can’t match the American’s level of funding and even if they could I think he would have left anyway because he wanted to chase that ambition of taking on the most successful nation in amateur boxing.”
The USA’s male boxers claimed a Bronze and a Silver medal at this year’s Olympics in Rio while middleweight Claressa Shields won her second consecutive Olympic Gold Medal. It was a marked improvement on the previous Olympics in London where none of the USA male boxers claimed a medal.
“Amateur Boxing in the USA is in a poor state at the moment.” Carruth declares, “The male boxers are being pushed into the pro ranks too early chasing the dollar. Billy has arrived and is feeding them the High Performance tablet, he has different training methods and he is a great man-manager. His goal will be to guide a US male boxer to Gold in Tokyo in 2020.”
Michael Carruth knows only too well that nobody hands out Gold Medals for free. It requires hard work and determination, which is why his relationship with teammate Wayne McCullough played such an important supporting role in Carruth’s Olympic glory.
“For a start it was a great story,” Carruth admits, “It was a Protestant from Belfast and a Catholic from Dublin. People would have thought we couldn’t be friends. Wayne has been my friend all my life. He still is. Boxing is like Rugby in Ireland, it’s always been united. We all boxed for Ireland. Nobody cared if you were a Catholic or a Protestant you just got on with it.”
The relationship between Carruth and McCullough was more than just a positive story for the Peace Process in Ireland or good PR for the Irish Olympic team there was a genuine bond and competitive spirit between the pair which propelled them both to succeed.
“We were an inspiration to one another. We were the only two surviving members of the Seoul team, so we had a little bit of experience behind us and we were a bit more streetwise in ’92. Wayne would usually fight before me, and win, so then I would say, ‘the little fecker,’ now I have to win.”
The chemistry between both fighters enabled them both to progress to the final. They would both be facing Cubans, who were notoriously difficult to beat. It would be a monumental task made all the more difficult considering how the tournament had taken its toll on both men.
Carruth explains, “When we had both qualified for the Olympics we were both injured and we had to keep it quiet. Wayne had had an absolute bloody war in his semi-final and his cheek bone was badly bruised. I had won a decent semi and I thought I could save something for the final, but both my hands were broken. I wasn’t really bad, I could still punch. Wayne was tender but nothing was going to stop us getting an Olympic title.”
On the day of the final Michael Carruth weighed in, had his breakfast and then slept for over an hour. He maintained his relaxation throughout the day despite watching his friend Wayne McCullough lose in his final to Joel Casamayor, “Wayne had an engine like a Rolls Royce. He wasn’t getting the best of it in the first two rounds, but he had a great last round,” concedes Carruth.
Wayne McCullough’s Silver medal in the final did at least affirm something in Carruth’s mind, “Wayne proved to me was that the Cubans were just human like the rest of us. I thought Wayne’s best could be my worst. By the end of his fight I started getting my head together. As the fight grew near my dad looked a bit nervy and that’s when I said, ‘Delaney’s time is up.’ I wasn’t being disrespectful I was just adamant I was going to take the Gold medal.”
Michael Carruth was a formidable boxer, tough and physically strong but perhaps the greatest weapon in his arsenal proved to be his mind.
He had overcome adversity in many forms during the qualifiers, he had carried significant injuries throughout the tournament and he was written off by the pundits in the final, against the 6’3 world amateur champion; Juan Hernandez.
After nine minutes of superb boxing which still ranks as one of the greatest Irish sporting performances Michael Carruth was crowned the Olympic Champion. His leaping celebration on the day remains iconic to a generation of Irish sports fans.
“I should have won the high jump as well,” he laughs.
Austin Carruth may have preferred his son to do the gentlemanly thing and shake his opponent’s hand after his victory but at the end of a magic fight all was forgotten as both men embraced in a moment which confirmed both the universal appeal of sport and the unspoken bond between a father and son.
Michael Carruth was the new Olympic champion and it took a while for him to adjust to that reality, “You are pinching yourself every couple of minutes.” he explains, “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve just won Olympic Gold and I’ve got a nice shiny medal in my pocket to prove it.”
The story could end there and the credits roll with Michael Carruth as the Olympic Champion, but a year later he embarked on a professional career.
He entertained a number of offers from the US, famously turning down Top Rank when promoter Bob Arum continually got his name wrong, “It just seemed like he couldn’t be bothered.” Carruth was also offered a contract with Jimmy Wheeler a promoter from Louisiana, which he almost signed before eventually opting for the London based Promoter Frank Warren.
The decision to sign with Warren appears to be the sole regret in his professional career, “I cursed myself not going to America. I should have gone. My ultimate aim would have been to fight Oscar De La Hoya. We would have seen who the real ‘Golden Boy’ was.”
“I was only married two years to my wife Paula and I thought it wouldn’t be fair dragging her all around the world and keeping her from her family.”
With that Carruth based himself in London accompanied by a new trainer; Ernie Fossey, perhaps better known in the trade as a cut man. Carruth admits, “I loved the bones of Ernie, but all he would tell me to do was throw an uppercut.”
In 1997 after fourteen professional fights Carruth earned himself a world title shot in Germany. It was against the undefeated Romanian Michael Loewe who was making the first defence of his WBO Welterweight title. Carruth lost a narrow split decision with two judges giving it to the champion by a point and a third by a landslide majority. Carruth has his own theories about the judges that night.
“I honestly believe I won that title in Germany. I believe one of those judges was bought. My father was in my corner and he told me I had to win the last four rounds and I did. You just to have to look at the footage of the fight to see who was in the worst shape at the end. If I had been anywhere else that night I would have been champion, but because I was in Germany I didn’t win.”
Loewe would retire after his fight with Carruth, a hand injury prevented him from ever boxing again. Carruth has his own theory about that as well, “He never fought again because he knew what I would do to him.”
The fight in Germany effectively severed all ties with Frank Warren as Carruth’s promoter. He admits at this point in his career he went into limbo. He found himself a Dublin promoter but he was not fighting regularly and it had a detrimental effect on his career.
“I was fighting in Dublin in smaller arenas and I only fought twice in two years. I was supposed to fight WBC Light middleweight champion Javier Casillejo but then that was called off, so I went home and I became undisciplined.”
The end of the road came in April 2000 when Carruth fought Adrian Stone, he battled hard with the scales and it resulted in a fifth round stoppage loss.
“It goes down in the history books that I quit on my stool,” admits Carruth, “My Da’ was in my corner that night. He warned me that I was dehydrated and that he wasn’t bringing me home in a coffin. I said, ‘pull the plug.’ It was just one of those things. That’s boxing.”
Michael Carruth’s experience as a professional boxer serves as a cautionary tale for amateurs transitioning into the paid ranks. In a sense they are two different sports, amateur boxing is about technique and skill. Professional boxing is blood sport. That said, Carruth himself affirms the decisions made by the former Irish Olympians who have now decided to throw their hats into the professional ring.
“I’m pleased Michael Conlon is going to America, there is no better professional set-up than what you will find in America. I know Michael reacted harshly to his quarter final loss, but he was completely hijacked in Rio. When you put your whole life into trying to win a medal it’s hard when it’s taken away from you. Who knows maybe the Russian [Vladimir] Nikitin will turn pro and Michael will have his revenge.”
“I think Jason Quigley will also do well being based in California. I was surprised given his relationship with Carl Frampton that Paddy Barnes didn’t ask Shane McGuigan to be his trainer but I wish him well with MGM.”
“It’s unfortunate we have lost some of our finest amateur lads but we wish them every luck.”
With the mass exodus of talent from the Irish amateur scene after the Olympics many pundits believed that the future of the sport was in pieces. In contrast Carruth remains positive about the future.
“They were saying it was the worst Irish boxing team ever. What a load of nonsense, look at our track record. It had been twelve years since there was an Irish boxing medallist before Barcelona in 1992. Then it was another sixteen before we won anymore. I don’t think there is a problem, I think the problem is the world judges.”
Carruth is also quick to point to emerging talent in Ireland, “I think Joe Ward is going to get better, he’s only 23 but I think he’ll be a strong contender for the next Olympics. There is also the young Belfast boxer Brendan Irvine and Lisburn’s Kurt Walker who will be two to watch for in the future.”
Another Northern Irish boxer that Carruth has a lot of time for is WBA Featherweight champion; Carl Frampton. “Carl could be the biggest thing Ireland has ever seen. He is on the verge of legendary status. It would have been great if he could have brought the rematch with Santa Cruz to Belfast and sold out Windsor Park but money dictates all these decisions. If he can beat him once he can beat him twice. It’s great for him and his family, it ensures security for the rest of his life. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
Life seemas to have come full circle for Michael Carruth. He currently works with the IABA facilitating the Start Box programme which teaches school children about the fundamentals of boxing. He is also the Head Coach of Drimnagh ABC. “I can’t complain,” he says, “it was done for me so it’s my job now to pass it on.”
Carruth is filling the void left by his father who sadly passed away in 2011 followed by his mother Joan in 2013. These days he is reflective about his career and life in general.
“I had a great career, I had a great upbringing and a great mum and dad who were my role models. They are gone from me now, but I wonder are they gone? My Da’ used to have a great saying, “I show you today, you teach me tomorrow. It just meant whatever he would show me I would put into practice in future and teach someone else.”
On a more subtle note one Michael Carruth can admit that he has become more like his father. “I’m more like him now in his calmness and ability to forgive people. I’ve become much more tolerant.”
It seems the spirit of Austin Carruth is strong in his son as Michael Carruth outlines his own ambitions as an amateur coach, “My next aim is to produce an Olympic champion. I’m going to do it. The love of boxing will never die in this country.”
Let’s hope that Ireland’s love affair with boxing can be everlasting.
Forever and ever. Amen.