People say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Freddie Roach hopes those people are wrong.
Roughly 22 years ago, a skinny young kid from the Philippines wandered into Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club on Vine Street in Hollywood, California. looking for a trainer. Roach asked if he could fight. The kid said he believed so. It didn’t take Roach long to agree and thus was born one of the greatest pairings in boxing history – hall of fame trainer Roach and future hall of fame fighter Manny Pacquiao.
Pacquiao went on to become the only eight-division world titleholder in boxing history, the first fighter to win the lineal title in five different weight classes (flyweight, featherweight, junior lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight) and the only boxer in history to wear world title belts in four different decades. In his corner through all those years and all those victories was Roach, a master tactician and the horse whisperer of boxing.
Boxing has been his life for as long as the 63-year-old Roach can remember so the success of any one fighter, even one as transcendent as Pacquiao, never prevented him from showing up each morning at 1123 Vine Street to open the doors of his gym because, well, you never know who might walk in.
About a year ago someone new did. Someone Roach knew little about who, like Pacquiao, told him he could fight. Fortunately for Callum Walsh he got a chance to prove it in a hurry.
Walsh was a well decorated amateur from Ireland, where he’d won six national titles. He also won a European amateur championship gold medal but his dream of winning Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020 had been derailed by the Covid pandemic that shut down every gym in Ireland. Faced at 19 with the stark possibility of trying to train himself in his living room in Cork for no one knew how long, Walsh instead set out for America like many an Irishman before him. The one place he knew to go was the front door of Roach’s Wild Card gym.
“It’s funny,” Roach said. “Sometimes you open up the gym and it’s not a money maker. Other days a guy like Manny Pacquiao or a kid like this walks through the door.”
That day, two years ago, Roach sized up the then 20-year-old Walsh, who had asked if he could train there. He informed him of the first rule at the Wild Card. On Wednesdays you spar. Or you leave. No exceptions for jet lag.
“Freddie Roach is a legend so if I wanted the man to be my coach I wasn’t going to say no,” Walsh (5-0, 4 KO) recalled recently. “I showed up there all alone but I had no nervousness until he told me it was time to spar. I got in with one of the pros, Blair Cobbs, and held my own. I’m happy it was a sparring day. I showed him what I could do. I guess he liked it because I haven’t left.”
Roach liked what he saw because Walsh had the one thing no trainer can give a fighter and it was apparent that first sparring session. He had the raw power that can give a young man a future in a hard-road business.
“That first day in the gym I knew he was something special,” Roach said. “I said to Callum, ‘Are you a fighter?’ When he said he was I just said, ‘Then get ready to fight. Wednesday is sparring day.’ Right from the first you could see he was a good puncher. He’s better on offense than defense right now but we’re working on that.”
After the session ended, Walsh told Roach he was from Cork and the trainer said he’d been there with Steve Collins and they’d won a title there. Walsh’s response was declarative.
“He said, ‘I’m a better boxer,’” Roach recalled with a smile. “I hope he’s right because Steve was a great boxer. Callum has been pretty much with me ever since. This kid has a chance.”
Roach thinks he has enough of a chance that he convinced promoter Tom Loeffler, who has handled the affairs of the Klitschko brothers and Gennady Golovkin, to begin using Walsh on small shows he runs at the Quiet Cannon Country Club in Montebello, California, a city eight miles east of downtown L.A. It’s about the same distance to the front door of the Wild Card, and Walsh has made that short trip five times and come away a winner each time while showing enough to convince Roach he is ready to make a sizeable step up on March 16.
On Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day Eve, Walsh will make his 10-round debut nearly 3,000 miles from the Wild Card in a city long attached to Irishmen coming to America with dreams. That night he will headline a show at the Agganis Arena, a hockey rink on the Boston University campus in downtown Boston, against an opponent about whom he knows only one thing.
“I’m fighting a fella who has more knockouts (nine) than I have fights,” Walsh said of late-sub Wesley Tucker (15-4, 9 KOs), stepping in for Leonardo di Stefano Ruiz, who broke a finger in training. “I’ll fight anyone, anytime, anywhere.
“On the night I’ll feel a bit of nervousness but this is something I dreamed of: fighting in front of a house packed with Irishmen. I want to win world titles and I won’t do that fighting six- and eight-round fights.”
The truth of that made him smile but it wasn’t an Irish eyes kind of smile. It was an assassin’s smile.
“A lot of people told me to give him an eight rounder,” Roach said of the seemingly large step Walsh is about to take. “I feel he’s shown enough in the gym to go right to 10.
“I want guys who want to work and Callum likes to work. We spar for a reason. To become a better fighter. It’s competition, like a real fight. He’s worked with a lot of pros in the gym. He’s knocked out a couple guys there. We think he’s ready.”
So, too, does UFC president Dana White, a man who has long had a love-hate relationship with boxing. White once trained in Roach’s father’s gym in Boston and still loves the sport and the fighters who populate it. What he hates is boxing’s sordid politics. Several times White considered putting his sizeable presence behind a fighter but in the end chose not to because of the outside business problems that make building a fighter far more taxing (not to mention irritating) than he faces running the colossus that UFC and mixed martial arts have become.
But White met Walsh in Las Vegas after Walsh’s pro debut when Loeffler brought him along to an already scheduled meeting with White to discuss a possible streaming deal with Fight Pass. White had seen what Irish fans will do when they back a fighter, having watched them support UFC champion Conor McGregor in droves and thought, ‘Why not try it with this kid?’ Thus was born a unique relationship between Walsh and one of combat sports’ most powerful forces.
White agreed to show Walsh’s fights on UFC Fight Pass, his company’s subscription video streaming service, and to throw some of his considerable marketing weight behind him, thus giving Walsh a place to be seen that most young fighters seldom find after only five fights.
“Dana is behind him 100 per cent,” Loeffler said. “He came to see him fight in Montebello and loved the way the crowd reacted to his style. Callum’s coming for knockouts and Irish fans react to that. Dana thinks he has a chance to become a star and when Freddie told me he felt Callum was one of the best young fighters he’d ever seen I listened.”
So far it’s been a smooth transition from Irish amateur to professional prospect but there remains a long road ahead. The plan is for Walsh to fight at least once a year in Boston, a town with a large Irish enclave, as well as in New York, a city which has long welcomed fighters with Irish lineage and knockout power.
It’s all been a whirlwind of change since he first walked through the doors of the Wild Card gym and as with any such transition, it’s been difficult at times but Callum Walsh hasn’t once looked back. He’s only looking ahead.
“My dad first brought me to the gym when I was six years old because I was kind of a rowdy kid,” Walsh said. “Where I come from it’s normal to fight each other and I loved to do it so he figured he’d put me in a ring. My first day there I sparred, so when I got to Freddie’s that wasn’t new to me.
“L.A. is a bit different from Cork though. I live right near the gym. It’s only a two-minute walk but I live alone and that’s a hard thing. There’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make for boxing though and you have to be willing to make them. Hopefully it all pays off.”
The long, lonely wait for a possible shot at the Irish Olympic team in 2024 was not the only reason young Callum Walsh decided to pack up and head to America to seek out Freddie Roach though. There was an even more pragmatic one behind the thinking that launched him on the odyssey he’s embarked upon.
“I played Gaelic football and hurling while I boxed up until I was 15,” Walsh recalled. “Why’d I pick boxing? There’s not much money in hurling.”
There is in boxing, of course, but only if you can reach the highest rungs of a slippery sporting ladder. Callum Walsh has embarked on that climb, with the next rung being his first 10-round main event in Boston on March 16 with the watchful eyes of an old Boston fighter in his corner who knows a lot about boxing dreams and how to make them come true.
“I always say you never know when the next Ali may walk through the door,” Roach said. “One day it was Manny Pacquiao. Now it’s Callum. Opening the gym door at 7:30 in the morning every day to see who might walk in is what keeps me going. The young guys who do walk in deserve a fair shake. That’s what I’m trying to give Callum. If he gets it, I think he can be someone special.”
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