Ahead of his title challenge to Gervonta Davis, the Cromer super-featherweight tells Danny Flexen why family will always come first

For Liam Walsh, it has always been about family, the ties that bind. Inescapable and reassuring, the familial bond cultivated an enduring love affair with boxing, sustained Walsh through myriad bumps in the road and, now more than ever, dictates his future.

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All roads lead back to John Walsh, a Rochdale man of diverse distinctions – painter, decorator, smoker, drinker, inspiration, visionary. Father of four, driven to distraction by a trio of rambunctious boys. The ardent fight fan infused in his sons a similar love for the sport, ensuring they could exhaust abundant latent energy, both in their front room and, in due course, the gym.

“My dad told us he moved us away [to cromer] to keep us out of trouble. Growing up in Rochdale, it was a rough area, a lot of poverty and a lot of kids got in trouble – we were boxing but going down them routes as well. We’d have ended up in trouble, all our mates ended up in prison.”

This pattern continued after John relocated his family to the seaside town of Cromer, on Norfolk’s endearing east coast, when Liam was nine and, like his twin Ryan and their older brother Michael, edging closer to a life on the wrong side of the tracks. Fraternal scraps paradoxically brought them closer and while John had instilled an affection for the Noble Art, it became rapidly and irrevocably intertwined with an unspoken, collective strength that has seen them through every trial – literally, in one case, when all three were ultimately acquitted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent – and tribulation. John’s masterplan has come to fruition.

“We were constantly fighting, until one day, he came home with a pair of gloves, and said, ‘Stick these on.’,” recalls Liam, currently preparing for his May 20 London challenge to ballyhooed IBF super-featherweight ruler Gervonta Davis.

“He always read Boxing News, though never boxed himself and he took us to the boxing club to fight other people when we eventually got tired of fighting each other.

“My dad told us he moved us away to keep us out of trouble. Growing up in Rochdale, it was a rough area, a lot of poverty and a lot of kids got in trouble – we were boxing but going down them routes as well. We’d have ended up in trouble, all our mates ended up in prison. The move to Cromer was a holiday originally… it’s still a holiday now. It’s probably the best move he ever done.”

The boys, as they are prone to do, became men and, as professional boxers, would live in adjacent houses, train alongside each other, sharing motivation, glory and occasional disappointment. John, made immensely proud, lived vicariously through his children to an extent, but refused to accept even a sliver of the limelight. He could often be identified, if one were inclined to look, in his trademark Team Walsh jacket, shrinking out of camera shot at ringside.

While mum Michelle was and remains an exemplary role model, John, more through presence than force of character, seemed to hold them all together, stitching an almost invisible fabric that would never, they believed, be torn asunder. Until, without warning, it was shredded beyond repair.

“He lived for today and didn’t worry about tomorrow,” Liam reflects of his father’s sudden death from heart disease, aged a mere 49, just before the Christmas of 2011. “Men of that era, especially up north, they smoked as much as they wanted, drank as much as they wanted, they weren’t educated whatsoever about food.

“He went the way he wanted; he’d tell us, ‘If I’m ever lying there in pain, make sure you switch the [life support] machine off, I wanna die in my bed,’ and he did.”

Questioning everything they had previously taken for granted, the Walsh brothers were at once rendered rudderless, marooned. There had been no lengthy illness, no long goodbye, no time to adjust to a permanently altered reality. One day John had been there, the next he had passed away at home, the denoument he’d always preferred offering scant consolation to those left bereft and behind. Liam was confronted with the acute pain and yearning emptiness of loss, trailed in their wake by serious doubts about his own destiny.

“After the Scott Harrison fight [in April 2013], I looked up to the sky and said a few words, telling him ‘I’m not feeling it because you’re not here to see it.’ I bet there are lads my age still trying to impress their dad, maybe it never leaves you.”

“It affected us all massively,” he remembers, a slight tremor, perhaps, in his voice. “I have considered knocking boxing on the head. The last fight he came to was against [Paul] Appleby [Liam’s stoppage win headlining BoxNation’s debut show in September 2011]. He was proud but annoyed because he knew I was better than that [Liam was forced to rise from a knockdown in a tumultuous thriller].

“The next one was [versus Dominic] Urbano [another inside-schedule triumph], I didn’t feel no spark; as a kid it would always be about being the best to impress your dad, him giving you compliments was worth a hundred of anyone else’s. I won the fight and I was just flat. I would get excited to get out, see my dad and ask him, ‘What did you think?’ and he’d be buzzing, really proud – that ticked boxes for me.

“After the Scott Harrison fight [in April 2013], I looked up to the sky and said a few words, telling him ‘I’m not feeling it because you’re not here to see it.’ I bet there are lads my age still trying to impress their dad, maybe it never leaves you.” Liam Walsh v Andrey Klimov IBF World Super Featherweight Title Final Eliminator

Fittingly, the pursuit that enthralled both Liam and his father would rescue him from the abyss. As the grief finally began to subside, he rekindled his boxing romance and returned to something approaching top form but, flirting between two weight classes, a major breakthrough proved elusive. A shot at a peak Ricky Burns and his WBO lightweight belt a year after his father’s death was scuppered, perhaps fortunately in hindsight, by damage Walsh sustained in a car crash, while a final eliminator for the same strap in 2015 imploded due to his hand injury.

“I think Frank showed faith in me from day one, he’s given me opportunities and he’s always been loyal to me. He’s always paid well, people think the grass is greener, but that’s not always the case, there’s been no reason I’d want to leave. He’s delivered again now; time and time again Frank delivers fights on home turf.”

Walsh has appeared ready to climb into world class, whether at super-feather or the weight above, since comfortably beating Harrison, but for myriad reasons has endured long spells of inactivity. The last time he fought more than twice in a calendar year was 2010 and, until recently, the 30-year-old, despite training diligently under the esteemed Graham Everett, looked in serious danger of withering on the vine, of wasting the huge potential that his dad and brothers had long insisted he must fulfil.

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“I was massively disappointed about the Burns fight,” he tells me, and the father of three still sounds regretful over the cancellation. “I genuinely believed I could have beat him, looking back now with an older head I still think it, but it would have been a very hard fight at the time; he was a big strong man, and now I think I’m that big strong man. I’m definitely at the peak of my powers now.

“My inactivity has been a bit of everything, I’ve had a few injuries in my career but too much emphasis is put on that, people make out I’m always injured but that’s not the case, I’ve just had bad injuries at the wrong times. There have been long periods when I’ve been ready to fight. When BoxNation first started, it’s not like it hit the ground running and we were all flying, it was hard times. There weren’t tonnes of fights available at the time.”

The elegant switch-hitter points out that the dedicated boxing channel he helped to launch has since grown exponentially, an evolution clearly illustrated by the ability of its owner and his promoter, Frank Warren, to lure Davis, a reigning champion and Floyd Mayweather protégé, to foreign soil for such a pivotal meeting.

“There have been periods where I’ve been frustrated and I’m sure Frank and the team have had periods where they’ve been frustrated with me too, for one reason or another,” he muses, philosophically.

“I think Frank showed faith in me from day one, he’s given me opportunities and he’s always been loyal to me. He’s always paid well, people think the grass is greener, but that’s not always the case, there’s been no reason I’d want to leave. He’s delivered again now; time and time again Frank delivers fights on home turf. For me he’s the best in the business, he knows the game better than any of them, and bringing people from scratch to become champions, I don’t think anyone’s done more of that.”

Despite Warren’s best efforts to propel his charge forward, Walsh has never craved the celebrity that befits of his status, focusing far more on the financial rewards he can attain and how they can support his partner Sarah, their daughter and two sons (plus a third due just 12 days after the Davis tilt). liam-walsh-boxer

“I’m more than happy about the amount of press I’ve had, I’d probably like a little less in future but that probably won’t be possible after this fight,” he says self-consciously, mildly embarrassed at rejecting the trappings many athletes covet.

“It’s not for me at all, I hate being in the spotlight in terms of interviews, people having cameras on me, it makes me uncomfortable. I’d love a contract that says I turn up at the fight, win, then I’m done. It sounds really unappreciative and I’m probably not doing myself any favours; Michael is forever telling me I need to be more vocal, but there’s not a chance, not gonna happen. I just wanna be a normal geezer like everyone else.”

Peering into the near future, there emerges a variation on the abiding theme. A plot of land in Holt, purchased. Three vast tree barns, almost converted. A fraternal utopia close to completion. Three brothers, who will boast 14 children between them, living, loving and coexisting in perfectly imperfect harmony.

“It’s our dream,” Liam explains. His voice has taken on a hushed, faraway quality, as if picturing the scene. “I can’t wait. It’s what we all wanted as kids. As long as we’re all together, we’ll be happy forever.”

And, with that, Liam has to go; he has family business to attend to. Michael has used his younger brother’s online betting account and Chelsea are leading 2-0, just as he wagered. With West Ham on the attack, Michael harangues Liam to cash out before disaster, and the Hammers misfiring forwards, can strike. Largely unchanged in the five years that have passed since we last spoke, family evidently still comes first for Liam Walsh. That may be the quality of which John would be most proud.

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