Echo Sport Replay: Carruth looks back on his incredible journey to Olympic Games glory
By Stephen Leonard
MICHAEL Carruth’s gold medal win at the 1992 Olympics Games in Barcelona stands as one of the country’s greatest feats on the international sporting stage.
The then 25-year old Greenhills man pulled off one of the biggest shocks in amateur boxing when he beat Juan Hernández Sierra of Cuba for the welterweight crown and Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal since 1956 when Ronnie Delaney won the 1500m in Melbourne.
Michael Carruth with “the greatest prize” that he captured in Barcelona in 1992
Carruth, who had suffered an early exit from the Summer Games in Seoul just four years before, spoke to The Echo about the physical and emotional rollercoaster of a journey he made towards qualification for Barcelona and the gold he won there.
From that bitterly disappointing showing in Seoul to winning bronze in the World Championships the following year, from great battles with Billy Walsh for the National title to breaking both of his hands and the pain of losing his young nephew in a drowning accident, Carruth drew on every one of those experiences to serve up one of most unforgettable moments in Irish sporting history.
The Drimnagh Boxing Club star had long before been making waves in Irish amateur boxing with impressive performances that eventually led to his selection for the 1988 Summer Games.
“I had a very good international career, a good international record” explained Carruth. “I was going to multi nations and picking up medals, I was winning Home Internationals against England, Scotland and Wales, I was winning my National Championship which was a big thing you have to do and then, on merit, I got selected to go to the Olympics in ’88 at lightweight.
“Now to be honest I was struggling at 60kg. It was a hard weight for me to make and if you make the weight wrong, you’re gone, you’re finished.
“I didn’t sleep at all the night before [his second fight in the Olympics against Sweden’s George Scott]. I was irritable. I was just a figment of the fighter that I was. In the fight I got hit with a thump, I got up and the referee looked into the back of my skull and the fight was over.
“I’d beaten this guy six months previous in the Copenhagen Box Cup. I boxed the ears off him. I was disgusted with myself. I was nearly ready to give up the game. I was so ashamed, I wouldn’t even phone home. I’d made an absolute bags of it.”
Still Carruth managed to put that bitter disappointment behind him and begin, what would prove, and incredible journey towards a return to the Olympic stage.
Michael Carruth cannot contain the joy and shock of becoming Olympic champion after beating Juan Hernández in the welterweight decider
“In 1989 I moved up to the light welterweight category” he recalled “1989 was a very traumatic year for our family because in July of 1989 my brother Austin lost his son Gary. He drowned in Blessington Lakes. I was 22 years old and he was like a little brother to me.
“I actually used that as a mechanism to push myself even harder. I wanted to be the first sprinting all the time, I wanted to be the first jogging all the time, I wanted to be seen better on the bags, better on the pads, better in sparring. I really pushed myself to the extreme that I nearly got sick.
“But I won my bronze medal at the World Championships. I beat a guy called Skipper Kelp from America in the quarter final who was fancied to win it.
“I boxed Andreas Otto from East Germany [in the semi final] at the time. You were fighting in Russia and they scored the fight 18-1.
“I was the only guy from Western Europe to win a medal at those World Championships, but the first thing I said to my dad was ‘Never a chance did I get beaten 18-1′.
“But here I was, a little lad from Greenhills, a bronze medallist at the World Championships. It was huge.’
“I got back into my life in the army, got my training going again, pushing myself for the next Olympics. The Barcelona Olympic Games, you had to qualify rather than be picked on merit.
Michael Carruth on the podium
“I moved up another weight category because I couldn’t make light welterweight. I made a promise to myself that if I couldn’t make the weight, I was going to the next weight so I went up to the welterweight division.
“Billy Walsh had stopped boxing, retired and then he decided to come back and he decided to come back down to the welterweight category where I was at.
“We boxed in the first fight of the National Championships and Billy got a somewhat fortuitous decision. I felt I won the fight. Billy will say he won it, but if you look back on it, you’ll see I won it.
“So Billy went to the first qualifiers, that was in 1991 which were the European Championships in Sweden.
“What happened in that European Championships was phenomenal for Drimnagh in that Paul Griffin, a featherweight, won the European title for Drimnagh which qualified him for the Olympic Games. Billy didn’t qualify.
“But things then went crazy for me after that. I start breaking hands everywhere. I broke my left hand and then I broke my right hand. I broke my right elbow. This was all in 1991.
“They were nearly diagnosing me with osteoporosis. I said I don’t have brittle bones, I’m just hitting too hard.”
“I got back training and got over the breaking of my hands. Then I got selected for the World Championships ahead of Billy.
“So I got ready and we were training in Drogheda. I was sparring Martin McBride from Edenderry and, low and behold, I went and broke my bloody left hand. This was about a week out from going to Australia [for the World Championships], one place I’ve always wanted to go to.
“I actually got my dad to ring Billy and tell him to get back in training as quickly as he can because I was gone. I was out of the World Championships.
“It was another chance for him to qualify for the Olympic Games, but Billy, he hadn’t got enough work done. He tried his best over there, but he didn’t qualify.
“The National Championships were then in the January. I had only gotten the plaster off two days before Christmas and then I had my first fight on the 10th of January against Martin McBride who I’d broken my hand against.
“But me and Billy got to the final of the National Championships for ’92 and I boxed well and I won it.
“I got selected to fight against America the following week and I beat the American 24-6 or something.
“I was allowed go and have a drink and my dad said ‘give us a ring tomorrow. There’s a meeting on in the Stadium’. So I gave him a ring and he said ‘are you sitting down?’ He said ‘you’re fighting Billy Walsh next Friday.’
“You can imagine what I threw down that line at him, but he said ‘if you don’t box him, you’re not going to a qualifier for the Olympics, so be down in the club tomorrow morning.’
“So I got the bus down to Drimnagh and I was hitting the pads and he got me on the scales and I was very good on the weight. I weighed 66.6 and the weight was 67. ‘The mark of the beast’ he said.
“Billy actually weighed .1 lighter than me [on the day of the fight], but it took its toll on him and I won clearly. My dad said ‘now they can’t argue.’
“The qualifiers were then in March in Italy. I won my first fight comfortably and I won my next one.
“Then I had to fight a guy called Said Bennajem from France and I won easy and I qualified. So now Paul Griffin and Michael Carruth were going to the Olympic Games which was great for the club.
“It got even better for us. About three weeks later on a Sunday afternoon my dad goes into the kitchen to answer a phone call and comes out scratching his head.
“He said to me ‘you know the way you and Paul Griffin are representing Drimnagh in the Olympics. Well so am I. I’m just after being selected as coach.’
“I just jumped from the seat into his arms. I was made up because he was going to the Olympic Games.
“We went into training camp firstly in Drogheda, in Holy Family Boxing Club which was a great facility. We trained there for about five or six weeks and then they moved us over to Germany for about four weeks. Then they brought us back to Drogheda for the last two weeks and then off to Barcelona.
“Four years is huge in boxing terms. I was 21 when I was in Seoul. I was 25 and married when I went to Barcelona. I was a corporal in the Irish army, going up the ranks. I was four years wiser, brighter, stronger. I was in a better weight category. I was making the weight easy.
“But Paul Griffin got beaten by an African boxer in his first fight and that did deflate us because all of a sudden, this Samoan guy I was boxing [in his first fight] was getting a little bit more respect.
“But I done what I done best. I counter-punched him well, I moved around him and I won the fight easily.
“My next fight was Andreas Otto, who had beaten me 18-1 [in the 1989 World Championships], but what I didn’t realise was that, against the Samoan, I actually broke my left hand.
“I knew I had a tough one with Otto. He was ranked Number Two in the World.
“But, while he was such a tall boxer, I couldn’t believe his transformation in that he kind of crouched down and he didn’t use his height or reach, and he wanted to get into a little bit of war with me.
“Now I’m technically a counter puncher, but I can mix it and he walked on to a good slap in the first round and he got a standing count. I was ahead during the fight all the way and I won the fight, but more importantly I had just won an Olympic medal.
“Wayne McCullough was about an hour ahead of me and he’d won his. I remember myself and Wayne walking around the Olympic Village that night in disbelief. And the lovely part of it was we were the two surviving members of the Seoul team.
“I had a somewhat easier semi final compared to Wayne. His was an absolute bloody war, and I mean war, but Wayne got it, he got the win.
“I was going in with a guy who I had sparred more times than anyone else, a guy from Thailand [Arkhom Chenglai].
“It was probably my best fight in the Olympics, but then it happened again, I broke my other hand against him. I wasn’t feeling anything, because when you’re winning you’re feeling nothing but when you lose you feel everything.
“We had made it to the Olympic final and Wayne had a guy called [Joel] Casamayor and what he [Casamayor] became was something phenomenal.
“We weighed in early that morning and we immediately went for a medical check-up and that was all good. I hid the fact that my hands were sore and I got away with it.
“Wayne was all geared up and I was then left on my own because Wayne was the biggest concern at that moment because he was the first final. So my dad and [fellow trainer] Nicolas [Cruz] had to give him the 100 percent to get him ready for it.
“And that was kind of the scary part, because I was left on my own in the dressing room and everywhere I looked I could see a bloody Cuban. I think they had eight or ten in the final.
“What Wayne done in that last round [of his final] probably won it for me, because he pushed Casamayor back in that last round and if he had of started like that, he would have won it.
“But he pushed him back and he pushed him back and all of a sudden it made me believe that, yeah, they only have two arms and two legs like I have, they only have one heartbeat. They’re not super human.
“So I’m walking up to this ring for my final against Juan Hernández and then all of a sudden there was this whack of Irish support. You’d swear to God you were back in the National Stadium.
“And I said to myself, why don’t I use that. That I am in the National Stadium here. The National Stadium where I had boxed since I was 11 years old and won titles all the way up. Why don’t I go there? And that’s what I did. I was the home boy.
“The first round, I think it was 4-3 to me and, if I was to be honest, I thought I lost the first round, but when I look back at it, I didn’t.
“He [Hernández] hadn’t been behind in any fight, in all the Olympics, he hadn’t been behind once. So he had been getting a bit of a telling off by his corner men, ‘why are you letting this little fella beat you?’
“The second round I came out and I was boxing really well, but the referee gave me a public warning, which gave my opponent three scores.
“I said I’ve got to get something back and I did. We went back to the corner and it was eight-all going into the Olympic Final last round.
“I knew he was going to come at me, I just knew it, and he fell into the trap. In the first minute of that last round I won it. I caught him with right hook, after right hook, after right hook.
“And I tied it up and I spoiled and I did whatever I could do to get through that last minute, and we got there.
“He knew he lost and I knew I’d won, but there are always robberies and you’re praying to God it’s not going to be you.
“So the next part was get into that middle of the ring and hope that the referee puts your hand up. He attempted to put my hand up and I went mad. It was a certain case of shock, I went into bloody shock.
“This was something you’d dreamt of doing all your life and I had done it, and to have your father in the corner with you was even better. We had won the greatest prize.
“I had made a promise to my Dad when I was seven years old that I would win the Olympic Games for him and he said to me ‘thanks for keeping your promise’.
“We were given an open deck bus through Dublin which is one thing I’ll never forget. We stopped at the Mansion House and then they brought us back to Drimnagh and back up to my Mam and Dad’s house and I think I hit RTE later that night. It was a great time, it really was.”
“Every 8th of August my poor dad would ring me and he’d tell me ‘you won that fight you know’. And I’d say ‘I know’ because he’d be watching it. I miss that phone call on the 8th of August.”
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