In 2001, a little-known southpaw boxer walked unannounced through the doors at Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, California, and one of the great partnerships in any sport was born.
Manny Pacquiao was on vacation and happened to find his way to Freddie Roach’s gym in early 2001. The two became one of the greatest duos in boxing history and, when Pacquiao becomes eligible in 2024, both of them will then be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
It’s hard to say it’s happening again, because it’s a long way from 3-0 to what Pacquiao did. Still, the left-handed Irishman Callum Walsh showed up by himself at Roach’s gym looking for a place to train and, well, Roach was blown away by what he saw.
“He’s so heavy-handed, he’s got the ability to knock guys out with one punch with either hand,” Roach said.
Walsh, who fights 15-8 Benjamin Whitaker on Thursday in the main event of a 360 Promotions card at Quiet Cannon Country Club in Montebello, California, that will stream on UFC Fight Pass, has already done something that Pacquiao couldn’t do: He’s gotten UFC president Dana White involved in boxing.
Walsh is a 21-year-old middleweight who won six Irish national titles and a European gold medal as an amateur. He was preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when the pandemic hit. It was problematic for him, because all of the gyms in his native Ireland immediately closed and all he could do was train by himself in his home.
That wasn’t going to work, so he flew to the U.S. to continue his training and just so happened to show up at Wild Card.
“I got there and I asked if I could train there,” Walsh told Yahoo Sports. “Freddie looked at me and said, ‘This is Wednesday and Wednesdays are sparring days. If you want to train here, you have to spar.’ So I said, ‘Certainly,’ and I went in and sparred six rounds with one of the pros. Freddie wanted to keep me after that and, well, here I am.”
But there’s more — a lot more — to the story. Tom Loeffler, who promoted long-time middleweight champion Gennadiy Golovkin and heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, got involved with Walsh after a conversation with Roach. Many of Roach’s fighters appear on Loeffler’s shows in Montebello.
Roach recommended Walsh to Loeffler and he agreed. On Dec. 10, Walsh knocked out Early Henry on a 360 card in just 1:37 in a room filled with screaming Irish fans. Loeffler needed no more convincing. Irish fight fans are passionate, especially if their fighter is good. Loeffler realized early that Walsh had championship potential.
It’s hard, though, to build a young fighter without a broadcast deal. Loeffler had a meeting scheduled with White in Las Vegas on Feb. 9 — Walsh’s 21st birthday — to discuss a streaming deal on UFC Fight Pass. He decided to bring Walsh along to meet White.
White had for several years looked at a way to get involved in boxing and had actually created Zuffa Boxing roughly at the time Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather were preparing to fight in 2017.
Eventually, he gave up because he believed too many problems plagued the sport. But then Loeffler and Walsh showed up in his office and immediately, White’s interest was piqued.
“We’ve had a lot of success with the Irish here with Conor and I think this kid could become extremely popular with the Irish,” White told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not saying he’s going to be [as popular as] Conor, but he’s a great kid and he has a really fun fighting style. We can take him to New York and Boston and really build him into something.”
Walsh himself is a huge MMA fan and trains frequently with UFC star Tony Ferguson at Wild Card. Ferguson and Walsh have playfully grappled but Ferguson’s impact on Walsh is clear in his conditioning.
“Tony and I have been friends for over a year now and we’ve trained every day together for this camp,” Walsh said. “His conditioning is crazy, the best I’ve ever seen. It’s unbelievable. In the gym, he pushes everybody and is always trying to motivate everybody to train.”
Loeffler got his Fight Pass deal but also convinced White to attend his May 12 show in Montebello. Walsh improved his record to 3-0 on that card by knocking out Luis Garcia in 1:48.
White was sold and jumped on the bandwagon.
“First of all, that was the best matchmaking on a boxing card I’d seen in a long, long time,” White said. “The venue was great and the fights were all crazy. And Callum just looked amazing. The people gravitate to him and they were going crazy for him.”
Loeffler has brought Walsh to several UFC cards as well as to the Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano boxing card at Madison Square Garden. At each one, fans have recognized him and asked for photos and autographs. He was very popular in an appearance during the UFC’s International Fight Week in Las Vegas last month.
Walsh spars frequently with rising welterweight star Vergil Ortiz Jr., who is 18-0 with 18 knockouts and fights Michael McKinson on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, on DAZN. Walsh said he’s sparred 30 rounds already with Ortiz.
Ortiz is on the verge of a welterweight title shot, but Walsh isn’t intimidated.
“I’ve done at least 30 rounds with Vergil over the last couple of weeks and to be honest, I feel very comfortable in there sparring with him,” Walsh said.
But if he can’t fight, he’ll eventually fizzle out. John Duddy was a popular Irish fighter who sold a lot of tickets on the East Coast, but he couldn’t reach the top level. Loeffler, White and particularly Roach believe Walsh has a very high ceiling and should become a champion.
“He’s a very good puncher, he throws combinations really well and he has very good fundamentals,” Roach said. “He’s getting better and better all the time and he has a great work ethic. We’ve had to push him. This opponent coming up [Whitaker] is a lot better than the others he’s fought. I like that because I want to see him get some more rounds.
“But the kid can fight, for sure. He has that power and he has that exciting style that people like, and he has a lot of potential to do some very good things in this business.”