Rising Irish boxer Callum Walsh miraculously survived a head butt, a low blow, his only career knockdown, and his first real test on Thursday night, making a thrilling New York City debut in front of thousands of his countrymen at Madison Square Garden’s Theater.
The Cork-born, LA-trained super welterweight stayed undefeated with a somewhat controversial unanimous-decision victory over local fighter Ismael Villarreal (13-2), who scored a knockdown in the 10th and final round, but was handed his second career defeat nonetheless.
Rather than Villarreal’s late knockdown and his punishing counter punches, the judges were instead moved by Walsh’s output: 137-88 edge on total punches, including a 100-84 advantage on power punches, according to CompuBox.
‘He’s a tough motherf***er,’ Walsh (9-0) said after the win, later admitting that he ‘got hit too much.’
But Thursday night was as much about what was going on outside the ring, where Walsh’s promoter, Tom Loeffler, was co-mingling with a trio of TKO executives: UFC founder Dana White, WWE president Nick Khan and Triple H, the wrestling legend-turned WWE’s chief content officer.
King Callum Walsh stayed undefeated with a tough win against New York’s Ismael Villarreal
White (right) is now in business with the WWE’s Nick Khan (left) and Triple H (center)
Ismael Villarreal was a very difficult opponent for Walsh, who still managed to win the decision
Even under normal circumstances, the sight of a major boxing promoter sitting ringside with titans of MMA and wrestling would be newsworthy. Now, though, it comes at a pivotal moment in all three respective arenas.
For those unfamiliar with September’s UFC-WWE merger, the resulting company, TKO, is now a $21 billion behemoth with a share price of $84.90. And beyond its obvious interests in MMA and wrestling, TKO has a growing curiosity in boxing at a time when the sport is in search of a platform such as UFC Fight Pass, the streaming service that aired Thursday’s card.
Last month, Showtime followed HBO’s lead by closing shop on its boxing business. What’s more, ESPN’s seven-year contract with Top Rank is set to expire in August of 2025, and rival promoter Eddie Hearn has insisted the World Wide Leader is uninterested in renewing the deal.
And even if ESPN does stick it out with Top Rank or another boxing promotion, the cable giant is seeing diminishing returns on its recent pay-per-view shows. May’s Devin Haney-Vasiliy Lomachenko bout reportedly had only 150,000 PPV buys in the US.
Meanwhile, international streaming service DAZN has lost billions, putting its entire existence in peril.
What the sport needs, as one top promoter told Mail Sport on background, is a strong company like TKO to step in and give boxing a platform where it can grow.
Enter UFC Fight Pass, which has now aired eight of Walsh’s bouts, only one of which (Thursday’s) has been competitive.
Walsh is pictured with his trainer, Freddy Roach (center left) and promoter Tom Loeffler (right)
Walsh admitted to taking too many punches on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden
Those familiar with Walsh’s name entering Thursday likely became aware of it through his ties to bigger ones, like his trainer Freddie Roach, Loeffler, and White.
Roach, the Hall of Famer known for training Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, began working with Walsh when the decorated amateur was staying with his father in LA during the pandemic. Within a year, Walsh had caught the eye of Loeffler, Gennady Golovkin’s promoter, which resulted in a trio of first-round knockouts for the rising pugilist.
By this time, Loeffler had sold White on Walsh, who has responded by bringing boxing viewers to UFC Fight Pass.
‘He gets the highest ratings ever for boxing on UFC Fight Pass, so Dana is very happy with the results,’ Loeffler said afterwards. ‘We put a lot of time and effort into this promotion. He was pretty much everywhere in the media here in the US and over in Ireland.’
And of course, Walsh’s fanbase is one that White knows well through his work with Conor McGregor.
‘Dana loves Irishmen,’ Loeffler said. ‘He decided to give him the dates, and Callum performed.’
Thursday night was hardly perfect for Walsh, who said he would give himself a ‘6 out of 10.’
But for 22-year-old with a growing fan base, a 10-round thriller like Thursday’s is a good reason for White to continue featuring Walsh on UFC Fight Pass.
And for a sport in a desperate search for a new foothold in the US, that’s a tangible victory that could pay dividends down the road.