Echo Sport Replay: Baker on steering kickboxing towards Olympic heights

By Stephen Leonard

GROWING up on Clifden Road in Ballyfermot from the 1960s to the ’80s, Roy Baker was a quiet and reserved child enjoying life with family and friends in a close-knit community.

Yet over the following years the borders of his small world would be rolled right back as he became Director of Transformation at SSE Airtricity and rose through the ranks of his beloved sport, kickboxing, to eventually spearhead its drive towards inclusion in the Summer Olympics programme.

Roy Baker in high flying action 1

Roy Baker in high-flying action

Indeed today Roy Baker is President of both Kickboxing Ireland and the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO) which caters for some five and half million members across the globe.

The founder of the world’s biggest annual kickboxing tournament, the Irish Open, he and his team have played a huge part in seeing the sport garner official recognition from both the International Olympic Committee and more recently the Olympic Federation of Ireland as kickboxing continues its pursuit of inclusion among the 30 plus sports that make up the Summer Games.

A combination of his father's social activism and the confidence he, himself, gained in combat as a multi-European and World champion kickboxer, would see the timidity Baker experienced as a child replaced by a resilience and competitiveness that was to prove essential in him effectively taking control and setting the course for his sport both here in Ireland and across the world.

“In the mid 70's, early 80's Ireland was a tough place to live” recalled Baker. “I remember our dad struggling, I remember us sharing our clothes, sharing our toys, and people don't get that now.

“I was one of those quiet kids in the back of the schoolroom in Ballyfermot always being bullied and stuff. I can remember having my head bounced off a school table.

“It was literally survival in that time in the late 70's early 80's when the economy in Ireland was destroyed.

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Roy Baker looks back on a journey from his early days in Ballyfermot to becoming President of Kickboxing Ireland and World governing body WAKO Photo by Paddy Barrett

“But Ballyfermot was a great place to live. The level of community that was in Ballyfermot, I don't see anymore.

“Community really was community. The roads stuck together. I grew up on Clifden Road and I knew every single person on my road. It really was a very tight community.

“My dad, Dave Baker, was an extraordinary man. He was very much involved with social justice. He was President of the Ballyfermot Community Association for more than 25 years and was very much a social activist. He fought the fight for Ballyfermot until his dying day.

“I've always been a very independent individual and I like to have control of my own destiny, so I always wanted to do something in an individual sport. I tried all the team sports and I didn't really enjoy them.

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Ballyfermot man Roy Baker is, today, Director of Transformation at SSE Airtricity and spearheading world kickboxing’s drive towards a place on the Olympic Games programme

“The only other sport I really loved was table tennis. I played for Dublin and internationally in table tennis, but really the sport that grabbed me by the neck was kickboxing.

“It was just something that gave me more confidence, I liked the people in the sport and I developed relationships with people back in the ’80s that I still have today. Like 99.9 percent of my life and my friends are from kickboxing.

“So I did karate for quite a number of years and then I started my kickboxing journey in Tallaght would you believe.

“It was in Old Bawn. There was a kickboxing club there, Silver Dragon with Head Coach, Terry Kinsella.

Roy Baker with Ilija Salerno Head Coach at BMA Clondalkin 1

Roy Baker with Ilija Salerno, Head Coach at BMA Clondalkin

“A friend of mine, Gerry Whelan, was doing kickboxing with Terry at the Tallaght club and I was saying 'I want to try that. That looks really different.'

“So I went there and stayed there for about three years and then I moved to a club in Palmerstown, Bushido Martial Arts under Eddie Ince.

“I really enjoyed that club, their discipline, their style, the way they did things and I stayed with that club my whole life.

“When I went to Palmerstown I just found a coach who I connected with and who had a lot of confidence in me and he made me secretary of Kickboxing Ireland back in 1989 and then I became secretary of the Irish Martial Arts Commission and I've been Vice President of that (IMAC) for 25 plus years. That covers all the arts.

“I became President of KBI for a while, I stepped back for a while and I'm now back to being President.

Roy Baker is leading kickboxing towards inclusion in the Olympic Games programme 1

Roy Baker is leading kickboxing towards inclusion in the Olympic Games programme

“But Eddie was the President of Kickboxing Ireland back then and he took me under his wing and I started competing.

“My first international competition was around 1982 and my first WAKO medal was at the 1985 Europeans and I competed right up to 2002 when I got my last gold and I retired and decided I wanted to focus on sports politics and promoting events.

“Throughout my life, what's been a blessing and a nightmare is that I'm highly competitive. When I won, I wanted to win two, when I won two I wanted to win four, when I won four, I wanted to win more than anybody else had ever won.

“I've been like that my whole life. The grass is always greener on the other side.

“I'm 56 this week and I've always wanted to evolve. Like I read at least two books a week. I've just a feckin brain that just never stops.

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Roy Baker and his team have led kickboxing to new heights Photo by Paddy Barrett

“I wake up at ten to five every morning and I'm out running and then I get on to my desk at half six in the morning and I'm on it until whatever time.

“Everybody doesn't love Roy Baker and I get that and it was the same when I was a competitor, but I've never wasted any of my energy on trying to impact somebody else.

“I've always believed that the only way to continue using my energy is to continue to build.

“I don't want to break anybody down. I don't want to break down a competition federation or another competitor.

“I always want to focus on me building and developing and developing those around me to get better.

“Some people I find in life, they want to be something, but they don't get how hard it is to get there and they try, what I call 'chopping the tree down' rather than trying to grow with the tree.

“As an athlete, I wasn't naturally gifted like some people are, but, my God, did I have a work ethic. I was just always that way.

“Back when I was competing there were two big bodies, there was WAKO and IAKSA and I won four European and five World titles.

“During that time I started up the Irish Open back in the early nineties because I was fed up travelling. Me, Bobby O'Neill from Wexford, Nicola Corbett from Palmerstown, Sallie McArdle from Dundalk and a few others had to travel everywhere to competition.

“So we started up this tournament in the Leixlip Community Centre and we got two English teams to come over and that was great.

“From Leixlip we moved out to UCD and then we moved it to the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght. But it got to a point that we outgrew the Arena also.

“Luckily I got to know the manager in Citywest through my job and we moved there about 10 or 11 years ago and that allowed us to grow to where it is today.

“But I didn't want this tournament to be about money, it was about bringing athletes to Ireland for something we could all be proud of.

“So we decided to adopt a charity, the ISPCC. So all the profits from the Irish Open go to the ISPCC and and we've given them about €150,000 over the years.

“It's amazing that, we in Ireland, we've build the biggest kickboxing tournament there has ever been on the planet bar none. We have to limit the number of competitors at 4000.

“Back in the 90s there were the two world bodies and they were very much level, but around 1997 I decided that I wanted to go the WAKO way because the federation, in my opinion, was better, it had more democracy and their level was getting higher and higher.

“I think there's a place in the world for people fighting at different levels, but the absolute top level in the world for kickboxing is WAKO.

“It has got Olympic recognition, we're in the World Games, the Combat Games and we're in the European Olympic Games in 2023.

“It was the one I wanted to spend my life building, but never did I think I'd become President of it. That was just too high.

“It was funny how I became involved in WAKO at that level. It was kind of a mistake.

“I went to a tournament once in about 2001/02. I think it was in Zagreb. The entire tournament had fallen down because they had gotten far too many people. So the whole organising committee had fallen over.

“I saw the chaos and I just went 'Stop!' And the President then, Ennio Falsoni, allowed me to step in and we got through it. I just got in when I shouldn't have. I don't think I'd seen an opportunity, I'd just seen a need.

“So I did that and then he asked me to join the organising committee of WAKO.

“About four years later I got elected on to the WAKO board. I was the first Irish person to ever sit on that board.

“So when I got in, I started to take more and more responsibility and I was needed more and more and then I became the President of WAKO Europe.

“Then the same thing happened again. I was needed a little bit more and a little bit more and then I was elected Vice President of WAKO back in 2016.

“Sadly in October 2018, just before we got Olympic recognition, my good friend Borislav Pelevic, who was President, died.

“I wasn't ready for being President. I didn't really want to be President because I'm still a bit young and I've so much to do in my job and life and with my children and Kickboxing Ireland.

“I'm sitting there thinking 'President? Five and a half million members. A huge amount of work to do.'

“But a lot of people came to me and they said 'It has to be you Roy. Borislav is gone and you have to step forward.'

“There was a need for someone who could keep everything together, so I was elected on the 2nd of February 2019.

“There were three people who went for the job and I got 97 percent of the votes.

“So it's an elected position. Who knows, in 2023 they might want somebody new and that's life.

“It was a bit scary for me, because I'm a lad from Ballyfermot and I've become the President of a World Olympic body.

“It's not an easy job. I'm always dealing with difficult situations where there's political disruption and political interference by governments.

“So it's not all glitzy. It's all about dealing with problems, but that's the job. I declutter and I create solutions.

“And I think our sport has improved with the new executive which I picked, but we still have a long way to go.

“We got IOC recognition in November 2018 and that was the biggest step. There's only 37 Olympic sports in the world and we got into the family.

“In 2023 kickboxing will be included as a demonstration sport in the European Olympic Games and we have high hopes for lots of competitors in Ireland.

“The likes of Jodie Browne in Tallaght, she's unbelievable. She's just got skills that are scary. We've got some really strong girls across all ages in Ireland at the moment.

“So I have very high expectations of kickboxing being a very successful sport in the European Games.

“It's our first time in the European Games and they’ll assess you, they assess your organisation skills, the level of the athletes and the type of media that you attract.

“We were in the World Games for the first time in 2017. Those Games are just under the Olympics. We were a demonstration sport then and we're now a full sport in those Games.

“I'm blessed. I'm very lucky because I'm leading a sport at a time when we seem to be achieving extraordinary things.

“And it's not just me. It's the team I have around me. I'm just the captain of the ship, but I've got so many people supporting me. It's extraordinary.

“Now what we really need to do is to get into all these Continental Games, then move into the Junior Olympic Games and then move into the Summer Olympics. That's still a long journey and the only way we'd make that journey very quickly is if one of the host nations put us as one of the five introductory sports.

“After we got IOC recognition in 2018 it took about two years to get recognition from the Olympic Federation of Ireland. It's hard to get recognition because there's a pie there and everybody wants to get a piece of the pie.

“And the Olympic Federation of Ireland is really professional, they're a great body and they rightly focused on the Summer Games and the Winter Games because they are assessed by the medals that they get. We're not in the Summer Games yet, but that's my focus.

“We're delighted to be a part of it. We're the first non-Summer and Winter Games sport to be in the Olympic Federation of Ireland because we pushed it, we said 'We're entitled to be in it.'

“And I'm delighted to say Sarah Keane and the other sports in the OFI voted us in on the 8th of December. It was a great moment for our sport.

“In KBI, we've had extraordinary growth. We've amazing people, we're all volunteers, none of us paid, but we've really grown as a federation, and we've really focused on our athletes.

“We're not focused on the short wins, we're focused on the long-term sustainable goals of a sport that has a future.

“We're focused on the 'now' but we're more focused on the 'tomorrow' because I have to make sure that our children have that long-term player/athlete development profile that allows them to be in the sport for a long time, like me. I'm still teaching. I'm teaching in Bushido Martial Arts Academy Leixlip for about the past 34 years.

“When I was growing up, Ireland was a nobody in kickboxing and we had no influence whatsoever. We were very disorganised and there wasn't that many competitors.

“There was myself, Nicola Corbett, Bobby O'Neill, John White and Sallie McArdle. We would have been the top competitors that paved the way for everybody else.

“Now Ireland is consistently in the top five in the world and there's no other Olympic sport that's at that level.

“But I will tell you this, us getting Olympic recognition has been very good for WAKO and kickboxing worldwide, but not good for Ireland.

“Because I'm President of WAKO, I see the significant funding that many countries have received because they became an Olympic sport.

“But in Ireland, that meant diddly-squat and there's no question we're falling behind now. Other countries have gotten millions, but we get zero from the government.

“So when we got Olympic recognition, we had to fight to get into the Olympic Federation of Ireland and we don't get any extra funding from Sport Ireland even though we've become an Olympic-recognised sport.

“Now Covid has impacted the sport world wide, but prior to Covid I challenged Sport Ireland, I challenged John Treacy, saying 'We are being impacted now from a lack of investment, because our competitors, who we've always beaten, are now shifting. Their athletes are getting funding, they’re getting more access to specialists and I can see that severely impacting us unless we do something about it.’

“We have exceptional clubs, exceptional coaches in Ireland and we really are batting above our average, but in Ireland, we really don't invest in sport like other countries do.

“And the past year has been the most difficult period in the history of any sport.

“But in many countries they have continued to focus on the improvement and development of sport during Covid because they recognise the fundamental need for people to stay active.

“I'm disappointed with the way Ireland has gone in that respect.

“You look at other countries who have said 'No, we have to keep sport open. Sport is a huge part of the physical and mental well-being of the nation.'

“Kids have got more addicted to Facebook, to the X Box, Playstation and we now have to pry them away from those disruptive activities into productive activities. That's going to be hard.

“Really the difficulty you have with kids is it's a different world today. There are more dangers, more opportunities and much more risks. Kids can go off-kilter and probably the biggest thing I'm worried about is kids' inability to deal with conflict and failure.

“And that's where I think kickboxing and combat sports really help, because they teach people that you will get knocked down, you will get a bloody nose, but learn to stand up, learn to step forward. You have to have struggle in life to make it interesting.

“Kickboxing has given me the resilience I have today to do what I do, there's no question. The two most influential things on Roy Baker is, Number One his dad and Number Two, kickboxing.

“I mean you wouldn't believe how timid I was. But now I can stand up in front of 20,000 people and talk. A lot of that inner-confidence I have, I got through kickboxing.

“But I'm 56 this week and you have to be careful because you have to keep a balance.

“I've got two kids. Roy's 19, Danielle's 23. They're the love of my life and they complete me more than anything. Sport is my passion, but what I live for is my kids.

“Like 70 percent of what I do during the day, I don't get paid for. But I like to see stuff being built and accomplished.

“I'm not special. I've made loads of mistakes, but I learn from those mistakes and move on. I just do things to the best of my ability and I try to be the best person I can be with the skillsets that God has given me.”

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