Donnellly's bout will be a relief for Irish boxing squad
Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30
IT will surely be a kind of blessed relief for the beleaguered Irish boxing squad to get on with what they came to do in Rio and actually start boxing this afternoon.
The honour of becoming the first Irish boxer to step into the ring in Pavilion 6 of the Rio Centre in the suburb of Barra falls on 27-year-old Ballymena native Steven Donnelly who faces Zohir Kedache from Algeria in the preliminary round of the welterweight class (3.0).
Seeded eighth, Donnelly was one of the surprise Irish qualifiers for Rio.
He qualified through the back door, though arguably he would have made it on his own stream but for an administrative cock-up by the IABA.
He missed one fight in the World Series of Boxing because he wasn't allowed into Azerbaijan for a fight as his visa had expired; he was unbeaten in his other contests and ended up finishing fourth in the ranking list - two places outside automatic qualification.
But ultimately he got promoted to second place primarily because two Russians qualified in the same weight division - but they could only send one - so the Irishman got the biggest break of his career.
Coached by Gerry Hamill in All Saints BC in Ballymena Donnelly's natural talent was self evident from his days as a teenager.
But his career derailed after a disastrous performance at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Dehi.
He was sent home when, during a night out drowning his sorrows after losing his first round bout, he got involved in a spot of high jinks in the canteen with a chef.
On his return to Ballymena things went awry not just in his boxing career but in his life. "I was young and stupid and I went off the rails. I started drinking and fighting and falling out with everybody who was close to me."
Ultimately his coach Gerry Hamill persuaded him to rejoin the All Saints' club and his redemption will be complete today when he faces the Algerian welterweight today.
Kedache qualified for Rio through the African qualifying tournament - regarded as the weakest of continental qualifying events. So Donnelly will be expected to begin the Irish campaign with a win.
After narrowly missing out on both the Beijing and London Olympics no Irish boxer deserved a break more than 29-year-old David Oliver Joyce.
He relaunched his career in 2015 in the new AIBA Professional Boxing series. He then beat Sean McComb in the Irish Elite final last December before securing his place in Rio at the first qualifying tournament in Tuscon, Turkey with a majority 2-1 win in a box-off against a local fighter.
The Athy boxer doesn't believe in doing things the easy way! He faces 23 year old Andrique Allisop from the Seychelles tonight (9.0). Allisop is the African lightweight champion and boxed at the 2012 Games in London.
So the Irishman cannot taken anything for granted and, in particular, can't look ahead to the next fight - a clash against the world silver medallist Albert Selimov.
But after the trauma of the last 72 hours all the Irish squad will be seeking today is a couple of wins and a chance to talk about something other than Michael O'Reilly's failed dope test.