Monday 20 February 2017

Donnelly's next step on road to redemption

Sean McGoldrick

Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30

Steven Donnelly with coaches John Conlan, Eddie Bolger and Zaur Antia. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Steven Donnelly with coaches John Conlan, Eddie Bolger and Zaur Antia. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Steven Donnelly sports three tattoos on his left arm.

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He celebrated becoming an Olympian by having the image of Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue added to his forearm.

But it is the two other words - redemption and dedication - stamped on his biceps which reveal the true nature of the journey he has taken to make the 2016 Games.

It has been well documented by now that Donnelly was sent home early from the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010. And for the next two years his life went into a downward spiral.

But his club coach in Ballymena's All Saints' boxing club, Gerry Hamill, refused to give up on him. One day he turned up at Donnelly's home.

"I heard his jeep stopping outside. I wanted to walk past him but he asked me to come into the room and told me to sit down. I couldn't look him straight in the eye."

He made his second chance count; so much so that he is two wins away from securing an Olympic medal having won his first fight in Rio on Sunday.

Seeded at number eight he had an emphatic 3-0 (29-28, 30-26, 30-27) win over Algerian Zohir Kedache in the first round.

Shorter

Today's fight (4.45pm) represents a significant step up in class for the 27-year-old welterweight. While he is two inches shorter than the Irishman, 29-year-old Tuvshinbat Byamba of Mongolia is an experienced pugilist having boxed at the 2007 World Championships in Chicago in the light welterweight class.

He qualified for the London Games in the welterweight division where he beat a Greek opponent before losing to Frenchman Alexis Vastine in the second round. Previously he won silver (2007) and bronze (2011) in the Asian Games. Like Donnelly, he wasn't troubled in his first fight fashioning an unanimous 3-0 win over an Argentinian opponent.

According to Irish assistant coach Eddie Bolger, Donnelly can't wait to get back into the ring in Pavilion 6 in the Riocentro, which is within walking distance of the athletes' village.

"Steven is in great shape. His run-in, his taper are fantastic. He's really ready to go and I'd say that couple of rounds will do him the world of good. It's all about performing those three rounds."

Donnelly achieved his Olympic dream through the World Boxing Series - though his passage wasn't as straight forward as those of his team-mates Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes.

The Polish based Hussars team provided Donnelly with a lifeline after seeing him win the gold medal in the Feliks Stamm tournament in Warsaw. For the first time in his career he was being paid: €500 for each appearance with a $1500 win bonus.

He exceeded expectations by winning four of his five fights but still only finished fourth in the welterweight rankings, with only the top two qualified for Rio.

Frustratingly for Donnelly he didn't actually lose the other fight. Due to an administrative oversight his visa to Azerbaijan wasn't renewed and when he arrived in Baku with Bolger for his WSB fight, the pair were sent home on the next flight. His visa had expired.

His performances were all the more noteworthy because, due to a hand injury, he couldn't throw a left hook during the series.

He has had surgery since to repair the damage. Neither was he on full-time funding and he worked locally in Ballymena when his WSB commitments were completed in the spring of 2015.

But there was one twist left in the tale. Two Russian boxers, Andrey Zamkovoy and Radzhab Butaev, qualified for Rio in the 69kg category but countries are only allowed one boxer per weight division. The showdown between the pair took place at the Russian championship in Samara last November.

Donnelly watched the final on his laptop and celebrated when the 'right' result came through. Zamkovoy won which meant the Irishman had secured his spot through his WSB rating.

Ironically, Zamkovoy is already out of the Games after suffering a shock first round defeat to a Kenyan. But Donnelly remains on target to fulfil the prophecy made by Irish coach Zaur Antia when he first saw him in action as a 17-year-old in a tournament in Russia.

He predicted that one day he could be an Olympic champion. Given their experiences so far in Rio the Irish camp will be content just to see Donnelly fashion back-to-back wins this afternoon.

Meanwhile, Conlan will face 25-year-old Armenian Aram Avagyan in his debut fight on Sunday after the latter advanced with a split 2-1 win over a Japanese opponent yesterday.

Paddy Barnes' conqueror Samuel Carmona Heredia from Spain bowed out when he dropped a split decision to a Colombian opponent in the quarter-final of the light flyweight category.

Irish Independent

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