Boxing: Blood brothers bound by hard lessons in their quest for gold
Ireland's John Joe Nevin and Darren O'Neill will draw inspiration and strength from each other on this Olympic odyssey, writes John O'Brien
ON the morning of October 4 last year, Darren O'Neill's eyes flicked open in his hotel room in Baku. He had slept well but already he could feel the nerves jangling inside.
On the other side of the room, he could hear the delicate pitter-patter of footsteps on the carpet. John Joe Nevin was up and moving around, briskly enough to betray a certain anxiety, softly enough not to disturb his resting companion.
The afternoon would bring one of the toughest challenges of their boxing careers. Some time after 3.0, they would enter the ring for the fourth round of the World Championships, one step away from the quarter-finals, one nervous leap away from qualification for the Olympic Games. O'Neill fidgeted anxiously. He knew he had enough worries of his own, but a part of him couldn't help thinking about John Joe. His nerves were for the both of them.
How could he not worry about John Joe? For three years they had roomed together on trips abroad, passing long evenings together watching DVDs or just chatting about their lives and where they'd come from. O'Neill thought of the shy kid he'd seen all those years before when Nevin first entered the gym on the South Circular Road. How gentle and quiet he was outside the ring, how expressive he became once he stepped inside the ropes. What a privilege it had been, he thought, to get to know that kid.
How could he not think about John Joe? "You know, it felt a bit strange that morning," O'Neill says now. "You're trying not to think about it, but all these things are going through your head. Like, what if one of us qualifies and the other doesn't? That would have been a bit strange, a little bit awkward. Because we spent so much time together over the last three or four years. Thankfully, it didn't happen."
Around the high-performance gym the bond that exists between O'Neill and Nevin can be a source of amusement for other boxers. It was Billy Walsh who first quipped that they were "like a married couple" and the joke stuck. Nobody takes offence. In a sport that trades on violence and asks brutal questions of its practitioners, they know these friendships are vital and they know too not to make more of them than needs be.
"It's funny," says O'Neill. "People often ask me what we do when we're not boxing, as if we're meeting up all the time. But it's not really like that. As it stands, we'd spend as much time away or in the gym as we would at home anyway. This year we were three weeks in the Ukraine. We were in France and Germany, two weeks in the Curragh. We'll be two weeks in Italy and a month in England. When I'm not boxing I'm either working or at home seeing family. The other lads would be the same."
Yet, the bonds between them are cherished and, in most walks of life, the friendship between a once-promising hurler from rural Kilkenny and a kid from a Traveller family in Mullingar would be regarded as odd and newsworthy. Not boxing, though. In a set-up where economic or social status confers no sense of privilege, the boxers gel together as a team in a way that is natural and unforced. It is a formidable starting point.
Billy Walsh has always understood this. A few years back, when the high-performance gym was buzzing with activity again after a few fallow years, Walsh was reffing a five-a-side soccer game during a break when the power of boxing to bring people together struck him. "I looked around," he remembers. "We had black, we had white. We had Catholic, Protestant, settled, Traveller. All playing together. No barriers, no class distinction. I wondered in what other sport you'd get that."
Before O'Neill arrived on the scene, Nevin had struck up a strong and enduring friendship with Darren Sutherland. At first, Walsh had thought it a little bit unusual but, as the connection between them developed, it began to make perfect sense. The quietest and most withdrawn member of the panel drawn like a moth to the flame of the brightest and bubbliest and, probably, the most driven too. For Nevin, it went beyond mere friendship. Sutherland was a mentor too.
Nevin tells a charming story about the 2008 Olympics that cuts to the heart of their friendship. One day they walked into the canteen in the athletes' village and saw Rafael Nadal eating alone. In a heartbeat, Sutherland had whisked him towards the table and, soon, they were chatting to the tennis star and having their pictures taken. That was Darren, taking you to places and on adventures you could never have dreamed about on your own.
What had brought them together in the first place? Nevin could never really be sure. But that was Darren too. For all his outward charm and colourful personality, Sutherland liked to have his own space too. When the Ireland squad travelled abroad, Sutherland always liked to room alone when possible and, when it wasn't, he insisted on sharing with Nevin, including in Beijing where he won a bronze medal.
"I'm not sure why but he took a liking to me for some reason," Nevin explained. "Maybe it was because I was the youngest. He would've loved that. Trying to learn a young lad what to do. When he learned me then, he'd tell me when I'm gone and there are younger lads coming up you have to pass all this on. He was a nice lad. So dedicated. I think he would've been world champion."
O'Neill watched Sutherland winning his bronze medal in his girlfriend's house in Co Galway, conflicting emotions coursing through his head. Thrilled to see his friend doing so well, the pain of losing two middleweight National finals in succession to Sutherland still raw in his bones. When he saw the semi-final line-up in Kenny Egan's light heavyweight division, he realised he'd beaten all of them at some stage apart from Egan. Still, it didn't matter. He wasn't an Olympian. Wondered at that point if he'd ever be.
On October 4 last year all that changed. The date is seared into his brain. Funny how it goes, though. O'Neill had lost four national finals by the time he'd won his first. By then Nevin, three years younger, had an Irish bantamweight title and an appearance at the Beijing Olympics to his name. These things don't torture O'Neill, though. They all took different paths to get where they were going. In the ring, their careers followed separate narratives.
"John Joe didn't have Darren Sutherland or Kenny Egan in front of him," O'Neill smiles. "Any other weight division maybe I'd have had two or three national titles before I got one. But look, I wouldn't begrudge any boxer his success. John Joe is such a brilliant boxer. It wasn't a surprise when he came through in 2008. I love to watch him moving in the ring, the way he can mix it up and bring different styles to his fights. When he's on his game no one in the world can beat him."
It didn't surprise Walsh either that when Sutherland left the high-performance unit to try his luck as a professional, it was to the fighter he'd had an enduring rivalry with as a middleweight that Nevin naturally gravitated towards. O'Neill didn't quite have Sutherland's infectious personality -- who did? -- but he fitted the bill in so many ways. He was slightly older, a schoolteacher by profession, had a way with people and was a natural leader. The kind of guy Nevin could feel comfortable with.
O'Neill remembers the first time they roomed together. It was at the European Union Championships in Odense in 2009 and something just clicked. At those championships O'Neill won gold, Nevin won a silver and when the World Championships came around in Milan later that year they kept the arrangement intact. In Milan, Nevin won bronze, coming within a scoring punch of reaching the final and, suddenly, they began to realise they had a good thing going together.
"We got on really great together and it made sense to stay together," says O'Neill. "John Joe is a very interesting fella. My mam asked me lately has he come out of himself a bit or is it just you've got to know him a bit better? He can be quiet, but once you get to know him you realise how funny he is. We have a good laugh together. That's why Billy says we're like a married couple."
It's odd too, he thinks. O'Neill isn't a particularly superstitious fighter. It would be stretching it, he says, to suggest he would be diminished as a boxer without Nevin as his companion on trips abroad, but it would feel strange all the same. "At one stage, every multi-nations tournament we went to we'd both win medals. At big tournaments one of us would always do well. He won a bronze at the Worlds in '09, I won a silver medal at the Europeans in 2010. Whatever it was, we definitely gave each other confidence."
And then disaster struck. They went to the European Championships in Turkey last June and both of them crashed out on the same day in the quarter-finals. "I know it sounds stupid," O'Neill continues, "but we were in our room that night wondering where we'd gone wrong. John Joe said what's after happening here? It was the first tournament we'd been away to where one of us didn't medal. It was a bit of a shock really."
Before they'd left Turkey, though, they'd made a pact and turned what might have been a bracing experience into something positive. "We decided that we'd make up for it by qualifying for the Olympics at the World Championships. It was three months away and it was a long time to wait. We both had something to prove and we were determined not to let it slip this time."
He remembers the fraught journey to the arena that day. As he and Nevin arrived for their fights, Joe Ward had just left the ring, beaten on a countback by the Iranian, Ehsan Rouzbahani, a defeat that stunned them to their core. For a time he reeled with shock until Nevin reminded him of the agreement they had made in Turkey and they reset their gaze forward. "No mistakes," Nevin told him. They had come too far to fail.
When he thinks back now, what strikes O'Neill most is the beautiful symmetry of it all, almost like a sense of destiny unfolding. Around the same time he was despatching the Bulgarian, Mladen Manev, Nevin was using all his experience and ring-craft to edge past Otgondalai Dorjnyambuu of Mongolia on a countback. They hadn't just kept their pact, they had become the first Irish boxers to nail their Olympic places. That made it special.
And, the vagaries of the draw permitting, they could be the first two Irish boxers into the ring next Saturday, leading their team on another thrilling voyage, once again hoping to be the Irish story of the Games. From each other they'll draw strength and inspiration. Just as it's been for the past four years now.
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