Sunday 18 February 2018

Boxing: No longer the nearly man

Having tasted medal success at the highest level, Darren O'Neill wants to go further, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

IN April, Darren O'Neill and Billy Walsh stood at the top of a conference room in a Dublin hotel, a gaggle of the brightest young Irish coaches seated before them.

They had been assembled by the Irish Institute of Sport, part of a two-day get-together designed to share knowledge and ideas. O'Neill's story, they figured, was something they could usefully absorb, maybe even draw inspiration from. It didn't matter who you were or how much you'd achieved. There was something in the humble 25-year-old's story that made it at least worth listening to.

So O'Neill and Walsh took them back a few months. To June 2010, and a boxing ring in Moscow. O'Neill had reached the last eight of the European middleweight championships, a familiar position from where he had always failed to take the next step. And now Sergiy Derevyanchenko, a hard-as-nails Ukranian, stood in his way. Derevyanchenko was the sizzling-hot favourite not just to beat O'Neill, but to win the gold medal too.

The fight fills the screen at the top of the room. Walsh prowls around the back, jinking and bobbing, reliving every stress-filled moment. He hears the bell going at the end of the second round and recalls the air of crisis that prevailed. As was his habit, O'Neill had let his concentration slip and fallen two points behind. Walsh sees another fighter arrive at a critical juncture in his career. One round to go. The medal round. Three minutes that could define a boxer's life.

O'Neill sees a fighter completely out on his feet. Wondering what more he has left to give. His opponent keeps coming at him. Won't let up for a second. With 30 seconds left he flashes a despairing look at his corner. He sees Billy pointing a single digit towards the floor indicating he's a point behind. He gasps for another breath and goes forward again. Level now. The seconds are counting down. Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .

"I kept repeating to myself: you're not going to die this time. It's hard mentally when this boy just keeps coming at you and you're getting tired. I was beat at the end of the second. He just kept bombing. It's so easy to break at that point. He could have steamrollered me. I think it was just the heartbreak of always failing that kept me going. No, you're not going to die here. Not this time. No way."

Six seconds now. In his head he concocts a vague notion of catching the Ukranian with a big left hook. He steps forward and jabs with his right, catches his opponent clean in the face. But the left hook brushes off his shoulder. Damn, he thinks. The judges aren't scoring jabs. But all they have seen is Derevyanchenko's head recoiling and assume it is because of the left hook. O'Neill is awarded the point. He has scraped home.

In the corner he can see the tears already forming streams down Billy's cheeks. Soon his floodgates are open too. Back at home the kids in his class in Donaghmede will gently mock him. "I thought boxers were supposed to be hard sir?" He shrugs. If you don't like crying, he tells them, don't ever become a boxer.

* * * * *

Boxing had always been his destiny. Not an easy thing to say when you've grown up in rural Kilkenny wielding a camán. His father, Ollie, and his brother, Tom, had started a boxing club in Paulstown in 1972 and it's where he was drawn as a kid. As a boxer, Ollie had once nearly beaten the great Belfast middleweight Sam Storey in a national final. Ollie and Michael Carruth. They were his boyhood heroes. The men who filled his dreams.

Not that it wasn't a close-run thing. He remembers fighting in the Leinster juniors one year, bearing the brunt of a harsh decision and informing Ollie that that was it, he'd had enough and was throwing in his lot with the hurlers. He'd won the first of his two All-Irelands with St Kieran's at that stage, alongside Cha Fitzpatrick at midfield, in a team nurturing the talents of Richie Power, Richie Hogan and John Tennyson.

Ollie cut him a deal. The National Junior championships were two weeks away. They would train for them and, if things didn't work out, well boxing had had its chance anyway. As it happened, O'Neill won the title and was soon travelling abroad for four-nations and multi-nations tournaments, winning medals, sharpening his skills, never doubting he had taken the right turn when he'd approached the fork in the road.

"People ask if I regret giving up hurling," he says, "but for me boxing was always the dream. I was winning All-Irelands at 11. I remember being in Athy when I was 12 or 13. There was an Italian team there and a guy who'd won silver at the Europeans. I was looking at him thinking how amazing he was. Like, will I ever get to that level? Not realising that in a few years' time I'd have a European silver medal too."

Back then the hard part was believing. He remembers being one of the floor panel Billy had to train when he was undergoing his first interview as high-performance coach. It all felt so new and fresh then. He took his first steps as a senior in the 81kg weight division and that brought him into the orbit of Kenny Egan. Egan, virtually unbeatable then, swept him aside in 2005 and 2006. The learning curve was a steep one.

He subsequently switched to 75kg and developed a healthy but spiky rivalry with Darren Sutherland. In 2008, they met in the national finals, a bout hyped up in the press as a grudge match, but it isn't how he remembers it. Sutherland lived near him on the Northside and would collect him for training. His energy and sparkle were infectious. As soon as he switched weights, however, O'Neill noticed the lifts becoming less frequent. Sutherland's competitive instincts had kicked in. He appreciated why that had to be.

And though he was gutted to lose the fight and to see his Olympic dream crushed a year later, it didn't seem to matter anymore. He had just returned from the World Championships, enjoying a drink with friends, when the call came from Jimmy Halpin, a coach at St Saviour's, informing him of Sutherland's death. The news left him pale and breathless for several minutes. He'll never forget the date: September 13, 2009. His 24th birthday.

Sutherland isn't forgotten. His cherished words will always hang on the wall of the gym and whenever they travel, they know his spirit goes with them. In Moscow, O'Neill sensed it stronger than ever. The night before he fought Dervyanchenko, he had gone through the fight, step by step, with Gerry Hussey, the team psychologist. He felt focused and sharp. But he sensed something deeper too. He explained it to Billy and Jimmy Halpin. Every step he took, every punch he threw, he sensed Sutherland's hand on his shoulder.

"I know Darren was up there somewhere looking down on me. We'd spent so much time together over the years. I'd cursed him so many times. Like, why aren't I going where you're going? He probably did the same when he was injured. I said to Jim and Gerry. I was going in against a tough Ukranian. I'd been the bridesmaid of Irish boxing so many times. The nearly man. I just said everyone at home and Darren up above would be looking out for me. I really felt that. I still believe it."

If they had a collective narrative, that was it. The nearly men. Defying the demons that regularly confronted them, Sutherland had faced a battle with a career-threatening eye injury, Egan with the doubts and insecurities that clouded his head and prevented him fulfilling his unquestioned talent, Billy and those within the high-performance system with those among the boxing community who didn't share their vision.

O'Neill had accumulated his baggage too. A bracing defeat in the last 16 at the 2007 European Championships kicked it off. A year later, while Eamonn O'Kane was winning bronze at 75kg, O'Neill was crashing out in the first round of the 81kg. At the 2009 World Championships in Milan, he lost in the last 16 to an Armenian O'Kane had beaten the year before. What did that say about him?

And as much as he'd savoured Egan's silver medal in Beijing, he couldn't help looking at the semi-final line-up and realising he'd beaten them all at some point apart from Egan. He'd beaten Zang Xiaoping, the eventual champion, in a multi-nations tournament in Finland in 2006. He'd beaten Tony Jeffries in one of his first ever internationals. Yet they were Olympic medallists now and he was sitting at home.

He sees it now, of course. His life lacked structure then. Boxing was his epicentre and there was no release valve for all the built-up tension. He had finished his studies in 2009 and was anxious to take the next step of finding work as a primary school teacher. Combining a full-time job with the demands of high-performance, though, was a daunting and unprecedented step.

At first Walsh was doubtful. He'd remembered his own boxing days, working in a steel factory by day before hauling his tired body to the gym in the evening. Maybe that was the difference between making and not making the Olympics. But there were no grants for needy athletes in those days. Unlike now, there was no choice to make between working and training. But that was the thing too. O'Neill had the choice and still he wanted to work. And Billy respected that.

"If I was in the Stadium all day every day it just wouldn't work for me," O'Neill says. "My head would melt. I think the lads in the high-performance team recognised that and they've worked around it. Daragh Sheridan in the Institute of Sport has been brilliant too and I've had the support of the staff and the kids as well. At the end of the day you have to know your athlete. What works for others mightn't work for me."

The hardship is bearable. Other teachers making plans for nights out or weekends away. There will be time for that. And if the pre-dawn starts before the National Championships were tortuous, a two-hour gym session put away before facing the kids for morning lessons, there was at least the satisfaction of defending his national title to ease the pain. Negotiating time off can still be a complicated business but he completed his probationary period a few weeks' back and, so far at least, nobody's nose seems too far out of joint.

His life has the balance he craved now. He talks excitedly about a project he conducted with the kids recently on Nelson Mandela. The purpose was to get them to understand why Mandela had been put in prison. Surprisingly quickly one kid nailed it. "He was put in jail for nothing sir." Precisely. He had been locked up simply because he was black. And maybe, he thought, a class with its mix of Irish, Polish, Filipino and African blood was well-placed to appreciate that.

Years ago boxing had given him his first glimpse of this brave new Ireland. A scrawny white kid from rural Kilkenny suddenly thrust into an environment that cherished all known creeds and cultures. On one of his first trips abroad he roomed with John Joe Nevin. They went to the EU Championships where O'Neill won gold and Nevin silver. At the 2009 Worlds Nevin won bronze. The following year came O'Neill's silver in Moscow. Like lucky talismans, they have become almost inseparable.

Some things he'd change for sure. He was there for Bernard Dunne's last senior title fight and remembers a packed Stadium pulsing with electricity. Where did that buzz go? They managed to fill it for this year's finals just about, but with the talent they have at their disposal he thinks they should be turning people away at the door. If this is Irish boxing's golden age, he wonders, why doesn't it fare better in the media?

He sees Leinster and Munster rugby pushing relentlessly forward, the papers gorging on their success. He sees Irish soccer teams struggling to get out of their groups, a cricket team feted as heroes for winning a single match and wonders why boxing coverage pales in comparison. He sees Katie Taylor and Kenny Egan having to scrap for any bit of sponsorship they can find, the rest ignored and left to do their own thing.

He tells an old story. A few years ago Egan won a breakthrough European bronze and when they returned to Dublin they opened a newspaper expecting to read a decent account of his performance. Instead the back page featured an athlete who had finished eighth in a European final the previous day while a report on Egan's medal was stuffed away in the corner of one of the inside pages.

"I was pissed off. Not for me because I hadn't won anything. But for Kenny. For years he'd kept a lot of us going, especially me. Because I'd failed and failed and Kenny had failed and failed too but he'd stuck at it and got his reward. I was like if Kenny could do it, then I could do it too. So I was pissed off for him. I felt he deserved the recognition. But he's stuck in a corner while someone who had won nothing has full colour pics. I was annoyed about it."

It isn't that O'Neill is vain, you understand, just that it's nice to be appreciated. In Moscow, Ollie would try to convince him of the level of interest back home but it wasn't until he'd returned with his medal that it sank in. They stuck him on the back of a lorry and drove him into the local GAA field where they had installed barbecues and bouncy castles and half the county, it seemed, had turned up to greet him, a welcome usually reserved for victorious hurlers.

Last week brought him back home for a few days, a bit of calm before he left for Turkey and the chance to turn silver into gold at this year's European Championships. He likes the gentle rhythm of these days, precious hours in the gym with Ollie on the pads, bringing him back to the basics he learned as a kid, meeting the locals on the street, trying to deflect their well-meaning queries about World Championships and Olympic Games and simply focus on the next performance.

"We'd often say years ago of the Cubans and Russians that the hard part was getting out of their own country. That's the way it's getting here now as well. We won five medals at the Europeans last year and only two of us won National titles this year. That's how competitive it's getting. You can't look too far ahead or you'll get put on your back."

Like every fighter who has walked through the doors of the high-performance gym these past eight years, O'Neill has learned the truth of those words the hard way.

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