Friday 15 November 2019

'What happened in the Regency was an awful tragedy, but it's hugely damaged Irish professional boxing too'

Saturday Interview

Boxer Darren O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Boxer Darren O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He smiles with vaguely amused awareness of the absurdity coded into this planned late ring dance.

There is no mystique here, no glamour, no targeted destination even. Darren O'Neill is 34 and turning pro. That's all there is to this great leap into the unknown.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

"People laugh when I say you miss being punched in the face," chuckles the man who captained Ireland's boxers at the London Olympics.

The arithmetic is instantly bracing.

No purse for someone on this first rung of the paid ladder, nor even for quite a few rungs above. You actually pay for the privilege of pain. The 'He Who Dares' card, on which O'Neill was due to debut in Belfast last Friday, fell through some weeks ago.

Had it gone ahead, he'd have given his Hungarian opponent Norbert Szekeres €1,500; a sum raise "hopefully" through sale of tickets.

"Most boxers wouldn't be fighting for a purse," O'Neill explains. "They'll be fighting for whatever you take in ticket sales. So the problem is that you can come out making a loss. That's it.

"You've got to cover your opponent. And that's without covering training costs, equipment and all the rest. It's very, very difficult to make a living from professional boxing."

All of which, of course, begs one single, screaming question: Why?

We should be clear that making "a living" isn't the rainbow drawing O'Neill back now. He has a day job in business administration and, two years after his last amateur contest at the European Championships in Ukraine, he isn't under any illusion that this might be a magic ticket to wealth and new celebrity. Maybe his decision is actually just down to the simple truth that boxers never stop wondering. How else do you explain a man like Szekeres?

A year younger than O'Neill, he's a 10-year veteran of the paid ranks, but one who has lost 77 of his 99 professional fights. The Hungarian's last win was in February 2016, 31 fights ago! How much did O'Neill know of him?

"Very little," he says flatly. "They gave me a name basically and that was it."

So this isn't anything his younger self imagined as a mountain to be climbed. A European silver medalist and seven-time national champion, the truth is that O'Neill's childhood dreams all ran towards Mount Olympus.

But he was deemed to have lost a fight he believed he had won to miss out on qualification for Rio and, having witnessed the judging fiasco there from a media seat, a small part of him died when still encountering some "terrible" scoring at the following year's Europeans.

There is no parable to be written into this story then. It is just one man's enduring love of a sport that keeps getting squeezed, tighter and tighter, into the margins. When he does, finally, climb between the ropes again, O'Neill will still have his Dad, Ollie, in the corner. Still have his brother, Aidan, as his 'cut man'.

The idea is to try build a record through an ascending standard of opponent (and attendant fee) towards the point of securing a title fight of some kind. But the romance of it? There is none.

"That boxer's itch is still there," says O'Neill flatly. In successive years, he sparred with Dean Gardiner and then Tony Browne to prepare them for the Elite Championships, all the time thinking that he'd have more than a puncher's chance against either had he entered himself.

Stable

When Browne's coach, Steven O'Rourke, sought reassurance that they weren't sparring a possible opponent, O'Neill joked that if he wanted to set him up with a couple of professional fights they'd have no need to worry. And that was when this acorn started to grow.

So O'Neill will be fighting out of O'Rourke's stable, assuming they can convince the Boxing Union of Ireland of having severed all ties with Assassin Promotions, recently suspended from operating in this country.

The Inchicore-based O'Rourke, one of the most respected coaches/managers in Ireland today, is building an impressive stable. But there's maybe never been a tougher time to try putting together a professional show here.

The 2016 Regency Hotel murder rewrote so many terms and conditions for the sport in Ireland.

"Look, what happened that day was an awful tragedy, but it's hugely damaged Irish professional boxing too," suggests O'Neill.

"It actually looks like there's going to be no professional show licence in Ireland for the foreseeable future. Insurance costs are gone through the roof.

"Then you've venues that just don't want to have boxing anyway. Or they'll accept it, but charge a fortune.

"So a lot of shows are being squashed by costs. Which is sad, because we've loads of boxers trying to break through. We had our glory years with Barry McGuigan and Steve Collins and Bernard Dunne and Andy Lee. But young guys now, and even old guys like myself, don't get the chance to display what they can do.

"It's frustrating because I'd love to be able to go back into the [National] Stadium again or an arena down in Kilkenny or Waterford maybe and get local fans in. But I'm resigned to the fact that my fights will either be up North or in England.

"So a lot of really good boxing people are being pushed to the margins because of something they had absolutely nothing to do with."

In an ideal world, the amateur game here would have found a role in High Performance for someone of O'Neill's experience. But it's a peculiarity of the IABA's attitude to its past Olympians that none of those who represented Ireland at the successful Beijing and London Games (in which a total of seven boxing medals were won) have ever been recruited by the association.

Certainly, with so much uncertainty still clouding the specifics of boxing's place in Tokyo next year, psychological support for those hoping to qualify has never felt a more urgent requirement.

Yet, for all his own frustrations, O'Neill believes the Olympic dream is still worth chasing.

"You know, in one sense it's great that the IOC are going to run the (boxing) tournament because, at least, it means that something's finally being done," he says. "But the obvious concern is who is going to judge the fights.

"Listen, the boxers just have to presume it'll be better than what it was. It certainly can't be worse. Rio was absolutely outrageous. With some of what we've seen, you'd actually start asking yourself 'Do I not understand boxing?' But the athletes can't be thinking about that.

"As soon as you start thinking that way, you're not thinking about the person in front of you who's trying to take your head off. And you have to remember everybody's in that same boat.

"Better to be thinking: 'If I'm good enough, I'll get there!' I honestly have no regrets about committing so much of my life to the Olympic cycles. Of course, there are bits that would annoy you, a lot of it to do with the system. I had great experiences and bad experiences, but experiences that most people my age haven't had.

"And never will have."

Ambitions

There may be more to come now too, but the rest of O'Neill's life won't be held in abeyance as he finds out. He and Alison McMahon will marry in 2021, the couple having recently completed the purchase of a house in Navan.

"I'm not going in on the premise that it's going to pay off the mortgage!" he says of turning pro. "But if I got a few bouts under my belt, I'd gladly take a title fight."

Recently he watched Sergiy Derevyanchenko, a boxer he previously beat at the Europeans, fight Gennadiy Golovkin for the IBF world middleweight crown. And O'Neill sparred with Tommy McCarthy, newly-crowned WBC international cruiserweight champion, in the build-up to his defeat of the previously unbeaten Fabio Turchi in Tresto.

So his eyes are wide open here.

"To be honest, it's probably the first time I've been in a sporting environment where I haven't really got a goal. I just said I'd try a few fights, see where it takes me. But it's a tough life, I see that.

"Most boxers aren't making money. Most are actually losing money from the start of it. For me, I suppose, it's just not to be looking back wondering.

"If you won an Irish title, you might get a European ranking and maybe get a title shot on the back of that. Or at least be on the card of a Sky Sports show. If you get on one of those shows, they'll cover your costs.

"But, up until that, you've to sell tickets to pay your opponent. It's only recently that the likes of Thomas McCarthy, David Oliver Joyce and Luke Keeler have started making a few bob. But they're not going to be paying off the mortgage in one go or anything like that. They're just surviving. It's a rough life."

Rough enough to worry about a 34-year-old debutant?

"Trust me, I'm not going to put myself in a position where I'm coming out punch-drunk at the end of it. I'll do what I'm able to do and walk away."

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Champions Cup preview, the World Cup hangover and Joe Schmidt's next team

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport