Saturday 21 April 2018

'You just go in to hit him more times than he hits you and you're grand'

An Olympic 'mixed zone' is where, historically, we Irish gather up all the bad news in buckets and fish through it for small wisdoms.

It's a business conducted solemnly, badged clergy hearing confession from a teary-eyed congregation. We wear our 'sorry for your troubles' expressions like black ties. A lovely charade. Mostly, Olympians are peculiarities to us, strangers subordinating themselves to lives lived in four-yearly instalments.

But boxing takes us to a different place.

On Saturday, just minutes after his destruction of Denmark's Dennis Ceylan, a jolly American pair of spectacles enquired of John Joe Nevin if he felt he had "a thorough understanding of the scoring system?" Nevin looked non-plussed. After a pause, he replied: "Ya you do. You just go in to hit him more times than he hits you and you're grand."

And away we swung, slapping our sides at the gas of it. John Joe laughed too, but only as a reflex to his audience. You could tell he wasn't trying to be smart or dismissive of the question. Sometimes sport just doesn't need that much scrambling or decoding. Occasionally, it's as simple as taking out a brolly if it rains.

Routinely, the boxers come to us with their bright eyes and clean-living faces, making the Olympics feel like another tournament. Nevin won 21-6 on Saturday but head coach Billy Walsh disregarded that arithmetic. He described John Joe's performance as "average". Told us he'd have to improve.

That's the way with the medal academy on the South Circular Road. They expect things of themselves. They go to competition with a blunt disdain for anything that smells of settling for less than the best of themselves. Elsewhere, we find ourselves collecting up all the familiar hyperbole of disappointment. With the boxers, we get smiles.

Nevin and Darren O'Neill are room-mates in the athletes' village and on Saturday they met the din of a packed ExCel Arena head on. Walsh took them out to see the crowd before they went to their dressing-room. He wanted no surprises, no sudden gusts of panic.

Nevin inhaled the commotion and felt only electricity in his veins. He pointed his right glove towards the heavens, did a little jitter-bug with his feet, then reversed over to Ceylan's corner, scuffing the canvas with his shoe in the way of a bull preparing to charge. If anything, the sense of tumult in east London made him grow. Later, when he was asked if the four-day turnaround (he boxes Kazak Kanat Abutalipov on Wednesday) perhaps concerned him, John Joe just smiled gently.

"I'd be prepared to box tomorrow if I had to," he told us. "You have to get that into your head. You have to get in there yourself. No one else is going to do it for you. Darren and I are great room-mates, great friends. He gave me a bit of a hug before I went out there."

O'Neill describes them now as "like a married couple". He says: "We kind of know what way to treat each other before a fight. The two of us are similar enough. I rub his back and he rubs mine and we're happy enough (laughing)."

In Beijing, Nevin's room-mate was the late Darren Sutherland. It was a teacher-student relationship, Sutherland endlessly imparting unsolicited counsel to the 18-year-old. Now it is O'Neill, a teacher by profession, who guides Nevin. There's a certain symmetry to that for it was with Sutherland that O'Neill had his greatest rivalry.

When Sutherland won their national final in 2008, he grabbed the microphone, pointed to O'Neill and said: "This is the future."

That wouldn't have been how O'Neill saw himself that evening as he contemplated stepping away from boxing. But Sutherland turned pro after the Beijing Games and O'Neill decided there might still be some juice to be squeezed from the fruit of his talent. Now he is team captain here and an Olympian to his fingertips.

On Saturday, his opponent, a big lighthouse from Nigeria called Muideen Akanji, had some rather loud and boisterous team-mates supporting him in the bleachers. As luck would have it, they sat directly beside a small contingent of Irish, including Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Adam Nolan and Katie Taylor.

O'Neill led 4-3 after a cagey first round and the Nigerians bellowed their disapproval.

Then O'Neill came out for the second and, effectively, stole their tongues. Catching Akanji with a series of combinations, he stretched 12-5 clear and it was over. He'd never even heard of the Nigerian until the draw was made, but knowledge is never far away when you interact with that boxing encyclopedia otherwise known as the head coach.

"Billy pulled out a video of him," explained O'Neill, as if Walsh just popped into Xtravision, "and we had a quick look at him. The first round was always going to be cagey. You have to find your distance and he has to find his distance. The second round, thankfully, I started to get the distance a bit more.

"Billy and Zaur (Antia) reinforced the game plan from the start and I started working a little bit more downstairs. I'm a tall middleweight but he was towering over me again. They didn't tell me the score after the second, but I had a feeling I was up. So I knew the last round was just a matter of matching him and getting through and not giving away any silly scores.

"Once we broke it down, I think we were in the driving seat and I never felt I was out of control."

Both admitted to nerves before their fights, just not the kind that burn your house down. They were temperate and thoughtful as we tried to parse their stories. O'Neill's next opponent will be the formidable German, Stefan Hartel, on Thursday. A contest sure to explore everything he has.

"We know him well," revealed Walsh. "We've had a couple of competitions against him in sparring, he's a very difficult opponent. It'll be a 50/50, I think. Darren will have to produce a lot better than today to be successful. But look, we're in with a shout, we have plans for him and hopefully we'll get it right on the day."

And that was really the gist of it. Job done, move on, avoid silliness.

Nevin's fight with Abutalipov will be a rematch of a bout they had in 2009, which John Joe won 15-2. "He's won the WSP since then," Nevin cautions. "He's stronger and he's going to be a tough customer. I'm not looking forward to feeling his punches again, but it has to be done. Today, I was hurting him (Ceylan) with right hooks to the head and he didn't want to come. I was feeling sorry for him myself.

"I'm a different boxer from four years ago. People seem to forget that. I've loads of experience. I honestly believe if I perform to my best I can beat anyone in the world. But if I don't perform, anyone can beat me. You don't know which John Joe is going to show up.

"But hopefully it's the good John Joe!"

Irish Independent

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