Donnelly ready to 'justify tattoos'
Words 'redemption' and 'dedication' inked on arm say it all as Irish boxing's prodigal son closes in on medal
After a traumatic ten days for Irish boxing, Steven Donnelly bids to lift to gloom this afternoon in the welterweight quarter-final.
The odds may be stacked against the 27-year-old Ballymena native as he faces world champion Mohammed Radii from Morocco. But he is relishing his new role as the unlikely saviour of the Irish boxers at the Games.
"I am fighting for a medal in the welterweight division of the Olympics. Not many people can say that after the road I've been through. I'm justifying my tattoos now. I will go in full of confidence," he said.
Donnelly battled the demons after being sent home from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi following a night of high jinks to drown his sorrows following a first-round exit.
He failed to score a point in the then computer scoring system against an Australian; he had left his best form in the gym. This tendency to over-train was a recurring nightmare in his early career.
The Indian experience deeply impacted on his life; essentially he was lost to the sport for two years as he tried to find solace in alcohol.
But his club coach in Ballymena's All Saints Boxing club Gerry Hamill refused to give up on him and eventually Donnelly stopped drinking, returned to training and his career has been on an upward trajectory since.
He had two words 'redemption' and 'dedication' tattooed on his left arm when he got back into the sport. Then when he unexpectedly qualified for the Olympics through the World Boxing series late last year he had an image of Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue added on his left forearm.
One suspects more artwork will be added if he secures a bronze medal today. There was swelling over his left eye immediately after Thursday's 2-1 split decision win over Tuvshinbat Byamba following an absorbing contest.
But while he is likely to be sporting a black eye today, he doesn't envisage it impacting on his performance, saying: "Once the eye is not cut it won't be a problem. I will just apply some larnica to it."
He doesn't underestimate the challenge he faces.
"Rabii is a world champion for a reason. But I believe in myself and I will go in and give it my all. I'm in a win-win situation. I will give it 100pc and be happy," he said.
"In my first fight I felt the pressure took away from my performance. I didn't feel the best in the ring and I was saying if I feel like this so early it will be a problem.
"But I felt better in the second fight. I was chilled in the dressing-room."
On form Rabii ought to win, though his somewhat sluggish performance on Wednesday suggests that his form has slipped since he dominated the 69kg division at the World Championships in Doha last October.
But Donnelly will produce a performance and nobody can ask for more.
Growing up in Ballymena, he was aware of the town's two most famous citizens, Ian Paisley and Liam Neeson - the latter boxed out of the All Saints club when he was a teenager. But he didn't know either of them personally.
But a win against the head today would ensure that he's the new face of the County Antrim town.
Meanwhile, the team's youngest member, Brendan Irvine finally makes his Olympic debut this afternoon when he faces Shakhobidin Zoirov from Uzbekistan. It has been a long wait in the athletes' village for the West Belfast teenager .
Irish assistant coach John Conlan acknowledges that having to wait a week for his first fight wasn't ideal for Irvine.
"We have a plan for him which he is sticking to - the problem is that he has been hanging around for a long time. He has trained very hard and left no stone unturned and he will give it everything when he gets into the ring," said Conlan.
Irvine burst onto the international scene last year when he sensationally won a silver medal at the European Games in Baku in the light flyweight (49kg) category.
Even though he failed to qualify for the Olympics in the weight division at the World championships when he lost to the world title holder Yoahnys Argilago in the quarter-finals, he seamlessly moved up to flyweight and secured his place in Rio at the first European qualifying tournament in Turkey.
"I was getting a bit tight for the light-flyweight category anyway. I had a chat with my coaches and moving up worked out for me," he said.
While he may not peak until the Toyko Olympics, he will be mindful of the fact that a then unknown 20-year-old from Belfast came from virtually nowhere to win a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics eight years. His name was Paddy Barnes.
But don't rule out Irvine emulating that feat here in Rio.