All may have appeared to have changed utterly in Irish boxing, but the presence of veteran Darren O’Neill in tonight’s National Elite Championship finals is both a link to glories of the recent past as well as the possibility of a brighter future.
The Kilkenny veteran will compete in his 11th elite decider this evening at the National Stadium as he aims for a seventh title and his third heavyweight crown on the bounce when he takes on Athlone’s Ken Okungbowa.
As captain of the London 2012 Olympic team, O’Neill is one of the few well-known fighters competing in this year’s edition of the national championships, which is otherwise severely lacking in terms of star billing.
Since the disappointment of the Rio Olympic Games, a host of household names have abandoned the High Performance Unit, with Michael Conlan, Paddy Barnes, and Katie Taylor having all opted for professional careers, while David Oliver Joyce is reportedly on the verge of following their lead.
Other notable fighters are also absent, including the retired Adam Nolan, Steven Donnelly (did not enter), and Michael O’Reilly, who failed a drugs test in the build-up to Rio.
However, despite all the fallout from Rio — where Ireland’s boxers failed to claim a single medal following the seven-haul success of the two previous Games — this year will be a busy one as both European and World Championships are scheduled for 2017.
And, for 31-year-old O’Neill, the lure of another major medal to go with his 2010 European silver may prove to be strong.
“That’s kind of what I was thinking,” says O’Neill on a busy year ahead.
“There’s nothing [no majors] next year. People will say, ‘you missed Rio, you’re finished,’ but I said I’ll go when I’m ready.”
The Paulstown clubman saw his dreams of reaching a second Games dashed by a highly contentious points loss to Abdullayev Abdulkadir of Azerbaijan at a European qualifier last April.
At the time, his complaints following the result may have been viewed as yet another example of a common tendency to cry foul over ‘dodgy decisions’ abroad, but the events of Rio — and in particular Conlan’s controversial fate, losing a disputed decision to Russian Vladimir Nikitin — have provided some consolation to O’Neill.
And, in a sense, his failure to qualify for the 2016 Games may be a reason why he is back in an Irish ring tonight.
“It’s a very hard sport. I was only talking about it to Zaur [Antia, Irish head coach] the other day,” explains O’Neill. “My first ever senior fight was an international in 2004 and I’m still here.
“The hunger is still there. I was a bit dejected after missing the Olympics because I clearly beat the Azerbaijani, easily — I landed 54 punches, he landed 26 — and he qualified and went to Rio and I was completely all over the place after that.
“Seeing what happened to Michael [Conlan] in Rio, I was disgusted, but I took a little bit of comfort that the general public can see what’s happening to us.
“We’re not just coming back [from tournaments] and saying we got robbed.
“The hunger is still there,” continues the former Kilkenny U21 hurler.
“How much longer I’ll stay, I don’t know. I said I’ll give it this year and see how I get on. Time will tell after Friday night.”
Tonight’s result will certainly have an impact on his decision.
The 31-year-old left his teaching career to study for a Masters in Business from DIT while also keeping busy with media work for RTÉ.
However, it is his recent election as a member of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) Executive Committee that may yet see O’Neill having a lasting impact on sport outside the ring.
Competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics may be an idealistic goal, but an effort to help rebuild the OCI following the chaos of Rio could well be O’Neill’s next big fight.
“The Olympics are important to me — it was something I grew up loving,” he says.
“I remember being six or seven years of age when Michael Carruth was jumping around the ring and I’ve had a grá for it ever since.
“I’d love for it to be reformed back to all its majesty and glory — where kids are looking and aspiring to be that, rather than having it tainted as it was last year.
“I’m glad to be part of that and hopefully we’ll be able to reform it [the OCI] and have it back running as a respected and organised organisation,” he added.
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