His rivalry with the late Darren Sutherland was legendary, but a national middleweight title eluded him time and again and so did the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
All this despite the fact that he already had the scalps of some of the world’s best swinging from his belt.
Retirement was considered more than once, on either side of his eventual Olympic bow in London four years ago, in fact. A two-stone leap to heavyweight revived his career, but now he is battling the odds and Lady Fortune as much as ever as the doors for the last planes bound for Brazil begin to swing shut.
Rewind less than a month and he was contemplating three possible routes, but the chance of making the World Series of Boxing (WSB) qualifiers has been scuppered by rules and regulations and his bid to make it through the European Olympic qualifiers ended in April on the back of a controversial quarter-final loss.
Most observers felt the Kilkenny man had earned the win against Azerbaijan’s No. 1 seed Abdulkadir Abdullayev in Samsun, Turkey, but a split 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 decision didn’t fall his way.
Incredulous at the time, his frustration only intensified when he watched the DVD of the fight later
Adversity, hardship. He knows the lyrics to this song by now. O’Neill has one more shot at it. He needs gold in the last qualifier, in Astana in Kazakhstan later this month. Five wins on the trot. It’s no small ask.
Unfortunately, the European Games and Championships silver and bronze medallists are still there. So are the Commonwealth champion and the Americans. “It’s monumental,” he admitted this week.
“Over the last year I have proven to myself time and again against world gold and two world bronze (medallists) and I was very unlucky — you could say robbed — on at least two of those occasions.
“So I know none of those are going to want to box me. If I perform and avoid injury then I’d be confident things could go well.”
His preparations, at least, have been little short of perfect.
O’Neill had been travelling out from the National Stadium on Dublin’s South Circular Road to the National Sports Campus and the new high performance training centre at the Institute of Irish Sport (IIS) for a while to do his strength and conditioning sessions, but boxing’s high performance unit moved into the place en masse this last week and more.
Counterparts from Great Britain, Germany, Kazakhstan and India joined them for what has been the biggest training camp the sport has ever seen in this country.
A quick visit paid this week made for an assault on the senses: the pungent odour of body sweat, a kaleidoscope of coloured vests and the repetitive oomph sound of gloves hitting pads, bodies, and head guards.
Plans are in train to add a hotel to the campus in the next two years, which would allow the boxers and the rest of Ireland’s elite athletes eat, sleep and train in Abbotstown, but Pat Ryan, president of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association has already labelled the shift from their base in town as the “final piece in the jigsaw” for the team in its bid to build on the Beijing and London successes.
O’Neill could have hardly been more content.
“I’ve been in the high-performance system since its inauguration,” he explained to this column on Wednesday. “I was one of the boxers on the floor when Zaur (Antia), Billy (Walsh) and the other coaches tried out for their jobs and there has been huge changes in our methods and systems and processes, but also in our surroundings.
“We started in a very humble hall on the South Circular Road. Davey Oliver (Joyce) and myself are the only two left now. The facilities were very poor, to be fair about it. There was guys sleeping on floors and we eventually moved upstairs to just the one ring. The bags were always there, but we were quite limited in what we had.
“It’s been great to come out here and for the team to be using purpose-built boxing facilities which are world-class. They are state-of-the-art.
“We can only hope that all our training sessions will be out here over the course of the next few weeks and in the run-up to Rio.
“It would benefit us 10-fold, no doubt about it.”
It has taken far too long, but Ireland’s elite amateur boxers finally have at their disposal a facility to match their sacrifices and achievements. A switch back to their old cramped quarters is surely inconceivable now. Better late than never and all that.
Here’s hoping we can say the same for O’Neill after his last punch in Astana.