Darren O’Neill stepping up in style

Boxers represent Ireland’s best hope of medals at the European Games which began in Baku last night.

Darren O’Neill stepping up in style

Prior to our meeting across the road from the National Stadium, where he has just finished a training session, the last time I had spoken to Darren O’Neill was when he had just finished a live multilingual interview on TG4 after annexing a fifth national senior title.

It wasn’t a pretty picture but must have made for brilliant TV. He had so many gashes on his head and face that viewers could have been forgiven for thinking the station’s budget had been blown on special effects.

In actual fact, the make-up woman could not apply any of the normal foundation to counter the sheen from the powerful lights.

“You’re not putting that next or near me” warned the new heavyweight champ.

“At the time I didn’t realise how bad it was” he reveals now.

“When I was in the ring I felt the pop when the heads collided and felt the blood drizzle straight away. I remember going back to the corner and looking out and I could see Kenneth Egan saying to the guy beside him ‘It’s pissing blood’ and I thought ‘Oh great!’”

It was only as he returned to his dressing room to grab a towel before being whisked away for a drug test that he glanced at the mirror.

“Holy shit. My face!”

His mother Carmel is a former nurse and she patched him up. In the end, he had 21 stitches. Carmel isn’t ecstatic about him picking up scars but knows the game, her husband Ollie having been in it all hisr life.

Ironically Darren has picked up worse injuries hurling. A contemporary of Richie Power and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick at St Kieran’s College, he won two All-Ireland medals at the famed Kilkenny nursery and played for Kilkenny up to U21.

Individual responsibility appealed to him though. There was all the limelight if you won and no-one else to blame if you lost.

He had a notion that the London Olympics would bring the curtain down nicely on his boxing life but here he is, three years later, fighting guys that are a stone heavier and loving every minute of it.

He went into the Olympics as captain of the boxing team and the third-ranked middleweight in the world. Having paid his dues at senior level and found his progress barred by Kenneth Egan and Darren Sutherland, he had made it the hard way.

If ever a guy deserved an Olympic medal… thought Hollywood blockbusters might suggest otherwise, no sport is less Tinseltown than boxing. German Stefan Haertel beat him in the round of 16.

“It was the end of a dream really. It was something I aspired to from a young age. I remember Michael Carruth as a kid, jumping around.

"I knew I had enough ability to win a medal but my form wasn’t great that year. I stepped out of work which maybe wasn’t a good idea as I didn’t have the distraction I needed. I was gutted.”

He went out for a meal with family and friends and allowed himself a brief mourning process before returning to the Village and rallying around the rest of the team.

He was positivity personified and the success of his friends Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan brought him tremendous joy. Carrying the Tricolour into the stadium at the closing ceremony was a huge honour.

It was an incredible high but coming down cold turkey was horrific.

“I struggled. I thought I’d ease back in easier than the rest as I thought I’d a job to come back to. But I didn’t and didn’t know what was going on.

"I had been in a structured programme so long I didn’t know what to do with myself. It’s a grieving process. One minute you’d be in tears, the next you’re out having the craic. It was strange.

“I went to the London Games ranked number three in the world, I had a job, I was on top of the world. I came home and I went from number three in the world to not even being national champion (after being beaten by Jason Quigley) and having no job. I was all over the place. My head was messed up.”

He did get back working part-time in a couple of schools but having become disillusioned with the Department of Education, is considering a career change. To that end, he is doing a Masters in business administration at DIT.

Right now though, the former EU champion and European Championships silver medallist is in Baku, ready to roll for the inaugural European Games and he cannot wait.

Part of his recovery process from the post-Olympic Blues was not having to waste anymore. He only returned as a middleweight for the 2014 nationals because he wanted another shot at Quigley, who he felt had been a little disrespectful the previous year.

In the end, Quigley turned pro and O’Neill lost another final on a split decision to Michael O’Reilly in the final, the effort of making 75 kilos reducing him to a shadow of his former self.

He loves the competition and representing his country and it’s why the Paulstown man is still putting himself through torture, bumming around Eastern Europe in Spartan conditions three months shy of his 30th birthday.

Stepping up to light-heavyweight (81kg) was the obvious move but Joe Ward represents a forbidding presence there. Rio was somewhere in the background as a possible goal but you don’t look too far ahead in this game, where you need to be a national champion to have a chance to make the European Games and do well there to get to the European Championships, and so on to World Championships and Olympics.

Being Ireland No 1 was the goal and with Gary Sweeney picking up an injury, O’Neill went heavyweight (91kg) and did the business with his fifth victory in a remarkable ninth senior final.

His elbow injury is sorted now and having initially found himself becoming more flat-footed as he attempted to get his body into more conventional heavyweight condition, has returned to concentrating on his middleweight strengths of skill, footwork and speed.

“It’s the small little feints and movements of the feet take more out of you than punching to be honest.”

As Chairman of the OCI’s Athletes’ Commission, he will take the opportunity to liaise with competitors from other sports in Baku for suggestions and feedback, as gear specifications for the Rio Olympics are being finalised.

While individual glory and failure are what he chose over the team aspect of hurling, there is a team element within boxing and he loves it. He recalls sharing a room with Adam Nolan and John Joe Nevin in London.

“The boys joked a lot about it. The Garda, the teacher and the traveller. A great mix. That sums us up.”

O’Neill is delighted to be completing the set of representing Ireland in every possible major championship and is adamant that there is a place in the calendar for the European Games.

“We’re the only continent that hadn’t their own Games until now. I’m really looking forward to it. I think Setanta are covering it but there’s no RTÉ or TV3 coverage and that’s disappointing to say the least. From a boxing point of view, we have a strong team going over.

"Myself and Adam are Olympians, Katie Taylor is an Olympic champion going. I think it’s crazy we’re not getting good coverage. Hopefully Setanta will do a good job. It will be fantastic. I’m really looking forward to it and I think it’s going to be a massive championships.”

TEAM IRELAND - BAKU 2015:

Men’s Boxing:

Brendan Irvine (light fly), Myles Casey (fly), Dean Gardiner (super heavy), Sean McComb (light), Adam Nolan (welter), Darren O’Neill (heavy), Michael O’Reilly (middle), Kurt Walker (bantam), Dean Walsh (light welter)

Canoeing:

Tom Brennan, Simas Dobrovolskis, Jenny Egan, Peter Egan, Andrezj Jezierski:

Cycling:

Caroline Ryan, Ryan Mullen, Sean Downey, Eddie Dunbar, Jack Wilson, Connor Dunne:

Gymnastics:

Ellis O’Reilly, Tara Donnelly, Nicole Mawhinney, Kieran Behan, Rohan Sebastian, Daniel Fox:

Taekwondo:

Chloe Aboud.

Archery:

Sinead Cuthbert Cunningham, Darren Wallace;

Badminton:

Chloe Magee, Josh Magee, Rachel Darragh, Sara Boyle, Scott Evans, Sam Magee;

Basketball (3x3):

Niamh Dwyer, Grainne Dwyer, Suzanne Maguire, Orla O’Reilly;

Judo:

Eoin Fleming; Karate: Karen Dolphin; Shooting: Derek Burnett;

Swimming:

Rory McEvoy, Mona McSharry, Rachel Bethel, Danielle Hill, Emma Reid, Andrew Moore, James Brown, Benjamin Doyle, Alan Corby, Niamh Kilgallen, Kate Baguley, Iseult Hayes, Natasha MacManus (diving); Triathlon:

Aileen Reid, Russell White, Aaron O’Brien; Women’s Boxing:

Katie Taylor, Michaela Walsh, Ceire Smith; Wrestling: Alex Dolly, Soslan Tuaev.

It was an incredible high but coming down cold turkey was horrific

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