Kilkenny native O’Neill begins the defence of his Irish 90kg title at the 2016 National Elite Championships on Saturday, taking on Stephen Lawrence in the quarter-finals.
The national championships are being held early with a view to team selection for the Rio Olympic qualifiers next year and O’Neill is hoping to reach his second Games, having competed at London 2012 as team captain.
The 30-year-old has since jumped over two stone in weight in order to chase a place at Rio 2016 as heavyweight (90kg) after struggling to make the middleweight (75kg) limit in recent years. O’Neill suffered a countback loss to future world finalist Jason Quigley in 2013 before an Irish final defeat to world bronze medallist Michael O’Reilly the following year.
“I was at a stage where, for a year or two after the Olympics, I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d been injured and things weren’t going well for me,” explained O’Neill. “Even outside of boxing, things weren’t going well for me so I thought about giving it up.
“Then I said ‘feck it’ because I wanted to get back to the major stage and enjoy it. For the first few years (of your career) you put a lot of pressure on yourself, when you’re a little bit older you can enjoy it and relish the experience a little bit more. I said I’d give it a lash at heavyweight and see how it goes.” The Paulstown club man moved up to heavyweight for the 2015 national championships, which took place last January, defeating Ken Okungbowa to claim his fifth Irish senior title to add to his four middleweight crowns.
“It obviously worked out in the (2015) nationals and while I’ve had a few disappointments and unlucky decisions I’ve really enjoyed my boxing,” said the rejuvenated O’Neill. “If I can keep that enjoyment and just progress even another five per cent this year I’ll be in good stead. There’s a few boys who are developing nicely, but I’m hoping I can keep them at bay for the time being and that my experience will shine through,” added the former European silver medallist.
While the men’s national championships get underway on Saturday night at the National Stadium, the women’s senior finals take place tomorrow (Friday) night with Katie Taylor set to compete in her first-ever domestic decider against Clonmel’s Shauna O’Keeffe at lightweight (60kg).