Steven Donnelly boxed the Irish team out of a looming crisis yesterday with a masterful display that leaves him one fight from an Olympic medal.
Just 18 hours after Joe Ward’s defeat left Ireland with half a team gone from the tournament, welterweight Donnelly put a smile back with a points win that must rank among the best bouts of his career.
It came down to a split decision over Mongolian Tuvshinbat Byamba but the Brazilian judge gave all three rounds to Donnelly and that was most people’s view. He moved well, kept Byamba at a distance with his left jab, and landed several heavy blows.
This was something of a renaissance for the Ballymena boxer who quit boxing for two years, was banned from pubs, and appeared in court. To win a second bout here and put himself in the quarter finals lifted all those around him, not least the team coaches.
“There wasn’t the pressure on me like there was in the first fight. I just listened to the coaches and followed the plan. I knew he was strong, going to come at me and to use my jab, feint, feint, sidestep, draw him in and step off to the side,” said Donnelly of the game plan.
“They are fantastic coaches, deserve all the praise they get, full marks to them.”
They are also very relieved coaches right now. Losing Joe Ward late on Wednesday meant they approached crisis point. As Eddie Bolger said of how he felt after Donnelly’s win: “Better than yesterday, anyway. We’re back on the road again. It was a bit of a shock with Joe.”
Donnelly, who ended with a swollen left eye that will be black in the morning, will have to fight again tomorrow morning because he faces the world champion from Morocco, Mohammed Rabbi.
“He’s world champion for a reason but I just want to give it my all, 100%, and then I’ll be happy. I’m full of confidence now,” said Donnelly.
Bolger is not daunted by the challenge his man faces.
“You always get 100% from Steven. Everybody’s beatable, especially here.”
Ward lost his light-heavyweight bout because he was deducted two points. The first in the second round should have alerted his coaching team to the problem, but if they said anything Ward did not take the warning on board because he had another in the third round. It was presumed both were for holding but he was also told on several occasions to keep his head up.
The two points alone cost him the fight. He won the first and the third rounds but with two points deducted he ended up losing on a split decision overall 28-27, 28-27, 27-28. Had the two not been deducted, he would have won the fight on all three judges’ cards.
“We were a little bit disappointed for Joe and a little bit disappointed with Joe. You don’t listen to a good referee it might cost you; you don’t listen to a bad referee it will cost you,” said Bolger.
“To win every round, to lose two points and a split decision, it says a lot. He [the referee] hould have separated them, had a word with each and let them get on with it.”
A disciplined performance like those that won him two European titles by the age of 21 would have seen him through but he accepted Mina’s invitation to a brawl. In the first round they wrestled each other to the canvas and at no time was this an advertisement for the noble art.
“It was very unlucky for me to get two public warnings, especially when the fight was nip and tuck. I felt I was doing enough but I am very disappointed with the way the referee got involved,” said Ward.
He said he hadn’t received any verbal warnings before the third round.
“He didn’t caution me that much. He jumped in and just gave me a warning and it was a very crucial one in the third round when the fight was level.”
The Games was in danger of becoming a crisis for the Irish boxing team after five days. Gone were three potential medalists — Ward and Paddy Barnes beaten and Michael O’Reilly sent home after a drug test — and a fourth fighter, David Oliver Joyce who lost his second bout.
The pressure on the Irish management is emphasised by the improving fortunes of the USA team, coached by Billy Walsh, who led the Irish to their Olympic triumphs in London four years ago.
The US did not win any medals in London but already they are guaranteed one, ironically in Barnes’ light-fly division where unseeded Nico Hernandez is through to the semis.
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