O’Neill ready to seize the day

Darren O’Neill has bittersweet memories of the medal ceremony at the Beijing Olympics when Kenneth Egan received his silver medal.

He celebrated with Egan, a friend and foe who defeated him in successive senior championship finals, but he couldn’t help thinking what might have been.

That year, after dropping down to middleweight, he lost a thriller to the late Darren Sutherland and, with that defeat, his Beijing dreams floated out the window. The medal ceremony brought the memories rushing back.

“The galling part of it all was that four light heavyweights, including Kenny Egan, stood on the podium in Beijing and I had beaten three of them,” he said.

“In my last two internationals at light heavyweight I beat the Chinese gold medallist, Xiaoping Zhang, in Finland and then I beat Yerkebulan Shynaliyev of Kazakhstan in my last international in Turkey just six weeks earlier. I beat Tony Jeffries in my very first international.

“At that stage I was ready to throw in the towel. Dad was there to encourage me to give it one more shot. I hadn’t even won a national title at that stage. I had beaten Olympic champions, Olympic bronze medallists, the whole lot and I hadn’t won a national title.

“I went back the following year. In 2009, I got the national title and from there on, it’s gone well.”

Since then he has won multiple national titles, a European silver medal and qualification for London at the world championships in Baku last year gave him the opportunity to realise the Olympic dream.

He got off to a flying start last Saturday with a comprehensive 15-6 victory over Nigerian, Muideen Akanji.

Danger lurks around every corner, however, and today (2.45pm) he meets tough German middleweight, Stefan Hartel, for a place in the quarter-finals against either the world No 1, Ievgen Khytrov (Ukraine), or Anthony Ogogo (Great Britain) who also clash on today’s programme.

On his day, the former Kilkenny hurler has all the weapons in his extensive armoury to deal with the best of them and he proved it at the European Championships in Moscow when he came from behind to beat Sergey Derevyanchenko (Ukraine) 7-6 in the quarter finals — coming from behind to score the winning point with just six seconds remaining before going on to win the silver medal.

The Ukrainian was top of the pile at the time and went on to win the WSB and qualify for the Olympic Games but Ukraine wouldn’t select him because of his involvement in the WSB.

“That was a bit special — last punch, brilliant,” he said. “I performed that day and if I can perform like that again, anything can happen. We are always talking about performance.”

With all of the Irish boxers still in the Olympic tournament, nobody wants to be the first to lose and high performance coach, Billy Walsh insists O’Neill can rise to the challenge.

“I think it’s a very tough task,” he said. “We’ve been in training camps together, sparring, we haven’t competed against each other but I have to say the German got the better of us.

“Darren’s in great shape, he’s in great form and really looking forward to it. He’s going to have to improve and if he does he can be victorious.”

O’Neill will have to step up on Saturday’s performance but German rival Hartel admitted that he will have to step up against the Irishman.

“We know each other from sparring,” he said. “He’s a good boxer and I have to give everything to the best of my ability. If I want to beat him I have to show more than my first fight.”

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