When all else fails you, there’s always the gym. I genuinely dunno if a boxing club has ever let me down. I don’t think I’ve ever walked back out of the gym doors and regretted going through them.
Too much on your mind? Get down to the gym, get busy, get on a bag, get sweating, the mind will clear with each drip off the chin. Sweet f*** all on your mind? Get down to the gym. Always something to focus on down there. Never lets you down.
I was above in Dublin last week and went into the gym to do some work with Packie Collins. Eric Donovan was in there and at one stage I took a few minutes in the background, just watching him get busy. He was preparing for the biggest fight of his life, a European super featherweight title meeting with Khalil EI Hadri in Belfast this Saturday night.
Those last couple of weeks before a big fight are a weird oul mix of preparation meeting anticipation meeting tension…and, along the way, meeting ‘in the name of Christ can we just get on with the fight?’ Lads deal with it differently. Eric was dealing with it in his own way and I didn’t want to bother him too much. I’ve been there. But, for reasons best known to someone, I’m also a columnist now. So I went over and told him I’d like to write about him this week and could I catch up with him at some stage before the fight. He said he’d make time.
There’s a few reasons I wanted to write about Eric. Last week in Packie’s place we were under the same roof as a 38-year-old and 37-year-old (he’s never caught up with me!). I reckon the first time we were under the same roof, I was 12 and Eric was 11 and we were at the 1996 Nationals in Dublin. We’ve shared a few roofs in the quarter-century since.
We were on our first Ireland team together in 1999, a gang of us went off to Scotland for the Junior Olympics or Celtic Games or something. Myself and Andy Lee were the only two Munster boys on the team. Eric hung around with Roy Sheehan, another lad for Athy, a brilliant welterweight. They were like Beavis and Butt-Head, laughing at their own jokes the whole time. But we’d a good team and we were off representing our country abroad in our mid-teens. It was a great time. I have a hat from that trip with Eric’s autograph on it up in mam’s house.
The truth about our sport, about fighting for a living, is you never know where it’s going to take ya. Anyone who says they do is either lying or have been fighting too long and fooling themselves. Boxing and life took myself and Eric (and all of us) off in our own directions. But the direction both boxing and life took Eric is important I think. I was actually thinking about it all last week as I watched him in the gym.
These are hard bloody times for an awful lot of people in Ireland. The way the country is, some people only know hard times. But the pandemic definitely piled it on for a lot of people. Mental health, barely staying afloat as the cost of living rockets up, relying on drink or worse again drugs to get you through. There’s an awful lot of it. I see an awful lot of it. We need to see it.
Eric went through his share of it too. More than his share. He went through plenty.
Listen, Eric was a bloody brilliant amateur. He beat Ray Moylette twice and Ray was a genius, an amateur world champion. He beat James Tennyson, beat a reigning world amateur champ called Domenic Valentino in 2010. But Eric missed out on the big one. He missed the London Olympics in 2012 after getting into a fight at a house party and breaking his left hand. He’s talked so openly about how it sent him down a spiral where he thought about taking his own life. Drink and drugs were where he turned to.
Nothing is destined for us in life. None of us in Scotland in 1999 knew where we’d go. Eric went to some dark places and some awful tough times. And now, here he is — in 2022, at the age of 37, fighting for a European belt on Irish soil and bringing boxing back to terrestrial TV on TG4. Inside and outside the ring he’s flying. He has a lovely family, he’s gone back to university and got qualifications, you can’t get him off the TV and radio for jaysus’s sake.
I respect him so much for what he’s done, for where he’s dragged himself from — and to. And in these times, I hope there are people out there, even one, who can look at what Eric has done with his life and find some hope, some motivation, a bit of a kick for themselves, from Eric’s journey.
True to his word, he did make time for me. We chatted on Tuesday there. I’m only three columns into this so I’m no Terry Wogan yet with the questions. But I asked him how he looks at that journey.
“I try not to dwell on the past because I used to be embarrassed and ashamed of my past,” he said. “I used to have so much guilt around all the setbacks and near misses. Regrets about letting myself down and letting people down. But I look at my past today as an asset. I navigated my way through adversity and really, really tough times.
“I overcame a lot of personal challenges, emotional and mental turmoil — that’s what sent me down the wrong road. I was really struggling and the drink and the drugs were only papering over the cracks. But I’m free today. I live a free life. I’m a man of health and happiness and I’m boxing today for all the right reasons. I’m fighting for a European title. My wife is almost due with the baby. My two boys cannot wait for the arrival of their little brother or sister. We’re living the best days of our lives — that’s what my wife said to me the other night and she’s right, you know.”
El Hadri will be a tough one. He’s 10 years younger and it’ll be Eric’s first time going 12 rounds. Eric’s a southpaw and I’ve written about how hard that can be for an opponent but El Hadri’s had a couple of successes against southpaws. Eric says he knows what’s coming. Packie does too. They’re not the kind of lads to leave things to chance.
“He’s good. I’ll give him his due. He’s solid, he’s strong. But the best Eric Donovan beats the best El-Hadri in my opinion,” Eric said to me. “I’m pissed off you know? I’m just fed up this week. I just want to get in the ring and smash it. At 37 years of age, sometimes I have to pinch myself.
“It was 30 years ago when I walked into a boxing club for the first time and here I am, three decades later. Boxing helped me so much in my life and gave me a bit of structure and direction, even in the middle of all the madness. The boxing club has always been there for me, welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to restart again. The club and the gym was the foundation for me restarting my life time and time again.”
Never lets you down. The very best of luck to Eric. He’s earned it.