Bridesmaid no more: Darren O'Neill interview
Middleweight Darren O’Neill is one of Ireland’s great hopes in the ring at London 2012. JOE caught up with the Kilkenny man to talk boxing, hurling and why he almost quit.
By Mark O'Toole
Darren O'Neill steps through the ropes for his round of 32 bout tomorrow (Saturday), realising a lifelong ambition to compete in the Olympics having come so close last time round.
Darren competed with the late Darren Sutherland in one of the great Irish boxing rivalries for many years and nearly quit boxing, disheartened having lost out to him in the opportunity to go to the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
Ironically, perhaps, Sutherland’s bronze medal at that event inspired O’Neill to keep at it and tomorrow one of Ireland’s best medal hopefuls hits the ring in London ready to do his best.
JOE caught up with him recently for a chat.
I was wondering ‘Is it ever going to happen?’ I was fit to chuck it in at that stage.
JOE: You had many great battles with the late Darren Sutherland over the years and were very close to heading to Beijing in 2008. You’re now the main middleweight in Ireland and there’s a lot of expectation for this Irish team to perform in London...
Darren O’Neill: Yeah look, whether it’s success in Beijing or success in the major championships the Irish public probably consider the boxers the main chance at getting medals... somewhat unfairly on us I suppose because the boxing game is a very difficult game you know? There’s very little between any of us.
Look though, we’re not overly concerned about it, if we get in there and perform our best – the results will take care of themselves.
JOE: You were close to getting in back in 2008, how do you think you have developed as a boxer since then?
DO’N: Yeah I was very unlucky in 2008... I think maybe I had skipped over a few stages – I had beaten the Olympic medallist, I had been World and European medallist but I still hadn’t won a national championship – it’s funny I could beat an Olympic champion and yet I still couldn’t win a national championship. I think after that I went back to basics.
At that stage having not won a nationals and having beaten these top guys I was wondering ‘Is it ever going to happen?’ I was fit to chuck it in at that stage.
But instead I went back to drawing board and thanks to my Dad Ollie I got back and won the national championships the following year and it just developed from that – I won the EU Championships, the Europeans and qualified in 2011, so hopefully this year we can take it up again...
For years I was called the bridesmaid of Irish boxing having not even won national championships so that stung a bit!
JOE: You mentioned you were fit to chuck it in, what made you reconsider?
DO’N: Well there were two or three factors that kept me going.
I looked at Darren [Sutherland] and Kenny [Egan] doing so well and it kind of inspired me. I think knowing that there was only a toss of a coin between myself and Darren and having seen Kenny fail so many times at European and World level. I thought ‘if they can do it, I can do it.’
Then you have that burning desire inside ya. One of the only things I ever wanted to do was to be an Olympian, it’s very hard to turn away from that when it eats at you that much.
I think they were the main reasons.
JOE: How did the preparation go for the Olympics? There was a long time to kill between qualifying late last year and the Olympics...
DO’N: [Laughs] There wasn’t that much time being killed I can tell ya!
Qualifying early for me was a bit of a benefit because it gave me time to refocus. It also took a bit of pressure off me as I didn’t have to be in the next qualifier and I was in all the same camps as the boys, the only thing that was different was I didn’t have to go to the qualifiers. I still got to go to competitions like in the Ukraine and I got two quality fights in, so my preparation wasn't that different from the rest of them.
I think everyone is in good shape, we had an excellent camp with the Indian team a few weeks back who are a quality team and we’re in very good shape.
JOE: You know your division quite well after the last few years. Does it play a big part in your preparation looking at the opposition you may face?
DO’N: No. Not for me, for some boxers maybe. We’ve found in the past if I concentrate or look at other boxers, I focus too much on them and not on my own strengths.
So I’m concentrating on myself and my own strengths and the things that make me the best possible boxer I can – there’ll be one or two things we might tick off others- you know... whether they’re a fighting style or a counter style? Whether they’re good coming forward or back? There’ll be small little things but I won’t bother too much after that.
JOE: With the losses of our Irish soccer team in Poland and our rugby team in New Zealand this summer, all of Irish sporting expectations are being heaped on the boxers. Is that a little much to take?
DO’N: Yeah it’s somewhat unfair on the boxers.
At the end of the day what people are thinking back home isn’t going to help you in the ring though, so we’ll all be concentrating on being the best we can be.
JOE: You mentioned your Dad Ollie training you down in the gym in Paulstown in Kilkenny. You were a handy hurler at underage level, what swung it for boxing in the end so to speak?
DO’N: Yeah I suppose at the time I was playing for Barrow Rangers who were playing in the lower divisions down home in hurling but it was still a strong division! But... I don’t know... I think I found the rewards and sufferings of boxing more individual to me, in the sense that you didn’t have to rely on someone else you know? You put the work in yourself.
Now when you suffered, you suffered by yourself and when you won you got it by yourself, with the exceptions of Billy and my Dad training me. I just found training more individually rewarding and the Olympics were there and that’s the ultimate dream you know?
JOE: You’re also a primary school teacher have any of your kids been talking to you about the upcoming event?
DO’N: Actually I had to stop [teaching] at Christmas, I had to take a career break because it was just too busy a schedule, but I have called back out to the school and they have ‘Good Luck Mr. O’Neill printed’ across the roof.
They’ve got a couple of extra projects going on and they love it out there and it gives them an extra added interest, but I think a lot of schools are in that case or people that went to college with me. I suppose they have an added interest because they know me and are concentrating a little more on it.
JOE: Do you feel your time has finally come?
DO’N: Yeah of course!
I mean for years I was called the bridesmaid of Irish boxing having not even won national championships so that stung a bit!
But look I worked hard for it, I think I deserve it, I was unlucky in 2008 and I said I’d give it one last go and I gave it one hell of a go and I think I deserve it and I was ecstatic when I got there!
JOE: Best of luck Darren.