DIT student, Darren O'Neill speaks exclusively to Deputy Editor, Ryan Nugent, and explains his adjustment from middleweight to heavyweight and also the difficult process of Olympic qualification.
“Ryan, I'm going to be delayed a couple of hours. I've to drive the team bus across the city.”
Darren O’Neill is a busy man, and I had been chasing Ireland's Olympic boxing captain for the past week trying to organise a time that'd suit him for an interview, but the extracted text message was surely taking the biscuit altogether. What was that all about?
“(He laughs). Ah, the guy that regularly drives the bus couldn't do it that day, and it was our annual day to get our medicals done for the High Performance Unit, so I was asked, as one of the old heads, I suppose. So I had to drive the team bus, to be fair there were only seven of us, across to the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry,” explains O'Neill.
A valid excuse, kind of, but something which would only happen in Ireland. There's no room for egos within Irish sport's most fruitful production line. So, although O'Neill was difficult to get hold of, his trip to the sports clinic did lead me to a question on everyone's lips when it comes to sport. Concussion.
The impact boxers take to the head over a period of time, must be dangerously damaging.
“It's something we're being made very aware of in recent years, since the removal of the helmets a few years ago, but to be honest, I think boxing is one of the least likely to give you concussion, at amateur level anyway, well unless you're getting a tanking. Because you're all trained up and you're protecting yourself,” insists O'Neill.
“You've got to have somebody in your corner that knows how you operate and where your heads at, they can look after your safety and pull you out if need be, because I know if I hit someone, I'll know if I've hurt them and I'll go in for the kill, to win the fight. My opponents corner will know that too. It's up to them to end it then,” says O'Neill.
A common misconception surrounding head injuries comes from the professional game, according to the current Irish Heavyweight Champion.
“It's a totally different sport. The issue with pro boxing is the fights go on for so long and so many rounds, and once you start getting dehydrated and the muscles lose the fluid, that's when the damage can occur, but with amateur boxing that's not really an issue,” he says.
“At the end of the day you have to leave the game behind at some stage without damages and within amateur boxing the boxers safety always comes first,” continues O'Neill.
O'Neill, as mentioned, has been recently crowned Irish Heavyweight Champion, after an exciting night in the National Stadium three weeks ago. However his dominance on the national circuit far from guarantees the Kilkenny native a spot for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a major worry considering the expectation on the boxers to keep up the medal ratio of Beijing and London, three and five respectively.
“It's definitely a concern but like anything else, you can't keep going forever with it. These runs come to an end,” says O'Neill.
“I am concerned about Rio. There's going to be serious expectation on the boxers but the qualification system will make it very difficult to get boxers there. To qualify for Rio, I have to become a World Champion. A world silver wouldn’t do. That’s ludicrous.
“We have Joe Ward and Oliver Joyce in the professional section and Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon in the semi-professional section, so hopefully they’ll get there.
“These boxers also can go back in through the traditional route, which I’ll be trying to get through, so for those boys they’ll have a few bites at the cherry, whereas for some of us we just have one, and it’s a very difficult route,” explains O’Neill.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the M.A Business student, with a fruitful night a couple of weeks back in the National Stadium, where he defeated Ken Okungbowa in the Irish Heavyweight final.
And given his four previous national titles and his success abroad, one might be led to believe that this was a run-of-the-mill story, but O’Neill’s tale was not so simplistic. Having jumped from his regular 75kg weight, up past 83kg and straight to 91kg and the Heavyweight division, he won the gold at his first attempt.
“It was outrageous that the bookies had me favourite before the fight, in the sense that I had moved up 10 stone and only had my first heavyweight fight 10-12 weeks before the nationals started,” says O’Neill.
But why the extreme change in weight divisions?
“Look, it was a big jump up in weight but I had to ask myself where I could give myself the best chance to win medals. Middleweight, where I competed for nine years was just too low for me, it was taking too much out of my body and I was losing too much power, too much strength and too much energy. The snap had gone out of my fighting at that weight,” conveys O’Neill.
“I had agreed with my mam even the year before, she said ‘whatever happens, win or lose, don’t go that weight next year’ and I agreed, I said I won’t, but then I had to look and see where were the chances internationally, so I said with Joe Ward being in the professional (APB) section, I didn’t even get the chance to box off with him, so I had to try my hand at heavyweight,” says O’Neill.
For most boxers, the lead up to a fight can be a torturous time, attempting to lose body fat, in an attempt to be at the correct weight, come weigh in.
Yet with O’Neill, the process is a lot different as he tries to take in as much carbs and protein as possible to build his weight up, given it wouldn’t be natural to him to be at that weight.
“It’s completely different. For years I was always cutting weight, and it takes a lot out of you, it really does. I would be getting infections and all sorts, and whatever about the nationals; I could get away with it, because you had a week’s rest.
“But internationally it used to kill me. The first fight I’d be okay, the second fight I’d start to fatigue and by the time of the third fight I’d be beaten before I stepped into the ring, because I wasn’t eating right and didn’t have enough time to recover,” insists O’Neill.
O’Neill, now studying a Masters course in Business at DIT, has already been a primary school teacher, a strange career move, but given his seamless change from Middleweight to Heavyweight, he’ll certainly be grasping the challenge.