19 September 2008 – by Cormac Campbell
The 2008 Olympics proved to be the most successful ever for an Irish boxing team.
Five entrants and three medals were a more than satisfactory return for the moderate funding the sport receives from the Government.
Yet there is little doubt that another Irish boxer was more than deserving of a berth in Beijing. Its just Darren ONeills misfortune then that over the past three years he has had to face Ken Egan and Darren Sutherland in the National Senior finals.
On the occasions the Kilkenny native has received prolonged international experience, notably during Sutherlands rehabilitation period following an eye injury in May 2006, he has excelled. Establishing himself as one of the top ten middleweights in Europe and holding victoroies over Egans conqueror Xiaoping Zhang and bronze medalist Yerkebulan Shynaliyev it seems ludicrous that ONeill was not in China. But such is life on the amateur circuit.
Speaking to irish-boxing.com, ONeill said that in hindsight he believes a move to an unnatural division could have secured him a passage to the greatest show on earth.
Looking back now I should have gone to heavyweight as I would have had a great chance to qualify there, he said over the phone. Despite this the Paulstown star remains pragmatic preferring to look forward with optimism rather than back with disappointment.
When Darren (Sutherland) came back from his eye injury I broke my thumb and that put me out for a while. Then when I came back it was only weeks when I broke it again. He had misfortune and so did I, and it set me back a long way. So he got to take part in top level competitions while I was at home hitting a bag with one hand.
But now is the time to look ahead.
With Sutherland intent on a move to the professional ranks it seems ONeill is in prime position to replace the bronze medallist as both the senior champion and first choice for international duty in the classic division. However, as a natural light-heavy this is not necessarily the ideal situation.
Im not going to cross that bridge (on what weight to fight at) until the time comes. At the minute Im weighing over 81KG. I can fill out quite a bit but if I pushed myself I can make middleweight as well. Either way I can hurt people.
What ONeill is sure of is that, as a result of Beijing, there will be more public interest in amateur boxing in Ireland in the run-up to London 2012.
Different athletes from different sports have always got the coverage and the boxers have maybe been a little bit shunned upon. So hopefully well get more support from everybody and recognised a bit more for what we do.
Last year I boxed against Poland at the Stadium and we were outnumbered by Polish supporters at the Stadium. It was ridiculous when you think about it – imagine that at an Irish soccer game.
Ive boxed at the seniors for years. Two years I boxed against Egan and then I broke the hand and as long as Ive been there it hasnt even been completely full. It was only this year with all the talk of myself fighting Sutherland that it was packed and even after that fight which was halfway through the programme a lot of people left again. So it really is a case of just making the boxers household names.
I dont think the papers are too keen to have it in but hopefully because of the Olympics things will change.
Irish boxers of course have their part to play in extending the medias love affair with amateur boxing – that challenge begins with the European Championships in Liverpool in November. Four years is a long commitment and undoubtedly ONeill will be offered big money should he excel at events such as the Euros and the World Championships but for now he is resolute in his desire to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
Ive no thoughts of going pro. I would like to have an Olympic medal behind me and Ill keep plugging away until I get one.