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Donovan cracks mainstream and leaves big impression on Hearn, who vows to bring him back

‘What an individual’, said the Matchroom chief of Donovan, who gained a huge amount in defeat – and indeed all week – at Fight Camp.

Eddie Hearn visits Team Donovan post-fight.
Eddie Hearn visits Team Donovan post-fight.
Image: Mark Dunlop [@MarkHDunlop]

ERIC DONOVAN’S BIG week ended with a lot of ‘I told you sos’.

First and foremost, Zelfa Barrett came good on his proclamation that he would stop Donovan inside the 10-round duration of their scrap for an IBF world ranking. Major credit to the Mancunian: he found the nuclear button when he needed it most. He told us so.

Credit, too, to Donovan’s trainer, Ken Egan. The 2008 Olympic silver medallist told everybody who would listen all week that his gameplan and Donovan’s superior technique would give Barrett conniptions. And for six rounds before ‘Brown Flash’ detonated the rocket-propelled left hand that changed everything, he was in hell, a picture of frustration, his debut under Matchroom’s promotional banner threatening to implode where he had personally vowed to blow up on the big stage.

Promoter Eddie Hearn also told us so. He told us that Week 3 of Matchroom’s Fight Camp, a series of fight cards playing out in the backyard of his grand Brentwood, Essex premises, would be the best yet — and it was. Okay, Hearn tells us so many things — so, so many — that he’s bound to land one bang on the money every now and then but, hey, credit where it’s due: Friday night’s bill on Sky Sports was probably perceived as boasting the weakest of the four Fight Camp itineraries on paper but it wound up being the most rounded thus far in terms of entertainment value, Barrett versus Donovan — as we were told all week it probably would — duly stealing a decent show.

But surely the greatest ‘told you so’ of all belonged to The Oyrish, as we’re known on Sky. Donovan’s Belfast-based manager-promoter Mark Dunlop was only one voice in a chorus which told Hearn that Eric Donovan would charm the arses off his previously unacquainted British audience when his fight with Barrett was first announced by the Matchroom chief a couple of months ago. Sure enough, by the middle of Fight Week in ‘The Bubble’ — a specifically geared Holiday Inn in Brentwood — it had become apparent that if we could have sent Donovan over to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, they would have probably given us Scotland.

zelfa-barrett-with-eric-donovan-after-the-fight Zelfa Barrett and Eric Donovan embrace following their contest. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Donovan’s articulateness, confidence and conviction are a promoter’s dream and by Wednesday, Hearn was plainly smitten with the man he had effectively summoned to lose to his recent signing. “I mean, what a talker — what a talker,” he said as he beamed down the screen at Tony Bellew moments following a joint interview of Donovan, conducted in the name of online promotional content.

The Hearn-Donovan dynamic continued in the same vain all week, Hearn effusively praising the loquacious ‘Lilywhite Lightning’ at every pertaining turn.

On Friday, fight day, the promoter took to his Instagram story while strolling towards his purpose-built back-garden arena, reeling off the night’s scheduled bouts. As promoters do, he named the ‘A’-side (the promoter’s favoured fighter in each matchup) first; John Docherty versus Anthony Fox, Kieran Conway versus Nav Mansouri, Shannon Courtenay versus Rachel Ball. But when it came to the chief-support bout, it was “Donovan versus Zelfa Barrett.” Meaningless, probably. Freudian? Maybe.

Hearn’s grá for the away fighter certainly went out the window hours later when Barrett and Donovan finally met in the middle. Six rounds in and there was Donovan, the undersized underdog from Athy, taking a blowtorch to Hearn’s best laid plans for Barrett, the naturally larger 1/7 favourite; the Matchroom boss had pinched Barrett from nemesis Frank Warren in March with a view to one day packing out the Manchester Arena and filling the void left by the city’s recently retired boxing darling, Anthony Crolla. But five months on, there was Barrett, about to make a serious hames of it on his new promoter’s lawn. Hearn was audibly vocal from ringside, screaming for the 27-year-old to turn the tide. And boy, did he.

Still, Hearn’s bollocking continued into Barrett’s post-fight interview, only this time it was laced with due plaudits: whereas Barrett was apologetic behind the Sky Sports mic for having underperformed as he saw it, Hearn told him in no uncertain terms that he should turn his frown upside down having salvaged his career with about as picturesque a finish as we’ll see all year, and against a fighter in Donovan who was “schooling” him into the second half of proceedings.

Hearn was, of course, buzzing all told: that finish will be replayed all morning on Sky Sports News; it will do big numbers on social media, traverse the Atlantic and raise Barrett’s profile both within the boxing world and outside of it; it will be repackaged and rolled back out with added gloss and a booming soundtrack ahead of Barrett’s ring return whenever that may be; and crucially, it will bring Fight Camp to phone and laptop screens ahead of next Saturday’s pay-per-view grand finale on Sky Sports Box Office.

All of which makes for a fair dollop of salt thrown on the wounds of Eric Donovan, who is the man on the floor in the thumbnail of the video clip that hundreds of thousands of people will have seen by Sunday.

His pride will surely have been dented by his first defeat as a professional, and more pertinently the eye-catching nature of it, but he has endured worse in life and is better equipped than just about anybody to haul himself out of the depths of despair fairly sharpish. And that process may well accelerate whenever he opts to turn on his phone again or, indeed, go a step further and open the Twitter app where, in a world first, he will find nothing but adulation.

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eric-donovan-dejected-after-the-referee-stopped-the-fight Donovan dejected after the fight is stopped. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

There is a queasiness to searching for some kind of grand-scheme or moral victory in defeat — we do too much of it in this country, and especially in professional boxing wherein Irish protagonists are so often ‘B’-sides in international contests — but through what other lense can one view Donovan’s big night — and big week — in Essex?

This was the opportunity he had craved ever since turning professional as he approached his 31st birthday in 2016, a ‘feck-it-why-not’ decision made on the back of a three-year retirement from Elite amateur competition and an introspective battle during which he finally delivered the fatal blow to the booze, the recreational drugs and the accompanying malaise which had inhibited him for so much of his adult life.

On Friday night, at the ripe age of 35 and with 12 professional fights to his name, Donovan fought live on Sky Sports. His oldest son, Jack, 15, had friends over to the family home in Drogheda to watch his dad fight on Sky Sports. It’s a pinch-yourself moment unless you’re the one getting punched in the gob. Youngest son, Troy, eight, will equally have that story to tell forever.

Only, Donovan’s blast-from-the-past display was so impressive even in his suffering a loss, and the impact of his personality on Fight Camp so pronounced, that it’s now exceedingly likely his scrap with Commonwealth champion Barrett will provide only a middle chapter, and not the final pages, to this remarkable Indian-summer prizefighting tale.

Speaking late last night, with British boxing fans on Twitter having long since reached a consensus that Donovan was more than worthy of another Sky outing at his lighter natural weight, Hearn winced and described his eighth-round stoppage at the hands of Barrett as “heartbreaking”, before adding of the Athy man:

What an individual. And for me, when I meet people like that, I want to give them more opportunities. He’s come up from featherweight to super-featherweight. Let’s put him in with Jordan Gill, let’s put him in with Reece Bellotti (both featherweights); let’s put him in with these kinds of people. Because he can fight. I know he’s getting on!

“It’s just so hard to go in there”, Hearn added, pointing towards the dressing rooms, “and see an individual who believed tonight was going to be the night to transform their career. And he was so close.”

Tell Ken Egan to invest in a cigar cutter. A return invite and in even more suitable conditions? There can be no greater reward for a defeat in professional boxing, which speaks to what Hearn feels Donovan brought to the table.

zelfa-barrett-in-action-against-eric-donovan Donovan lands a left hand. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Most newly acquainted British boxing consumers will gladly welcome back the former European and EU medallist back someday, too, but perhaps most gratifying of all for the Kildare man when the dust settles will be the fact that, through his seizing of this moment on a major platform across the Irish Sea, he has managed also to explode into mainstream public consciousness back home.

Outside of a couple of key chapters of Katie Taylor’s own boxing story, rarely if ever in the modern age has there been such a groundswell of goodwill for an Irish boxer as there was for Donovan in his quest to kick down a few doors on this better-late-than-never journey.

He has always received a commensurate portion of media coverage — print, online and radio — and he has equally familiarised himself with general Irish sports fans through his own work within the media as a TV and radio pundit. But for a purveyor of a niche sport which invariably fails to turn the dial south of the border, he was effectively omnipresent on pages, screens and airwaves in the seven or so days preceding his Fight Camp encounter.

eric-donovan Donovan is set for a return on a future Matchroom show, says Eddie Hearn. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Mark Robinson/INPHO

Donovan had mentioned on multiple occasions last week that he felt as though he had the whole country behind him and certainly, over the last 48 hours from the weigh-in onwards, it felt like that; as though he had gone from being a somewhat peripheral Irish sports figure to becoming a prominent one.

Most of the well wishes, the tributes, the anecdotes and ultimately, the commiserations, referred glowingly to his character, but anybody who has ever so much as spotted the man at a distance would have been able to tell you he’s one of our best — and not only in sport.

However, everyone learned one thing about Eric Donovan last night: he can sure as hell still fight. And he told us so, as well.

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