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'There were times where, when I lost a boxing match, I felt like a worthless piece of sh**'

Eric Donovan is ready for one last European title tilt in the ring, but he’s already winning outside of it.

Eric Donovan sitting by the mural in his honour at St Michael's Boxing Club, Athy, Co. Kildare.
Eric Donovan sitting by the mural in his honour at St Michael's Boxing Club, Athy, Co. Kildare.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHEN THEIR GLOVES begin to gather dust in a closet or an old gearbag, a boxer’s CV boils down to wins and losses.

Long after Eric Donovan puts his away somewhere, people will read that he was a five-time Irish Elite champion, a two-time continental-championship medallist; that he fought and won in the prestigious World Series of Boxing and that, after he turned professional at the relatively grand age of 31, he strapped an Irish featherweight title around his waist live on terrestrial television.

They will also see that, on 26 February 2022, he was stopped in the third round by Robeisy Ramirez. And that will make perfect sense: Ramirez’s CV will show that he was a two-time Olympic gold medallist for Cuba and, if things go to plan for him over the next few years, a professional world champion. It will indicate that Donovan was presented to him by his promotional outfit, Top Rank, as a veteran opponent with name recognition, a passable test on the road to stiffer examinations of his own credentials.

The official record of their fight will offer a glimpse at seven minutes in time. Absent from it will be almost the entire story of the fight: the weeks of physical sacrifice in advance of it, the motivations behind that sacrifice; the reality that a decade prior, Donovan didn’t believe he’d make it as far as his 30s, not to mind make a ring-walk to face a double Olympic champion live on Sky Sports at the age of 36.

josh-taylor-v-jack-catterall-ovo-hydro Robeisy Ramirez catches Eric Donovan with a left hook which finished the fight. Source: PA

“I’m bitterly disappointed with how the fight went,” Donovan tells The42 six weeks on. “Bitterly disappointed.

I’m trying not to do a number on myself, though, because what’s the benefit of that, like, y’know? There were times in my life where, when I lost a boxing match, I felt like a worthless piece of shit. That’s a dangerous place to be because it means the outcome of a boxing match is going to determine your self-worth, and that’s not healthy. But that’s the way I used to live my life because boxing was my whole identity and sense of credibility and everything.

“But I am thinking about the fight a hell of a lot. I trained very hard, I genuinely believed in myself, backed myself, and the lowest expectation I had of myself was that if I couldn’t win the fight, I’d give him a good run for his money and go the distance. I never, ever anticipated the outcome as it happened.

“In hindsight, you’re kinda like, ‘Aw, I should have locked horns with him from the start, I should have gone out and had a go straight away,’ but y’know, we had tactics, we had a strategy and we tried to follow them. Just a couple of things didn’t go my way: the non-knockdown ‘knockdown’ in the first round was a bit unsettling. The cut opening up in the second round…”

josh-taylor-v-jack-catterall-ovo-hydro A bleeding Donovan prepares to throw a right hand at Ramirez. Source: PA

Donovan explains how the blood pouring into his right eye — spilled by a picture-perfect but otherwise inconsequential left uppercut by Ramirez — led to his eventual demise in the third. His instinctive efforts to limit the damage in a brief exchange saw him turn and expose the one part of his head where a fighter never wants to be hit, the area behind the ear on which a well-timed shot can lead to total discombobulation. Ramirez’s instinct was to ping it with a left hook and close the show.

Donovan, who wasn’t fully felled by the shot, has no qualms with referee Victor Loughlin’s stoppage and has “no shame in losing the fight”.

“It was just the nature of it,” he says. “The nature of it… But sure that’s professional sport.”

Even accepting a fight with Ramirez was an interesting decision. It’s put to Donovan that, in his work as a boxing pundit, he probably wouldn’t have given a fighter of his own vintage a prayer against the Cuban. So why take it?

He smiles: “That’s the human spirit, I suppose? Well, the spirit that we potentially can have.

“For me, it was more of a fairytale kind of thing because 10 years to the day, almost, to when I boxed him, I was in a rehabilitation centre on my knees, a broken man; broken emotionally, physically, spiritually, every way. I actually didn’t even know if I was going to be living, or if I had long left to live in this world. I was a gonner. I was a gonner…

“That’s why I took the fight. I could have said, ‘No.’ I could have said, ‘Nah, nah, nah, I’m definitely not taking that.’ But, y’know, take away the result for a second — because sometimes we put too much emphasis on the result; we measure success by the outcome. But what is success?” he shrugs. “For me it was the training camp, the sparring, the backing myself and believing in myself 10 years after I thought I’d be gone; sponsors coming on board, uniting people and bringing people out there, walking out in front of 15,000 people, worldwide media, worldwide viewing audience.

josh-taylor-v-jack-catterall-ovo-hydro Eric Donovan prepares for battle. Source: PA

“And yeah, suddenly it just doesn’t happen for me… But if you’re going to measure success just by the outcome of that fight…

“Look, I’m still hurt. Of course I wanted the result but it’s also about the risk, it’s about the challenge, it’s about stepping out there onto the world stage.

“I’m a person who has won an awful lot in boxing. But I’m also a person who has missed out on an awful lot because of my own stupidity and self-infliction. But my greatest achievement is my recovery; that I’m able to stand up on my own two feet, live independently and not feel the need to self-destruct.

“There are many people in this country in recovery for all sorts of reasons: addiction, eating disorders, mental-health, depression — you name it, but it’s a lot of people who are struggling. And when I go out there, I represent them. Not only them. I try to represent everybody!

“Students all across the country…,” Donovan says, referring to his newfound role as a speaker in secondary schools. “I just want people to say, ‘Look, if he can do that, I can do that.’ For me, that’s what it was about.

I told you a minute ago that I used to feel worthless when I lost a fight. I walked out of that ring in Glasgow a winner. I know people — especially keyboard warriors — will say, ‘What is he on about? He got smashed.’ Whatever. I’m walking out of there to a beautiful family, beautiful kids and wife; I’m walking out to so many more opportunities in life that I know are out there for me, including coaching which I love. And when I’m training kids who get to that level, I’ll be able to talk them through it because I’ve been there.

eric-donovan Donovan pictured in his role as an ambassador for the IABA's 'Hi Garda' campaign. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Donovan’s family — his wife, Laura, and sons Jack and Troy — and those future opportunities beg the question as to why he would box again.

Life took the early rounds from Donovan before he seized control in his late 20s. He’s well and truly up on the cards, now, so why risk such an advantage in the ring?

He laughs knowingly at the apparent madness of it, struggling for a couple of moments to find an explicable answer. In reality, though, it’s a trick question: no fighter has ever really found an answer to it that would make sense to an ordinary human being.

“Look, I never anticipated stepping up to world level,” Donovan says. “It was never part of the plan because at 31, I think I was just too old. It was always a European-title dream. And then two shots came out of the blue to step beyond that level — one against Zelfa Barrett (in August 2020), the other against Ramirez. I could have said ‘no’ to them both but I just said, ‘I’ll be only regretting it as a 50- or 60-year-old man.’ I nearly pulled it off against Barrett and I didn’t get far against Ramirez. But no shame.

“And now the focus goes back to where it initially was, which is European [title]. I had the chance to fight for an EU title last year [versus Mario Alfano, 14-2-1, 4KOs] and I fractured my rib in training camp. I was gutted because I knew I had your man’s number; I was full sure I was going to win that.

“But I’m hoping that maybe I can get back to a shot at that by the end of the year.

“You’re asking why I keep doing it. I suppose it’s that carrot at the end of the stick!

Look, I don’t want to stop right now — even though, d’you know what? I’d probably be alright to stop right now. But I just feel like, ‘Hey, one or two more fights.’ Mark [Dunlop], my manager, told me, ‘Eric, I’ll get you a shot at a European title by the end of the year.’ Come back with a win (at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, 14 May) and then maybe it’ll be an EU title or a full European title later in the year, I don’t mind. If I get a shot at that, it’ll be a nice way to bow out, close the door and say, ‘Happy days,’ y’know? It may happen, it may not happen.

eric-donovan Donovan training alongside his mural at St Michael's Athy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“See, I didn’t really officially retire from boxing the first time around,” Donovan adds, recalling his decision to step away from the amateur sport at the age of 28.

“I just kind of veered off in a different direction. But I had a load of question marks hanging over me, and I’d be pondering down Memory Lane a hell of a lot. When I came back, it was just about answering those questions, a bit of redemption.

“Throughout my amateur career and its highs and lows, I did it all and I achieved a hell of a lot, but while doing it I was dealing with a lot of emotional and mental-health problems, and addiction. And addiction was the crutch I was using to deal with the emotional and mental-health problems but I didn’t know how to express it, how to handle it. I did all of that on my own.

So, this second boxing career was more about doing it with honesty and integrity and passion, and saying, ‘Hey, I did it the right way this time — because I knew differently. I used the supports that were available to me.’ Righting a wrong, basically. Something like that…

jude-gallagher-celebrates-winning-with-eric-donovan-and-john-gallagher Donovan with Jude and John Gallagher. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

When he eventually scratches the boxer’s itch to his satisfaction, Donovan intends to remain in the sport as a trainer. He already coaches a prodigious young amateur talent in the shape of Jude Gallagher, and he hopes to build a small crew of fighters with whom he can work closely in future.

He wants to upgrade his diploma in counselling and psychotherapy to a degree, which will require a further year’s study.

And he wishes to hone his expertise in his role as a guest speaker, continuing his role in schools around the country — and indeed beyond them.

“I’m kind of going with the flow at the moment”, Donovan says.

It’s funny because a lot of the students when I visit schools do be saying to me, ‘I’m doing my Leaving Cert and I don’t know what to do!’ And I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, I’m 36 and I don’t know what to do either,’” he laughs.

“The plan is to just keep getting up every day and keep putting my best foot forward. I do be amazed by the number of people who get in touch with me, asking me to speak at their schools and all. I’m probably one of the most sought-after school speakers in the country right now — and that’s not something I’m pushing! It’s more like I do one talk, and then two more schools will get in touch.

“I’ve football teams, businesses getting in touch for the same thing.” (After checking in with the relevant parties, Donovan phones later to inform that he has recently been added to Laya Healthcare’s expert panel of health and wellbeing speakers, wherein his services can be acquired by major companies through the health insurance firm).

“There seems to be this real grá out there for open and honest speaking, maybe that bit of authenticity,” he says. “And it’s funny because my life was the complete opposite for so long. Everything about my life was dishonest, discreet, secretive. Now, I’ve gone complete 180!

“Which sometimes is probably… Well, maybe it can be a bit exposing, as well. But d’you know what? That’s hardly a bad thing if you’re helping people or helping the next generation, is it? So far, so good, like.”

***

Eric Donovan was speaking to The42 upon the completion of the IABA’s ‘Hi Garda’ campaign, during which community gardaí visited their local boxing clubs to engage and interact with members, bolstering a 100-year relationship between An Garda Siochána and Irish boxing.

eric-donovan-and-sean-omahony-alongside-young-members-of-saint-michaels-boxing-club-athy Eric Donovan, community garda and Operation Transformation 2022 leader Sean O’Mahony, and young members of St Michael's BC, Athy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Boxing clubs thrive in working-class areas”, Donovan says, “and, in some cases, disadvantaged areas. I come from a council estate and I grew up with a perception of gardaí that was unhealthy and negative, which was passed onto me by my peers.

“But as soon as I got to the age where I could think for myself and see for myself and understand things myself, I realised that gardaí could be good people, like. They’re good people, like, y’know? They’re there to help us, to support us. And they have a long, rich history with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA). They were involved in the formation and the development of Irish boxing. I have friends who are guards and boxers: Niall Kennedy, Adam Nolan, even way back to Marvin Lee who used to box a cousin of mine years ago.

“Gardaí have been involved in the association for years, at all levels: coaches, board members, boxers, Olympians. And I was honoured to be asked to be part of this campaign because I was one of those little kids who grew up thinking bad of the guards, and it was through boxing that I could actually see the true value of the gardaí in the community.”

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