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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 19 June, 2019
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Bottling lightning: Eric Donovan on second chances, proposals and turning pro

The Athy native will take on Stephen McAfee with the Irish Featherweight title on the line tomorrow night.

1

ANY BOXER CAN throw a punch. Good fighters feint before they fire.

Eric Donovan had planned his engagement, only he didn’t want his fiancé to find out before he popped the question.

Eric Donovan Eric Donovan: will face Stephen McAfee for the Boxing Union of Ireland (BUI) featherweight crown tomorrow night. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Laura reads my mind,” Donovan explains. “She knows my moods, man. It’s so frustrating.”

Suggesting a weekend away was bound to provoke suspicion. It had to seem casual.

‘We’ve been working so hard,’ he began. ‘Let’s go away for a few nights.’

To make the proposal more plausible, he cited a surprise trip Laura had booked for them in Edinburgh the year before. This way they could escape their hectic lifestyles for a little while and he would have the chance to pay her back. It all appeared perfectly reasonable, though Laura’s senses twitched before they departed late last November.

‘Do you think I should get my nails done?’ she said suggestively.

‘Not at all,’ Eric assured her. ’Sure nobody will be looking at you.’

Meantime, Donovan had booked her an appointment at a spa centre. They headed west for the weekend, overnighting in Galway, and took a day trip through The Burren, stopping at the Aillwee Caves on their way to the Cliffs of Moher. Along the ledge Donovan waited for the wind to hush. On bended knee he seized the moment, catching his partner unaware.

An American tourist watched it all unfold, smitten by the scene.

‘Guys that was lovely,’ she told them, then generously offered to take their picture.

Donovan’s plan had worked a treat but why choose there to try for such a feat?

“It’s a beautiful spot and I thought, if she says, ‘no,’ I can throw her off!”

2

Boxing brought them together, sugar and spice. United, they discovered a sweeter science.

“Two of us are mad bastards,” says Kenneth Egan, quickly adding a disclaimer.

“We were! We were!” he pleads. He does not need to make the case.

Egan, eyes glazed, has a florid complexion: he sports freshly coloured cheeks. He has spent the past hour in pads, absorbing punches schooling an eager punter. Personal training has been added to his resume. After cajoling his client throughout an intensive workout, he takes a quick breather before the next appointment. Coach Egan will see BUI Celtic featherweight champion Eric Donovan next.

Donovan stands steady outside the ring, a light sweat brewing on his brow. Tenderly, carefully, Joe Clifford wraps the boxer’s hands. Donovan wears a studied look, rapt in
concentration, while Clifford spools another layer of cotton padding, stretched tight across the knuckles. Clifford is a cutman in the boxing trade, prized assets among prize-fighters, sealing wounds lest they seep. He provides a form of emergency care but offers valuable guidance too, having worked many corners in his time, including that of Willie ‘Big Bang’ Casey, the Limerick bantamweight who fought for a world title in 2011.

Clifford is preparing Donovan for a six-round spar and talks earnestly while he tends to his man. A spar is not about victory or defeat; here the fighter hones his tools, grinding on the whetstone. He must be sharp when it matters, which for Donovan is tomorrow, when he faces Stephen McAfee for the Irish Featherweight title.

“He’s super talented,” says Clifford, surveying his fighter with a trained eye. “He’s a genius at long- to mid-range. That’s where he does his best boxing.”

Close quarter combat is Clifford’s forte. He has coached professional fighters in the sweet science and mixed martial arts. Donovan’s technical ability – hand speed and footwork – is obvious even to lay observers. What Clifford seeks is more flinty, less pretty.

“Rope work, ring craft, corner work; leaning on the post when you’re in the corner,” Clifford explains. “You’ve gotta learn how to use the ropes because sometimes you’ll be on them.”

Donovan steps into the ring and settles his headguard. Egan stands over him in the corner, delivering final instruction aware that his man is ready.

“Lack of discipline in the amateurs let him down, like myself after the Olympics,” says Egan. “He has that back now.”

Kenny Egan and Eric Donovan Ireland's Kenny Egan and Eric Donovan outside the entrance to the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow in 2010. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

3

It’s easy for a boxer to lose faith when his body does not heal.

Eric Donovan thought he had seized a second chance at life in the ring. He coasted to the Celtic Featherweight title in only his fifth fight as a professional, rapidly building credibility and a fanbase, both essential in the pro game, and just as quickly his momentum stalled. After his eighth successful bout last July, he had to concede defeat in the battle to beat injury. The 33-year-old southpaw from Athy needed surgery to remedy his shoulder.

“I was a bit all over the place,” he reflects. “One minute there’s talk of European titles. Next minute, I’m going up and down to Santry [Sports Clinic], depressed out of my head, spending a fortune on medical bills and not earning any money. I spent thousands. You kind of wonder what’s the point.”

At that stage, Donovan seemed as far removed from full time boxing as the moment when he decided to pack in his amateur career at the age of 27. He had accumulated five Irish titles in that time, champion in three different weight categories, and bagged bronze from the European Championships of 2010. If not at his peak, he was still a prime age. Amid so much success he walked into a cul de sac.

“Boxing was my whole identity and I didn’t know who I was,” he says of that period. “I didn’t have a value system. My moral compass was off kilter. I would premeditate my conversations to revolve around boxing. I didn’t really know much more about anything else.”

Life beyond the gym did not hold the same appeal. Eric the boxer possessed an earnest intellect and, when mixed with instinctive speed and skill, it had a beautiful, beguiling effect. At his best, it was as if he cast a spell: one by one his opponents fell. Other nights he would appear faint, clouded by a strange inertia. Those sluggish displays suggested a fighter at odds with his sport. The hidden reality was a man at war with the world.

“I wasn’t happy with how my boxing career and my life went,” he reflects. “And I still achieved a hell of a lot. But I felt like I was still lost. Left school at 15, the biggest mistake of my life. I was a follower; I wasn’t a leader. Boxing was probably the one thing that, in the end, saved me.”

Twelve years ago, he left a ring in Chicago disconsolate not knowing if there would be redemptive notes. Donovan had failed in his bid to reach the Olympics. He had been defeated at the 2007 World Championships before reaching the round that would secure his ticket to Beijing. Egan, his Ireland teammate, suffered the same fate but remained unbroken returning from the Windy City. They came by similar paths to reach the same crossroads in their careers junction but then diverged in spectacularly different directions.

“Everyone has their own journey and it [Olympics] wasn’t meant to be for Eric,” says Egan. “He [Donovan] slipped up not getting to the Olympic Games and that ate him up for a long time.”

Egan ultimately went to China and fought for gold, revelling in the most glorious game. Pained, Donovan watched at home, laid low by the blows he could not throw.

“I blew my own chance to make the Olympics,” Donovan now readily admits. “I messed up outside of the ring. I didn’t really accept it for a long time.”

The world spins in unexpected ways. Egan conquered all but one, came home a silvered star and yet suffered more than his friend had from afar. Egan’s fall from grace played out in public.

“I was in a different place back then, so was he,” says Egan. “I’ve made loads of mistakes and I’ve learned my lessons.”

Always a good judge of distance, Donovan sees more clearly with perspective.

“I wasn’t ready for the Olympics at that time,” he says. “Good enough, absolutely, but I didn’t have the discipline, the commitment or dedication.

“Only over the last couple of years I’ve realised that there’s a lot more to life than sport and the Olympic Games,” says Donovan. “I’ve realised when you fail you don’t really fail. I feel like I’ve failed so much in my life so much that I’ve turned into a winner.”

4

eric1-5-752x501 (1) Donovan has made waves in the pro ranks. Source: Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh

Three years out of the ring helped fill the gaps in Donovan’s education. The boy who left school at 15 now sought the student life. Cuan Mhuire, which was founded in his hometown of Athy, piqued a new interest. He signed on for a Diploma in Counselling but when he cut the ropes on his boxing career, all the strings detached. Grant aid from the Irish Sports Council naturally dried up and the support services of a high performance programme – coaching, nutrition, medical care – no longer served as benefit-in-kind. Donovan had cast himself adrift to begin the search within.

“I realised I’m much more than boxing,” he says. “In life I have found bigger things. I love helping people, I love connecting with people. I love trying to inspire young kids to make good decisions and to be at your best. How many of us is actually at our best?”

Eric had surfed with success and still felt a need to probe the surface. Thinking hard enticed him back. The tide had come. In 2016, he took another surprising step, and returned for a shot at the pro ranks, unwilling to live with unfinished business. Long after it was ripe, he signed on as a professional to see what he might reap.

“There’s two ways of looking at my career,” he suggests. “It was the biggest waste of talent or boxing saved my life. I’d like to look at in the latter way. It was a place of refuge through all of the turmoil. Once I got old enough and wise enough, I had it [boxing] as a base to build character and learn more about myself. I got back into the driving seat.”

His pro career has not been without its frustrations. The sport is not unaccustomed to courting controversy though recent years have been especially bleak. Danger has always been part of boxing’s appeal but when the game gets hijacked by a gunfight it’s hard to convince the public these belts are still worth fighting for. Since that fatal shooting at the Regency Hotel, professional boxing – in the Republic of Ireland at least – has had to battle to rise above the underworld.

There have been encouraging signs of late. TG4’s decision to broadcast Ray Moylette’s world ranking fight in Castlebar last December was a welcome boost. To date, Donovan has largely been seen on television screens when analysing fights for RTÉ, but he will be subject of the scrutiny this coming weekend when TG4 provide the feed for his Irish title clash with McAfee. The fight comes more than eight months after his previous outing, after another bout of painful introspection.

Time was not on Donovan’s side to begin with and two years into his second coming, injury curtailed his resurgence. He faced a dilemma: to risk surgery when no reward was certain.

“I wasn’t going to go for an operation because I had nothing in the pipeline,” Donovan explains. “I rang my manager and I said, ‘If I’m going to do this can you at least give me some reassurance?’”

Leonard Gunning, the London-based Sligo native who signed Donovan, now counselled him: ‘Look Eric, all I can say to you is if you’re fit and healthy in the next six months we’ve a lot of things lined up for you. Take my word for it.’

Donovan put his trust in Gunning but how did Gunning come to have so much faith in Donovan?

“It’s not hard to have faith in Eric because he is someone that instils faith in everyone he deals with,” Gunning writes over email. “2018 was a horrible year for him. He limped from one injury to the next and it looked at one stage that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Many guys would simply have given up but not Eric, he’s made of tougher stuff than that.”

Perhaps the Donovan of amateur days would have walked away but there’s no way of knowing that now. In the mirror, he cannot see his shadow.

Eric Donovan commentating Eric Donovan commentating at the National Stadium. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

5

Now is not the norm. The gym is busy, as busy as you would expect at the close of another working weekday in the city. Outside, car -light beams illuminate the dusky evening. Traffic tails lengthen, the road becoming flush with commuters fleeing through the suburbs, making their escape before Dublin’s major carriageways become too crowded to move freely.

Indoors, time melts away. High-tempo music thumps through the air, loud and oblivious. The ring clock is about to be set. Routine gym-goers, spread across this open-plan expanse, lift weights and loosen limbs. It is getting near 6pm and the regulars are starting to assemble for the night’s boxercise class. A cross section of ages and faces, they stretch and skip, preparing the body for the strain of their next session. At the back of the gym, an Olympic silver medallist prepares his former Ireland teammate for sparring work. It’s sweaty and noisy in here but no one complains. They are free from rush hour chaos.

“I don’t have any regrets about my career and I don’t want him to have any regrets either,” Kenneth Egan proclaims from the back of the gym. “And he won’t the way he’s going. He has the chance to make something of himself in the pro game.”

Egan, 37, has known Donovan most of his adult life. They spent a decade together travelling the world, fighting for Ireland, and now they have been reunited in the professional arena, Egan can see the changes in his friend.

“It’s his discipline,” Egan relates. “There’s been a switch there in his mind that he knows the clock is ticking and he can’t play around with years anymore. I think there’s a new flame burning in his belly.”

Donovan’s target is a European title, which will be one step closer with a win tomorrow night at the National Stadium. More than winning, he needs to perform, to prove he can be a real contender for that continental crown.

“The pro game is more about combinations and pace,” Joe Clifford explains. “It’s like chapters in a book. As each round goes past you try to put them in the bag to take the stress off you. You could be three rounds ahead, take a knee, lose two points and then there’s only one round in it again. It changes the whole face of the fight. There’s nothing like it in terms of emotional ups and downs.”

Ultimately, boxing is only one part of Donovan’s story. Physically he has never been fitter, regularly clocking a resting heart rate of 38 beats. He runs his own fitness business and has become a familiar face in schools across Kildare, delivering motivational talks, deriving inspiration.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

“Life is manic but hey, it’s great,” he muses. “I’m picking up the pen and I’m going to write the last few chapters in my book. It’s wonderful, it’s amazing. I’m a leader now. I’m not a follower.”

He recounts a personal tale to illustrate the finer points. On the day his latest bout was declared, Friday 15 February, he wanted to share the news with his two sons, Jack and Troy. Each week they asked when his next fight would be. And for too long he had fobbed them off with promises of impending boom.

‘Right boys, I have an exclusive for you,’ he said excitedly that morning. ‘When you go into school, tell all your friends, all your classmates, that your daddy is going to fight for the Irish Featherweight title on 30 March. And it’s going to be live on TV. Tell them that.’

Donovan returns from the reel and offers some reflection.

“They go to school every Friday morning but they went to school that Friday morning with a different story to tell. I just thought that is amazing, just that moment. Lot of times in my life I would have been disconnected from that. I wouldn’t have even been aware that I could share something so special with the kids and see how special it is. Before like I wouldn’t have even thought of telling them that I was boxing.”

Donovan always had a way with words. Now he has a richer story to tell.

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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