While social media – especially for boxers – can be a vacuous hole, full of inspirational quotes and fake bravado, reality can be a lot darker, more uneven.
Journeys aren’t straight and steady lines, there are zigs and zags, and while one could make a good case that Eric Donovan is riding the crest of a wave, the fighter himself is currently feeling a bit glum.
The Athy featherweight recently received ‘good’ news. A persistent left hand injury was discovered to be a fractured finger and, despite fears, a trip to a specialist confirmed that surgery will not be need to rectify the problem. Donovan, who is down to headline Celtic Clash 6 on June 16th, is instead currently wearing a splint, giving his well-used southpaw left time to recover.
While he has no need for surgery, a fight scheduled, and is moving ever closer to a shot at new EU Champion Andoni Gago, Donovan is suffering somewhat with his mental health but is working his way through it.
“I still have a hand splint, just to have my hand strapped up in a certain position and I have to have it like that for a few weeks,” he explained to Irish-Boxing.com last night.
“Once I get this off me, it will be another few weeks, then I will know, when I start punching with it. Look, that’s the alternative to surgery according to the hand specialist. He thinks I won’t need surgery so this is his method to hopefully get my hand back right.”
“I don’t know, I’m not really convinced, I’m kind of just going on his word.”
Those last few words signal that something is off – Donovan is not his ‘usual’ bubbly self.
Everyone has good and bad days with their mental health and, it would be entirely understandable, if not expected, if a boxer would rather not talk to an interviewer on a Thursday night five weeks from a fight after having not hit a bag in anger in months.
Donovan though had been more than up for the call and, with little to no prompting, was okay to talk about the things most fighters, indeed most men, don’t want to talk about.
“I’m trying to stay on the positive side of it,” he continues, “there are so many good days but people don’t see the tough days or the things you have to overcome.”
“It’s got me down a bit, it really has got me down, it’s affected my mood. I’m trying to stay positive and visualise and I still see good things on the horizon.”
“It’s just the way it is at the moment and there’s nothing much more I can do. I’d love to be out there, pounding training sessions, but I can’t, I have to stay mentally strong right now.”
“It’s a pity, because I was really on a roll and I had a good run of things. I’m a little bit down a bit at the moment because my name is being talked about in these circles, European titles.”
Of course, 32-year-old Donovan is no ordinary boxer. A qualified counsellor and a regular public speaker who has been around the block, ‘Lilywhite Lightning’ still admits it’s not always an easy ride.
“The maturity and the life experience is helping me, and my counselling background is helping me as well, I’m trying to use the tools from that.”
“Sometimes it can be easy to offer this advice but to apply it to one’s self can be a struggle at times, when you find yourself in that situation. I’m trying to practice what I preach and that’s all I can really do at the moment. ”
In a lot of cases, talking can be one of the best remedies, and Donovan is a talker.
The five-time Irish amateur champion and European and EU bronze medallist acknowledges that what he is going through now is for the better, despite how he currently feels.
Donovan explained how “for my last two fights, I’ve been carrying this niggle of an injury that I never thought was as bad as it was. I kept persevering, going through it because, as a pro, you don’t want to be getting scans willy-nilly, you have to pay for everything and that’s the way it is.”
“I had to get a look at this because it was hampering me in training as well, I’d have a spar and I couldn’t spar for another ten days – and when I was sparring or on the bags, I wasn’t committing fully with every punch. I was working my right hand but tapping my left hand,”
“I’m going into a place now where, for me, every fight is a make-or-break fight and I can’t go into them nursing something or even going in at 90%.”
Indeed, just telling his story – which he frequently does for schools and businesses around the country – sees Donovan’s voice and mood perk up.
“When I started out on this journey I was three years retired, it’s an amazing story, and I don’t mind saying that about myself,” he starts.
“I felt like I reached my Everest in the amateur game and then it was sort of ‘well where do I go from here?’ I had nothing to fall back on, I had two young kids, I was basically on the dole.”
“I came back from Kazakhstan after spending eight months out there and that’s when the penny dropped. My funding was gone and I had just represented Ireland for ten years, I’d failed in my pursuit of qualifying for the Olympics. I was 27 and I had no job, no work experience, no education – I had to start thinking about life after boxing.”
“Over the next three years, I went back into education and started my own exercise and fitness business to fund my college. When I got a diploma in 2015 I was thinking ‘where do I go from here?’ I could have gone for my degree but there was something inside me telling me that I’d something left to offer boxing.”
“I wasn’t happy with how my amateur career went, it was all regrets and I wasn’t happy with that. The conclusion I came to was that I can always go back and do my education but I can’t always go back and box. I still had something inside me to go out and finish my boxing career the way I want to.”
While the story has been told before, it is not like Donovan is in autopilot – indeed he apologises a number of times for “going on”. The journey is a crucial component, one he lives for and constantly reminds himself of.
In fact, far beyond this writer to say, but even going through the journey verbally – probably for the one hundredth time – has Donovan a bit more positive at the end of our phone call than at the start. Granted, he’s hardly singing from the rooftops, but a chat, a real chat, can help.
“I’ve never been as physically strong or as healthy in my life,” he notes. “I feel that I’ve got a new mature head, a new perspective on life.
“I’m not boxing to hold on to funding, I’m not boxing to qualify for the Olympics, I’m just boxing for the same reason I was when I walked into the gym as a seven-year-old kid – because I can express myself and it’s something that I love to do, that makes me really happy.”
“I’m back in that place now.”