Corruption in the amateur game was one of the reasons Darren O’Neill elected to turn pro.
The Kilkenny man was one of those ‘Mr. Amateurs’, a fighter who represented his country, club and even the sport with distinction – and it always looked like he would hang up his vest at the same time he would hang up his gloves.
With hand injuries taking their toll two years ago the Paulstown graduate all but bowed out of the game, but upon recovery and after a sabbatical, O’Neill found he still had a grá for the sport and a desire to compete.
That competitive nature meant he recently surveyed his punching options and, considering the current state of affairs in terms of the amateur game internationally, the London 2012 Irish Olympic captain decided the professional ranks was the new route for him.
To put it bluntly, O’Neill still wanted to fight, but didn’t like what he was witnessing in code he served so well.
“Turning pro was never a dream or ambition of mine in early years, but in recent times, due to the corruption within the global amateur system and some negative experiences of politics and so on in the system, I couldn’t help but look at friends and old foes doing well in the professional circuit and decided it could be an outlet in which I could get a few more competitive nights,” O’Neill explained to Irish-Boxing.com.
The recovery of ‘shattered hands’ and a desire to fight left O’Neill in a position to make a decision between the pros and the amateurs – and he reveals after some sparring with Tony Browne in St Michael’s, he elected to enter the paid ranks.
“After a long amateur career I still had a grá for the sport and a desire to compete. Shattered hands prevented me entering the Nationals 2 years ago and at that stage I resigned myself to retirement with being in my thirties, paying rent, trying to buy a house and the obvious need for a job and career.
“Then after getting fragments of shattered bone floating about in my hand removed last year and still having the desire, I was helping Tony Browne prepare for the Nationals. I suggested to his coach Steve O’Rourke that if he got me a few fights they wouldn’t need to worry about me entering the Elites. In turn, it led from there.”
The 34-year-old is pragmatic and sensible in terms of what lies ahead. At his age, a prolonged and storied pro career may not await. He also seems conscious of the transitions that have to be made and even wonders how he will adapt.
“I guess time will tell how I’ll perform, especially at my age, but I guess there are varying thoughts and opinions,” continues O’Neill.
“Historically I’ve always punched pretty hard, but with damaged hands that isn’t what it once was. With such a long amateur career I have experience, but I also have an amateur style and mindset so they can be either helpful or unhelpful, it depends what aspects I carry over.
“I think I’ll do okay but it is definitely a different game and one where someone who wouldn’t win one round off you in the amateurs could wear you down and get a stoppage over you in the pros. I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.”
At first glance it all seems as if the European Championships silver medalist and EU Championships gold and silver winner is just happy to compete.
However, he has peppered with realism his plans, ambitions, and goals. The experienced fighter and RTÉ Pundit first wants an adaptation period but has Irish and even European targets.
“I have always been one to look forward and plan and have a goal in mind, something to aspire to and chase, but at my age and entering a completely new environment I’m not really looking too far ahead.”
“I’m basically looking to get a few fights under my belt and we’ll see how it develops. I would love to try win an Irish title and maybe challenge for European belts but with my age, injuries and commitments like a mortgage to pay off I will take it as it comes.””
O’Neill has been training himself under the watchful eye of his father, Ollie, but will consult Steven O’Rourke as he tries to pick up some tricks of the pro trade.
“I do most of my training by myself in regards to keeping fit, which I try do regardless of boxing or not. With regard to my boxing, my father Ollie got me into the sport and still trains me. He coaches me at weekends and comes to my spars to keep a watch on me and keep me right.”
“With a debut coming up and an actual fight for the first time in over two years I have been getting into Steve’s for some sparring and ring work. Steve advises on the bits of adjusting I need with regard to pro style. He advises in areas like planting my feet, inside work and lateral movement, things that weren’t really a concern over a shorter amateur fight.
The former middleweight amateur standout and heavyweight Elite champ will debut on the ‘He Who Dares’ card at the Devenish on October 25 in a six-round light heavyweight contest.
He has also called for any potential sponsors or ticket buyers to get in touch via his social media accounts.