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The 13th Round: DOJ and Donnelly bring the feel-good factor back

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It was hard for Irish boxing fans not to smile yesterday

The Olympics no longer have the ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ picture-perfect image in the eyes of the Irish sporting public. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Boxing Association (AIBA) are two soulless organisations that warrant all the criticism they receive, and along with the ongoing Michael O’Reilly doping scandal meant that many onlookers were somewhat understandably disheartened as the Irish boxers got their campaign underway.

However on Sunday we were treated to the continuation of not one but two Irish boxing Cinderella stories as Steven Donnelly and David Oliver Joyce scored opening round wins in Rio. Two men who this time last year seemingly had little chance of competing at international sport’s biggest party restored some of the feel-good factor that accompanies the Irish boxing team.

Back in 2015 Sean McComb was proving himself to be one of the World’s top lightweights, while Adam Nolan was taking some career-best scalps in the European Championships. There didn’t seem to be room for Joyce and Donnelly, but a lot can change in twelve months time.

Joyce was the nearly man. Three Olympics, seven attempts to qualify, his fair share of dodgy losses, his Olympic dream seemed destined to go unfulfilled. The Mullingar man never stopped trying however. Days after a dodgy decision in Uzbekistan against Hurshid Tojibaev he was back in training, he had one more chance. Beat hot favourite Sean McComb in the National Seniors and force himself onto the plane to the qualifiers.

Over half a year dedicated to a nine-minute roll of the dice. That’s David Oliver Joyce in a nutshell and it paid off in December as he defeated McComb at the National Stadium in an enthralling encounter.

Then it was on to Turkey and the European Olympic Qualifier in Samsun. Fast-forward to the play-off for the final Olympic spot on offer, and Joyce was up against home favourite Volkan Gokcek. Level on two cards, behind on one, the St Michael’s Athy man gave one of the finest exhibitions of determination ever shown by a Irish boxer in that final round, driving forward, pushing for ever millisecond, his will was not to be denied, not again. The judges handed him the split decision and he fell to his knees in celebration.

An iconic moment and one which his journey so richly deserved. He had made it to the Olympics. His qualification felt like a gold medal, and you nearly had to remind yourself that he still had the actual tournament in Rio ahead of him.

Up first for him in Brazil yesterday was the surprisingly-good Andrique Allisop from the Seychelles. Not on top form – he didn’t need to be – Joyce earned the win. However there were no massive celebrations (and no one would have begrudged him if he did), it was business as usual and on to the next one for the Westmeath man who is showing no signs of being overawed by the occasion.

Sufficiently warmed up, Joyce now faces a Last 16 clash with Azeri star Albert Selimov tomorrow. A live underdog, Joyce will be hoping to catch the Eastern European, who received a bye, early and often giving him no time to settle. It wont be easy but he can cause a shock, and then we are into Hollywood movie territory. Whatever the result, Selimov will wake up on Wednesday morning knowing that he has been in a fight.

While Joyce’s story is one of perseverance, Donnelly’s is one of redemption. Sent home in disgrace from the Commonwealth Games in 2010, it was the bars and courts that the Ballymena man found himself in more often than the gym. Coaxed back to All Saints BC after a two year blow-out, Donnelly has already completed one unbelievable comeback, becoming Irish champion in 2014 and winning Commonwealth bronze in Glasgow.

Electing to take the WSB route to Olympic qualification, the Antrim welterweight had some great early wins for the Poland Hussars, with a debut victory over Kazakh Madiyar Ashkeyev being particularly impressive. However circumstances outside his control denied him of a visa and a crucial fight in Azerbaijan, leaving a Top 2 place in the WSB rankings, and Olympic qualification. seemingly unattainable.

While retired racehorses are said to go off to the glue factory, it was back to the meat factory for the Ballymena butcher. Disheartened completely by boxing after the visa cock-up, it looked like it would be a life of normality for one of Ireland’s most naturally talented fighters.

However, irish-boxing.com discovered that Donnelly’s Olympic flame still, unknowingly, flickered in the convoluted qualification system and the 27 year old amazingly had his place in Rio secured via the Russian National Championships last November. If Joyce’s story requires a Hollywood movie, Donnelly would need a ten-part HBO mini series.

Out of shape and nowhere near international sharpness, Donnelly had a long road back. Despite a one-sided loss in the WSB and some tough test matches, he always remained confident. He claimed he would be ready for Rio but, in truth, no one knew.

Therefore, when Donnelly opened the show for Ireland yesterday at Pavilion 6 against Algerian Zohir Kedache, we were a bag full of nerves. Will Steven still be rusty? Has he over-trained like in 2010 in Delhi? Will the occasion be too much for a man who wears his heart on his sleeve?

Thankfully it was none of the above. He was slick, he was quick, he was sharp, and he got the win. Tougher tests await, starting on Thursday against strong Mongolian Tuvshinbat Byamba, but Donnelly has already proved any doubters wrong. He’s right where he belongs.

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie