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Top Marks – The Belfast international who chose a different path

When a picture of the Northern Ireland 2010 Commonwealth Games boxing team began to populate Twitter feeds around the 10-year anniversary mark of the Delhi Games one face instantly stood out.

Eight of the nine smiling mugs were instantly recognisable – although some may be caught off guard by Steven Ward with hair.

Among the fighters neatly lined up according to weight were punchers now very familiar to Irish fight fans and some faces familiar to wider sports fans around the world.

Three-time Olympian Paddy Barnes is front and centre, with a baby faced Michael Conlan, Ireland’s first Senior Male World Championships gold medal-winner directly behind him.

Next in line is the boxing nurse, Tyrone ‘White Chocolate’ McCullagh, not far behind is the unmissable features of Rio Olympian Steven Donnelly, while captain Eamonn O’Kane, Paddy Gallagher, reigning European cruiserweight champion Tommy McCarthy, and Ward bring up the rear.

However, among the nine there was one that people had questions about, a face not overly familiar outside die-hard boxing circles.

That face belonged to one Mark O’Hara, the only member of the team not eventually go on and become a professional boxer.

“I never wanted to turn pro,” he explains to Irish-Boxing.com 10 years on.

“For whatever reason it just never appealed to me. I did get one offer, which was flattering, but I have no hesitation in admitting that professional boxing would not have suited me.”

O’Hara, an accomplished and talented lightweight, decided to make the courtroom his canvas and took a different career path to his fellow Delhi Games counterparts.

“I work as barrister now specialising in Crime, Judicial Review and Litigation. Otherwise, I do try to help out with the club when I can and to pass on what experience I have to the younger generation coming up,” he continues revealing he is still involved.

The Holy Trinity fighter with five Irish amateur titles to his name hung up his gloves when he put down books and called it a day at just 24.

“I stopped competing in and around 2014. I had graduated from University and felt that it was time to move on,” he adds.

At that time Conlan and Barnes had won Olympic medals, Barnes his second, O’Kane had won Prizefighter and the Irish middleweight title, McCarthy was a pro novice and the others established Senior amateurs.

O’Hara admits he did suffer around that time, but it was more to with identity than look enviously in the direction of his Commonwealth Games counterparts.

“Boxers naturally struggle with when to call it a day; it is an all-consuming sport which can form a big part of our identity as fighters – especially when it is all that you have focused on for 10+ years, often a lot longer.

“It took me years to fully let go of competing. I was fortunate in that my coach – Micky Hawkins – protected me from myself when I did flirt with coming back later on. Micky could see the bigger picture when I couldn’t, and I am grateful for that. “

“Boxers can be their own worst enemies at times so it helped to have someone like Micky looking after my best interests. I did end things relatively early as I was only 24, but I think I got the balance right in my case,” he adds before reflecting on his career with pride.

“My goal was always to win a major international medal: Olympic, World, European or Commonwealth. Admittedly, I didn’t realise that goal; however, I am proud of what I did manage to achieve: five All-Ireland titles; a trip to the Commonwealth Games as well as representing Ireland around the world.”

The Commonwealth Games anniversary talk , which took place over the summer, did bring back some happy memories for the boxer turned barrister.

“‌It‌ feels like yesterday but at the same time a lifetime ago,” he says.

“‌I ‌am ‌filled‌ ‌with ‌pride ‌looking‌ ‌back‌ ‌despite‌ ‌not‌ ‌winning‌ ‌a‌ ‌medal!”

You can really sense that pride and recognise a sense of achievement when O’Hara talks about he secured his slot on the team.

Then a teen he was determined to prove himself senior worthy and ensure his place on the plane to Delhi.  ‌ ‌

“‌I‌ ‌had‌ ‌set‌ ‌myself‌ ‌a‌ ‌goal‌ ‌after‌ ‌a‌ ‌tough‌ ‌loss‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌European‌ ‌Youth‌ ‌Championships‌ ‌to‌ ‌make‌ ‌that‌ ‌team.‌ ‌In‌ ‌the‌ ‌12 -18‌ ‌months‌ ‌leading‌ ‌up‌ ‌to‌ ‌selection‌ ‌I‌ ‌won‌ ‌the‌ ‌All-Ireland‌ ‌U21‌ ‌championships,‌ ‌the‌ ‌All-Ireland‌ ‌Intermediate‌ ‌Championships,‌ ‌the‌ ‌Ulster‌ ‌Senior‌ ‌Championships‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌Northern‌ ‌Ireland‌ ‌box-off‌ ‌selection‌ ‌tournament.‌ ‌I‌ ‌had‌ ‌some‌ ‌great‌ ‌wins‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌process‌ ‌too.‌ ‌Each‌ ‌tournament‌ ‌played‌ ‌a‌ ‌part‌ ‌of‌ ‌my‌ ‌preparation‌ ‌towards‌ ‌making‌ ‌it‌ ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌Commonwealth‌ ‌Games.”‌ ‌

The battles were not over there. O’Hara recalls with the kind of fondness only a boxer can, hard prep in the High Performance Unit, as well as rejoices in having his nose broken by David Oliver Joyce.

“‌On‌ ‌being ‌selected ‌we‌ ‌were ‌all ‌sent ‌down ‌to ‌Dublin ‌to ‌train ‌with the ‌High ‌Performance ‌Unit‌ ‌which was priceless ‌experience.‌

“I can remember David Oliver Joyce broke my nose in one of my first spars! It was intense preparation and I was still only 19 years old.‌”

O’Hara’s name is often mentioned when ‘intelligent’ boxers are being discussed and surprisingly enough his Commonwealth Games free time is the catalyst for that.

While his team mates were taking in the surrounds or, in some cases, off misbehaving, O’Hara had his head in the books.

‌”‌I‌ ‌had‌ ‌just‌ ‌started‌ ‌a‌ ‌degree‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌University‌ ‌of‌ ‌Ulster,‌ ‌Jordanstown;‌ ‌the‌ ‌University‌ ‌advised‌ ‌me‌ ‌to‌ ‌take‌ ‌the‌ ‌year‌ ‌out‌ ‌as‌ ‌it‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌too‌ ‌much‌ ‌to‌ ‌balance‌ ‌both.‌ ‌I‌ ‌brought‌ ‌my‌ ‌books‌ ‌with‌ ‌me‌ ‌to‌ ‌India‌ ‌and‌ ‌got‌ ‌through‌ it.‌”

O’Hara excited the competition at the quarter-final stage when he was outpointed by Canadian Alex Torres Rynn – a future pro opponent of John Joe Nevin. Looking back, the Ulsterman seems more disappointed he held that against himself rather than the fact he didn’t medal.

‌”The‌ ‌tournament‌ ‌itself‌ ‌was‌ ‌class.‌ ‌Something‌ ‌I‌ ‌had‌ ‌never‌ ‌experienced‌ ‌before‌ ‌and‌ ‌it‌ ‌will‌ ‌stay‌ ‌with‌ ‌me‌ ‌forever;‌ ‌however,‌ ‌if‌ ‌I‌ ‌could‌ ‌do‌ ‌it‌ ‌over‌ ‌again,‌ ‌I‌ ‌would‌ ‌have‌ ‌tried‌ ‌to‌ ‌enjoy‌ ‌myself‌ ‌a‌ ‌bit‌ ‌more.‌ ‌At‌ ‌19-years‌ ‌old‌ ‌ I‌ ‌was‌ ‌very‌ ‌focused‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌bit‌ ‌hard‌ ‌on‌ ‌myself‌ ‌generally.”

The team went on to win five medals that year and considering what was achieved both in the amateur and the pro ranks after it’s deemed one of the most talented teams to ever have represented Northern Ireland.

O’Hara suggests he was aware he was part of a talented nine – and as a result the success his eight team mates went on to achieve comes as no surprise.

“‌I‌ ‌was‌ ‌well‌ ‌aware‌ ‌that‌ ‌everyone‌ ‌on‌ ‌that‌ ‌team‌ ‌were‌ ‌incredibly‌ ‌talented‌ ‌and‌ ‌accomplished‌ ‌in‌ ‌their‌ ‌own‌ ‌right.‌ ‌It‌ ‌was‌ ‌intimidating‌ ‌at‌ ‌times‌ ‌as‌ ‌I‌ ‌couldn’t‌ ‌help‌ ‌but‌ ‌compare‌ ‌my‌ ‌achievements‌ ‌and‌ ‌ability‌ ‌to‌ ‌their’s.‌ ‌I‌ ‌am‌ ‌not‌ ‌at‌ ‌all‌ ‌surprised‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌successes‌ ‌they‌ ‌have‌ ‌had‌ ‌since‌ ‌2010.‌” ‌ ‌

O’Hara believes three time Olympian Barnes stood out from pack and shared a belief common across amateurs that were around at the time, that the little man’s mindset and drive was a key part in the success of Irish amateur boxing around that period.

“At that time, Paddy Barnes was legitimately one of the best light flyweights in the world; he cruised through that tournament to a gold medal. Paddy always stands out in my mind as one of those who demonstrated what was possible at the highest level – he played a big part in paving the way for a golden era in Irish boxing.

They are nice memories to have, great achievements to celebrate and it’s a career that helped shape O’Hara to success outside of the ring.

“I still do [miss it] at times. Boxing saved me in a lot of ways. Holy Trinity – Micky Hawkins – the boxers and coaches that I trained with, and fought against, have all shaped me into the person I am today. I absolutely do not miss the starvation, the injuries or the beatings though.”

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sports for a living for over 20 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: editoririshboxing@gmail.com