'I was fighting with people close to me' - Ballymena boxer Steven Donnelly on his road to redemption

Steven Donnelly defeated Kevin McCauley in a super-welterweight bout at Windsor Park in August 2018
Steven Donnelly defeated Kevin McCauley in a super-welterweight bout at Windsor Park in August 2018

"There's no point in feeling sorry for yourself in this sport, because no-one really gives a damn."

After 17 years in boxing, Steven Donnelly has learned his lessons the hard way.

Among the most stark realisations is that a boxer's future is rarely, if ever, financially secure.

Multi-million pound purses are a luxury only afforded to the elite of the elite, and even then the journey to super stardom tends to be littered with financial hardships, driven only by the hope or belief that one day an opportunity to elevate your status will come your way.

For Donnelly, an Irish Olympian and Commonwealth Games medallist, that opportunity has arrived.

On 20 September the 30-year-old from Ballymena will be among eight fighters hoping to have their hand raised at the end of three bouts, securing a £16,000 prize with the chance of bigger fights on the horizon.

The Ultimate Boxxer competition at the O2 Arena in London is, by Donnelly's admission, the greatest opportunity he will have as a fighter.

It is an opportunity that he believed to be gone when he ditched the gloves nine years ago and set off down the slippery slope of a boxer who has lost all hope within the sport.

An opportunity washed down the drain

By 2010 Donnelly was one of the rising stars in a country with a proud and extensive history of punching above its weight in boxing.

He travelled to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games with three Ulster Senior titles under his belt and was expected to return with a medal.

However, as Mike Tyson once famously posited, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Steven Donnelly takes on Algeria's Zohir Kedache at the 2016 Olympics in Rio
Steven Donnelly takes on Algeria's Zohir Kedache at the 2016 Olympics in Rio

Donnelly's carefully co-ordinated ascent through the amateur ranks abruptly ground to a halt after just nine minutes of action in a shock first-round defeat by Australia's Luke Woods.

"It was my big opportunity and I felt as if it was just washed down the drain," he reflects.

So engrossed in the moment was Donnelly that he failed to contextualise the defeat as a hiccup on a larger and ongoing journey.

Instead the damage done inside the ropes paled in comparison to the trouble that followed the alcohol-fuelled night in the athlete's village after the loss.

Early the next morning Donnelly woke to team officials instructing him to pack his bags. He was going home having caused considerable disruption in the village.

Back in Ballymena, disgraced and without a medal, the spiral continued as his drinking and fighting culminated in his boxing club of eight years, All Saints ABC, instructing Donnelly that he was no longer welcome.

"I was fighting and falling out with people close to me, doing everything that I shouldn't have been doing," says Donnelly.

Two years that could have been geared towards earning a spot in Ireland's Olympic team became a cycle of increasingly serious misdemeanours resulting in court appearances.

"I knew I couldn't keep up the lifestyle, which was only going to go one way. I always missed boxing even though I was the one who quit," he says.

"Luckily I had the club, and thank God that I did. I don't know where I'd be now, probably jail."

Donnelly celebrates beating Kyran Jones of Wales at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games
Donnelly celebrates beating Kyran Jones of Wales at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018

While the desire to box may have waned, his love of the sport never went away. However, as it turned out, it took a Sunday morning visit from 1976 Olympian Gerry Hamill to convince Donnelly to return to All Saints, where he apologised to everyone at the club.

"It's a good thing that it happened," Donnelly says, seven years after returning to the ring.

"Because now I know I can never go back and be like that again."

The struggles fans don't see

Progress upon his return was swift, and a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games signalled Donnelly's return.

Two years later, at the Olympics, Donnelly lost out on a split decision that would have secured him bronze as part of an Irish team which included Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan.

While Taylor and Conlan found some of the game's biggest promoters ready and waiting upon their return from Rio, Donnelly's professional offers provided scant financial incentive.

In June 2018, he eventually put pen to paper, joining the growing Irish contingent at MTK Global and making his move into the pro ranks aged 29.

Five fights into his pro career he is undefeated and has added bouts at Madison Square Garden and Windsor Park to his CV.

Grand stages, of course, but stages that can paint an inaccurate picture to the casual onlooker.

"People say 'you're fighting in Madison Square Garden so you must have lots of money'," Donnelly says.

Donnelly secured a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games
Donnelly secured a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games

"It's not like that at all, the purses aren't great.

"Every boxer struggles, but people don't see that."

The difficulties are often soothed by the companionship that fighters find from their stablemates. Fighters in it together, facing the same problems and aiming towards the same goal.

Donnelly's stable is representative of the strength of boxing in Northern Ireland.

He fights out of Glenn ABC in west Belfast alongside old amateur team-mate Paddy Gallagher, former European champion Conrad Cummings and highly-tipped 9-0 welterweight Lewis Crocker.

The camaraderie in the gym is evident as soon as you set foot in the building. It has to be.

The shared experience of putting your body through a training camp, taking mental and physical punishment on a daily basis over an eight week period all while trying to manage your diet to hit an exact weight on an exact day.

If morale isn't good, then the rest becomes nigh on impossible.

All these fighters are doing essentially the same thing, preparing themselves so that when their big moment arrives, they are ready.

Big fights and big purses

Donnelly saw his big moment on social media, when Ultimate Boxxer announced their next event was at super-welterweight.

"I got myself into the competition," he laughs.

"I saw it advertised so I mailed them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram begging them to get into this competition because I knew I suited this format."

That format a three-round quarter final, with the winner advancing to the semis and then the main event all on the same night.

"They said I had to go through my management company who said it was a big risk, but I have to take that risk and I believe I can win it, I'm all in for it."

'Make or break' is perhaps hyperbolic but having dedicated the best part of two decades to boxing with no guarantee of success, Donnelly's assertion that "this is the best opportunity I am going to get" gives an indication of the significance of the moment to come.

"I'm 30 years old now and have a good engine but time waits for no-one.

"I'll be more financially secure and it would raise my profile, all the big promoters will be watching, it's going to get me to where I need to be: Big fights with big purses."

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