European Games a target for heavyweight Darren O’Neill

Former middleweight champion takes on Ken Okungbowa in national final

Darren O’Neill: “That lad I’m fighting Friday night is very, very big for a heavyweight. He’s very muscular. I’ve a big task ahead of me.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Darren O’Neill: “That lad I’m fighting Friday night is very, very big for a heavyweight. He’s very muscular. I’ve a big task ahead of me.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

London 2012 Olympic captain Darren O’Neill hopes his gamble to move from middleweight to heavyweight will pay off tonight. The two-stone shift has not slowed down his ambition to become Irish champion and earn a place in this summer’s inaugural European Games, which act as a qualifier for the World Championships later this year in Doha.

O’Neill, who goes in against Athlone heavyweight Ken Okungbowa, faces a significant weight differential.

Okungbowa is a big heavyweight with O’Neill coming in at 86.9kg for the 91kg limit. A middleweight last year, the Olympian has had less than a year to make the difference.

An Irish title at the new weight could propel him towards the European Games and ultimately the Olympic Games in Rio, although, the traditional route to the Olympics has been severely narrowed by the governing AIBA

“It’s been a bit different,” says O’Neill. “The boys are that bit bigger and even though I’ve moved up I’m still not a full heavyweight. I’m quite a good bit under the limit. I weighed in at 86.9 kg so I’m quite light at the weight.

More speed

“These boys are big and that lad I’m fighting Friday night is very, very big for a heavyweight. He’s very muscular. I’ve a big task ahead of me.”

It’s the glamour weight for boxing but a division Ireland have rarely done well in at international level.

Most of the boxing medals at European, World or Olympic level have been between 49kg and 75kg, Joe Ward at light heavyweight (81kg) breaking that trend.

In many ways it’s an audacious move for O’Neill. The more natural division would have been 81kg, one up from his former middleweight. But that one is robustly guarded by Ward, who is currently looking for his Rio Olympics ticket though AIBA Pro Boxing and offshoot (along with the WSB) of traditional amateur boxing.

“I made the 75kg for the Olympics no problem. But I was taking too much out of myself, my natural physique and so on,” says O’Neill.

“In the 2013 championship Jason Quigley beat me on a countback and at that stage I knew. I weighed in last year, I suppose, to avenge the defeat. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

At home

The traditional route to the Olympics via the World Championships has been curtailed to one boxer in some divisions, the champion. In other divisions the two finalists go to Rio. It has always been said by Billy Walsh that it’s harder to qualify than compete in the games. Only middleweight Quigley, who has turned professional, has ever made a World Championship final. Paddy Barnes and John Joe Nevin never did even though they have Olympic and World Championship medals.

“This is my ninth final to be in over a 10-year period so it’s not going to be a new experience to me,” says O’Neill.

“But having moved up to heavyweight it’ll definitely be a first in that I’ll be looking across the ring at someone that much bigger. But I’ve been in with some of the top guys before.

“I’ve been in with Ken Egan. I’ve been in with Darren Sutherland. I’ve been in with Jason Quigley. I’ve been in against the top boys so it’s not going to be out of the ordinary. But it brings its own pressure.”

The Irish title will determine what happens next for the boxers in all 10 divisions and with Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, David Oliver Joyce, Quigley and Ward among those not taking part there are eight vacant titles.

With the European Games, World Championships and Olympics coming down the tracks over the next 18 months, nine minutes boxing tonight will determine the futures of more than just Darren O’Neill.

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