Darren O’Neill may have felt on top of the world when he qualified for the Olympic Games last year, but the Kilkennyman proved he is also still top of the pile in Ireland too.
The Paulstownboxer secured his fourth successive Elite Championship middleweight title when he got his hands on the belt at the National Stadium on Friday night. This time, however, O’Neill didn’t have to put his gloves on.
He was given a walk-over by opponent, Conor Coyle.
“It was a little disappointing that I didn’t get the chance to box in front of a full stadium, especially as I had people coming up from Kilkenny to watch,” said O’Neill. “However, I was delighted to win my fourth Elite title in-a-row.”
Ranked third in the world in his weight category (75kg) by AIBA, O’Neill had to fight hard to get to the finals in tip-top shape.
“We - my father Ollie (trainer) and I - have put in a lot of effort to get to the final, maybe more than in recent years,” he said.
“I injured my left shoulder in my first fight at the World Championships (the competition where O’Neill booked his Olympic berth back in Azerbaijan last Autumn). Scans later showed that a bit of cartilage had lifted off the bone.
“Ideally I could have done with surgery, but that would have put me out for too long. It might even have ruled me out of the Olympics in terms of recovery, so I had cortisone injections before Christmas which helped.
“I got clearance to use the left arm on Stephen’s Day but, just when I was getting back into full fitness I thought I had cracked some ribs,” he added. “I only had four sparring sessions before the national championships started.
“I was a little behind schedule, but did an awful lot of pad and bag work to try and make up for the lack of ring work.”
O’Neill weighed-in on Friday morning when it was confirmed that Derry fighter Coyle was ruled out with a hand injury. O’Neill was now a spectator.
“It was strange to be in the National Stadium without boxing,” he said. “I’ve been senior for eight years and other than the year I missed the championships with a broken hand I’ve been in the final. You get used to the routine, so it was odd not being in the ring.”
While O’Neill had an easy time of it last week it will be anything but casual in the coming months. With seven more fighters aiming to secure Olympic berths, boxing will have a busy schedule between now and July.
“I’ll be doing the exact same training as the rest of the boys who are going to the qualifiers in Turkey,” he said. “We have a rest week after the nationals, but then we’ll have a nine-day training camp in The Curragh. We have a week’s training in Dublin, then we’re off to Germany for 18 days for a training camp which will also involve competition. That will be a top notch tournament, as a lot of the Russian fighters will be there.”
The Irish boxers will also travel to Ukraine for another training camp at the end of March. While some will then go to Trabzon for the qualifiers, there will be further training camps in Russia before the Olympics beckon.
“It’s going to be hectic,” O’Neill said. “We’re completely consumed by getting ready for the Olympics. I’m going to be heading into two months of training, the likes of which I’ll never have again,” he said.
“No stone will be left unturned; we’ll be giving it everything, putting it all on the line for London.”