'Without boxing, what am I? I'm lost without it': Steven Donnelly hoping its third time lucky at Commonwealth Games

'I’d say I’m the fittest on the team, no problem' - Steven Donnelly's team-mates wouldn't disagree. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

KURT Walker and Kristina O’Hara are clocking up the miles on exercise bikes near the entrance doors of the gym at Jordanstown. Aidan Walsh is lying on the bench, his face part-concentration, part pain as weights are lifted and lowered.

Sister Michaela is doing stretches on the mat while Brendan Irvine works on his balance and agility towards the end of an energy-sapping cardio workout. Over in the corner, a figure clad in a sodden red Ireland vest is lifting free weights.

Up… breathe… down. Repeat.

There is no part of him that is not dripping with sweat. When Steven Donnelly is in the zone, nobody else exists. The engine is revved to full throttle or not at all.

“That’s par for the course,” laughs team-mate James McGivern as he looks over at the Ballymena man.

“The other day we were doing a bag session, John [Conlan] was calling stop and start. A couple of minutes after it was finished, I looked over and Donnelly was still tearing away - left, right, left right.

“He’s like the Duracell bunny. He never stops.”

It is something Conlan is mindful of too. He wants everybody to work hard, to push themselves to the limit, but not to cross the line and leave their best on the floor back in Belfast.

Vials of urine are lined up on a table in front of the two rings in ‘the clubhouse’, a small sports hall just around the corner and down the hall from the gym. A close eye is kept on bloods too as dehydration levels are meticulously monitored on a daily basis.

If physiologist Damian Martin tells Conlan one of the team needs a rest, so be it. This time around it is Donnelly’s turn to be given the next day off.

The news is never well received but if there’s one thing the experience of two Commonwealth Games and an Olympics has taught him, it’s that sometimes he needs to be protected from himself.

“I hate being told to take time away from training. Hate it altogether, I just feel like I should be doing something. I can’t sit and do nothing, otherwise my head’s away.

“But then the danger is over-training. That was a problem in Rio, and it has been a problem before too. You think ‘God, we’re in great shape here, we’re flying’ and then you just overdo it.

“I’m making sure that doesn’t happen this time. Moving up to middleweight means I’m not worrying about my weight which is a good thing. I know I have the engine – I’d say I’m the fittest on the team, no problem - so my focus is on technique rather than fitness.”

The Gold Coast Games will be Donnelly’s third Commonwealths at a third different weight. In 2010 he went at 64kg, won bronze at welter four years later and goes for gold in 2018 at 75kg.

He is, by some distance, the most experienced member of the Northern Ireland team that left for Australia a fortnight ago. Yet reaching this point was, and continues to be, one long learning curve.

Steven Donnelly celebrates after beating pre-competition favourite Custio Clayton at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Picture by PA

Let’s start with 2010.

The very mention of Delhi eight years ago is enough to illicit a long sigh.

First Commonwealth Games, first major competition, and the first of many bumps on the road.

Still young and skinny, the weight-making process sucked the life out of the 21-year-old. Within 30 seconds of his first fight, against Australia’s Luke Woods, Donnelly could tell something was up.

“I was just making weight all the time, doing nothing else. I was flying at one stage, though. You ask Eamonn O’Kane or anyone and they were saying ‘he’s going to do amazing over here’.

“But I just over-trained, and in that fight I was going forward loads but there was no power in my punches at all. Nothing.”

Donnelly lost 10-0, exiting without landing a single scoring punch. He had put so much stock in the competition that, as he walked from the ring, already the walls were starting to close in.

Before the end of the competition he and Tyrone McCullagh were on an early flight home from India, banished after an incident in the canteen of the athletes’ village.

Eight years on, Donnelly can smile at the memory.

“I flicked the chef’s hat,” he protests, “that was it.

“The word going around after was that I had thrown chairs, or that the chef had got cut with a knife and all this crap. Not at all - me and Tyrone McCullagh were over messing around in the canteen, drunk, and I flicked the chef’s hat.

“They threw me out of the canteen then. He was trying to push me out and I said ‘don’t touch me, don’t touch me’. That’s all it was. It wasn’t even a big thing.

“He complained, got my name off my accreditation, and that was it. On the plane home.”

Disappointed and done with boxing, the downward spiral accelerated at an alarming rate once Donnelly set foot back on home soil.

“It meant that much to me,” he says.

“The Commonwealth Games was huge to me back then, losing 10-0, getting sent home, back to Ballymena. After being on such a high, you were back to the streets of Ballymena, back to the same wee stupid pubs… it would put your head away.

“You’re thinking about what people are saying behind your back, over-thinking things. You fall out with yourself, you fall out with everyone. It wasn’t good.

“It just spiralled and I got into a rut for two years. Everything that could have happened, happened. I was in and out of the courthouse… I had a seat in there for a few months.

“I wasted a good few years. Peak years. But then maybe that was all supposed to be happen.”

With that in mind, so began a redemption mission leading into the next Games in Glasgow. But there were regrets left there too.

Donnelly sent out an early message to his rivals when he floored Pakistan’s Hasan Asif after 30 seconds, before going on to beat Custio Clayton in the quarter-final. The Canadian, a 2012 Olympian and now a 13-0 pro, was a huge gold medal favourite.

“I thought that was it,” says Donnelly ruefully, “I thought I’d won it.”

That wasn’t it, though, as he fell flat against India’s Mandeep Jangra in the last four.

“I don’t know, I just lost concentration or something, motivation maybe.

“I remember me and Connor Coyle were out the next day shopping and running around the place where we should have been in the village taking it easy.

“That’s what the likes of Paddy [Barnes] and Mick [Conlan] were doing. You live and learn. The same thing won’t happen this time.”

The Dockers war with Caoimhin Hynes back in November reignited Steven Donnelly's love for boxing. Picture by Hugh Russell

Yet the next part of the Commonwealth journey, the one he is about to embark upon, might not have happened at all.

Donnelly just about made the welterweight limit for the European Championships in the Czech Republic last June but, finally, after years of struggle, he knew the writing was on the wall.

The draw didn’t help either, pairing Donnelly with Russia’s Sergei Sobylinski.

The All Saints man bowed out and, with earlier talk of turning pro dead in the water, he was left to mull over his diminishing options. After a few months away from the sport with no plans to return, Donnelly decided to take the plunge.

A week before the Ulster Elite Championships he confirmed that he would be entering at middleweight, and the Dockers club was filled to capacity the night of his needle match with Holy Trinity’s Caoimhin Hynes.

The pair slabbered and snarled, trading blows across three hard fought, hugely entertaining rounds. Donnelly got the decision, old-manning his younger opponent, using his clever footwork and hand speed to snatch victory.

He wasn’t at his best in the final against Fearghus Quinn but got across the line after a stunning final round, pulling it out of the fire at the last.

Ringside reporters were told that this was most likely his last Ulster Elites, and that the Gold Coast would be the perfect place for a swansong. Five months on, however, he’s not so sure.

“I said that before but then, without boxing, what am I?” asks Donnelly, who revealed he has been sounded out about turning pro in Australia after the Games.

“I’m lost without it. We’ll see what happens when I come home, whether I go pro or go for Tokyo again, try and make it to back-to-back Olympics. I don’t know if I want to go back down to Dublin again to be honest.

“I could be a personal trainer because, with what I’ve won and having gone to an Olympics, people would probably come to me. But apart from that it’s always in my head that the money will run out and I’ll have to get a job.

“I don’t think I’ll ever hold a job down to be honest. My life has been just boxing, boxing, boxing so I’m going to miss it. I’m still only 29, but I want to do it for as long as I can.

“And the first part of that is finishing my Commonwealth journey in the best possible fashion – by doing what I should have done last time and winning a gold medal.”


Scotland's tall southpaw John Docherty could be the biggest danger to Steven Donnelly at middleweight


75kg: John Docherty (Scotland)

INDIA’S Vikash Krishnan is a talented boxer, but the main dangers look to come from a little closer to home in England’s Ben Whittaker and Scotland’s John Docherty. That pair met in the middleweight final at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa, with Docherty getting the nod on a split, and the 20-year-old Scot could be the one to watch in the Gold Coast


Sean McComb has waited longer than anybody to get to a Commonwealth Games, and is determined to make up for lost time

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