“I am aiming to have an Irish title within five fights. Then my sights are on a European title and a world title fight.” - Eric Donovan, June 2016
It’s 5.05pm on Friday evening and just eight days out from the biggest fight of Eric Donovan’s professional boxing career. He rolls up to the within a couple of yards of the backdoor of his temple, St Michael’s Athy Boxing Club, and apologises for his slight tardiness, cursing the build-up of traffic in the town that was passing through en route to Electric Picnic in Stradbally.
“I should have thought of that,” noted Donovan, but there are plenty more pressing things on his mind as he enters the final days of preparation for a Celtic Title fight with Welsh featherweight champion Dai Davies.
Anyone who knows the Athy native will attest to the fact that he is a hugely honest, open and engaging figure, blessed with a huge level of confidence in his own ability but incredibly humble at the same time. He is a highly intelligent man, despite leaving school at the age of 15 because ‘it wasn’t for him’, and if you have seen any of his punditry work on RTÉ boxing shows or other media outlets you will be aware of his understanding of the sweet science.
He’s a popular figure in his hometown, not least because of his acclaimed fitness classes that he runs in the local boxing club, but also for the commitment he shows to his clients as he will be running classes up until five days before the fight. After all, that’s what is helping to pay the bills for the Lilywhite Lightning, though someday soon he might fulfil his vast potential and land a fight big enough to gain significant financial reward.
A career outside the ring
Saturday represents his fifth time between the ropes as a pro, though he wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t taken the brave decision to give a career in boxing one more shot at the age of 30. Donovan left the sport in 2013 after having his funding cut as an amateur, deciding then it was time to go back to education and undertake a two-year course in counselling and psychotherapy.
“I decided that I really needed to look at doing something for my future because I left school at 15 and I didn’t really have education behind me; I put all my time and effort into boxing and I had huge expectations of myself, and I never really had a plan b,” explains Donovan.
“Having lost the seniors to Sean McComb, and lost my funding, I decided I really need to look at doing something and went back into third level education and did a full-time two year course in counselling and psychotherapy.”
And then he came back to the sport he loved, scratching an itch that would have kept resurfacing if he never took the plunge to turn pro.
“When I graduated boxing was always in my head. I kept ticking over; I wasn’t doing anything major. Dom [O’Rourke, his manager] would have me in here sparring and getting lads ready; I wasn’t doing anything major, just some fitness classes. Part of me in my mind felt like I had more to offer and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet, so I came to the decision that… I was caught between going for the degree or to go professional and go on a new journey and have a new challenge. The conclusion that I came to is that I can always do my degree, but I can never go back and box.”
While boxing is the main focus in his life right now, Donovan is looking forward to getting back to forging a career for himself in counselling. He already has 400 hours of sessions done where he is in the role of being the counsellor, and he explained that his own trials and tribulations when he was a youth had a major bearing on why he chose this path.
“There are many different reasons,” said Donovan.
“In my own way, I would have struggled with my own mental health throughout my childhood and throughout my boxing as well. I would have acted out in various different ways and I was a recipient of some counselling sessions myself and that helped me in that regard; that inspired me to go down that route and I really enjoy it.
“I would say that I’m an advocate of personal wellbeing and mental health; even the fitness classes I do in here are a form of wellbeing so I like that whole area and I’d like to see myself doing that in the future.
“It’s very heavy stuff, and I feel if I was to continue doing that now I’d be doing myself a disservice because I have so much going on with boxing and if you’re going to be of service to someone you’ve got to be wholeheartedly in it, and right now I just can’t be at this time. I want to fulfil my obligation to boxing right now and see where that takes me, and when that finishes up I can get back to working in the field of counselling.”
To say that Donovan is a latecomer to professional boxing at the age of 30 is an understatement, and the current trend in Ireland of more and more young boxers turning away from the amateur game to go professional is something that wasn’t seen previously. A number of factors come into play here; whether it is a lack of faith in the amateur game after some shambolic refereeing at the Rio Olympic, Billy Walsh’s defection from the head of the High Performance unit to the US, or, most probably, the perceived financial rewards from dispensing with the headgear and the vest to turn professional.
Donovan made the decision for none of those reasons however.
“I didn’t want to go professional for financial reasons; it was more about honouring the gifts I have,” he says with a smile.
“I believe I was given a talent to box from a young age – my record speaks for that – but I feel that there’s only a certain amount of people who make enough money to be comfortable for the rest of their lives from boxing. You could look at the likes of Floyd Mayweather and people like that. I’m not in it for those reasons; I’m in it to fulfil my own potential and see where it takes me.
“Don’t get me wrong, if there was a big payday for a big fight I’d love it, but it’s not the be all and end all. I don’t regret not turning over straight away. I feel more secure now that I have the foundation of an education behind me, especially after leaving school at 15. I felt in a way quite inferior to the education system. Maybe that’s just from my own experience being in school, but I never really took to it. I think you have to be right in your mind and it has to come at the right time for you.”
His time boxing for the Astana Arlans team of Kazakhstan in the World Series of Boxing back in 2012 seems to have had a profound effect on Donovan’s life. The former five-time Irish champion notes how he grew up in many ways over there, learned a new culture and won a gold medal as part of that team. Remarkably, Donovan even began to learn the Russian language.
“I grew up out there in a way… I even started to learn the Russian language,” revealed the 32-year-old.
“I went through a lot of trials and tribulations out there, but it was the personal journey that I was on and that was amazing because there was more times that I was at breaking point but I dusted myself off and kept going. There were times when I wanted to come home because my youngest son had taken his first steps and everything when I was out there. It was tough for me, but I soldiered on and got through it, and when I came back that gave me the confidence and I took on the counselling course.”
A title tilt
Standing in Donovan’s way on Saturday night is 34-year-old Welsh champion Dai Davies, who has a rather chequered record of 14 wins, 25 losses and two draws, though he has enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance of late by winning five of his last seven bouts. He presents the most formidable challenge that the undefeated Donovan has faced in his career to date, but the Athy southpaw has his homework done on his opponent and holds no fear going into this one.
“He’s a proven professional and it’s the first time I’m going to be stepping out of journeyman mode into the real business of professional boxing,” remarked Donovan.
“I feel like I’m ready; I feel like I’ve served my apprenticeship in the amateur game and in the World Series of Boxing. I’ve watched him; I’ve studied him; I know he’s going to bring a challenge that I haven’t faced in my professional career but I still think that I have the goods to win, but I have to perform.
“The difference between boxing a journeyman and a proven professional is that you may well underperform against a journeyman and still get the win, but you can’t underperform when you’re up against a good proven pro. He has already caused upsets in people’s own backyards already and he’s been in the ring with world champions.
“He has a wealth of experience – he trumps me in that area – and I’m just really delighted that he has given me the opportunity because it was very hard for me to attract opponents because they are of the opinion that you need to get to seven, eight, nine and 0. They were probably reluctant to put their record up against mine or whatever, but he has taken the fight and he’s coming over to win and genuinely believes he’s going to win, and that’s going to bring the best Eric Donovan out.”
Going the distance
It’s a bout that is scheduled for eight rounds, and is the Lilywhite Lightning’s second fight that is down for that distance, with his last outing being stopped in the fourth as Hungarian journeyman Laszlo Horvath fell to the Athy man’s pressure halfway through.
Going the distance would be beneficial for Donovan’s conditioning in the long term, but he insists that if the knockout is on the cards he will be taking it with both hands.
“I don’t really mind,” he says about going the distance.
“I’ve prepared for the win, regardless what happens. If the knockout is there I’ll take it. You don’t get paid for overtime in this game. In a way he’ll take me out if he can, he won’t mess around. If I have the opportunity to take him out I’ll take him out.
“I am in no way interested in carrying somebody for the eight rounds because it’s very unprofessional, and God only knows what can happen if you did that. I’ve prepared for the eight rounds; I’ve prepared for 10 round, 12 rounds even though it is an eight round fight. I’ve trained very meticulously and I do all my hard work in the gym so the easy work will be on the fight night.”
Rushing for success
When the quote at the top of this piece – something the man said himself in June 2016 - is read out to Donovan, he smiles about where he is now. He requested an Irish title fight but was turned down, but his dreams remain just as lofty now.
“I think I’ve moved along very quickly as a pro. I said I wanted to be fast-tracked, and thanks to my manager Leonard Gunning and my coach Dominic O’Rourke for getting me into this position,” said Donovan.
“This is my fifth fight; it is a title fight, albeit a Celtic title and not the Irish title. We offered an opponent the chance to box for the Irish title and they turned it down, so we’ve got the Celtic title here now and this will catapult me up the rankings.
“If I can beat him it will put me right up there and I can hopefully make a charge sometime next year on climbing the rankings and hopefully get the Irish title next year, and sometime around the end of 2018 I can be knocking on the door for a European title shot.”
Donovan has a long way to go before he can even dream about stepping in the ring with the likes of Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton and Oscar Valdez, but his commitment to taking his career in carefully planned stages is what will hopefully pay dividends for him.
“Anything could happen over the course of the fight,” he said.
“You could box one fight and it could set you back a year. You could win a fight and beat a very good opponent and it could catapult you forward a year. Those guys are at the top of the food chain at the moment. I’m just trying to focus on not that picture of the world title… I’m trying to break it down and be realistic and say ‘this first step is the Celtic title’, after that we’ll look at the Irish[title] and look at getting into the top 10 of the Europeans before we can even talk about a European title.
“It’s like a snooker player though, when he goes in to take a red ball he’s thinking about the black after that red. Obviously it would be amazing to get up to that level and I would love to be at that level, but I’m on the journey to go there and there’s a few hurdles to be crossed yet and I’m trying to stay focused on the present. I don’t want to get carried away with myself. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in myself. I train very, very hard and it’s going to take a good fighter to knock me off this momentum I’m on.”
His time at the top – if he gets there – is not likely to be too long due to his age, but Donovan has all the self-belief and commitment to make his dreams a reality. From Olympic heartbreak to having his funding cut in 2012, Donovan knows that not every voyage is plain sailing, but his meticulous planning means that he can at least cope with some of the rocky waters that professional boxing can present.
He has been training twice a day five times a week for the past eight weeks in preparation for this bout, taking every Thursday and Sunday as rest days, but ensuring that he spends somewhere between 15 and 20 hours honing his fitness and skills.
“I’m realistic. I’m 32 years of age; I’m healthy and strong, smart and intelligent and a very good boxer,” he says confidently.
“I’m just trying to stay focused on the present and the job in hand and not get carried away because I know that when I was an amateur I predicted that I was going to go to the Olympic Games and I didn’t, and that broke my heart. Now I’m just trying to not get carried away and focus on the task at hand each time and give everything I possibly have to each task. Hopefully then I can go and climb up that ladder to the top of my game.”
The Lilywhite Lightning will be around Kildare less than two weeks after his Celtic title fight with Davies, acting as an ambassador for the Kildare Culture night 2017, something he is immensely proud to have been asked to do.
Here’s hoping that he will have a belt to show off on September 22.
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