‘I was desperate to be involved, I knew it would be the making of me – I kept messaging them, just hoping for a chance to show what I could do. Turns out, they were the most important messages I’d ever sent’
Nine years ago, the-then 22-year-old Steven Donnelly had the boxing world at his feet, with a Commonwealth Games in Delhi beckoning as the next step in his blossoming career. But sport is seldom plain sailing, even for the most talented. A crushing defeat to Australian Luke Woods was the start of a two-year period of depression, punctuated by ugly incidents in his home town of Ballymena, fuelled by booze and drugs. This is his story of redemption.
‘I’d seen Ultimate Boxxer on Instagram and Twitter, and I saw they were having a super-welterweight tournament. I was desperate to be involved, I knew it would be the making of me – I kept messaging them, just hoping for a chance to show what I could do. Turns out, they were the most important messages I’d ever sent – the power of social media. Seven weeks later, I’m stood in the middle of the ring at the O2, getting presented with the Golden Robe by none other than Amir Khan, all on BT Sport. It’s absolutely crazy. If someone had said to me after Delhi that this would be happening to me, I would have never have believed it. It was the best night of my career, even better than the Olympics.’
On one level, it may look like Donnelly was always destined to win the Ultimate Boxxer 5 after he put his name forward, such was his incredible amateur pedigree – a quarter-final knockdown of Ish O’Connor was followed by an altogether-trickier victory over the durable Sean Robinson, before Lenny Fuller was taken care of in the final in front of a packed arena. But the atmosphere in Donnelly’s dressing room afterwards was one of satisfied relief, a job well done. The next step in a career that has seen huge highs and lows.
To understand Donnelly’s emotions though, you first need to understand the depths to which he plumbed after that ill-fated appearance in India. The Commonwealth Games in 2010 was the peak of his eight-year amateur career that saw him win his first County Antrim title within six weeks of lacing up the gloves for the very first time at the age of 13. Two weeks after that success, he ventured south, and strolled his way to victory at the All Ireland tournament in Dublin. Talent and determination, he had both in spades.
A stellar amateur career ensued, and progress was quick, under the watchful eye of coach Gerry Hamill – he accumulated three Senior Ulster titles by the age of 21. He earnt selection for Delhi, a platform upon which he was tipped by experts to secure a medal for his country.
But then, in the space of three rapid rounds, Donnelly was dispatched by Australia’s Luke Woods. Defeat in the ring was the beginning of a temporary end in the sport for the young Ballymena boy.
‘I was sent home from Delhi after losing in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I was in great shape going out there, I’d trained so hard, and I was predicted to bring back a medal, but looking back I’d overtrained, I was struggling to make the weight. I lost in the first fight to the Australian, and he wasn’t even that great. There wasn’t just any power in my punches, I was tired and the heat certainly did not help. But I’d just done too much in the build-up, I was so desperate to do well,’ said Donnelly.
The manner of the loss was emphatic, a 10-0 battering on what was the biggest stage of his career. However, what followed was the start of a downward spiral that Donnelly struggled to arrest.
‘I took the defeat quite badly, and me and Tyrone McCullagh went and had a few drinks in the athletes’ village – we couldn’t go out because of the security issues – and we ended up messing about in the canteen, and I flicked one of the chef’s hats. We were just being daft, but it didn’t go down well and they reported us to the Northern Ireland management. I remember the next day being woken up at 7am – after only being in bed an hour – and being told we had to go down to the Northern Ireland head office. We were given an hour to get packed and get to the airport – we thought it was funny. And I actually told my Dad that there was an early flight home for the athletes who had lost! And that was the start of where things really went badly for me – I had two years out of the game, and I did a lot of bad things. Drinking, taking drugs, I had completely fallen out of love with boxing.’
Disillusioned, he went away from the sport, getting up to no good, drinking heavily, becoming involved in scraps that were far removed from the Marquess of Queensberry regulations that govern the sport.
Donnelly was seemingly intent on pushing the self-destruction button known by many promising young athletes who have endured a career setback. So, what changed?
‘One morning, I was just getting home from the night before, and Gerry (Hamill) was waiting for me. He sat me down and gave me a real talk about it all – that moment changed everything. I started to turn my life around, and began to put in the hard graft again. Before that, I was going nowhere in life and undoubtedly on a dangerous road.’
Hamill was a friend of the family, and his credentials were impressive, having won a gold medal himself at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. His words hit home to Donnelly that opportunity still lay around the corner, and failure is seldom fatal. It was time to get back in the gym.
‘I started to get back into shape, started to do my running, but I also had to go into my club and apologise for the way I’d been behaving around the town. I won the Ulster Seniors again, stopped the guy in the first round and then I went down to Dublin and won the Irish League title, my greatest victory at that point in my career.’
Donnelly was back on an upward curve again, enjoying his boxing and life, and another step on the road to redemption was now in front of him – the Commonwealth Games in 2014, just over the Irish Sea in Glasgow.
‘2014 in Glasgow meant so much to me simply because of the journey I’d been on, everything that I’d been through. There was so much pressure to avoid what had happened in Delhi again, and then inside 30 seconds I’d knocked the guy (Hasan Asif) out. It was a great feeling.’
Donnelly progressed through to the quarter-finals, where he faced Custio Clayton, a six-time Canadian Amateur champion and 2012 Olympian. Donnelly rose to the challenge, setting up a semi-final with Mandeep Jangra. It was a fight too far for him, but the ghosts of Delhi had been laid to rest, and he was on his way home with a bronze medal, the pride of Ballymena once again. Four years later he matched the achievement in the 2018 Commonwealth, but sandwiched in between that was a trip to Brazil to represent Ireland in the Olympics.
‘Rio in 2016 was top class, an incredible experience, knowing that I had so many people cheering me on back home – social media was going crazy. But I fought well, and the hard work paid off. Getting there was a big thing for me, let alone winning two fights and I was very proud to come home after my performances, and nearly bring a medal back.’
Donnelly lost out in the quarter-finals to Mohammed Rabii, but he took confidence from the experience, a far cry from the situation after 2010 in India.
He turned pro last year, seeing off Kevin McCauley at Windsor Park in Belfast. Two more victories followed before Donnelly fought at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Daniel Jacobs-Sergiy Derevyanchenko – he dispatched Ray Cervera in New York, before returning to Belfast to knockout Edwin Palacio, giving him a professional record of 5-0 as he entered Ultimate Boxxer 5.
Nearly a decade after the Dehli debacle, Donnelly is in reflective mood when he thinks back to the more troubled times in his life.
‘I believe all these things happen for a reason, things happen so we learn from our experiences. And I’m glad it all happened because I know I never want to go back to that life and to be in the situations I had been in ever again. Boxing is a life saver, and I want people to be able to look up to me from my town and beyond, because if I can come back from where I was, all of the hardships, to find myself fighting for Ireland in an Olympic Games in Rio, there’s hope for everyone. I’ll be forever grateful to Ultimate Boxxer for giving me my big opportunity, to my partner Sarah-Louise and all of my family for believing in me, and the sponsors (Global Green CBD, Advanced Scaffolding NI) who allow me to train full-time.’
Victory at UB5 has well and truly seen Donnelly propel himself into the big time, but what next for the Golden Robe winner?
‘Hopefully a fight this side of Christmas, but I’ll leave that all to MTK. For now, I’ll be heading to Portugal for a break with Sarah-Louise and Jaxon (step-son).’
After seven brutal weeks in camp, it’s a break well-deserved.