Leaning against the muddy bonnet of a Land Rover, parked directly in front of their hidden gym in Hammersmith, the arms of former English and Commonwealth welterweight champion, John O’Donnell (32-2, 11KOs) remained firmly crossed. Ahead of his return to the ring on the MTK London show this Friday, he was laser-focused on regular activity and remained desperate to climb the British rankings, where once he may have drifted.
It wasn’t my first brush with the Galway native, having crossed paths on various visits to the State of Mind facility. The life and soul of their training sessions, I’d watched him sparring his peers, oozing class behind closed doors. It was never a sure thing, though, John actually showing up. Often distracted outside of the ring, it was this final push for titles that had seen his approach stiffen, holding up his end of the bargain as he relies upon his new promotional team delivering those opportunities.
He seemed a changed man during our time together discussing his future. From my always-pleasant interactions with him over the past three years, he’d taken umbrage with boxing, yet now seemed to embrace its inefficiencies – just bumps in the road. O’Donnell is an enigma, blessed with a tongue that could cut you like a razor, splitting sides with every sentence. He’s a character we don’t often see in a sport as militant as boxing, yet ironically, he still hasn’t been seen enough. A one-off, you might say.
Following his most recent return to the ring in October 2016, he’d captured both the Southern Area and English titles in his first two fights, yet once again had suffered with inactivity. With injuries sidelining proposed bouts with Tamuka Mucha, the man from Shepherd’s Bush had just marked two years since his last fight, beating Erick Ochieng by split decision. I’d been there that night, excited to see where the victory would take the extremely gifted, former amateur star. He hasn’t fought since.
“I definitely think it’s the right time now” explained a clearly rejuvenated O’Donnell. “I’m a great believer that things happen for a reason. When I made my comeback a couple of years ago, me’ first fight back I boxed for the Southern Area. Then I boxed Ochieng for the English – the prep didn’t go well for that. I boxed absolutely shite, it’s pointless buttering it up, you’re only as good as your last fight and I looked like shit! I picked up a rib injury during camp, but then I was supposed to box Tamuka Mucha twice.
“Jesus Christ! I seen people talking, including that doughnut [Mucha], but people forget… If I had the circulars from when I made me’ comeback in 2016, I think five or six times people pulled out against me. He pulled out against me twice and vacated his Southern Area instead of fighting me – Mucha! Him, Johnny Garton, then Dale Evans but that wasn’t his fault, then Darren Tetley. People don’t see this. If you’re in camp, training, it’s demoralising. You’re getting a phonecall a week or two from the show, but now I’m in a great place! I’ve got a great team behind me with MTK. I’m training hard and I’m ready to go. I can’t wait to get back in there!”
Working alongside head trainer, Barry O’Connell, his renewed focus had been evident through the pair sharing their sessions on social media. It had been a long journey for the traveller living in West London, a product of the infamous Dale Youth ABC, famous for breeding world champions George Groves and James DeGale. Under the tutelage of Mick Delaney, a staple of amateur boxing in the United Kingdom and a man revered amongst the boxing fraternity, O’Donnell had won the Junior Olympics and taken a bronze medal at the European Amateur championships.
Ranked number one as a junior in the UK at the time of signing his first professional contract, he revealed disappointment when looking back at the decision to turn his back on the unpaid scene. Although he was taken under the wing of British promoter, Mick Hennessey and trained by Rob McCracken, it was a case of bad timing, something he could detail with the benefit of experience.
“When I won my last tournament and [won] the Junior ABAs, I started going down to the pro gym when I was seventeen. I met Rob McCracken and Mick Hennessey, I got chatting to them and I just got it into my head that I wanted to go pro. In hindsight, should I have stayed amateur? 100% – I should have stayed amateur. I should have listened to me’ old man, Mick Delaney and Ernie Harris. I should have hung around for the next Olympics. I was number one for England, but I ended up going pro and you know, it’s something I regret to this day.”
“I had my first fight in some shitty little dump in fucking… up North somewhere! I ain’t got a clue where it was. Probably a fifty seat arena! I’m not gonna lie, I found it hard as a pro. I found it hard adapting cos’ I had a proper amateur style, like sword-fencing, tall, upright southpaw. It took me time to adapt. Naturally, I had a great engine and I picked up the pro style, wracked up about twelve or thirteen wins and then I won my first title – the English title on a big Carl Froch show.”
A picture had recently surfaced of John walking alongside Darren Barker, John Murray and Carl Froch, an aged promotional shot which showed the strength of the Hennessey stable during a booming period for the sport on home soil. He was at the heart of it, winning fights and developing a reputation as a classy southpaw, though still less active than he would have liked. Finding opponents for the thirty-three year old had always been a task, but he had made an impression on both sides of the Atlantic as his love for boxing would drift, periodically.
“I got the chance of a lifetime. I was offered a slot on the Oscar De La Hoya v Floyd Mayweather card in 2007, me, in Vegas. It was unreal. From fucking Shepherds Bush in London to the big stage in Vegas! I’m sitting at the press conference with fucking De La Hoya and Mayweather, [I was thinking] what else can I do now?! I had started getting some good wins and Mick Hennessey had started selling me, so-to-speak, to Oscar De La Hoya. He was showing me clips of my fights and early on in my career, I was using every shot in the book. When I hit an opponent with one shot, I know I’m gonna hit him with ten or twelve punches, you know? I loved throwing combinations and that excited a lot of people, including Mick and Oscar and it got me a slot on that show.”
“In hindsight again, my head was all over the place. I probably shouldn’t have fought. I had the mentality of just get in and get out which is very dangerous in boxing. I just didn’t want to be there. I remember I fought early at about 3pm. I fought Christian Solano, a good, tough journeyman. He would have beaten a lot of British champions over here and I think he had just boxed [Julio] Chavez Jr. At the time, it seems lightyears away now, but they were trying to put me and Chavez Jr together if I had won that fight. I remember to this day, I was sitting and this fucking Christian Solano got down to 10st 12lbs. I thought, ‘He’s a fucking big cunt!’ I was 10st 6lbs and he had to boil himself down to reach 10st 12lbs in the saunas. I remember looking at him in the ring and he looked massive! By the time he got in the ring, he was super-middleweight easily! I boxed shit, anyway!
The fight didn’t go as planned, with John detailing its conclusion, “BOOM! I remember being on the ropes and I felt fine, but me’ legs were gone. I couldn’t control my legs, so he caught me there. I initially thought the referee had stopped it, but in actual fact it was Rob that threw in the towel, which was fair enough cos’ Rob had never seen me hurt. I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. It turns out about six or seven weeks after that, Mick could have got me another fight in Canada, but I couldn’t even think about it. Losing that first fight as a pro, it sickened me. It killed me. When I made my comeback, fourteen months later, I done a medical and it turned out I had a perforated ear drum. That was the cause and it happened well before the fight, so I should never have fought because it messes up the equilibrium. That’s what happened.”
His maiden outing overseas hadn’t been as successful as the team had intended, with O’Donnell being stopped on his feet after agreeing to fight Solano, who’d missed weight by an incredible margin. It was pride over professionalism, a fighting man until the end. The result was undoubtedly a setback for the young Irishman who then struggled when arriving home after the disappointment of fighting on the super event. Still, the skills were evident as he outclassed Billy Smith and stopped Jay Morris. That year proved to be one of his busiest, with five fights and a return to form.
As he entered 2009, John was primed for a shot at the Commonwealth title, fighting the accomplished professional and former British champion, Craig Watson at the historic York Hall, London. It was the first of a two-part rivalry, with Watson levelling the scores years down the line. On that night, though, John secured his first major title, arm raised aloft. That night was the pinnacle of the London man’s career thus far, but with his eye firmly on the British title currently held by Chris Jenkins, it’s one he expects to eclipse in the near future.
“The atmosphere was amazing. I picked up me’ first major title and I think it was a split decision. I made the fight hard for myself – no disrespect to Craig, he was a tough man and a good fighter. I think looking back, he got into my head at the press conference. He was telling me he was gonna walk through me, he was gonna push me around. I went there to prove a point. We started trading and that’s what made the fight close, but it was a great experience and a great fight. I fucking enjoyed it! But then it went slow from there…
“It’s very demoralising [when fights fall through]. You know me, I’ll fight anyone. You put them in front of me and I’ll fight them. I don’t care and I think that’s the way boxing should be. I gave [Bradley] Skeete stick, it was nothing personal, it’s just business at the end of the day and I’ve got nothing against the kid. Fair play to him, he won the British outright and I’m sure he’ll come again. Genuinely nothing against the kid, it’s just boxing. I tried to entice to have a fight with me, but deep down I knew he was never gonna take the fight. It’s the same with Johnny Garton – lovely fella. You couldn’t meet a nicer fella, he grafts hard but again, a great win against Gary Corcoran for the British title, I just don’t think Al Smith would let Johnny Garton fight me.”
“I am never vacating no title. If someone is calling me out, they better come and do what they’ve said they’re gonna do. I’m fighting one way or another. If someone is calling me out that much and they’re chatting shit, as soon as I get a voluntary, you’re getting the call and I’m knocking you out. Simple as that.”
If only boxing was that simple.
Now, with his return to the ring cemented and planned bouts in successive months, it was time for O’Donnell to throw himself into the sport that had caused him so much disappointment. Always affable and cracking jokes with every answer, he was loveable. The ability he had always possessed was now matched by an added maturity. He was ready to tackle boxing, politics and all. O’Donnell wanted to ‘play the game’, with one last, ambitious roll of the dice.
With the backing of Lee Eaton who had been willing to give John a chance, it was now or never. Previous gaps between fights had derailed a promising career, though issues with opponents hadn’t helped. However, now backed by a promotional powerhouse in MTK Global, it all seemed to be coming together for a man who has been honing his skills in boxing’s shadows. The British title was his immediate aim, determined to hunt down newly-crowned champion, Chris Jenkins. After that, who knows? The rest of his career could go one of two ways, but he was adamant that this time, he wouldn’t throw it away. I hope to see him vindicated, a proper fighting man. An excellent fighter, but an enigma nonetheless.
“Listen, when I didn’t box or when I had downtime, I’ll be the first to hold up my hands, I’d go missing. I’d go out and go mad, get on the beer, it was just that inactivity. I’d box and then I knew that sometimes I wouldn’t be boxing for six, seven, eight months sometimes! That’s way too long to be out of the ring. I’m hoping now that I box in April, then at the end of May. I’ve never had that before. I just want to keep busy. All of them issues outside of the ring, I’ve turned a corner. I’ve knuckled right down and that won’t be happening no more. I’m thirty-three now, you know? I’ve been in camp since before Christmas and I’m so focused.
“I looked the other day because I’m always curious, so I was on BoxRec and I think I went pro in 2004. How many of those years did I actually box? I think it was six years [from fifteen]. It’s mad, isn’t it? A lot of ups and downs along the way, in and out of the ring. As I said, I’ve just gotta concentrate on where I am, I’m just concentrating on me now.”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209