By Mike Walsh
Eric Donovan’s Road to Redemption
Mistakes are part and parcel of life. We all make them, every day. Some people’s mistakes are more costly than others and for professional sportsmen, the stakes are pretty high. The most frustrating mistakes are ones which stop you from fulfilling your potential; that either makes or breaks someone. Eric Donovan has managed to understand the nature of his mistakes and is harnessing the unfulfilled promise of his amateur career to fuel his professional ambitions. In a refreshingly frank, honest and open chat, Eric tells me that this is about redemption and finally giving the sport his best shot.
Indeed, it was at his amateur career when our conversation naturally began and I asked him how he looks back on those days.
“I have mixed views on those days and mixed feelings. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved but I’m also sad about what I didn’t achieve. I’ve dealt with it all now and I don’t have any regrets but there were times during my amateur career where I was good enough to go to the Olympic Games in London and Beijing.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe in myself, I cut corners and made mistakes and I slipped up. For London, in 2010 I was top ten in the world and number three in Europe. In 2011, before the qualifiers, I was seeded so I would have got an easy passage through to the Olympic Games. I ended up breaking my hand in a house party a few weeks before the qualifiers.
“Little things like this that ended up being detrimental to my career but I had to live with that and move on. All in all, I’m pretty proud of what I achieved as an amateur, considering the life I was living, mental health issues and problems I had, it’s pretty impressive to win what I have won. I was number one in Ireland for ten years nearly and I’ve boxed a lot of great boxers.”
Mental Health Battles
I wanted to ask Eric about the nature of those mental health problems he was dealing with in his youth and how he managed to address them. Tyson Fury has recently been a big advocate for mental health wellbeing and has helped to make it accessible for society to talk comfortably about such problems. However, ten years ago, there wasn’t much awareness of these issues, particularly in a boxing environment.
“I didn’t know what was going on with me in the first place and I didn’t know how to access help so I just felt like I was a bit odd, different and a bit extreme and destructive. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling or behaving the way that I was and thinking the way I was thinking. I knew it was a bit abnormal and not on the same level as my teammates, I always seemed to go that bit further and go that bit deeper.
“Even if it’s like with mood swings, If I was high I was really high or if I was low I was really low. Things like that. If I was drinking it was all out oblivion, not understanding why I’d be doing these things. Now I know because in 2012 I accessed this help and educated myself in psychology and counselling and learnt about the human mind and why humans do what they do. I tried to unravel the wires of the past and try and bring some understanding to why I was behaving the way I was.
“The biggest learning for me was that it wasn’t what you’re doing but learning why you’re doing what you do. At least if you know why you’re behaving the way you are then you can put things in place like a recovery plan or support. Before I was just lost, just a young kid dealing with this all by myself and not able to talk or articulate these issues. Now I have a solid team and people around me and living a good life.”
Rebuilding in Kazakhstan
After an anti-climactic end to his amateur career with the Olympic Games evading him, it was going to take something special to get Eric’s fire burning again. Then came in an unlikely form.
“The Olympics were over in 2012 and I didn’t qualify because I broke my hand. I was a bit gutted watching all my teammates go and excel in London and I felt like I should have been there. I was beating myself up over that. I didn’t know if I had another four years to go to the Rio Olympics. I just didn’t know if I had that drive. I was turning 27 and I had two young boys so I was thinking about being able to provide for them with a bit more security in life.
“At that point, my coach mentioned the World Series Boxing and I knew about it but I wasn’t really interested in it. I was told to throw my name in it and you get a few bob for it and if you win you get more money. I threw my name in there not expecting to get anything because each franchise can only bring three or four boxers. A couple of weeks later I get a call saying I’ve been selected for the World Series of Boxing. I said ‘no way. Please say it’s Italy that picked me’. Italy was sponsored by Dolce Gabanna and they had all that gear. But instead, I got Kazakhstan!
“I was faced with a huge task and it wasn’t a very easy decision because for over ten years I represented my country and travelled the world with my teammates, doctors and physios. We’re all one big family. This one here was asking me to go on my own to middle Asia for eight months to box. I felt like I needed an adventure, there is a part of me that is quite impulsive, I jump into things with two feet and suffer the consequences after.”
Eric’s determination to push himself and commit to the challenge of life in Kazakhstan came with real rewards.
“What an experience. It was unbelievable. What I learned out there about myself was incredible. We were living in these log cabins at the foot of the mountains and it was minus 30 degrees at one stage. It was just unbelievable. I was teammates with Serhiy Derevyanchenko and training with the likes of him on a daily basis and becoming good friends. Filip Hrgovic was on my team, just good lads and I was in a professional environment and at the same time, I was trying to survive.
“Tough sparring in tough conditions with everyone vying to be selected to fight to get the prize money to send back to their families. It was a difficult environment but one where you either sink or swim but I learnt a lot about myself, my resilience and I grew up out there. I came back with a whole new perspective on life, myself and it has definitely added to my life and helped to drive me forward. It was a massive success for me.”
I assumed that Eric used this period as the transition into turning professional, honing in on the personal and professional skills he gathered to ready himself for the paid ranks. However, to my surprise, his story takes yet another turn.
“When I got back from Kazakhstan, May of 2013, I felt like ‘I’m not number one in Ireland anymore nor am I funded by Sport Ireland’. I left school at fifteen and I didn’t have any work experience due to boxing so I was unemployed and on the doll. I just felt like ‘I’m twenty-seven with two kids so I thought that I needed to sort myself out’ so at that point I went back into education.
“The trip to Kazakhstan gave me the confidence for it. Out there I started learning Russian so I could communicate with my designated coach and so when I got back I felt confident to go back into education. I had a huge fear around that stuff. Between 2014 – 15 I did a full-time diploma course in counselling and psychotherapy. In 2016 I was about to go for my degree, about to go into my third year of retirement in boxing. I wasn’t competing anymore but I was still training and doing the odd bit of sparring here and there but nothing major.
“Then, I have these feelings and thoughts which will not leave me rest. I felt like I needed redemption. I had unfinished business. I hadn’t given it my best shot. The conclusion I came to is that I can always come back to do my degree but I can’t always come back and box. In 2016, I decided to get back in the ring to give it one more shot and here I am.”
Eric’s professional endeavours have gone pretty well so far after making that decision, sitting pretty at 12-0. A man who is motivated by redemption is a very dangerous man indeed and he had a taste of redemption on his last fight on Irish soil against Stephen McAfee.
“When I first started out I just wanted to get a few fights under my belt and have some big nights. If I could get a shot at the Irish title, that would be amazing. Of course, when I started putting all my efforts into my career, in a more serious way than ever before, then I started to get calls to go into training camps to spar with the likes of Ryan Burnett for his Lee Haskins world title fight.
“I sparred with James Tennyson, Marco McCullough and Steven Ormond. I started to think maybe I have set the bar too low for myself here. I’m holding my own with these guys and I’m being competitive. The harder I worked, the more I saw I had left to offer. That’s when the Irish title became very realistic and I thought I could do it. When the fight came about with Steven McAfee I jumped at it right away.
“In the year or 18 months before fighting, we had done a good few rounds together. The spars were close so I expected a much tougher fight from Steven but I always box better than I spar and I was just on fire that night and got everything right. It doesn’t matter how much you train or how many sit-ups you do, if you land a body shot at the exact right time it can be game over and that’s the way it was.
“Nothing bad to say about Steven McAfee, he had a bit of a punch on him but I got the win. I was actually expecting things to take off a bit for me in Ireland after that because it was on live TV on a Saturday night. The viewing numbers were good and I sold a lot of tickets but I’ve never boxed in Ireland, down south, since then.”
After such an achievement and the impressive manner of it, it would be natural for someone to reassess their goal and aim higher. I asked Eric if he was now looking beyond domestic success.
“I think the European title is well within my reach, definitely. I look at the European champions at featherweight and super-featherweight and I actually think I can beat them. I don’t think, I know I can beat them. I just need my manager to secure these fights for me.
“I’m only working with my new manager for the last couple of months, this is our first fight together so I’m in good hands now and I’m really expecting good things. At one stage in my career, I was losing hope and some of the conversations were less about ambitions and targets but more about money and setbacks. Now, the conversations I’ve been having with my new manager have reinvigorated me and I have great hope for the future.”
The road to that target begins this Friday in an intriguing fight with highly-rated Mancunian Zelfa Barrett for the vacant IBF inter-continental super-featherweight title.
“There was no hesitation whatsoever. The fight was put to me and I said yes. My manager said he didn’t want to take the fight unless it was for a title but I had no problem boxing Zelfa Barrett. I’ve just been training ever since and I’m really excited for this fight because I genuinely believe this is my biggest test as a professional boxer but it’s also Zelfa Barrett’s biggest test so you’ve got talent meeting talent and it’s going to be a cracker.”
Zelfa Barett has a record of 23-1, that one loss coming in a big upset against the unfancied Ronnie Clark. I asked Eric if he had looked into those chinks in Barrett’s armour which were exposed that night.
“I’ve seen that fight, I don’t watch too much of Zelfa Barrett but I don’t watch too much because you run the risk of focusing on your opponent and not yourself. I’ve got to just make sure Eric Donovan is in the best shape he can be and so far, so good, we’re ticking every box. We’re leaving no stone unturned.
“I saw what Ronnie Clark did with Zelfa Barrett, he made it very easy work and Zelfa Barrett probably underestimated Ronnie Clark. I think he is a different boxer today than he was back then because it’s trial and error. Zelfa Barrett is a very good fighter, he came undone in that fight but one fight doesn’t make you a bad boxer. He has a good IQ, good footwork, he’s strong and he has all the ingredients so I know what I’m up against.
“But he’s never been in the ring with somebody like me. I can do things in the boxing ring that Zelfa Barrett doesn’t even know of. I’m looking forward to implementing them. I’m looking forward to testing myself because I have a lot of unanswered questions and I’m hoping to find out the answers of them myself on the 14th.”