Confident Donnelly not afraid of World king as Irvine aims to emulate Barnes' 2008 heroics
After a traumatic 10 days for Irish boxing in Rio, Steven Donnelly bids to lift the gloom this afternoon in the welterweight quarter-final.
The odds may be stacked against the 27-year-old Ballymena native as he faces World champion Mohammed Radii from Morocco, but he is relishing his new role as the unlikely saviour of the Irish boxers at the 2016 Games after Michael O'Reilly's exclusion for testing positive for a banned substance and Paddy Barnes' shock early exit.
"I am fighting for a medal in the welterweight division of the Olympics. Not many people can say that after the road I've been through. I'm justifying my tattoos now. I will go in full of confidence," he said.
Donnelly battled his demons after being sent home from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 following a night of high jinks to drown his sorrows following a first-round exit in the tournament.
He failed to score a point in the then computer scoring system against an Australian; he had left his best form in the gym. This tendency to over-train was a recurring nightmare in his early career.
The Indian experience deeply impacted on his life; essentially he was lost to the sport for two years as he tried to find solace in alcohol.
But his club coach in Ballymena's All Saints Boxing club Gerry Hamill refused to give up on him and eventually Donnelly stopped drinking, returned to training and his career has been on an upward trajectory since.
He had the words 'redemption' and 'dedication' tattooed on his left arm when he got back into the sport. Then when he unexpectedly qualified for the Rio Games through the World Boxing series late last year, he had an image of Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue added on his left forearm.
One suspects more artwork will be added if he secures an Olympic bronze medal today. There was swelling over his left eye immediately after his 2-1 split decision win on Thursday over Tuvshinbat Byambyn of Mongolia following an absorbing contest.
But while he is likely to be sporting a black eye today, he doesn't envisage it impacting on his performance.
"Once the eye is not cut it won't be a problem. I will just apply some larnica to it," he said.
He doesn't underestimate the challenge he faces. "Rabii is a World champion for a reason. But I believe in myself and I will go in and give it my all. I'm in a win-win situation. I will give it 100% and be happy."
As the tournament has progressed, Donnelly has felt the pressure lift from his shoulders. "In my first fight I felt the pressure took away from my performance. I didn't feel the best in the ring and I was saying if I feel like this so early it will be a problem," he said.
"But I felt better in the second fight. I was chilled in the dressing room and I just listened to the coaches."
On form Rabii ought to win, though his somewhat sluggish performance on Wednesday, albeit against a tough Kenyan opponent, suggests that his form has slipped since he dominated the 69kg division at the World championships in Doha last October.
But Donnelly will produce a performance and nobody can ask for more.
Meanwhile, the team's youngest member, Brendan Irvine, finally makes his Olympic debut this afternoon when he faces 23-year-old Shakhobidin Zoirov from Uzbekistan. It has been a long wait in the athletes village for the west Belfast teenager.
Irish assistant coach John Conlan acknowledges that having to wait a week for his first fight wasn't ideal for the 20-year-old. "We have a plan for him which he is sticking to - the problem is that he has been hanging around for a long time. He has trained very hard and left no stone unturned and he will give it everything when he gets into the ring," said Conlan.
"Brendan has a tough opponent from Uzbekistan and their boxers seemed to be getting a lot of the rub of the green in the arena at the moment."
Irvine burst onto the international scene last year when he sensationally won a silver medal at the European Games in Baku in the light flyweight (49kg) category.
Even though he subsequently failed to qualify for the Olympics in the weight division at the Baku World championships when he lost to the Cuban World title holder Yoahnys Argilago in the quarter-finals, he seamlessly moved up to flyweight and secured his place in Rio at the first European qualifying tournament in Turkey.
"I was getting a bit tight for light flyweight anyway. I had a chat with my coaches and moving up worked out," he said.
While he may not peak until Tokyo 2020, he will be mindful of the fact that a then unknown 20-year-old from Belfast came from nowhere to win bronze at the Beijing Olympics eight years ago. His name was Paddy Barnes.