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Quarters beckon as Steven Donnelly keeps his dream of glory alive

By Ben Baker

Steven Donnelly insists he is thriving on the biggest stage of them all as the Irish welterweight advanced to the quarter-finals at Rio 2016.

Having already dispatched of Algerian Zohir Kedache in his opening fight, Donnelly was back in action on Thursday against Tuvshinbat Byamba of Mongolia.

It was a close contest with 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Donnelly finishing with a badly swollen left eye.

But the 28-year-old Ballymena man won't mind too much as he was handed the win on points to reach the last eight.

"There was not so much pressure on me as there was for the first fight and I think that showed in my performance," said Donnelly. "I felt more comfortable as the fight went on.

"In the first round I was just getting into it. You have a look at your opponent - see what he's good at and what he's bad at - and try certain things and see how his reaction is.

"That's what I did. I used my jab and in the second round, I was warmed up and more elusive and it paid off - he started to walk onto my shots then."

Waiting for Donnelly in the quarter-final is world champion Mohammed Rabii of Morocco, with the pair set to clash on Saturday.

The odds look stacked against the Co Antrim man, but Donnelly is refusing to throw in the towel any time soon.

"My next opponent is the world champion but I believe in myself and anything is possible at the Olympic Games," he added.

"I have great belief in myself and am going to give it my all.

"Anything is possible, the dream is still alive. In Russia, when I was 49kg, the same weight as Paddy Barnes, Zaur (Antia, Ireland coach) said to me, ''one day you'll be Olympic champion' and here I am now at 69kg and in the quarter-finals. Anything is possible."

Donnelly looked the busier fighter from the bell even though his experienced opponent had fought at the London Games. Byamba did manage to catch the Irishman with a couple of decent shots but Donnelly got the nod from two of the three judges at the end of the round.

Byamba had a better second round but Donnelly kept landing most of the scoring punches.

But in what is becoming a puzzling pattern in the tournament, the judges disagreed on who did the better work. Two opted for the Irishman but the other - who had given the first round to Donnelly - gave the round to Byamba.

This left the fight on a knife-edge with Donnelly ahead on one card while it was level 19-19 on the other two.

In the opening minute of the final stanza, Donnelly seemed to be wheeling away from his man and not doing enough to impress the judges. But eventually he started to go forward and engage again and did enough to get the round from two of the judges to secure a spot in the quarter-final on a split (30-27 29-28 28-29) decision.

It was a bit close for comfort but after the week the team has experienced they needed and deserved a break.

Meanwhile, Zaur Antia is wanted by Canada as Ireland's high performance boxing programme threatens to go into meltdown.

The wily Georgian, interim head of the programme for these Olympics, is one of the most respected technical coaches in world boxing and has attracted many offers to work elsewhere since moving to Ireland in 2003.

After an intensely stressful week for the Irish boxers in Rio, he is said to be considering his options, with spirits in the camp remaining fragile after shock defeats for Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward preceded by the failed drug test of Michael O'Reilly.

Ireland still have two medal favourites - Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor - yet to enter the Olympic ring, but there has been mounting criticism of the lack of leadership in the high performance camp since Billy Walsh's departure for the US last October.

Walsh is being lauded for his work with the Americans, who have already won a medal here - they have achieved six victories from seven bouts.

As many as six of the eight-strong Irish team that travelled to Rio could now be lost to the high performance unit through either a switch to the professional ranks, retirement or - in O'Reilly's case - the likelihood of having to serve a two-year ban.

And Antia, rumoured to have been approached by the Canadian federation here, could be lost with them if he decides that there are better opportunities abroad than trying to rehabilitate a programme that has become a virtual medal factory over the last 13 years.

Great Britain and NI's Joshua Buatsi sent a message to his Olympic light-heavyweight rivals by producing a devastating knockout of third seed Elshod Rasulov to cruise into the quarter-finals.

Having halted Uganda's Kennedy Katende in his opening bout, the 23-year-old Buatsi lit up Rio once again as he out-muscled the third-seeded Elshod Rasulov before producing a truly ruthless finish in the final round and is now dreaming of gold.

Belfast Telegraph


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