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UB5: The Boy Donn Good

‘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.

Steven Donnelly reigns supreme at Ultimate Boxxer 5

 

Ballymena fighter Steven Donnelly took the next step in his professional career when he emerged victorious amongst the super welterweights at Ultimate Boxxer 5, after an enthralling night of action at a sold-out Indigo at the O2 in London.

The 2016 Rio Olympian saw off the gutsy challenge of Lenny Fuller in the final, following a first-up victory over Ish O’Connor and a semi-final win over the teak-tough Sean Robinson, after he in turn had defeated Lewis Syrett in their opening clash.

‘It’s just unbelievable. The training has paid off, it’s been a tough six or seven weeks.’ the Golden Robe winner told Layla Anna-Lee, live on BT Sport after securing the tournament win.

‘We sparred hard in training, three or four rounds, then a 10-minute break by the side of the ring, and then go again. We were prepared for anything that came our way, and I proved that. I used my jab well, and my boxing ability shone through in the end. It’s hard to switch from the amateurs to the pros, it’s a different game, but I’m learning and I’m getting there,’ he added.

Donnelly, 31, made short work of O’Connor in the quarter-final, securing the win via KO within the opening round. A sterner test awaited in the last-four against former Southern Area title holder Robinson, but each of the three judges awarded the contest to the Northern Irishman, scoring the bout 29-28 to set up the final with Fuller.

In the other half of the draw, Fuller brutally dispatched Kingsley ‘Obi’ Egbunike within 32 seconds in the opening quarter-final of the night, while Joshua Ejakpovi saw off the gritty Kaan Hawes on points in their last-eight encounter. However Ejakpovi – the more experienced fighter – could do little to stem the tide against a rampant Fuller in the semi-final with the Maidstone man awarded the contest by all three judges.

That set up a final against the three-time Commonwealth Games contender Donnelly, but it proved to be one fight too many for the brave Fuller, who succumbed to a flurry of punches from the Northern Irishman halfway through the second round, ensuring Donnelly left the arena as the Ultimate Boxxer 5 champion.

 

Results

QF1: Lenny Fuller bt Kingsley Egbunike (TKO)

QF2: Josh Ejakpovi bt Kaan Hawes (UD)

QF3: Sean Robinson bt Lewis Syrett (UD)

QF4: Steven Donnelly bt Ish O’Connor (KO)

 

SF1: Fuller bt Ejakpovi (UD)

SF2: Donnelly bt Robinson (UD)

 

F: Donnelly bt Fuller (TKO)

 

INFORMATION: To arrange interview access to Steven Donnelly, or any of the fighters who competed in Ultimate Boxxer 5, please contact Jon Greathead at [email protected]

 

UB5: Meet The Fighters

Aaron Collins

From:  Fleet
6-0
O KO

Aaron ‘Bam Bam’ Collins only took up boxing four years ago at the age of 22, and shed an impressive five stone off his frame in order to compete. The Frimley-born fighter, who now operates out of the Camberley Boxing Club, lists Mike Tyson and Vasyl Lomachenko as two of his boxing heroes, with the 26-year-old hoping to add to his unblemished 6-0 professional record.

 

Steven Donnelly

From: Ballymena
5-0
1 KO

Steven Donnelly began his boxing journey at age 13, and took to the sport quickly, winning his maiden Country Antrim title within six weeks of first putting on a pair of gloves. He has competed in three Commonwealth Games, winning a bronze medal in both 2014 and 2018. In between that, he represented Ireland in the Rio Olympics. After a highly-impressive amateur career, he made his professional debut in August last year, beating Kevin McCauley at Windsor Park in Belfast.

Kingsley ‘Obi’ Egbunike

From: London
4-0
1 KO

One London boy entering the tournament with high hopes is Kingsley Egbunike, known to all as ‘Obi’. Trained by Greg Stallard and Allan Grey at Stallard’s Boxing in Surbiton, Obi has benefited from sparring with James DeGale and Chris Kongo, and has won all four of his professional fights, and is yet to drop a single round, with his one KO coming in his last fight against Kristaps Zulgis at York Hall.

 

Joshua Ejakpovi

From: London
Record: 12-1
3 KO

Personal trainer Joshua Ejakpovi featured in the 2016 Legend of Tarzan movie, alongside Samuel L Jackson, and he has also starred in an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery. But boxing is where the true passion lies for ‘The Hollywood Josh’ and he will be one to watch out for when the BT Sport cameras capture the action on September 20. He’s benefited from sparring with Billy Joe Saunders, and has also trained at the Mayweather Boxing Club in Las Vegas. His only professional defeat has come to fellow UBV contender Sean Robinson.

 

Lenny Fuller

From: Maidstone
6-0
0 KO

Lenny ‘The Main Man’ Fuller will hope to have all of the travelling community behind him when he steps into the ring. By his own admission, he had an unsuccessful stint as an amateur, but regathered focus as he entered the professional ranks and is now ready to fight his way to glory at the Indigo at the O2, aiming to make his two young sons proud.

 

Kaan Hawes

From: Witham
5-1-1
0 KO

Cricket-loving Kaan Hawes will be hoping for some Jos Buttler-style power-hitting of his own when he enters the ring to try to take home the Ultimate Boxxer V crown. He will become the first man to take part in two Ultimate Boxxer events, having previously fought at UBIII, losing to Kieron Conway. He’s backed by good friend singer-songwriter Olly Murs – they met playing Sunday League football years ago.

 

Lewis Syrett

From: Tonbridge
6-0
2 KO

Lewis Syrett also enters UBV with an undefeated 6-0 record, fighting out of Sevenoaks ABC and coached by Andy Knight and Paul Lynch. This aggressive, power-punching southpaw is chomping at the bit to get in the ring on September 20. After his first professional fight – which he won against Aleksander Chukaleyski – he returned to his hotel for a well-earned sleep. The next day he ran the London Marathon in memory of a friend who had recently died. Syrett finished in 3 hours 50 minutes.

 

Sean Robinson

From: Ruislip
9-0-1
0 KO

The current Southern Area Super Welterweight champion comes into the tournament with an impressive record, with one of his nine wins coming against fellow UBV contender Joshua Ejakpovi. Fighting out of the Club KO gym in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, QPR fan Sean is looking forward to fighting at the Indigo in front of his girlfriend Tiffany, brother Luke and Father David Smith. However, we may find Dad backstage – although he goes to all of Sean’s fights, he doesn’t watch due to nerves.

Former Olympian amongst the confirmed fighters at Ultimate Boxxer 5

Former Olympian amongst the confirmed fighters at Ultimate Boxxer 5

Super Welterweights set to compete at the Indigo at The O2 on September 20

(August 2, 2019)
Hot on the heels of Mikael Lawal’s stunning victory at Ultimate Boxxer 4, the tournament now returns to London, with eight Super Welterweights looking to emulate Lawal by winning the Golden Robe and soaring up the professional ranks.

Friday Fight Night has been confirmed for September 20 at the Indigo at The 02, and for the first time in the history of Ultimate Boxxer, there will be an Olympian competing for glory.

Steven Donnelly, who represented Ireland in Rio three years ago, is joined by Joshua Ejakpovi, Kingsley Egbunike, Kaan Hawes, Lenny Fuller, Lewis Syrett, Aaron Collins and Sean Robinson at the Indigo at the O2. For more detail on each of the fighters, please click here

Last month saw Sauerland fighter Lawal emerge victorious amongst the Cruiserweights at Ultimate Boxxer IV in Manchester – his triumph elevated him to the 7th best Cruiserweight in the UK division rankings. Defeated finalist Damian Chambers also saw his reputation enhanced, as did 21-year-old Rhasian Earlington who is now ranked at no. 11.

‘It speaks volumes about the attraction of Ultimate Boxxer that we have an Olympian who is now starting his professional career wanting to be involved with the tournament,’ said Paulie Malignaggi, who will also be commentating live for BT Sport on UBV when it’s screened on fight night.

As well as appearing in Brazil three years in 2016, Donnelly has also represented Northern Ireland in three Commonwealth Games, winning a bronze medal in both 2014 and 2018, and while Malignaggi was excited to see his name on the card, he was also intrigued by the rest of the confirmed line-up.

I’m also really interested to see Josh Ejakpovi, ‘The Hollywood Josh’ – he is an interesting character, and I think he’s going to excite people too, and it will be good to see Kaan Hawes in action again. He will be the first man to fight at two UB tournaments, after competing in UBIII. It will be a great night,’ he added.

Ultimate Boxxer is proving to be an ideal platform for fighters making their way in the professional echelon of the sport. Kieron Conway – who fought in the Middleweight UBIII, tournament, losing to eventual winner Derrick Osaze – has recently announced he has joined the Matchroom Boxing group, while Lawal’s performance at UBIV propelled him into the top-10 of the UK Cruiserweight rankings

‘We definitely have some success stories already, and we are thrilled to have been able to provide a platform for these guys to showcase their skills’ said Ben Shalom, Founder of UB.

The Cruiserweights put on an incredible night of action last time out, and we are looking forward to watching what will be a very competitive Super Welterweight division in action,’ he added.

INFORMATION:

Pre-sale Opens: Friday, 9am (20% off on tickets)

General Sale: from Monday 5 Aug 9am

www.ultimateboxxer.com/tickets