INTERVIEW: Kildare's Eric Donovan, more than just a top class pro fighter

Athy man on brink of European glory

Tommy Callaghan

Reporter:

Tommy Callaghan

Email:

tommy.callaghan@leinsterleader.ie

Kildare's Eric Donovan, more than just a top class pro fighter

Eric Donovan

A class act is probably the most appropriate way to describe one Mr Eric Donovan.
Athy native.
Professional boxer.
Former top, top amateur.
Medals to prove it.
But much more.
A family man.
A carer.
A man who has seen both sides of the coin.
From struggling on many fronts, including drink and drugs.
To seeing the light.
Reforming.
Getting back on track.
And now today giving invaluable help, assistance and guidance to young people who find themselves in dark places.
We caught up with the incredible, but not surprisingly, popular Athy man as he made his way home after another morning work-out in the gym as he prepares for his next big fight, May 14 in Italy when he takes on local hero Mario Alfano for the EBU European Union title in Lombardi, Italy.
It is a fight Donovan is working his socks off over the last number of weeks and now with just a month to go is putting the final touches together under the watchful eye and guidance of his new Head Coach, Paschal (Packie) Collins.
The five times Ireland Elite Champion; Bronze medal winner in 2009 (European Union Championships) and another bronze medal winner a year later in the European Championships, Eric Donovan took a somewhat unusual step at the age of 31 of leaving his amateur days behind him — great and all as they were — deciding to turn his attention to the paid ranks.
Since that day in 2016 when he won his first pro fight at the National Stadium, Dublin, Eric Donovan has had a total of 14 bouts, winning 13, seven by knock-out, losing just one, albeit a big one, when he hit the deck against Zalfa Barrett in the Matchroom Fight Camp promotion in Essex.
Despite losing his unbeaten record the Athy man made a huge impression, not just during the fight but his whole demeanour, the way he conducted himself, before, during and after it and it was commented on very favourably by all involved and in particular by promoter Eddie Ahern.
In many respects that fight was a bit of a cross roads for Donovan and it was soon after that he changed his backroom team, in particular his Head Coach, and considering up to that point his main coach was his good friend and Ireland amateur boxing legend Kenneth Egan, it was a massive decision.
“The reality of that fight was I came unstuck, I didn't know what to do when I got into the deep end, due to a number of reasons. I didn't feel like I was learning; I did not have the professional coaching expertise to show me what to do in the situation I found myself at the time.
“Kenneth Egan was coaching me back then but Kenneth had no professional experience; he is a three-round amateur legend but professional boxing is completely different kettle of fish and while fundamentally it might be the same thing — you hit and you try not to take a hit — but the professional game and the amateur game are as different as night and day.
“I needed to learn what to do so I am working now with Packie Collins but Kenneth is a friend of mind, a good friend and he understands what I need and he under-
stands the move that I made and, in fairness, thinks it is a good move.”
A tough decision to make?
“It was to be fair” was the quick reply, adding “you don't like letting people down but remember that the reason we don't make tough decisions in our lives is because they are tough, they are hard; it is much easier for people to just go along, carry on and say, sure it will be ok, it will work out; we don't want to upset people and we don't want to ruffle feathers but deep down I have a desire and an ambition to get a European title and I have to be either resolutely honest with myself , if I am able to make the adjustment, if I don't make the adjustment I'm not going to get there; yes, a tough decision but you just have to make the tough decision, told Ken I respect him and he is still my friend, hopefully we can remain friends, but I need someone to bring and help me to get to the next level.
“Remember it is my job to make the decision; my job is to activate that decision so I have to make the decision; now whatever happens after that is up to me, but I did not know at the time how Ken was going to respond or how he was going to react. He could have said ‘well f--k you anyway’ but that is not my responsibility, my responsibility was to make that decision but to be honest Ken was very, very mature, very supportive and very wise in his response saying ‘Eric, I think that is a good decision, Paschal has over 20 years coaching experience, the clock is ticking, and anything I can ever do for you to help out I most certainly will’ and that was very nice to hear.”
So since Packie Collins became your Head Coach, how have things gone, is there much difference, approach, advice, what's the difference?
“I love it; even coming home from the gym today I feel I am learning, every day I am learning, I am coming out of the gym with a couple of little nuggets and coming away from every training session with something to reflect on and something to consider and that's the sign of a good coach; these are the things I need; these are the things I need to work on; he gives me very good guidance and I feel stimulated every day in the gym, I feel my brain is stimulated; it's wonderful.”
Eric Donovan first took up boxing at the age of seven, had his first ‘proper’ fight at 11; boxed at the highest level for all of 20 years, yet despite all that experience he has had to change; change his approach; change his thinking; change his mind-set; change his outlook.
Against Zelfa Barrett, Donovan admits, I was probably going too fast; I was flying around, not thinking about the long stretch; as Packie said to me “you needed to take a round out, this is a marathon not a sprint,” adding “you have to learn, this is a story and every round is like a different chapter; it is all about ensuring you have three or four good rounds in the bag so then you can afford to take a round off and when you take that round out, you have to ensure you are taking no punishment; avoiding trouble; tieing him up; preserving energy and then come on strong again in the next round.”
In a brutally frank and honest appraisal Donovan confesses “that is all stuff I am learning, stuff I never knew before; remember I use to train to win every round and that takes a lot of energy out of you. The first thing Packie said was that ‘in the round I got knocked out by Zelfa Barrett I was some five rounds up and could have taken a round off’ but I never thought that way, never.”
And there is a lesson there to be learned he quickly adds, “you never stop learning; you never know it all; and the day you stop learning is the day you might as well give up.
“I joined a boxing club when I was seven years old and turned professional when I was 31; I started competitive boxing at 11 so for 20 years I have been boxing a certain way; I have been conditioned and learned to box a certain way; get in, get out, etc, etc, and over three rounds that suited me; I did not have to think about it, I was conditioned for that three rounds but then when you try and change your career and start to box a different way it takes a while; you just can't forget all the things you have learned in 20 years plus and suddenly, practically over night, forget those things, it simply takes time to re-adjust, to think different and basically to box differently.”

Like most kids Eric tried out all the usual sports, from athletics, soccer to Gaelic football but it was boxing that he quickly realised was the game for him and under the guidance and watchful eye of the St Michael's coach, Dom O'Rourke he took more and more to the boxing.
Dom O'Rourke was much more than a coach though, as Eric Donovan explains.
“Dom became more than just a coach to me; I would not have went down the right road only for Dom O'Rourke. Where I grew up in Athy, I came from a disadvantaged area; education was not really something people from my community excelled in or did well in; the club was a great outlet for m; it was only open two nights of the week but then (unfortunately) outside of that, at a very young age, I got involved all sorts.
“ I felt at the time I was not doing anything my peers were not doing so it wasn't a case of me knowing I was doing wrong; more a case like I was just doing what every-
one else was doing at the time but at 16, 17 and 18 it didn't take long to catch up with me and I started to feel the consequences of that; mentally, emotionally.
“The drink and the drugs were doing something for me, in fact they were becoming crutches for me and I was really struggling for a long, long time but the boxing club was the place I always went back; when I found myself in bad places in life; the boxing club was the place I always went back to and started building again.
“I would go back there and get physically well and when you get physically well you get mentally well; when you start getting physically fit your mind follows your feet sort to speak; your mind starts to improve but Dom O'Rourke was the one that always encouraged me, followed me, pursued me and never gave up on me and always brought me back.”
I don't know how many times I quit the club, says Eric, “but he (Dom) always came back to me because he knew that when I had no routine, no structure in my life, I had no life, he knew how important the club was to me and for me and he kept bringing me back until finally the penny dropped and I realised what was going on and at 26 years of age I realised I needed to ask for help, I needed a bit of assistance, emotionally and mentally for the problem I had and once I started the process of therapy for my mental help and emotional well-being my life started to get better immediately, like magic, it was like a miracle.”
Bur Eric emphasises that “you have to be honest with yourself, and be honest with another human being because no matter how smart, or clever you are, or think you are, you cannot change something unless you acknowledge it yourself first.”
The principles of boxing are brilliant; the confidence, the self esteem, the sportsmanship; taking a punch, giving a punch; shaking hands, embracing one another after a fight, winning or losing, the respect element of the thing and for me, what worked for me really were, the people in boxing, the likes of Dom O'Rourke.
“If Dominic O'Rourke was not my coach I just simply don't know where I would be today; I grew up with friends who got locked up, went to prison; went down the road of addiction, heroin, you name it, I would just hate to think where I would be if it were not for Dom; boxing has so much potential but apart from that it is the people that are involved in boxing; the volunteers; the people who open the club night after night; especially for the marginalised community, from all walks of life and all back grounds and teaching them not only the fundamentals of boxing but teaching them about life and how to stand up and be proud on their own two feet; that is what is so special about boxing, the people that are in it.”

In a somewhat unusual move Eric Donovan linked up with a company called BearingPoint, ‘a leading business and technology consulting firm delivering business results through innovative solutions which are running some of the largest organisations and government departments in Ireland.’
“One of the managers from Bearing Point, Eric Conway, his wife, Aileen Wynne is an Athy lady and is joint owner of A and A Pharmacy in Athy, one of my sponsors and a great supporter; both Aileen and Eric come to my fights and I got to know them and during the lockdown BearingPoint had 300 employees working from home and asked me and asked me would I help him do some online fitness classes.
“They liked what I was doing, charity work and mental health work and seminars I was giving; they liked that and then I did the Do It For Dan campaign and they sponsored me; then I landed the big fight with Sky Sports BearingPoint came on board as a sponsor and they were very happy how that went and after that approached me to become a Healthy and Wellbeing brand Ambassador and our partnership has gone from strength to strength; they acknowledge that sport and business has a lot of similarities, the tools and exchanges of both are very transferrable.”
Sponsors, of course, are a major part in boxing and Eric Donovan is extremely grateful for the people who have supported him over the years, both relatively recently and long term.
These days Eric, who has two young sons, lives in Tullyallen, just outside Drogheda with his long term partner Lauren.
Lauren teaches in a nearby Gael Scoil and they are due to get married later this year. In fact, says Eric, this will be our third attempt to attempt to get married; we had to postpone it twice due to Covid-19 but hopefully we will get it finally completed this year.
“I wasn't happy the kids saw me get knocked-out against Barrett but there is a lesson in that and I want to show them in order to win you have to lose sometimes; the main thing is to learn from your setbacks and from a defeat elation and joy sometimes come.”
Adding “sometimes we learn more from failure; from adversity but nothing is handed to you, you have to go out and work for it.”
Just like Eric Donovan has done throughout his life; not just his sporting life, but life in general.
No doubt Eric Donovan faces a big task in Italy on May 14, a ten round bout, something he has very little experience of but he is confident, well prepared and really looking forward to it.
Fight fans everywhere wish Eric all the best as he bids to fulfill that European title dream.