By John Evans
Jim McDonnell is set for a busy few weeks. If you have ever spoken to the former European featherweight champion and two time world title challenger though, you will know that he views hard word as something not to be scared of, but to be relished. McDonnell is quietly building an impressive stable of fighters and with his three biggest names set to see action soon it seemed as good a time as any to catch up with him and see how his group are progressing.
First up was to be 15-2 (4) light middleweight Steve O’Meara or ‘the dark horse’ as McDonnell calls him. The 28-year-old has undergone something of a career transformation of late. Having recorded just two stoppages in his first 13 victories, the Londoner has stopped his last two opponents in the first round. With the victories over Ryan Toms and Nathan Weise both being televised on BoxNation, viewers who might not have previously seen him fight may now see him as a knockout artist.
O’Meara was hoping to continue his run of form this Friday when he was slated to faces the always dangerous Bradley Pryce but - with the fight taking scheduled to take place on the undercard of George Groves now postponed rematch with Kenny Anderson – O’Meara will have to wait for his next chance to impress the watching BoxNation audience.
“When he first started training with myself, out of all the guys I’ve ever trained I’d say physically he was the weakest link” said McDonnell when speaking to Boxingscene.com about O’Meara.
“I say that in terms of the experience he had in boxing, the level he’d boxed at and the physical side of things as well. He improved with every session and now - alongside James DeGale – I’d say he’s one of the most professional at what he does. He’s so strong. The Steve O’Meara of yesterday just wouldn’t be able to compete with him. The other thing with Steve is that he’s a master of the speedball. Anything to do with timing, he’s the best you’ll see. Watch him on the floor to ceiling ball and his timing is unbelievable. Add that to the mix with the experience of sparring with Carl Froch, Darren Barker, Floyd Mayweather and DeGale. He walks to the ring with a smile on his face because he knows that there’s nothing the guys he’s fighting can show him that he hasn’t already seen.”
The British light middleweight division is a strange one. While there is undoubtedly talent there, the weight class is crying out for somebody to really take charge. With Ryan Rhodes unlikely to drop back down to British title level the opportunity is there for Brian Rose, Prince Arron, Joe Selkirk, Jamie Cox, Matthew Hall or O’Meara to put a run together and make themselves the man to beat.
The ‘old’ O’Meara dropped a six round decision to Selkirk in December 2010 but McDonnell is convinced that things would be totally different now. “He fought Selkirk up in Liverpool with a Liverpudlian referee. It would have been eight rounds if we’d had our way but they changed it to six” says McDonnell.
“Selkirk’s a good fighter but they can have that fight again over twelve rounds whenever they’re ready and I know who’ll come out with the victory. It’s a fight they could make but the emphasis around it has changed. Now it’s gotta be a money fight. Steve will be a real force over twelve rounds. He’s a real strong athlete and trains like a demon.
“Steve’s got this unbelievable belief in what he’s about, what he’s capable of and what he can achieve. I call him the dark horse because he’s going to cause a lot more upsets. Honestly, there isn’t one light middleweight in the country that he wouldn’t go and deal with.”
On April 21, James DeGale defends his European super middleweight belt for the first time when he takes on the experienced Italian Christian Sanavia in Denmark. It may seem an unusual fight for a fighter known predominantly for his relationship with Frank Warren to take but with purse bids for the bout having been won by an Italian promotional outfit (subsequently taken over by Sauerland) DeGale had little choice but too accept if he wanted to keep hold of his European title.
“James is just like all my fighters. I’ve got to make them live up to the word ‘professional’. They’re always in training but obviously when they get a contest, we up the ante a little bit” McDonnell revealed. “James is six weeks out from defending his European title and today [March 9] sparred twelve rounds. He’s in a really good place. I can’t give the kid enough praise, he’s getting better and better”
Too many fighters are spoon-fed a string of hand picked opponents in their own backyard and then come up short if forced to travel for their big chance. This is another valuable step on the career path of a fighter who seems to be determined to prove that there is more to him than the flashy reputation he entered the sport with. McDonnell agrees.
He said: “You have to look at the individual. From being ten years old, James has boxed more away from home than he has at home. He’s boxed all over the world. I’ve never seen somebody so comfortable with going abroad. He says ‘whether it’s in my front room, China, the USA or Portugal, a ring is a ring’. He’s so relaxed. He can’t wait and is really looking forward to it.”
DeGale took the European title after a bruising points victory over Piotr Wilczewski last October. Having been somewhat fortunate to get the title opportunity after losing to George Groves in his previous fight, DeGale was forced to grit his teeth, overcome a couple of shaky moments and showed a depth of character unseen until that point in his career. When the Olympic gold medallist looks back on his career, the victory will not be the most picture perfect on his record but it may prove to be one of the most important.
“I’m glad James had the experience of fighting Wilczewski” said the 51-year-old trainer. “I don’t think James got the credit he deserved for that fight because I don’t think it was watched by enough people. I did my research on Wilczewski before the fight and as an amateur he medalled at both the European’s and the World’s, had been Kessler’s main sparring partner for a couple of years and was ranked number two with the WBO coming in. I was told by a lot of well connected people that a lot of the top fighters had avoided boxing him. James had to grow up very quickly and grabbed the chance to fight for the European title with both hands after the Groves fight. He put in a solid performance and showed a different side to his game.”
The third of McDonnell’s hopes is middleweight Simon O’Donnell. The 26-year-old – who goes by the fantastic ring moniker ‘Slick Fightin’ Irish’ – may be relatively inexperienced, but McDonnell has high hopes for him.
“We’re getting Simon up to speed. A lot of people don’t realise he’s boxed all over the world, in Madison Square Garden and spent years alongside James DeGale at Dale Youth. He needs activity. He’s got a win on his record – a fifth round knockout – over Antonio Baker who went the distance with Nathan Cleverly and Jermaine Taylor and Simon wiped him out clean. The next step for Simon is to box on Spencer Fearon’s next show and then he’s going to box in Prizefighter. I think that’s where he’ll jump to people’s attention. He’s a kid who people don’t know too much about but he was a tremendous amateur and he’s ready to break through.”
If you haven’t yet seen O’Donnell fight, his trainer paints a pretty exciting picture. I’ve yet to meet a boxing fan who doesn’t enjoy watching a rangy boxer with genuine knockout power. If the skills that McDonnell sees in the gym transfers themselves to the ring come fight night, we could have an exciting addition to the already thriving British middleweight division.
“For a middleweight he’s such a big lad,” said McDonnell. “He’s 6ft 3in and punches like a mule. I think people in Prizefighter are going to get a shock if they get drawn against him. If they get hit on the chin by him they’ll realise what I’m talking about. He can really bang.
“You talk to him and you’ve never met a more confident kid in your life. He thinks Prizefighter’s a mismatch. He’s laughing about boxing these boys. Hopefully he’ll go out there and do it. He’s really got a lot of self belief and you can’t give that to a fighter. I think this is the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. He’s been in the gym today with Steve and Chunky. All three of them are really good, solid pro’s and I think they’re all going to do really well.”