Former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Eamonn O’Kane knows that nothing less than an emphatic victory will suffice when he squares off against Merthyr’s Kerry Hope for the IBF International title at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena this weekend.
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The Dungiven middleweight, a former Prizefighter winner, has resurrected his pro career with a brace of victories after stumbling against Islington’s John Ryder last December.
But at 31, the Francie McNicol managed Ulsterman knows there is no margin for error if he is to realise his ambitions at world level.
Ahead of the ‘make or break’ scrap, boxing writer Glynn Evans caught up with ‘King Kane’ to discuss life as a fighter.
Ulster has always been a fertile breeding ground for prizefighters. How did you first become attracted to the sport?
My dad had done a bit of boxing, as had my brother Gary who’s six years older. I just followed him to the local St Candice’s boxing gym when I was six years old and it all evolved from there.
What do you recall of your amateur career?
I stayed at St Candice’s from the age of six until 24, then moved to the Immaculata in west Belfast for my final four years.
I began competing when I was 11 and, all told, I’d have had something in the region of 250 amateur bouts and probably won over 200 of them. I won the Ulster title almost every season, junior and senior, and also won five or six All Ireland titles.
The main highlights in an international singlet would have been winning bronze at the 2008 European Seniors in Liverpool and, of course, my gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
I also won a gold at the Commonwealth (Federation) championships in 2007, beating George Groves in the final. I think it was George’s last amateur fight. I’d previously got beaten in the 2005 final of the same tournament by James DeGale in Glasgow.
I fought plenty of other good names. (Future WBC light-heavyweight world champion) Jean Pascal beat me in a multi-nations in Cork and Andre Dirrell beat me over in the USA. Most of the very top kids beat me but I always gave them good fights.
I’d previously boxed at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia but got robbed of a medal against a Samoan in the quarter-final. Putting right that injustice was a major factor in me staying on until after the 2010 Games.
In India, Northern Ireland had a very strong boxing squad including the likes of Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon so I was very honoured to be made captain. Because I’d won medals at previous big international tournaments, there were reasonably high hopes for me to medal but I don’t think anybody expected me to win the gold. However, my body and mind were both right going into that tournament. We’d dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.
In the final, I beat Anthony Ogogo who behaved a little bit like a spoilt child afterwards. The whole crowd thought I deserved the decision so I’m not sure what his problem was. Anthony had beaten the world number one from India in the semi and was a very good technical boxer but pretty textbook and easy to read. A bit predictable.
It was a high intensity fight and I deserved to win. That was a massive moment for both me and my family.
You were already 28 when you finally took the plunge into the professional code in June 2011. Was that a difficult decision to make?
One regret was that I never made it to the Olympics but middleweight was a very competitive division in Ireland. I had Darren Sutherland and Andy Lee to contend with. Darren beat me twice and Andy beat three or four times, and I couldn’t really complain about any of those decisions. They were just better than me at that stage of my development.
But I’d already been around the world and done what I wanted as an amateur. I knew that even if I qualified for London 2012 and got a medal, it’d be too late at 30 for me to make much of an impact in the pros.
I’d created a profile for myself by winning gold in Delhi so it was now or never. Just before I signed professional, the World Series of Boxing started up. I was touted by the Dolce and Gabbana squad in Milan. I had three bouts for them without the headguard and vest, over five-three minute rounds. I won all three beating a Turk, Frenchman and Russian. That confirmed to me that I should give the pro game a go.
You’d only had four pro fights when you entered Prizefighter in May 2012. Were you apprehensive going in?
A bit. It was an all Irish field, the standard was very high so it was a risky business. But I’d never ducked anyone. I wanted to move on in the pros and the prospect of getting three fights in one evening was very appealing.
I was acutely aware that Prizefighter is ‘crazy boxing’ and that night I was far from pretty. But my method was effective. Winning Prizefighter, particularly at home in The King’s Hall, certainly moved me up the mix, to where I wanted to be.
That success effectively elevated you into a British title eliminator against Islington’s John Ryder but, after a solid start, you were stopped in round eight. What went wrong that night?
Basically, my balls were too big. As I say, I’ve never ducked anyone, amateur or pro, so when the chance was offered to me at 13 days notice I took it, even though I had a stone and a half to lose.
I’d actually been out the gym for a while because I’d had a cut sparring (ex British featherweight champion) Martin Lindsay at the Immaculata. I’d had no southpaw sparring to prepare for Ryder and basically worked my balls off just to shift the weight.
But it was my decision to step up and things didn’t work out. I have to say that John Ryder is a very good talent and a great lad but I’d never take another fight unprepared, as I did that night. That was a lesson learned. You have to be 100% professional.
I didn’t look pretty that night but I had me winning until John landed the shots that finished the fight. Even then, I felt the ref, Howard Foster, waved it off a wee bit early.
John went on to run Billy Joe Saunders very close for the (British) title. Before getting stopped due to poor condition, I felt I was handling Ryder more comfortably than Billy Joe did so that gave me confidence of what I could achieve with perfect preparation.
You’ve rebounded with a brace of wins against ex Southern Area king Gary Boulden (pts6) and old nemesis Anthony Fitzgerald, in a match for the Irish title (wpts 10). How did you feel in those comeback fights?
After the Ryder loss, I decided I had to make a change. I was starting to get a lot of criticism for having a rushing, street fighting style so I opted to leave my coach ‘Nugget’ Nugent and move to Bernard Checa.
It was very difficult because ‘Nugget’ was a good friend and he’d been with me from the amateurs. It hurt me but I had to consider what was best for my career.
Bernard is a fantastic technical coach but we’d only been together for six weeks before the Boulden fight and I gave a very confused performance, was probably only 30% of my potential.
But gradually Bernard’s got me back to boxing properly. Fitzgerald had done a lot of talking on the internet and social media sites beforehand, claiming he was robbed when I beat him in Prizefighter. However, even with a point deducted, I beat him very comfortably and took satisfaction putting that to bed.
Since, in the gym with Bernard, I’ve continued to make improvements, and you’ll see even better skills again this Saturday.
What value do you place on your Irish title?
Well, it was my first belt as a pro and I was proud to win it but I’m definitely looking to win a world title so this is just a stepping stone. In world terms it doesn’t mean too much. There are bigger and better belts out there.
A defence against ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan would be interesting!
I don’t think that’s on the cards. Neither ‘Spike’ nor myself have ever been the type for calling opponents out. We helped each other prepare before I fought Anthony Fitzgerald and he fought Billy Joe Saunders. He and his team are gentlemen, great guys. Though we’re the same weight, there’s no needle there.
Tell us a little about your life outside the ring.
I’m very happily married and I’ve two great wee boys, aged four and two, who take up most of my time. I don’t work away from boxing but I’ve actually got a degree in electronics and a Masters in computers. Hopefully, with a bit of retraining, I can follow that route after I’m done (in the ring).
I don’t drink, smoke or party but I can still have a good time. I love the movies and playing a bit of poker.
The British middleweight scene is presently white hot with talents such as Darren Barker, Martin Murray, Matt Macklin, Billy Joe Saunders and Ryder. In your opinion, who’s top dog?
It’s very hard to call. Macklin and Murray both proved their worth in world title fights against Felix Sturm in Germany – I thought both won – and Barker did a great job to beat Daniel Geale over in Atlantic City. It’s a toss of a coin between any of them really but I guess you have to give the edge to Barker simply because he’s world champion at the moment.
Saturday’s showdown with former European champion Kerry Hope is a huge crossroads fight for the pair of you. You’re both 31 and will struggle to re-establish at top flight if you’re beaten. What’s your assessment of the Welshman?
You can watch too much of opponents but I’ve actually been on the same bills as Kerry a couple of times so I know him quite well. I fought the same night that he delivered that massive performance to beat Greg Proksa to win the European and I was delighted for him. The night I lost to Ryder, he was stopped by Darren Barker.
Kerry’s a down to earth guy who’s a very good boxer and pretty strong. He’s done the ten and twelve round distance more than I have so I’ve had to train accordingly to combat that.
How has your prep gone?
Unlike for Ryder, I’ve had loads of notice and I’ve been working hard with Bernard at his gym. There’s loads of other top pros there like Luke Wilton, Marty Rogan, Paul McCloskey, and Brian Magee.
I’ve had loads of quality sparring. I know that, like Ryder, Kerry is a southpaw but people shouldn’t read too much into that. I handled loads in the amateurs and it wasn’t John being a southpaw that fazed me, it was my lack of prep.
I grew up sparring Paul McCloskey, the most awkward southpaw out there; a nightmare!
What type of fight do you envisage and why do you win?
Kerry has a very good workrate so I expect a high intensity fight, one that’s really good for the Belfast fans to watch. But my ‘street fighting’ style has gone. I’ll still throw plenty of punches but I’ll be looking to box.
No disrespect to Kerry but I strongly believe that I’m a better boxer than he is, a better fighter than he is, and stronger than he is. I believe I have him in every department and I’m really looking forward to it.
If you come through successfully what do you hope it will lead to?
My understanding is that winning this International belt will place me in the top 15 world rankings with the IBF. That could get me right into the mix.
At 31, I’m not looking to hang about. I believe if the right fights can be made, against the likes of Saunders, Macklin and Murray, I’ve got the ability to work myself into the world title mix.
I just want an opportunity to find out. If it doesn’t happen for me, it’ll be: ‘Good luck to the rest of you. See you later!’