'One minute you’re macho – you’re having it out in the ring with the world champ – next minute you’re on your own & you want to do away with yourself...'
BOXERS KENNETH EGAN AND ERIC DONOVAN TELL OF THEIR BATTLE WITH THE BOTTLE AND FIGHTING THEIR DEMONS
FROM the moment they first met 17 years ago Kenneth Egan and Eric Donovan sensed they were destined to become soul mates inside the boxing gym - and drinking buddies outside of it.
A native of Athy, Co Kildare, Donovan joined Irish boxing's newly-established High Performance Unit while still a junior in 2003. Three years older, Egan was already an established Irish international, having reached the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Belfast in 2001.
"Ken was a very infectious character and I gravitated towards him straight away," recalls Donovan. "Being around him eased the pressure when we were going off to big championships. Ken always found a way to have the craic. I knew from the glint in his eye we were compatible."
Egan, for his part, says the pair were kindred spirits and always destined to become friends. "Eric and I had the same type of personalities. We were the perfect match. We love a bit of slagging and having the banter," he says.
The pair trained hard but once they left the gym they played as hard.
"When the training was over we were f**king devils for letting our hair down. Out of camp, we had the same kind of social habits. We just wanted to get away and blow off steam. But we didn't know when to f**king stop - and that was the problem," says Donovan.
He recalls an incident during the World Championships in Mianyang, China, in 2005. "Billy [Walsh, the Irish team coach] was trying to get me to bed because I was blotto. I kept saying to him 'go away, you have nothing but a left hook'. Quick as a flash Billy replied: 'You'll feel it in a minute if you don't go to bed'."
Even then, they both had an inkling that their drinking was out of control.
"There were a few lads on the team, the likes of Darren O'Neill, who would go out for a few [drinks] and then go home. But me and Eric were all in," says Egan.
"I knew I was a devil from I was very young. I lived for the trips away. Where we trained, we trained very hard. There was no slackening. But when we switched off, we switched off. It was just escapism, whether we won or lost. It was party time. That's just the way we were," he adds.
When he was a teenager, Egan experimented with soft drugs. But he kicked the habit once he joined the elite squad, as one of the conditions of being funded was that fighters were required to undergo doping tests.
"The beauty of it was that alcohol wasn't a banned substance. So I felt the alcohol was grand and I continued to have a few pints. But for me, it was the worst drug of all."
Donovan's drinking, on the other hand, was a manifestation of deeper issues revolving around his mental health.
"I probably knew I was in trouble from about the age of 14 or 15. For ten to 15 years I tried every trick in the book to be normal, until the penny f**king dropped and I realised that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
"I had to surrender, which went against every fibre in my body. I had to throw in the towel to win. It is the opposite to what we tell people in life - don't give up.
"I was getting into the ring with my addiction and getting the head boxed off me every single f**king time - and the depression was getting deeper, the black holes were getting worse and the remorse, embarrassment and the shame was getting more severe."
Their careers paths diverged. At the second time of asking, Egan became an Olympian in 2008 and ended up winning a silver medal in Beijing. Now, he wasn't just a boxer, he was a celebrity. Everybody wanted to buy him a drink. For the next two years his life spiralled completely out of control.
Donovan's moment in the sun ought to have come at the London Olympics in 2012. Then 27, he was at his peak physically. But mentally he was hitting rock bottom.
In October 2011, he broke his hand at a house party, which effectively scuppered his Olympic ambitions. Such was the self-loathing he experienced afterwards that he drew up a plan to take his own life.
"I absolutely went close to taking my own life. In 2011, I wanted out. But I had a eureka moment, thank God. I did a U-turn. Maybe some day I will get into the detail of it. Thank God, I found the resilience or ability to do the U-turn and to get away. Even then, I felt a failure for a while, or a loser, because I couldn't proceed with what my intention was.
"This wasn't a flippant idea. It was a genuine plan, calculated for a long time and I went very close [to carrying it out]. It goes to show how fragile the mind is. One minute you're macho - you're having it out in the ring with the world champion - and the next minute you're on your own and you want to do away with yourself. It is f**king horrible."
Kenneth Egan had his last drink on August 12, 2010. "It will be ten years this August," he recalls. "I will tell you, I was always a hoor for drinking - but the word alcoholic didn't sit with me. I thought that was a different crowd, like the boys drinking from bottles in brown bags along the canals.
"How the f**k could I be an alcoholic when I'm representing my country, in great shape, fit and healthy? I was in total denial."
Four months earlier, Egan went to his first AA meeting. But he slipped on a trip to Uganda with the AtoZ children's charity.
"We were there to build houses and there was a going away party for me at the end. There was a bottle of vodka looking at me. I let my guard down and had a drink.
"That was the lure of addiction and two hours later I was carried out of the house. I carried on drinking for the next few weeks, but on August 13 I said I was going to stay off it [drink] that day - and it's a day at a time."
"I rarely get a longing for alcohol any more. When I occasionally do, I always fast forward to where I would be ten days after my first pint. I know it will be a path of destruction.
"I have a wife, a daughter and a house and they are very important to me, but they're not as important as sobriety. It is like my golden egg, because if my sobriety goes everything else falls apart."
Donovan had periods of sobriety too. "I used to go off it all the time. I might have done something that had shaken me to the core. It might be a blackout or just going off the rails, like when I ruined my chance of going to the London Olympics.
"But I didn't look for support. I tried to do everything on my own. I tried changing from pints to bottles, going out later. I even substituted drugs for drink. But it never worked out for me."
Early in 2012, Donovan met his long-time coach, Dominic O'Rourke, and told him he needed help. "He knew from the way I was looking at him that this wasn't the kind of help I had asked him for before."
The founder of Athy Boxing Club, Fr Denis Laverty, was involved in a drugs rehabilitation centre in Enfield. He recommended that Donovan seek professional help in the Aiséirí Rehabilitation centre in Wexford.
He enrolled on a four-week residential course. "I actually thought they were going to teach me how to drink properly. I hadn't a clue. It wasn't until I was in there that the penny dropped. I presented with just one problem - the drink.
"I never mentioned the drugs or the gambling. Everything I did was obsession. So I had to come clean with everything, but I'll tell you, it was one of the best things I ever did in my life."
Egan and Donovan later did a diploma course in counselling in the Cuan Mhuire Centre in Athy at different times. Egan went on to do a degree and now works two days a week as a counsellor in a private practise in Clondalkin. He is also an elected member of South Dublin County Council.
But at the age of 31, Donovan decided to take a sabbatical from his studies and give his boxing career one final twirl. He turned professional.
Egan became his coach and the pair embarked on a new mission. Twelve fights later Donovan is unbeaten. He gets his break on August 14 on Matchroom's Fight Card in Eddie Hearn's back garden in Essex.
Regardless of the outcome of his super-featherweight contest against the highly-rated Zelfa Barrett, the journey has been a triumph. "The eyes are on the prize but this is an unbelievable opportunity," said Donovan.
The relationship between the pair has evolved over the years, according to Egan. "Normally when we were together all those years ago we were up to devilment. Now, we are doing something positive. He is doing something fantastic in his life and, please God, he is going to challenge for a European title and I'm going to be in his corner."