Gavin McDonnell: The incredible rise of a champion

Gavin McDonnell has his hand raised after beating Oleksandr Yegorov
Gavin McDonnell has his hand raised after beating Oleksandr Yegorov

Sport is full of hyperbole but some stories require no exaggeration.

Gavin McDonnell’s rise to European title glory is one such tale where the facts speak for themselves.

Gavin celebrates with twin brother Jamie after winning the WBO international super bantamweight title

Gavin celebrates with twin brother Jamie after winning the WBO international super bantamweight title

Last weekend, he convincingly outpointed the unbeaten Oleksandr Yegorov to win the vacant European super bantamweight title in Sheffield.

Just five years earlier, he had barely laced up a pair of gloves, barring for a five fight stretch as a young junior amateur.

He transformed himself from a booze-loving plaster to a fighter on the brink of world level in just 15 fights, claiming four legitimate titles along the way.

McDonnell could barely get through the door of his grandad John’s pub The Broadway in Dunsville on Sunday afternoon, as well-wishers surged to congratulate him.

I’m 100 per cent going to be a world champion - this is only the start of the journey.

Gavin McDonnell

His is a journey to the elite level the size of which is lost on few people.

It started the night twin brother Jamie won the European title himself, five years ago in the south of France.

McDonnell, with a drink in his hand and several in his stomach, stood up and declared ‘if our kid can do it, so can I.’

It was a scene dad Kevin remembers well.

Gavin McDonnell

Gavin McDonnell

“We all thought he was taking the p***,” he said bluntly.

“We were all sat round in the hotel, he stood up and stumbled into the middle of us and told us he was going to do it.

“Everyone just laughed, no one thought he was serious.

“With what he was like back then, loving the ale, I don’t think anyone thought he’d even fight never mind be European champion.”

Manager Stefy Bull - who also coached him during the early part of his career alongside current trainer Dave Hulley - said he could not believe his eyes when McDonnell actually walked through the gym door.

Bull said: “I don’t think anyone thought that he was really serious.

“But a couple of days later he walked into the gym ready to go.

“He had borrowed Jamie’s kitbag. He didn’t have any hand wraps, he just put on a pair of gloves and started hitting a bag.

“He didn’t know his right hand from his left. You wondered whether he’d stick at it long enough to be able to even step in a ring.

“But he’s worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen and look where he is now.”

The transformation McDonnell underwent was stark, taking him out of the pub and into the gym.

McDonnell’s fiancee Sophie - who he will marry this summer and with whom he has a young son - once told me she did not think they would still be together if he had not started boxing.

And the man himself agrees.

“I lived in the pub and no one wants to be with someone who spends three nights in the pub, coming in smashed,” McDonnell said. “Doing this has changed me so much.

“For 35 or 40 weeks of the year I can’t drink, I can’t eat and I’m just living the life. And it means I spend quality, sober time with my family.

“Sophie has been massively important for me.

“I used to think it was rubbish when people said behind every good man there is a good woman.

“But behind every good boxer there is ten times the normal woman. It’s unbelievable what we put them through. She puts up with so much. I’m forever apologising because I go through these mood swings.

“In the long run I hope I can make a few quid and I can give her a comfortable life.

“The worst case scenario would be ending up with nothing and she’d had to go through ten years of me being mardy for absolutely nothing.”

Though he has a strong team behind him and a strong-willed partner, McDonnell says the biggest influence on his career has been his twin, two time world champion Jamie.

And he says the unique dynamic of twins’ relationship has helped him emulate his brother’s success.

“Every single thing I’ve done in boxing, I owe to him,” McDonnell said.

“If he didn’t go to France and win the European title, I’d just be plastering. I probably wouldn’t have half as much as I’ve got and I’d have no future.

“We’re born exactly the same. I know what he’s thinking, I know what he’d do in a situation. We’ve got the same mind, we feel the same.

“We’re the same person in two bodies and it’s like one person on two career path.

“It means so much to us both.”

After McDonnell’s fight on Saturday night, it was Jamie who seemed the more excited by his brother’s victory - and the more exhausted.

Gavin is exactly the same when his brother is in action, throwing every punch and suffering through every round.

Though the closeness of his relationship with his brother cannot be overstated, McDonnell is delighted to have fully emerged from his sibling’s shadow thanks to his European title triumph.

He said: “All my life I have been Jamie’s brother but now I’m getting as much credit as he is.

“I walk round next to him now and feel as though we’re 50-50, that when someone walks up I don’t know whether they’re going to speak to him or me.

“Not so long ago people were just talking about Jamie McDonnell. Now it’s the McDonnell brothers.

“I’m so glad I got into this because otherwise I’d just be Jamie’s brother for the rest of my life.”

Winning the European title, along with his WBO ranking, has ensured talk of a world title shot for the other McDonnell brother.

So, could twin world champions become a reality?

“I’m 100 per cent going to be a world champion,” McDonnell said.

“This is only the start of the journey. I’m European champion but I’m still in the learning stage.

“There are some top fighters at super bantamweight but a fight is a fight.

“Our kid has been massive underdog so many times and won.

“That will be me when I fight for a world title and I’ll win.

“It all sounds far fetched but the European title sounded far fetched at one time. The sky is the limit.”

By the sounds of it, McDonnell’s is a story that could just be beginning.