It was the toughest night of Eamonn O’Kane’s professional career but it was worth every drop of blood and bead of sweat.
The Banagher middleweight clawed out victory over Welsh man, Kerry Hope after a bruising battle to add the IBF’s Inter-Continental strap to his impressive collection of accolades at a sold-out Odyssey Arena on Saturday.
Sporting nasty cuts above his left eye and right cheekbone, O’Kane had to dig deep into his reserves to go 12 tough rounds with the former EBU champion.
It was far from a masterclass performance but a win nonetheless and in front of a 9,000 sell-out attendance at the Odyssey, not to mention the tens of thousands of viewers on pay-per-view channel BoxNation.
It was the perfect exposure and a notable scalp which will give O’Kane every chance of climbing further up the world rankings.
In fact the Banagher man (11-1-0) is expected to climb into the IBF’s top 15 after the win and he’s not too far away from mixing it with the best the domestic scene has to offer.
O’Kane was well ahead on the scorecards after the first half of the fight as he rampaged forward and out-punched Hope to the point where Hope’s trainer, Gary Lockett, threatened to pull him out of the contest at the end of the eighth round.
O’Kane began to run out of steam in the final three rounds and yet deservedly ground out the win, coming away with a 114-113, 118-111 and 116-112 victory, despite suffering a highly controversial knockdown in the 10th round when Hope clearly stood on his foot, sending him stumbling to the canvas.
The ringside judges were obviously impressed with O’Kane’s workrate throughout but Hope’s defensive tactics and attempts to slow the tempo of the fight made it, at times, an untidy and somewhat frustrating affair.
Honest and humble as always, O’Kane admitted he has a lot to improve upon if he is to challenge the likes of British champion Billy Joe Saunders or Matthew Macklin.
“That was the toughest experience of my life,” said O’Kane afterwards. “I have to give respect to Kerry Hope because he is one tough, tough boy.
“I was prepared for a tough fight. People were asking me if I was going to get rid of him early but I knew I wouldn’t end it early. “
O’Kane was disappointed with the German referee, Timo Habighorst’s decision to award a knockdown in the 10th and claimed Hope had tripped him to the canvas.
“I hope the judges didn’t score that because he stood on my foot and I fell,” he said.
“He never landed a shot so I don’t know how they could count it as a knockdown.
“He was very low with his head and I was falling in on top of his body and losing balance a bit and it was ruled as a knockdown which was disappointing. But he’s a tough, tough boy.”
It was a much improved O’Kane on show on Saturday and his work with Bernardo and Oscar Checa is clearly reaping its rewards.
However, the more Hope frustrated O’Kane with his clever footwork keeping him out of range, the Irish champion reverted to type and went hell for leather in an attempt to overwhelm his opponent.
“I’ve proven I can box but the boxing tactics sort of went out the window and I just went out to try and overwhelm him with pressure and you just can’t do that over 10 or 12 rounds.
“My coaches do a fantastic job but there’s still a lot of work to do and a lot of kicking up the backside to do to get me a lot better but I’m willing.”
O’Kane has made a blistering start to his pro career since 2011 and with the Irish Prizefighter crown, an Irish title and now the IBF Inter-Continental belt proudly in his possession after just 12 fights, he can start dreaming of British, European and possibly even a tilt at the world title.
“I am delighted to get the win and the title and this moves me into the top 15 of the IBF’s rankings. I’ve proved I can beat the likes of Kerry Hope who was European champion. I just think I need more 12 round fights and a couple of fights to defend this belt against good tough boys and I’m ready for that. I’m in terrific shape and my strength and conditioning coach Oliver Cummings has me punching really strong so I just need a bit more conditioning to go the 12 rounds.”
It was always going to be a dangerous fight for O’Kane against a man clinging on to his hopes of returning to the heady heights of his European reign.
It was a tough slog for O’Kane but he proved he can handle a smart, evasive fighter like Hope. The opening round was an untidy affair but O’Kane was the aggressor, loading up shots albeit with little success.
O’Kane’s workrate gave him the edge in the second and his quickfire combinations to the body were landing to great effect. As the round progressed Hope was keeping O’Kane out of range and making him miss with good footwork and clever use of his jab.
O’Kane won the third comfortably as he began to ease into the fight. But midway through the fourth round O’Kane swung wildly and was caught with a left hand before losing his balance and falling to the canvas but the referee deemed it a slip.
Hope suffered a nasty cut above his left ear after a clash of heads and his corner men were frantically attempting to stem the flow of blood when the bell tolled.
It was proving a frustrating fight for both boxers but O’Kane came into his own in the seventh as his typical fast and furious style began to wear down his opponent. The Derry man sustained a cut above his left eye in the eighth after another clash of heads but with Hope tiring he won the round with his superior workrate.
O’Kane was marking up badly in the ninth, however and was bleeding from a cut under his right eye following a left hook from Hope. When pushed downwards by Hope, O’Kane stumbled to the floor and the referee somehow awarded a controversial knockdown to the astonishment of his corner. The final two rounds were frantic with both fighters visibly tiring but neither could land with much success.
There was no doubting O’Kane won the fight and he had his hand deservedly raised in victory in the end as he continues to climb the middlweight rankings.