Irish Muay Thai community pays tribute to ‘fearless warrior’ James E. “Donkey” O’Connell
“Thai boxing changed my life around. I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t walk into that community hall. I always say that to my trainer and he always makes a joke out of it.” – O’Connell
At the age of 19, James E. O’Connell walked into his local community hall and began a Muay Thai journey which would last over ten years. Now, having amassed 39 pro fights and with a collection of prestigious belts to his name, he announced last weekend that he will hang up his gloves for the final time.
“Donkey” epitomised what it meant to be a fighter and wore his heart on his sleeve in every fight. He leaves the sport as a former ISKA Irish and European, WBC International and Cage Kings champion.
His name is synonymous with the sport in Ireland and when people look back, they will remember the entertainment he gave fans, his never say die attitude and winning mentality.
O’Connell was both a fan favourite and a promoter’s dream. The image he presented, the story behind his character and his abilities inside the ring combined to make him one of the most beloved fighters nationwide.
His decision to retire will not have been an easy one to make but it is testament to him, in having the courage to bring the curtain down on such an illustrious career.
Team-mates, coaches, former opponents, promoters and ring announcers left these tributes, giving you an insight into their experiences with O’Connell and how much he was loved within the Irish Muay Thai community.
Dylan Meagher (Courage) – Teammate
“I remember when I first joined Courage Muay Thai 5 years ago, the one person who stood out the most was James or Donkey as they all called him! He stood out because of his work ethic, he would be roaring and shouting, putting everything behind each shot, always giving 100% and pushing past his limits. To this day, I have never seen him give up or even stop for a breath! The more I trained, the more I got to know him and now I have 15 fights myself and every single one of them I’ve had Donk there with me, pushing me on, showing me the ropes, he was always there to help when cutting weight too. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learnt from James over the years. It’s amazing how we’ve grown and evolved together! He’s my inspiration and motivation, if I give up in training I feel like I’ve let him down more than anyone, seeing how hard he trains and never even showing a sign of giving up! It will be weird not having training camps and cutting weight together now because he’s always been there with me, but now he just has more time to invest in me and the younger generation and share his knowledge with us and guide us on our journeys. He’s an absolute legend in the fight game and epitomises what Courage Muay Thai is all about, fight strong with full heart.”
Hannah O’Connell (Courage) – Sister and Teammate
“For one fight camp James brought us all to a different gym for some sparring. I ended up sparring a guy about 15kg heavier than me who could box and sparred way to hard and he spent three rounds trying to knock me out with punches leaving me with a marked-up face and a black eye. Donkey who’s about 10kg lighter than me by the way saw this and asked did the guy want to spar another round. Donkey jumped straight in the ring clinched him and dropped him twice with knees to the body in the first round and the guy quit. This basically sums James up, fearless, tough as nails and loyal to a fault, you couldn’t ask for a better sparring partner or a better friend.”
Liam Purcell (Courage) – Teammate
“I remember driving back from training with James a few years ago after he’d lost an Irish title fight in one of his always-exciting outings. James is and always has been a winner but, on this day he was unsure when, or if, he would get another shot at being a champion or if he’d blown his only chance. Since that day, we’ve had mugs of tea with a WBC International title belt in the middle of the table. I’ve lost count of how many titles he has domestically and internationally and thinking back on this car journey is an almost funny distant memory.
“James’ accomplishments since then speak for themselves and he is a through and through fighter. He was the first to do a lot of things in Irish Muay Thai and the first of his kind on the Irish scene, I don’t think anyone in Irish Muay Thai comes close to how crazy James was in the ring and it’s hard to see anyone take his place. Everyone who came to support him left the venue hoarse, even the people who didn’t come to support him left saying his was the fight of the night. He was never, ever in a dull fight and that alone is some achievement, he won fight of the year more than once and these awards were well deserved, anyone who was there to witness them would agree.
“Training with him was much the same, it was always turned up to 11, he was always pushing himself and others around him, me included, were able to benefit from this and learn from him even when he wasn’t trying to teach anyone anything. With James the work never stopped. We did our own sessions outside of the gym as often as we could and pushed each other as much as we could, James wouldn’t even blink. The more I demanded on pads, the more he delivered and we still finished with hard rounds of sparring. Getting tired or backing down were never options with him. This mind set led him to achieve more than even he thought he could and made him an inspiration to everyone at Courage MT, there’s not a fighter in the gym that hasn’t learned something from him and not a fighter in the gym that James demanded less than 100% from. James is always there for the rest of the fighters at Courage, if he didn’t have a fight to train for he’d still be in every night making sure the ones who did were training properly and with everything they had.
“He lives and breathes Muay Thai. He’s there for everyone. I can say that I learned a lot from him through the years and I’m not the only one. Training with him has kept me sane for a long time now and I can’t thank him enough for keeping me in the sport and the gym when I needed it the most. I wish him nothing but the best in his retirement from Muay Thai. Donkey. Joker. Friend. Legend.”
Aaron O’Callaghan (Siam Warriors) – Former opponent
“I’ve great time for James, top man outside the ring and warrior inside it. We had two epic fights, the first probably the most entertaining to ever come out of the country. It was an honour and pleasure.”
MC Noel O’Keefe – Ring Announcer
“’I’m not gonna kill you I’m just gonna hurt you really, really bad’ echoes around the arena and the entrance of one of the most recognizable men in Irish Muay Thai begins. He is truly the fighter’s fighter, and lives and dies by the sword. I get goosebumps thinking about the times I have announced James and each time it’s been my honour.”
Cian Cowley (Head-Coach Warriors)
“I’ve known donkey for 10+ years now and he’s a stand out fighter from anyone else I’ve seen, his attitude towards fighting and the sport is like none other. He’s always up for a fight, anytime, with anyone. I’ve never seen him back down from a fight. I always remember him being a great buzz in the dressing room at the fights. An Irish fighting legend 👊🏼”
Robert NG (Head-Coach Eirmuaysiam)
“I first knew James back in 2010- 2011 when he was fighting on the shows around the country making a name for himself and then he became one of the Kingdom Muaythai Dragon team sponsored fighters along with myself and a few other names around the country. I always found him to be a great character and I personally think that he brought Irish Muay Thai to another, more entertaining level.
“Inside the ring, he always fought with great heart, not afraid to engage and is probably one of the toughest and most durable fighters to have ever walked into our sport. Outside the ring, I think the thing that made Donk so successful behind his ring abilities is that he was able to create a character, a ring image that suited his fighting style and the crowd really got on the Joker image.
“In the future, I think Donk will become a very valuable asset to the Irish Muay Thai community as he will be able to share his experience with the younger generation in his gym and I have also worked with him behind the scenes for our Unforgiven show here in Limerick back in December and he was very selfless. He was helpful in every way possible and has the potentials to be a great coach. I would like to personally wish him the very best of luck in future and hope that his work will continue to inspire the younger generations to come” 🙏🙏🙏
Lar Byrne (Wicklow M.A) – Promoter
“It might be a while before we see a fighter in Thai Boxing as colourful and crazy as O’Connell. He went into his corner last weekend with a broken jaw and asked his coach to pull his teeth out so the gumshield would fit back on and enable him to continue the fight, he’s as tough as they come. He’s not only loved by the fans but the whole community for what he brought to every fight. He is an absolute Warrior and few promoted themselves as well as he did. He was a promoter’s dream and created himself a massive following throughout his decorated career. I wish him all the best in the future.”
Martin Horgan (Head-Coach Siam Warriors) – Promoter
“James was a great addition to any show I done. He was always first in the pack looking for a fight and up for any challenge. He promoted his fights and the event brilliantly every single time. Apart from that, he was well known in the community and was always involved in good, exciting fights. He never ducked any opponent mentioned and was willing to bounce back if it didn’t work out. He will be a huge loss to the Siam Warriors Supershow’s. He did his gym and coach proud, but most of all he’s done himself proud. Enjoy the rest Champ!”
Ryan Sheehan (Siam Warriors)
“Irish Thai boxing got the news that James is hanging up the gloves for good, everyone who I know is a huge fan. Even my friends like to watch him, so, for people outside the sport to be a fan of him that’s big. Personally, I love to watch ‘Donkey’ fight because it’s just always a war. I saw him back in 2015 for the first time and it was really good to see that kind of fighter. Someone who’s been in the deep end a lot and always pulls out a win, so, you can’t say he’s not a legend of the sport. Pity our fight isn’t happening anymore since he broke his jaw (wish him a speedy recovery) but I also want to thank him for crazy years of hard work and friendship. And I wish him the best with his future.”
Karl Hodgers (Louth Thai) – Former opponent
“James was and still is an exceptional fighter, he had those things you can’t teach to many people that sheer grit and determination and a heart made of diamond. I’ve always admired that about him. He’s never had a boring fight and always gave 100%. I remember on a few different occasions when we fought having to tell myself before the bout how hard this fight was going to be. If you were to beat James you were going to work your ass off for it! The man just keeps coming! He’s relentless! And I love that! He’s always exciting to watch. And I’m honoured to have shared the ring with him. I hope to still see him at the many shows around the country.”
Anthony Walsh (Head-Coach Valhalla)
“What can be said about James that hasn’t been said…
“Since opening our gym we have shared the dressing room with the Courage crew at the majority of the shows we have attended…
“Our first encounter with Donk we met a wise cracking man with what I could only describe as a “unique” accent… behind the craziness he had the calmness and self confidence that many high-level fighters display, but as the night wore on what I could only describe as a darkness began creeping in… the jokes stopped and you could actually feel not tension but his focus in the dressing room…
“James O’Connell… Donk… The Joker…. was and is without a doubt the most entertaining fighter to have come out of our small country… never picking the easy fight….in my eyes he defines the very essence of what a fighter should be… humble yet confident… no shit-talk, just go in and do the job…. always forward never back and he never quit.”
The Fightstore Media team would like to wish O’Connell a happy retirement and the best of luck in his future endeavours.