Ireland will have to wait for their second medal of the Rio Olympics as Steven Donnelly’s welterweight campaign came to an end at the hands of world champion Mohammed Rabii.
The Ballymena fighter lost out to the Moroccan on a split decision in the 69kg quarter-finals, losing 29-27, 29-27, 27-29 to the gold medal favourite, leaving just Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor carrying the Irish flag in the Olympic ring.
Knowing victory would guarantee a bronze medal at the very least, the 27-year-old started furiously, landing early shots to the body in a bid to give Rabii pause for thought, but the world No.1 responded with a combination of his own that included a heavy left hook.
Donnelly’s fine footwork kept Rabii’s early successes to a minimum, the Irishman sticking a jab and retreating before the Moroccan could throw a counter.
Rabii did land a big left and was the busier of the two fighters but was missing as much as he was landing, with Donnelly landing a lovely left to the body of the Moroccan.
Another couple of shots found the mark but Donnelly was caught by a stiff right hook on the way out as the bell sounded for the end of a tight round one that all three judges gave to Rabii.
Donnelly was well in the fight, though, and Rabii seemed to recognise that as he struck with a big overhand right in the opening seconds of round two. Donnelly steadied himself and went to the jab but Rabii’s strength was beginning to tell as Donnelly was forced back onto the ropes with another big right.
Donnelly was still landing the odd shot but the light-footed Rabii was proving a hard target. The round seemed to be drawing to cagey finish until a final Donnelly flurry. A better round from the Irish fighter was rewarded by one of the three judges, but the others both went for Rabii, giving Donnelly a mountain to climb in the final three minutes.
Rather than going on the defensive, however, Rabii came out of his corner strongly and connected with a heavy shot that briefly unbalanced Donnelly.
Donnelly was beginning to have success but was still getting caught by Rabii, and any momentum the gutsy Ulster man was building evaporated when he received the first of two standing counts after an incidental clash of heads with just over a minute left in the fight.
That injustice was compounded when Donnelly found himself on the canvas and taking another count, in the final seconds. Rabii did connect with a right hand but Donnelly’s fall was the result of a trip over his own feet.