Onwards and upwards for Conlan
Michael Conlan’s show of disgust in Rio created an indelible image — and won him sympathy. Now, Conlan tells Andrew Harrison, he’s looking to build a legacy with a Hall of Fame pro career in mind.
Overlooking the corner of Violet Street and Cavendish Street, amid a tired maze of multi-coloured terraced houses just off the Falls Road in west Belfast, lives a weatherbeaten mural of Michael Conlan wearing a fighter’s scowl and an Olympic bronze medal.
As the patrons of nearby Lennon’s newsagents and neighbouring St Paul’s Catholic Church passed to and fro early last summer, few would have imagined that prize - won at flyweight in 2012 - would be the gifted Ulsterman’s final Olympic honour. Or the events that would conspire to deny Conlan the gold he’d been favoured to win in Rio that would, paradoxically, make him a star.
In the three years following the London Games, Conlan moved to bantamweight and swept to Commonwealth, European and world championship gold. Heading into last year’s Olympics as top seed, Conlan encountered Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in the quarter-finals. It was a bout fated for infamy.
After losing a controversial decision, universally criticised, Conlan ripped off his vest for the final time and flipped the ringside officials a middle-fingers riposte. His tirade against AIBA after leaving the ring —where he termed the governing body “fucking cheats” live on Irish broadcaster RTÉ — went viral.
His was an indelible image: a bellicose grimace, a shock of black hair; porcelain skin with the rosary etched around his neck, and a gesture of defiance that embodied every amateur that had ever exited a tournament disheartened, bewildered, incensed. AIBA has since stood down all 36 Olympic officials (referees and judges), pending the results of an ongoing investigation.
It’s a glorious morning in Northern Ireland, blue skies and bright sunshine belying the sharp cold. The would-be king of boxing strolls into a bustling Belfast gym. Dressed for the weather in grey bobble hat, blue quilted coat and black gloves over golden fists, he explains the philosophical approach he’s taken towards the Rio debacle.
“There’s nothing I would’ve wanted more than to win the gold medal,” he says, seated on a wooden bench in a deserted upstairs changing room. “But I think even if I’d won the gold medal, I wouldn’t have had the publicity I got after what I did. I think what I did was just, after everything that’s happened with all of the judges having been stood down and stuff. I kinda made a mockery of the whole organisation. I think it’s a blessing in disguise.
“I said what I had to say and I showed true emotion. People have liked what I’ve done.”
An instant hot property, Conlan was inundated with offers to turn pro. Despite overtures from Golden Boy Promotions, it was Top Rank who convinced him to relocate to the US with a rumoured $1m signing fee. They’ll enhance Conlan's profile with Irish communities along America’s East Coast initially and he’ll make his dream debut on St. Patrick’s Day: topping the bill at Madison Square Garden’s downstairs theatre, New York.
"Offers came in before them and I was torn between a few because there was big, big money on the table,” he says. “But then Top Rank came in and it was an easy choice. Not only because they’re the best promotional team in what they’ve done with fighters of the past - they came in with the highest offer also, and blew everybody else out of the water. It was an easy choice.
“[Golden Boy] weren’t the team for me. They couldn’t do anything to make me want to go [to the States] but when Top Rank came in, it was an easy choice. And once I spoke to my family [fiancée Shauna, a legal secretary, and daughter Luisne, Irish for “Little Flame”], they were all happy to go - so that made it even easier.
“I know what’s ahead of me and I know I’ve got bigger fights ahead of me, so this, this is just the start of it. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited, I’m not nervous. I just want to get it going now. I’m very grounded. I know my ability and what I can do. I know what I have to put in to get there.”
Macklin’s Gym Marbella (MGM - now rebranded as MTK) will handle Conlan’s management. Conlan’s close friend and former teammate Paddy Barnes - “He’s godfather to my child and I’m going to be godfather to his recently born child [Barnes’s second daughter, Fianna]” - was pilloried recently by some sections of the Irish press for signing a promotional deal with the same outfit, due to MGM’s perceived links to organised crime figures. It was criticism Conlan felt was unwarranted.
“I don’t know why he’s been criticised for being with MGM,” Conlan says. “It’s a great boxing set-up and is doing so good for boxing in Ireland and in the UK with the amount of boxers they’ve signed up and the amount of shows they’re running. Matthew Macklin is probably one of the best brains in boxing and I’m very grateful to have him as my manager.”
It is a partnership that could have been sealed earlier, because Conlan contemplated going pro after losing a questionable decision competing for the Italia Thunder franchise in AIBA’s World Series of Boxing (WSB), which put his participation in the 2015 world championships in doubt.
However, his father John (part of the national coaching set-up), brother Jamie and Ireland head coach Billy Walsh persuaded him to stay amateur. “I’d fought seven fights in 14 weeks and in one of the fights I fought in Kazakhstan [against home fighter, Kairat Yeraliyev],” he says. “I thought I beat the Kazakh in every round and one judge gave me every round and the other two gave split rounds: 3-2 and 4-1 [to Yeraliyev]. I felt like they’d done me purposely and I thought my [opportunity for] qualification had no chance now. I knew my last [WSB qualifying] fight was in Venezuela and I was just going to go out and turn professional after the fight, no matter whether I won or lost.
“I made that fight [in Venezuela] tough because I just went in to try and knock the guy out. The crowd was unbelievable. The crowd were cheering the whole time. I just felt that it was a hard fight, the crowd were amazing and I had to show them a bit of appreciation instead of doing some crazy stuff like [in Rio]. Luckily enough I didn't, because I ended up qualifying.”
Conlan cruised through to the world championship final in Doha, Qatar, when, two rounds to the good against Murodjon Akhmadaliev of Uzbekistan in the final, he walked on to a jackhammer right hook.
“It was the first time in my whole career I had been down,” he explains. “It took the sting out of the whole world championships for me because I was more embarrassed than anything that I’d been put down. He hit me with a great shot. It was a peach of a shot - that kid’s knocking people out left, right and centre.
“I got up. I battled on and won the fight. I was winning the round, also. He just tagged me right on the sweet spot. It was more my forward momentum going into it. He stepped back with a check right hook - he was southpaw. He just tagged me and I was on the floor and I was like: ‘What the fuck happened there?!’
“Listen, I always knew I could take a shot. I’ve been hit by big, big punchers and never went down. I’d never been put down with a body shot - nothing - until that shot. That kinda actually knocked my confidence a bit as I’ve always felt invincible, but now I know I can be tagged if I get careless and walk on to punches.”
Conlan rallied to secure Ireland’s first ever amateur world championship and he feels that success, coupled with his experience in WSB, will allow him to be fast-tracked in the pros.
“With WSB, you’re fighting the best in the world every time you’re in the ring,” he says. “You’re not fighting journeymen. I know what it’s like to go in there and have a tough test in front of me over five rounds. I was able to control the pace and slow it down if I needed to. I think it’s done me wonders in learning how to fight at a different pace and control it and not take punishment.
“If you look at all the greatest [fighters] they’ve always had a great amateur background. People say some amateurs don’t make good pros and that’s true, but at the same time, the best pros were always good amateurs. I think the amateur background is vital. I think I’ve had a great amateur career.”
Conlan has already started his transition at The Rock Gym in Carson, California, under his new coach, Manny Robles.
“I’d been looking at Manny for a good while,” he says. “I’d seen him in WSB a few years ago with the LA Matadors and then working with [Donegal middleweight] Jason Quigley. He looks like a real good coach. If you look at that gym, you've got [WBO world champion] Jessie Magdaleno — he's my weight, super bantamweight. And then the weight above, you've got [featherweight contender] Oscar Valdez. And you’ve got brilliant prospects like Emilio Sanchez. There are great prospects around my weight division — at my weight division and above. Sparring is a big part of the reason I picked it because you need good sparring partners to progress and advance in your style.
“It makes me happy that other people have their targets on me and they’ll want my name [on their record]. It means I’m not going to have an easy fight. Everybody’s going to come in to win because they know if they beat me it can propel them. It’s exciting. I like people who are going to come and try to hit me because it means they’re going to leave themselves open and I’ll expose them.”
Influenced by the showmanship of Sugar Ray Leonard and Naseem Hamed growing up, Conlan’s been inspired of late by the success of Irish MMA sensation Conor McGregor. As the Big Apple turns emerald green in March, “The Notorious” McGregor will lead Conlan out at the Garden carrying the Irish tricolour.
“What Conor has done is unbelievable,” Conlan notes. “He’s taken the sport of MMA and the organisation of UFC to the top of the world. He’s probably the biggest sporting icon in the world at the minute, I would say — combat sport anyway. What he’s done is phenomenal. I’ve shown already I have character and I’ve shown already I have class. I think I have all the ingredients to make it to the top and do a McGregor: grab that kind of fan base.
“People are either tuning in to watch him get beat or tuning in to watch him win. Either way, they’re tuning in and paying his bills.
“I’m very confident — a person who speaks confidently about himself. You know, I think people like that. I always say it’s not cockiness. It’s not. It’s just pure 100 per cent belief. Most sports people are all by the book now and they’re all reading off the same hymn sheet. Me? I’ll be honest. If I don’t like someone, I’ll say I don’t like them. I think I act different to everybody else.”
Conlan’s oldest influence, elder brother Jamie, is an exciting 18-0 super flyweight on the verge of a world title shot. Nicknamed “The Mexican”, Jamie (one of four Conlan boys — Michael being the second youngest) is renowned for being drawn into ring wars (“He’s very surprising. Sometimes he’ll look the best in the world and next time he’ll just go in there and war and you’re like: ‘What are you doing? You’re a hundred times better than this.’”).
Coming up in the blue collar Falls Road area, Conlan was another kid who found his way out of a dead-end via boxing — a unifying force that continues to bridge deep-rooted divisions. Conlan bounced between St. John Bosco ABC and Clonard Boxing Club during his amateur days, enjoying an invaluable stint with the former (although finishing his career with the latter).
“Just like every young lad, you fall into a rut with your mates and you start doing things you shouldn’t be doing like messing around with drugs and all that kinda thing,” he says frankly about his teenage years. “But you know, I wouldn’t say I’m different to most of the kids in my area. They’re good kids but some people just fall into the wrong things at times. I was very lucky to get out of it.
“Jamie was in John Breen’s gym and my boxing club - I was with St. John Bosco at the time - were training there, in the pro gym, as they had no facilities. I was always watching Neil Sinclair and Eamonn Magee and Mark Winters and those type of guys - Jim Rock and Paul McCloskey. I was always there and watching them. I was learning how to roll from a young age. You don’t see many amateur fighters rolling, or even slipping or moving their heads - they’re always straight up on their toes. I think I kinda took that away and added it to my amateur style. It had big benefits.”
Now Conlan’s ready to roll as a pro - under punches and over opponents. The ambition isn’t a world title, or for his image to adorn more gable ends across his home city. The engaging Conlan, 25 years old and with the world at his feet, states a lofty aim in an off-hand way.
“I’ve done a lot in boxing already and I’ve seen the world,” he says. “For me really, I want to be Ireland’s greatest ever fighter. That’s my aim as a boxer: To be Ireland’s greatest ever fighter and one of the greats of boxing. To be remembered as a Hall of Famer.
“I know what it takes and I know what I have to do. It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be long, but at the same time I know I have the ability to do it. All I have to do is put the work in.”