Conlan's "wee drama show"
"It's fuckin' snowing in New York and I'm going to be walking about in sunglasses like a dickhead." - Jamie Conlan
After another stirring night in the ring, the plight of Ulster super flyweight Jamie Conlan – a boxer who attracts 'Gatti' hashtags whenever he fights – was perfectly illustrated by Charlie Webster, reporting for BoxNation, when she remarked quizzically to colleague Derry Mathews: "Where do you think Jamie Conlan's best? Is it when we see him in the wars? Or is it when we saw [him] in the first six or seven rounds of that fight? Who is he? Where is he more comfortable? Because to me, he seems more comfortable in a war."
Conlan had just seen out a split decision win over rowdy Nicaraguan Yader Cardoza in Belfast, late Friday. He'd tried to box clever but had been dropped once more, when a right uppercut to the temple leadened his legs in round eight; and he'd finished another contest masked in blood, after the ridge of scar tissue beneath his left eyebrow burst open yet again.
This wasn’t supposed to have been the Conlan way any more. Marbella-based trainer Danny Vaughan of Liverpool had steadily worked on the Northern Irishman since they teamed up two years ago, coaxing him into boxing easy as they home in on a world title fight at 115 pounds. After posting epic victories in back-to-back Fight of the Year candidates against Mexican Junior Granados and Geordie Anthony Nelson between July 2015 and April 2016, the penny belatedly seemed to have dropped, when he carefully outpointed Hungarian David Koos over eight uneventful rounds in November.
Against Koos, Conlan's palpable sense of unease filtered down to ringside. Physically superior, Conlan would surely have halted Koos had he been permitted to set about the visitor with his scything left hook. You could feel his restlessness at being kept on the bridle. Yet aggression often invites punishment. For Conlan, that brings periwinkle eyes spattered in blood, bruised ribs and a face full of stitches.
On Friday Conlan comfortably outboxed the unheralded Cardoza, 22-11-1 (6 KOs) for seven rounds, with high hands, a quick jab and decent movement around the ring. In his post-fight interview with broadcaster Steve Bunce, however, he revealed how dissatisfied he'd felt fulfilling such an unnatural role: "He [Vaughan] was saying: 'You're boxing brilliant' for the first few rounds, and I was going to myself 'you're talking shite here – something's gotta happen'."
Something happened in round eight. Cardoza, chasing a losing cause, crashed a whipping punch off the side of Conlan's head before driving him backwards down to the mat. After sprinting over to a neutral corner, the South American thrust his right hand aloft in triumph. Conlan, though, was back on familiar ground. As Cardoza hurried to deliver the coup de grâce when Conlan rose at eight, the Belfast native put his head down and gritted his way through to the bell – swinging his left hook with abandon.
A dark-haired, handsome fellow with a likeable personality, Conlan's marketability and fan-friendly style may have made him wealthier in a heavier division. His high cheekbones and jutting eyebrows, though, are a curse for any prizefighter. After regaining control in the ninth, he lost it again in round ten, when the 28-year-old Managua man surged strongly to rip Conlan's left eye open with a jolting straight right.
As blood breached the vaseline and streamed down his face, Conlan – brought up watching the great modern Mexican warriors Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera - gutted his way through to the final bell to secure a decision win via scores of 115-113, 114-113 and 112-115. His overriding concern in the aftermath was that the fans had enjoyed it.
Thirty-years-old and now unbeaten in nineteen fights with eleven knockouts, Conlan fights in a tough division. Spearheaded by Nicaraguan marvel Roman Gonzalez and Japanese 'Monster' Naoya Inoue - both rated among the best fighters in boxing at any weight - Conlan will need to tread carefully if he is to achieve his world title dream.
Gonzalez and Inoue hold the WBC and WBO belts respectively. A fight with England's Khalid Yafai, the current WBA title holder, may prove difficult to make. A more obvious target is the IBF champion Jerwin Ancajas of the Philippines – who was reportedly paid the pittance of $3,750 for his title-winning triumph over Puerto Rican McJoe Arroyo last year.
Jamie's younger sibling Michael makes his high-profile professional debut in New York on Friday. Though Jamie couldn't avoid turning up covered in bruises, he has pledged never to bring his own particular brand of pandemonium - the "wee drama show" as he terms it - to Michael's undercards for the sake of his kid brother's emotional well-being.
Michael spoke of their bond in conversation with Boxing Monthly recently: "I was in the same weight division [as Jamie] in the Ulster seniors in 2009," he said. "He got a bye to the final because he was the defending champion. I beat the guy who last beat him to get to the final and Jamie said: 'Look, I'm going to go professional, so you take the title.' It was Jamie who kickstarted my senior career and put me in the limelight. He could have stayed and gone to the Commonwealth Games the following year but he let me take the title and I'm very grateful for it.
"Out of all my brothers [there are four Conlan boys], he's the one I'm closest to. We go through the same thing every single day: training and fighting. He'd be the first person I'd text and the first person to know anything about me and I'd be the same with him.
"Jamie just seems to get in the 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.’"
The trick is to convince him of that. Should Jamie land his title shot later this year, a challenge that would demand the performance of his life, which version will show up, the boxer or the brawler? And which one is better?
Perhaps all we can be certain of is that he'll never quit and he'll make use of those shades. And win, lose or draw, the wee drama show will thrill us all over again.