Conlan's happy homecoming
Lee Gormley reflects on Michael Conlan's Belfast homecoming on Saturday night...
‘It’s coming home’ is a phrase that has been heard a lot in recent weeks. But for Michael Conlan it held a different meaning than most.
From New York and Chicago to Brisbane, the former Irish amateur star has enjoyed a fruitful rise to prominence abroad in the professional ranks.
There’s no place like home, though, and following those successful career-building performances abroad, the latest fighting pride of Belfast made a welcome return to the city where he learned his trade on Saturday night.
Headlining what was one of the most fan-friendly cards of the year so far in the UK or Ireland, with dramatic clashes running from start to finish, the 26-year-old rallied to a dominant 79-73 decision victory in his first fight in Belfast since literally giving the middle finger to the amateur game.
At a rapturous SSE Arena, performing under the Top Rank and MTK Global banner, Conlan entered the arena and made his way to the ring with the crowd nicely warmed up, having found their voice early on during proceedings.
With fellow Irish competitors Jono Carroll and Tyrone McKenna lighting the crowd up with their captivating bouts, the latter proving his bottle in a decision defeat to Jack Catterall after Dubliner ‘King Kong’s’ sublime stoppage showing over Declan Geraghty, Conlan’s solid display was a calming way to close out the show.
After that electric entrance into what was his first fight on home soil since 2010, and his first ever as a pro, Conlan had a tentative opening round. Working out his Brazilian challenger from the orthodox stance, the returning Belfast hero edged ahead in the opening three minutes.
Conlan began to get into his stride and find a rhythm in the second and third, regularly switching to southpaw and jabbing from the waist, a trait undertaken by many of those under Adam Booth’s tutelage. Hands low, countering swiftly and showing some nice movement around the SSE Arena ring, the home favourite took the fourth without much trouble too.
Keen on impressing in front of the partisan crowd, Conlan showcased the range of his abilities in the fifth. First battling up close with Dos Santos then lowering his hands while ushered into the corner, riskfully bobbing and weaving the incoming shots before spinning out of any danger.
The Brazilian upped the tempo in the sixth round, attempting to rough up his Irish foe, but Conlan refused to be bullied and didn’t look fazed during their inside work, despite tasting a hefty uppercut.
Dos Santos was able to provide a sterner test for Conlan towards the end of an otherwise comfortable night’s work for the Irishman. But it was ultimately a happy homecoming for the young star being groomed for superstardom by those involved in his promising pro journey, securing a points triumph across eight rounds.
It was evident from Conlan’s high-profile debut last year that he is being primed as Ireland’s next big boxing star, one to take the mantle from Belfast legend Carl Frampton when he eventually calls time on his illustrious career.
Such is the stature of the shows Conlan has been building his professional profile on, there was always going to be added pressure. He admitted to feeling a little more jittery than usual in the build-up to this home showing, despite his debut having come at a sold-out Madison Square Garden Garden Theatre on St Patrick’s Day!
That’s understandable and from here on it will likely only get bigger and better for the young prospect. Top Rank’s Bob Arum now faces something of a dilemma with his latest ticket seller. Does he showcase Conlan across America, keep him closer to home or continue to provide his Belfast supporters with a close-up view of his progression?
MSG has reportedly been booked for St. Patrick’s Day of each year for the foreseeable future and, if Conlan’s path goes as desired, he’ll be gunning for a title shot at some stage in the next couple of years.
There’s a long way to go for the latest in a long line of Irish fighters aiming to make their mark on the sport, but Conlan possesses that likability factor and genuine appeal that puts bums on seats. Much like former two-weight world champion Frampton, who has become arguably the best ever boxer to lace up a pair of gloves from the Emerald Isle.
It’s that huge backing that Arum will look to continue to capitalise on over the next few years, matching Conlan in a way that will see him maintain his steady progression up the career ladder. All the while tickets sell out for each passing event and his reputation soars.
Whether it’s at featherweight or super-featherweight, there will be plenty of interesting match-ups to come to fruition in the coming months and years for a hopeful and highly-driven Conlan. Shakur Stevenson is a former amateur rival and the duo's career trajectories are seemingly parallel, with all the signs pointing towards a prosperous future clash.
Some have criticised Conlan's early ventures into the paid ranks, and there’s still plenty of room to improve and advance for Ireland’s latest boxing light, particularly in Booth’s stable alongside the likes of compatriot and world champion Ryan Burnett.
You could argue that the magnitude of the cards Conlan has graced so far as a pro may not do him any favours with huge pressure and expectations now placed upon his young shoulders.
But the hugely popular Belfast native has already proved he can deal with the heavy burden just eight fights into a promising career which looks set to soar to new heights after a satisfyingly successful homecoming.