The Irish Eye in NYC: Michael Conlan - the 'Mecca' of debuts
On Friday 17 March, at the 'Mecca of boxing' - Madison Square Garden in New York City - Bob Arum and Top Rank put on a show for the ages, a debut like nothing ever seen before in boxing, as world amateur champion Michael Conlan made his introduction to the professional ranks with a third-round stoppage victory over Colorado's Tim Ibarra. Boxing Monthly online's 'Irish Eye' Kane Clarke was in NYC for all the action. Here is his definitive account of an extraordinary few days...
Fight week started with some panic, as weather warnings were issued, flights were cancelled or delayed and blizzards swept across 'The Big Apple', but not even Storm Stella could spoil the party as roughly 2,000 Irish fans travelled across the Atlantic in time to make the St Patrick's Day event of the year - Michael Conlan's professional boxing debut.
Throughout the whole week there was a special atmosphere around the city, roughly 500 Irish fans showed up for the weigh-ins alone, and it wasn't long before the chants of 'Ole' were ringing out as the fighters took to the scales.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that this was a PPV world-title event rather than the debut of a young lad from west Belfast.
Every Irish bar in Manhattan had someone, somewhere telling the Yanks that you have to keep an eye out for this "Kid called Conlan" who's a "sure thing" to be the "next big thing".
The media packed out the Theater on Wednesday for the final press conference and Bob Arum explained how the decision came about for Michael to headline at The Garden in March, having signed with Top Rank last September:
"We decided that it would be on St Patrick's Day, Why? Because St Patrick's Day here is a green line down Fifth Avenue where people drink a lot of beer and so forth, but St. Patrick's day is celebrated because it commemorates St. Patrick running the snakes out of Ireland, and so it is really fitting that Mick fights on St. Patrick's day, because he ran the snakes out of [the] AIBA [the amateur International Boxing Association] ... after he sounded off, something like twenty or more of them got fired, and a lot of their executives were fired, and hopefully amateur boxing will benefit from that."
Michael's manager and former world-title challenger Matthew Macklin also talked about the importance of the Irish support: "Irish fight fans have been a sleeping giant, John Duddy - who is very well known here in New York, boxed here at Madison Square Garden many, many times, sold loads of tickets and had a fan-friendly style, Andy Lee boxed here [and] always sold well, myself boxed Sergio Martinez here in the Theater for the world middleweight championship.
"But I think the real star, the guy who has really woken up the sleeping giant that is Irish fight fans, is Conor McGregor, not a boxer, he's an MMA guy, but he has shot to superstardom - he's probably the biggest name in contact sport, and he's going to be carrying out the Irish flag on his [Conlan's] ringwalk."
When Mick took to the stage, dressed in an amazing St. Patrick's Day themed suit, with green waistcoat and tie, he spoke with total confidence as he always has done throughout his boxing career.
"I've had a long training camp, its been great," he declared. "It's felt like it's been forever. I've been signed up with Top Rank since September, so it's been a long time. This feels like it's been a long time coming, I'm looking forward to going in there and putting on a performance on Friday night, I know there's lot of hype around it, but, I'm going to make you believe the hype, it's as simple as that.
"Tim's going to come to fight, he's 4-4, he's had a full training camp, he's a hungry fighter, he wants to put bread on his table, but unfortunately for him on Friday night, I'm going to have to knock him out, it's as simple as that, and I have to look good doing so, and I'm looking forward to it.
"It's going to be a great night, we have Conor [McGregor] coming out with me, he's going to carry the tricolour, I asked him at an event in Belfast and he said it would be an honour, so we've been in touch and he arrives tomorrow or Friday, and to have him - one of the biggest stars in combat sport at the minute - carrying the tricolour in for me ... it's a complete honour, I'm very grateful."
The bad weather eased off a little as Thursday - weigh-in day - dawned, although it was still bitterly cold as mounds of hardened snow ran parallel down every street in Manhattan, while the ice-breakers did their level best to keep the roads clear and the incessant traffic moving.
Accompanied by my father, uncle and some friends of the family who travelled from Michigan to witness Michael make his debut, we made our way to Stewart's Hotel facing 'The Garden' to meet up with Mick's brother who had very kindly arranged some tickets for my family and friends for the weigh-ins.
The weigh-ins were an event on their own - the noisy Irish crowd had Arum smiling from ear to ear, surely realising that he had picked up a real box-office gem in Conlan, who already was being given the superstar treatment.
Conlan came in without an ounce of fat on him, ripped to absolute shreds, tipping the scales at 122.8lbs, slightly over the super-bantamweight limit, while his opponent Tim Ibarra came in at 123lbs. The pair then posed beside each other for the media photos.
Conlan went for the standard raised clenched fist, whilst Ibarra initially flipped the bird to the cameras, perhaps trying to get one up on Conlan who has made the middle-finger salute his own since the Rio Olympics. The head-to head was intense, lasting a couple of minutes before a smile from the Irishman brought an end to the stare down.
I left the weigh-in and made my way to The Pennsy Bar at the side of Madison Square Garden to meet with my family and friends. The bar was filled with boxing enthusiasts, including Charles Hill of IntelligentBoxing.net, who was in town to watch GGG vs Daniel Jacobs, and pulled up a seat beside us.
He wanted to know all about Conlan and what he could expect from him - it seemed the whole world was interested in this debut. Radio City from Liverpool asked me to come on air and talk to them about what we can expect from the 25 year-old amateur sensation, while American accents were constantly asking, "are you here for the Conlan fight?" which is pretty incredible when you consider how many unsuccessful efforts pugilists from Ireland and Europe have made trying to break into the lucrative American market.
Yet here was Michael Conlan already being spoken about as the next big thing in world boxing, before he had even thrown a punch in professional anger.
Finally fight day arrived in NYC - of course it was not just fight day, but also St Patrick's Day - one of the biggest dates in the New York calendar, as hundreds of thousands lined the streets and bars around Manhattan to celebrate. Everywhere you looked people were decked out in green or in some type of uniform; members of the New York Fire Department could be found in every Irish pub in the city drinking Guinness and telling every passing Irishman that they were also a quarter Irish.
The celebrations continued throughout the day, with the premier attraction being the parade which passed down through Fifth Avenue, but the main event of the day was still to come, as thousands of fans made their way through the overly crowded streets of Manhattan to 32nd Street and the Mecca of Boxing, for the much anticipated debut of Mr Conlan.
The halls and entrances were crowded with fans draped in tricolours in full voice as they entered the basement of the Garden. After picking up my credentials I made my way to Row 4 seat 10 in the press area - I was happy to find my good friend Joe 'the writing pride of Ireland' O'Neill of irish-boxing.com sat next to me, while behind us up on stage was One Direction's Niall Horan who had come out to support his fellow Irishman. Big names in the boxing world in attendance included former world champions Evander Holyfield and Sergey Kovalev.
Before the main event began, a group of Irish dancers took to the ring to put on an outstanding performance, showcasing footwork that Michael himself would have been proud of, the crowd were lapping it up, as they clapped and sang along to Kirsty MacColl's 'Belle of Belfast City'.
The intense atmosphere created by the sold-out crowd of 5,102 in attendance was something that will live long in the memory. The 'sleeping giant' in terms of hardcore Irish fight fans that Matthew Macklin had alluded to in the press conference earlier in the week, had certainly been awakened.
As the action got ready to start, the master of all masters of ceremonies - Michael Buffer - entered the ring declaring "Let's get this party started!", perhaps forgetting that he was talking to over 5,000 fans who had already been partying for at least three days leading up to the event ... none the less, the crowd went in to overdrive as they awaited 'the fighting pride of Ireland's' entrance, and what an entrance it was...
Ibarra made his way to the ring relatively unnoticed after the short walk from the dressing rooms just to the right of the media section, but Conlan's entrance was just a little bit different...
Conlan and his entourage, accompanied by two-weight UFC Champion 'The Notorious' Conor McGregor made their way to the squared-circle through the manic crowd that had packed out The Theater. Conlan was dressed in an emerald green and gold short-sleeved, long-tailed robe with a top hat that was reminiscent of Apollo Creed's apparel that he wore for his famous first bout with Rocky Balboa. The Irish idol raised his arms in appreciation of the thousands in attendance who had came out to support him, while McGregor lifted the tricolour proudly behind him.
After all the pomp and ceremony, it was finally time to get down to business. McGregor made his way to the neutral corner to watch his good friend embark on his pro career, but not before he and Sergey Kovalev shared what looked like a slightly strange conversation at ringside which ended in a selfie between the pair.
As the action got under way, Conlan started behind the jab to the body, before switching to a big right hand over the top which just missed the head of Ibarra. He then converted his attack to the body, landing straight right hands to the torso of his opponent. Towards the end of the round, Conlan scored some beautiful left and right hooks that echoed around The Theater and brought a massive roar from the Irish contingent. But the jab to the head and right hand to the body were the key to the first round from Conlan, in contrast Ibarra landed next to nothing in a tentative but one-sided first stanza.
Into the second, and Conlan switched to southpaw thirty seconds in, landing straight left hands to the pit of Ibarra's stomach. The switch-hitting slickster continued to bamboozle his American foe by returning to an orthodox stance to land some nice jabs to the head, although he was coming up just short with the big right hand as Ibarra ducked out of range just in time and grabbed a hold of Conlan to avoid the shot.
Conlan again reverted back to southpaw to see out the second round, and landed some beautiful piercing left hands to the head of Ibarra who looked dejected as he made his way back to the corner.
At the start of the third of the scheduled six, Conlan started with three lightning fast jabs which brought praise from Manny Robles in his corner. Conlan was really settling into the fight, and the occasion on a whole.
A short right-uppercut left-hook from Conlan half-way through the first minute of the third round sent Ibarra into survival mode, with the Irishman smelling blood. A left hook from Conlan set up a massive right cross which landed with venom forcing Ibarra to hold on with all he had, but Conlan wasn't finished and went back to the body with two chopping right hands which clearly left their mark on Ibarra as he started to mark up around the body.
Conlan backed Ibarra into a corner where he again opened up with hurtful combinations to the head, before he fell through one of his own punches himself, ending up in the corner. However, he showed world-class footwork to immediately manoeuvre himself out of danger and again put Ibarra on the back foot.
Ibarra grabbed a hold of Conlan, trying to restrain the onslaught, but was met with digging uppercuts to the body and head in the clinch, before wriggling his way out, only to be met with three hooks to the head which forced Ibarra onto the ropes. A further onslaught of hooks to the head forced referee Benjy Esteves Jr to call a halt to the bout with just under one minute remaining of the round.
Conlan climbed the turnbuckle and raised his arms in glory to accept the acclaim of the packed-out Theater crowd who had come to support him. He was soon joined in his celebrations by his team and McGregor who also climbed the ropes to get in on the action and whip the crowd into a frenzy, encouraging them to "jump around" as the famous House of Pain song rang out of the speakers.
Speaking after the fight, Conlan said: "Tonight was something that I've never experienced before, and now even if I fight for a world title, I have the world-title atmosphere behind me, I'm happy with how things went and that I got the finish."
With so much hype around a professional debut, there was bound to be some nerves from the stand-out amateur champion, although he explained: "It wasn't like I was nervous, I just more wanted to impress, I wasn't nervous about my opponent, I was more nervous about myself and about me performing, because the atmosphere was crazy and there was a lot of expectations of me winning by a first-round knockout even though I said I was going to do it in the third round.
"I can show you all my messages, I told anyone that asked me I was going to finish it in the third round, that's why I kind of rushed it too ... I was just throwing punches at times just to try and get it done because I wanted to get that stoppage. Sometimes I was doing too much, I think I was relaxed enough, that's why I wasn't rushing my work in the first two rounds, I was trying to find my distance, and then sometimes during the rounds I was just looking for the big shots and throwing big overhand rights."
Asked whether the occasion was what he expected, Conlan commented: "Bigger. Sometimes guys don't get this for world titles, for me to have this on my debut, to have Conor McGregor carrying out the flag, who can say they've done that? We have Niall Horan from One Direction here.
"If I look like I'm breathing heavy I'm not tired, I could have done ten rounds there tonight, I've been doing a lot of rounds in the gym, I've been sparring world champions, I'm really fit at the minute, it's just the anticipation, the performance ... Matthew told me so many times be prepared, I was saying look I've been at the Olympic games, at a home Olympics in London with 9,000 people cheering me on.
"But it was nothing like tonight, it was nothing like a rowdy crowd that's been out drinking all day on St. Patrick's Day, and ready to cheer on their fellow Irishman, I'm just thankful for the crowd, they pushed me on they pushed me through it to get the stoppage, I wanted to impress."
Of the support from McGregor, Michael acknowledged: "I could hear him at the side, it's great to have the support of a fellow Irishman and fellow superstar like he is, so to have him there it was great.
"It kind of got to the point after the first ten seconds that this guy has nothing to hurt me and can't do anything, so I didn't care, I got reckless, and I was throwing stupid punches at times because if I knew if he had of threw his hardest punch I could have give him the kiss for it, it was that easy."
Concerning whether it was a 'dream debut', Conlan commented: "I think it was a debut that you could never have dreamed of, who has an atmosphere like that? Who has a ring walk like that? Who has a crowd going like that? I've been dreaming of this stuff since I was a kid, the ring walk has been in motion since I was twelve years old, it all played out and it worked well and I'm happy with how it all played out."
Michael's older brother Jamie, who is on the cusp of a world-title fight himself, made his way to New York a couple of days after coming through a war against Yader Cardoza for the WBC International silver championship the previous week, and his influence on Michael is obvious.
"Jamie's my brother, but he's my best friend as well," Michael admitted. "To have him around it was probably like Matthew [Macklin] and Seamus [Macklin] back in the day, you always need that person who is kind of really close to you and knows you inside out."
Asked whether he would now enjoy the St Patrick's celebrations, Conlan said with a smile: "100 per cent. I have an after-party lined up for the guys, I'll see how I feel, I'll go back [to my hotel], all I want to have now is some pizza, some donuts and some hot-wings, it's as simple as that, that's what I've been asking for all week, I've been following all the food porn on Instagram and stuff, just liking them all, watching and seeing what I'm going to eat! But you know I'm just looking forward to enjoying time with my family now."
In an interesting aside, McGregor was seen scoping out the front row of the boxing media as the post-fight celebrations were taking place in the ring, and had some choice words for Dan Rafael of espn.com whilst leaving the venue. Rafael has often written off McGregor's prospects in the much anticipated and rumoured fight against Floyd Mayweather.
"I'm the boxing guy!" McGregor yelled. "Watch me take over boxing, trust me on that! No one in this boxing game knows what's coming. Trust me on that. I'm going to step in there and shock the whole goddamned world. Trust me on that, Look me in the eyes, 28 years of age, confident as a motherfucker, long, rangy, dangerous with every hand.
"Trust me, I'm going to stop Floyd, and you're all going to eat your words. The whole world is going to eat their words." When somebody asked McGregor when the fight would happen, he claimed: "It’s getting close. Don’t worry about it. You’ll hear about it. I’m out of here." And with that, McGregor stormed away before briefly turning back and shouting, “I am boxing!”
As the fans finally made their way out of Madison Square Garden and back on to the cold streets of New York, many headed straight to that after-party at an Irish pub called Jack Dempsey's on 36 West 33rd Street, a five-minute walk from The Garden. I went with my family and friends to the venue as well, but the queue to get in was a little too big for my liking. However, it wasn't a completely wasted journey as I met undefeated Cork welterweight Noely Murphy and got chatting to him about his exciting home debut a few weeks previously and his Irish title hopes.
Having let the crowd die down for an hour, I decided to try my luck at Dempsey's again, this time I was successful and ran into the Irish boxing writing elite of Joe O'Neill, Gavan Casey and Leonard Gunning - together we decided to head to the famous boxing bar Jimmy's Corner for a couple of nightcaps and a chance to talk about the event.
All in all, a great weekend was had, and as I stumbled my way home through Times Square, wondering where on earth I was going and how I would get there, a random meeting with Jamie Conlan occurred around the 5am mark which, I have to admit, I can barely remember.
So if you're reading this Jamie, I apologise for gibberish that came out of my mouth, but I'm sure being an Irishman in New York on such a momentous day and occasion, you can forgive me.