Michael Conlan’s getting his Irish up
It is fitting that the most exciting Irish prospect takes to the ring on St. Patrick’s Day but how Michael Conlan came to the attention of most boxing fans was most unsaintly. Conlan is known as the brash Irishman who stood center ring and flipped off Olympic judges after losing a controversial decision to a Russian opponent at the 2016 Olympic Games. Now Conlan is looking to make another bold statement, with just as much venom but expressed in a more constructive form. If Conlan’s boxing ambitions are met, fans will only remember his Olympic gestures as the opening salvo of an explosive career. That is in the future, for now Conlan has to convince and excite fans in his ESPN appearance (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) tonight as a special attraction, celebrating the long history of great Irish boxers.
Americans love a boxer with attitude and Conlan has that in abundance. A strong set of boxing skills, developed over nearly 350 amateur bouts, of which Conlan only lost 14, should overcome what bravado may not. Boxing is a family tradition with the Conlans; his brother Jamie is 19-1 (11) and a former Commonwealth champion, while his father trains the Irish amateur national team. The Belfast-born brawler has started his pro career with five wins, four by knockout, in just under a year. It is a sign of Top Rank’s confidence in Conlan that they have reserved the St. Patrick’s Day date at Madison Square Garden, for the next four years, in the expectation that the Irishman develops into a star in the mold of Miguel Cotto.
The featherweight continues matriculating with his first scheduled eight-rounder and the 26-year-old is in a hurry to engage in more significant fights. Conlan’s ambitions are as clear as his punches, telling PunditArena.com last year, “In this game, you need to know what you want to do and you need to know who you want to face. You want to face the best fighters and I believe (WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl) Lomachenko is probably number one or number two pound-for-pound at the minute. I can see myself facing him in the future and beating him in the future. I’ve got some catching up to do but I believe, if you give me a little bit of time, I’ll be there,” though Conlan’s eyes remain fixed on tonight’s foe. “I want to take this guy out because I think it’s all about entertainment. But I’ll only take him out if it feels safe to do that but I believe I will.”
Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, of Top Rank, who beat back suitors on both sides of the Atlantic, rushed to sign Conlan after the Olympics. Arum is enamored with Conlan’s mix of positive attitude and ambitious mentality. “We’re big fans of ‘Mick.’ Only the top guys I have had thought that way early on. Floyd Mayweather (Jr.) used to come to me and say (about fighting top opponents), ‘In another six months, I’ll fight that guy.’ The top, top guys, by and large, had that philosophy and Conlan is showing that. They don’t have the experience yet but they have the desire. They want to run before they can walk.”
An aspect Conlan has over Vasyl Lomachenko is an engaging personality and a flair for theatrics. Conlan believes there is more to the sport than just boxing, “I always said I wanted to be that showman and you saw it last year with the entrance (UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor accompanied Conlan to the ring, prior to Conlan facing Tim Ibarra) and stuff. I want to get fans enjoying boxing, not just the fighting side, but the whole event, the entrances and that stuff,” especially at his adoptive home base in New York City. “Fighting here is like a birthday present every year. Fighting at the Garden on St Patrick’s Day…It’s very hard to say there’s a better place in the world to fight because the atmosphere is amazing. They get to enjoy it and they’re always rowdy. I don’t think there are better fans than Irish boxing fans and I think that shows every time an Irish fighter gets into the ring.”
Conlan is getting back to his Irish roots, in more ways than one, having recently made the move back over the Atlantic to train in London. Conlan had been based in the U.S.A., since turning professional, at Manny Robles’ gym in California, where he regularly sparred with champions like Oscar Valdez and Jessie Magdaleno. It was a difficult decision but the deciding factor was being closer to his family, which is about to grow by one, as his second child is due in a couple of months.
In fact, Conlan believes he may have been held back, in some aspects of American training methods. Conlan appreciated the fantastic sparring but thought much of it was wasted on gym wars that did not further or employ his boxing skills. “That year in the U.S. brought a different style to my game. It was a style of me going to war, which I need to break in training because I am going into spars, trying to take guys out. I was going in with that ‘kill or be killed’ attitude, rather than a learning attitude.” Still, Conlan says he is building on what was learned in America. “There was nothing technical behind it, so I need to break out of that. I think Adam is the coach who will help me achieve that and add to the game I have picked up from the U.S.”
Conlan is finding his footing and footwork in England, with trainer Adam Booth, who gained acclaim guiding Conlan’s fellow Belfastman Ryan Burnett to the IBF and WBA bantamweight titles. Conlan sees that as a path to follow, “I believe I am in the right place with the right coach to bring me onto the next level, to where I need to be and that’s world titles. I do have a technical boxing brain and I’ve always been a good fighter, so I just need to get back to those roots.” Once Conlan has made a decision, he won’t be dissuaded, a stubborn Irish trait if you will. “I believe this is the coach now who I will finish my career with. I’m a loyal guy, not one who chops and changes much. I was in the same amateur gym for most of my life.”
His team sees 2018 as the year to shift Conlan’s career into a higher gear and he’s ready to deliver on all fronts. Conlan expects an early challenge from power-punching David Berna, telling The Irish Times, “He’s definitely a bit of a step up. He has a nice record – 15 wins and 14 knockouts and only two losses, so, on paper, it’s a big step up but, when I go in there, it won’t look like much.” Conlan wants to deliver a great performance for St. Patricks Day revellers. “Top Rank knows I can sell it. It’s great to be on it but I know why I’m on it – because I can sell seats! And I know I have to impress when I’m fighting on such a big stage and, when Top Rank are backing me to do the business, I’ll win and I’ll win in style on Saturday.”
Arum is keen to facilitate just that and plays every advantage he sees in Conlan, “I think being Irish never hurts because there are so many people in the United States, around the world, who identify as being of Irish heritage. He’s only going to get better and he’s a future star of boxing. I expect a big performance from him this weekend.” Conlan is used to lofty expectations and is accustomed to delivering upon them. “I want to be challenging for world titles. I’ve been to the pinnacle of amateur boxing, so I know what it’s like to feel the weight of a country’s hope on my shoulders. It’s been unbelievable and I’m very lucky to be Irish.”