With his fingers taut, angrily flexing skin-and-bone and biting down in disbelief, he revealed the indignation sharply drawn across his jawline. Michael Conlan (9-0, 6KOs) became the poster boy for amateur boxing during the Olympics – for all the wrong reasons.
One of Ireland’s most celebrated amateurs, ranked number-one with AIBA and a former World champion in the unpaid ranks – he’d suffered swindling in Rio which prompted investigations into corruption amongst judges.
It was an iconic image, from an event he’d dedicated four years of his life to attend.
Born into a proud Northern Irish family, Conlan had sneaked through the ropes for the first time after hero-worshipping his older brothers and his father. Part of the golden era of amateur fighters bearing green-and-gold, the youngest of the siblings had become one of his countries leading lights after initially being turned away from the gym.
“You know, my older brothers, they were kinda brought down to the gym by my father and they were told they had to do boxing! They had to learn how to defend themselves, I don’t think they really cared for it at the start but I just wanted to be like them.
“I just wanted to do whatever they were doing. So, I kinda followed them to the gym. Once I got in there, I was told that I was too young, but I kept going and kept going and I was there ever since. There was no stopping me after that!”
As with many young men bouncing around Belfast, Michael had tried his hand at almost every sport. Staying active and embracing the comprehensive sporting history of the City, he reached an important crossroads, trusting his instinct from a young age.
“There was [a time for me to make a decision]. I was around eleven or twelve, I was into every sport. I played football, gaelic football, hurling…”
“I was playing all these different sports. The older coach in the [boxing] club at the time said to me, ‘Right, you need to choose between these and pick one’. I had to pick boxing or one of these other sports. He said, ‘Pick wisely!’ and I think I did. I chose boxing because I was better at boxing than those other sports and here we are…”
He continued, “At that stage, I was really small! Growing up I was the smallest in my class and stuff. I was actually called ‘Wee Mick’! That was my nickname cos’ I was so small. Once the opportunity came [to focus on boxing] I had to grab it and I thought I was really good at boxing from a young age so it was an easy choice for me to switch it up.”
Winning the AIBA World Championship gold medal in 2015 and capturing an Olympic bronze at London’s 2012 Games had catapulted Conlan into the public-eye. The addition of a European Championship gold medal and a Commonwealth gold medal, only whetted the appetite for an inevitable stint amongst the sport’s top-earners.
The twenty-seven-year-old built his profile, with appearances on Ireland’s televised ‘Celebrity Apprentice’, four years before signing professional papers. It was a testament to his ability, but also to the strength of amateur boxing on the fighting island.
Only months after launching his tirade on the corruption he’d suffered in Brazil, media outlets reported promotional companies clamouring for the dazzling Irishman’s signature. One man would prevail, as he’d done countless times before.
“Bob Arum came in and put big money down. He blew the money out of the water, but for me it wasn’t about the money. It was about the plan and, you know; how are things gonna be structured in my career? What way are things gonna move in my career?”
Conlan continued, “Bob came in and he had the best plan. At the same time, he has a big soft spot for me! He’s the same type of character of me, just really honest and really upfront.
“He loved the fact that I was running about throwing the fingers up at the judges! That really made him attracted to me as a fighter and that was something I liked. He said he was all for it and that had been something I’d been worried about, I thought nobody wanted to come near me after throwing the fucking fingers up! But, once Bob said he loved it, I was sold!”
Their initial show together wasn’t your average professional debut, as Mick explained, “He told me I was gonna make my debut as the main event in Madison Square Garden in a six-rounder, I mean, come on! What other promoter in the World could come up with that type of shit? He loved it [the fingers being thrown up]! That actually made him want to be a part of my journey. I remind him of himself.”
I’d been in Madison Square Garden when Conlan graced the undercard of ‘Lomachenko v Rigondeaux’, with green draped on every bannister and the Irish dressed as Leprechauns in many of the City’s themed bars.
At that time, and ever since the inception of an exciting professional career, he was based in Hollywood, Los Angeles, training with Manny Robles. Ahead of his bout with former Commonwealth champion Jason Cunningham on the ‘Warrington v Frampton’ undercard, things had changed in the camp of the undefeated prospect. Scheduling a call was far easier with Conlan based in the same country for camp.
He detailed the reason for his relocation, “I decided last year, when we found out Shauna was pregnant in early November. I was thinking, ‘Listen, having two kids and being over here in America, far away from my family, it’s gonna be quite hard!’. I decided it was the best thing for us to do, change it up and move back home.
“It was the best decision I ever made and once I decided that was the plan, the only coach I thought would suit my boxing style, and the best boxing coach [in the UK], was Adam Booth. The question was, ‘Does Adam Booth have enough time to train me?’ and thankfully he does!”
The link-up with Booth, now a couple of fights into its duration, would come as no surprise to boxing fans in the United Kingdom. Often dubbed ‘The Dark Lord’ for his methodic approach to training and intense, minimalistic media interaction, he’s grown a hell of a stable in the past two years.
Times have changed since Adam Booth led David Haye into the most meaningful fights of a storied career as World champion. They’d even changed since his time with George Groves, splitting from Groves just weeks before the Hammersmith man’s maiden World title fight.
Booth now coached unified former-World champion Ryan Burnett, blue-chip talent Josh Kelly and recently celebrated the retirement of his fighter, former World champion and friend, Andy Lee. His intelligent style, slick upper body movement and focus on boxing’s fundamentals have many believing he is the best coach in Britain. For Conlan, however, it was more than just hitting pads and completing roadwork.
“You know what, from how I’d come to know Adam and how I know him now, I’d say he is really down-to-Earth, a real loving character who cares about the people he trains and cares about the people he spends time with. He’s not gonna waste time on anybody. If he thinks you’re gonna fuck him around, he won’t bother wasting his time. I refer to him as one of the best people I’ve ever met in boxing and the best coach I’ve ever worked under.”
Conlan opened up further on his coach, “He’s one of the only people who actually cares for his boxers and it’s very rare you find that in pro boxing. Some people are just after money, but Adam cares about everything he tells his fighters, inside and outside the ring. He cares about how you are as a person, as a human being and as a man. I think that’s very important. He really is like a father figure. He’s not just my coach – he’s my mentor in life.”
The pair are fully-focused on the task at hand, fighting Cunningham on December 22nd before the young father returns to spend the festive period with his loved ones.
He told me that Cunningham was a good test and was someone who’d help raise his profile at home. However, he was keen to state that tricky Brazilian, Adeilson Dos Santos, had been the best fighter he’s faced, without casting insult the way of the Doncaster man.
Conlan told me he fancied World honours by next Christmas, keen to realise his potential and grab titles either in the US or at home. His appearances at Madison Square Garden or in Belfast were rapidly becoming a ‘must’ for Irish fight fans. Though realistically, it seemed likely he’d face a longer wait for championship bouts.
But, what of that angry young man, strutting around the ring, jaws clenched, in Rio? Better still, what of the man who’d beaten him that night in the most peculiar of decisions? Vladimir Nikitin emerged oddly victorious, covered in his own blood and chasing his shadow, as he’d done for most of their fight.
Conlan broke news of their potential of rematch as professional fighters, “It’s something that I’m looking forward to. I know it’s gonna happen, I know that. It’s something that I want. I wanna make it really clear that I have no ill feeling towards Vladimir Nikitin because it wasn’t his fault that the decision went his way, he just benefited from it while I fell foul of it.”
“For me, that fight happening is very, very important. It’s one fight where I feel I was wrongly beaten and I do feel I will fix it, so I’m looking forward to that. I think it’s gonna happen very soon. I think maybe next June or August it seems like it’s gonna happen, or at the earliest it could happen at St Patrick’s Day, in New York. Either that or definitely in Belfast next summer!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209