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Interview: Michael Conlan – From Belfast to MSG

I was always going to go professional and what better way to sign off than telling them go f*** themselves.” – Please emphasise this Fiona.

From the streets of Belfast, emerged one of the greatest boxing talents this country has ever seen. Having progressed through the amateur ranks at home and abroad, and having encountered many challenges and setbacks, Michael Conlan rose above and made his name in the professional ranks. Recently the University Express spoke to Michael about his younger days, his amateur career and his road to success in the professional game.

Michael was born on 19th of November 1991. It didn’t take Michael long to find his real talent when he joined Clonard Amateur Boxing Club. “I was 7 years of age. My older brothers were getting into trouble, so they were made go to the gym and learn to defend themselves and I followed along

When admiring figures like Morales who was World Champion in four different weight divisions, Barrera who held multiple World Championships in three different divisions and Pacquiao, the only eight-division World Champion in history, it was clear that Conlan had big ambitions. “In boxing, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao. Outside of boxing, Henrik Larsson”. Larsson being one of Celtic’s most prolific goal scorer, netting 242 goals in 313 games, who also put Rangers hope of 10 league titles in a row to bed.

To make it to the top takes serious commitment. We spoke about Michael’s rigorous training programme and his beginning in the sport. How often did you train?   “Every night, my Father was the coach so I had no excuse for missing training. Even though I was getting into mischief, messing around, doing things I shouldn’t have, boxing taught me lots like respecting your elders”.

At what age did you know that professional boxing was the route you were going to take “I played lots of sports. At the age of 14 I knew I was good. My coach, Seán McCaffrey told me, you have to choose either boxing or the other sports. I liked to hit people so I knew from a young age. My father said, what have you done you idiot, you’ll never get a job, but he knew”.

In 2015, Conlan made history in Doha. He became Bantamweight World Champion with a 3:0 victory over Uzbekistan fighter Murodjon Akhmadaliev. He agrees that this was the highlight of his amateur career “Maybe the World Title, the best in the world. I became the first Irish Male World Champion. That was special because I made history. I became a celebrity overnight, I got real recognition and I became sports person of the year”. Amongst being crowned World Champion in 2015, Conlan has a European Gold and Silver medal, an Olympic bronze medal from 2012 and a Commonwealth Games Gold medal to his name.

Everybody remembers the controversy surrounding Michael’s exit from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, which was widely reported afterwards to have been fixed. This fight marked the end of his amateur career. “I was always going to go professional and what better way to sign off than telling them go f*** themselves. It was televised worldwide, my dream of being Olympic Champion was ruined. [The transition to professional boxing] wasn’t hard, it was quite easy actually, being the guy who got screwed over”. Although Michael’s dream was wrongly stolen from him, bigger things lay ahead for the Irishman.

After the fight with Nikitin, Conlan was disgusted, he could not enjoy his usual post-match meals with his family which put a dampener on the experience. “Usually after fights I pig out and be happy. After Rio, I didn’t put on much weight, I didn’t feel I earned it, I didn’t complete my task. In Rio before we came home, family and friends were eating out, I had that sickening feeling, I didn’t want to pig out”.

After the injustice at the Olympics, it was only a matter of time before the two would meet again to settle the score. The rematch between Conlan and Nikitin is scheduled for the 14th December in Madison Square Garden. Michael is really looking forward to the fight and he is leaving nothing to chance as regards preparation. “I’m really really excited. It’s a special fight, with extra fuel in the tank. When he pulled out [of the original professional fight], I didn’t think it would happen and it wasn’t bothering me. I must go in and do my thing”. It is a testament to Michaels professionalism taking nothing for granted. Nikitin is undefeated in his 3 professional fights to date and will not be a walkover. Despite the incident at the Olympics, Conlan holds no grudge against the Russian. “For me, there’s no personal ill feeling towards him. I must go in prepared, people think it’s a foregone conclusion. He has beaten me twice on paper, in 2013 and 2016. In 2013, it was close, thought I necked it, couldn’t complain about it. I don’t even need to explain 2016. I’m the underdog, I’ve something to prove. He’s no slouch, he’s not Champion of Russia for being crap, I must put in all the rounds

Its many young people’s dream to make it as a professional boxer, and the fame and fortune surrounding it. I asked Michael about his experiences at the top. “I love it, I’ve had fun, I’ve enjoyed it and it has been good to me, it hasn’t been a struggle”. He was not fazed by the big opponents or big crowds and arenas when making the step up. He took all that the professional game has thrown at him so far in his stride.

Anyone who witnessed Michaels electric walk on at his professional debut in New York would have to have been taken aback. For an Irish man to go to America and receive such an incredible reception and support was fantastic. The fight being held on St. Patricks Day only added to the festivities and excitement that surrounded the spectacle. Michael was paraded to the ring to the sound of bagpipes and thousands of fans singing along, with Conor McGregor carrying the tricolour. “Unbelievable, I kind of knew how it was going to go. I tried to rush the job, there was a lot of expectation on me. For an undercard pro debut, there’s not much buzz around, but I knew it was going to be like that, Main Event. Boxing 6 rounds worked very well, everybody loved it and we had a party in New York. [In Madison Square Garden] it’s a short walk out, but I wanted a big long entrance. I was the first man to demand the long walk on. Having McGregor brought an extra buzz too”.

Michael has varied his walk on music for his fights so far, but ‘Grace’ is an ever-present song. The love song about Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising 1916. The music is a vital element of the entrance and it has importance to Michael. “You need it to get you going. That’s what I was about, big entrances. [Grace] is a special song for me. I love how people know it and sing out, it gives you the feeling of being supported”.

No matter what sport you play, there is nothing more special than competing in front of your home crowd. Michael was lucky enough to fight in the Falls Park in August of this year. He came through the encounter with a ninth round TKO victory over Diego Alberto Ruiz despite picking up an injury to his hand during the fight. Conlan is looking forward to returning to the Falls Park next year. “It’s a special place for me to box. It was a fantastic night. 100% The Falls Park again, next year it will happen”.

We discussed what the future holds for Michael, and what his intentions are for the future.  “My goal is to be Irelands greatest ever sportsperson. It’s something I believe I can achieve. I’m on my way but there’s still a long way to go”.

One of Ireland’s most successful boxers and naturally gifted fighters extended his undefeated professional record to 12-0 with the victory over Ruiz in Belfast. In an era where Ireland has produced many sporting heroes in boxing, soccer and athletics to name but a few, to hear Michael’s enthusiasm to become the best is brilliant to see. He shows the belief and courage it takes to make it to the pinnacle of competitive sport. When Conlan returns to the ring in December, there is no doubt that the fans will descend on Manhattan in their thousands to support the fan favourite where hopefully he will avenge injustices past, and further pave the way to being the greatest.