At the end of every Olympic cycle, a horde of bluechip prospects storms boxing’s pro ranks hoping to secure marquee promotional backing and begin the quest for glory in the pros. Team U.S.A., while chasing ghosts at this point, still generates some buzz about their Olympic roster’s potential; countries like Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are increasingly using the Games as a launching pad; and one can always daydream about seeing members of the elite Cuban squad punch for pay. The point is, there are always compelling storylines and potential future champions to track after each Olympics. The 2016 games, however, gave us someone a little different: Belfast’s Michael Conlan.
No boxer has ever used the springboard of an Olympic tournament quite like Conlan, a gifted boxer who won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Games, not to mention gold at the 2015 World Championships, in an amateur career that saw him scale virtually every height imaginable. And yet, Conlan is best known outside of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom for infamously — and correctly and somewhat heroically, it should be noted — standing at ring center and flipping off the panel of judges who sent him packing from the 2016 Olympics by gifting Vladimir Nikitin of Russia with a dubious victory.
Or at least, that’s the narrative the PR machine at Top Rank has pushed in turning Conlan into a budding star who has already claimed Saint Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden as his personal fight date, much the way Canelo Alvarez owns Cinco de Mayo in Vegas. But what’s fascinating when considering Conlan and all the attention he received from his defiance at the Olympics — not to mention his big Top Rank contract, constant comparisons to stablemate Shakur Stevenson, and a rising profile stateside — is that all of it pretty much rolls off his back. That’s because there’s something us naval-gazing North Americans don’t understand: Michael Conlan has been a massive star for years.
“After London 2012, I was already a household name in Ireland,” notes Conlan. “I’d had a kind of slow rise to fame, but then obviously when I turned pro it skyrocketed. But I felt I could handle it because of my amateur career that made me a big name in Ireland. But as soon as 2016 happened, and what happened happened, it shot through the roof. And honestly, it was absolute mayhem. I was kind of prepared for it, but at the same time, it was a lot.”
The past two years have been all about methodical progression for Conlan, who feels his development from prospect to burgeoning contender has been organic. It’s interesting to hear Conlan speak in such a calculated, measured tone partly because from an outsider’s perspective, his notoriety, rabid fanbase, and the attention he commands suggest something more chaotic. After all, Conlan’s pro debut took place on Saint Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden and he had none other than Conor McGregor walk him to the ring. It was the kind of debut few, if any, young boxers experience, and Conlan handled it with aplomb.
On Sunday, Conlan, who boasts a 10-0 record with six knockouts, will make his fifth appearance at the venerable Garden in his third consecutive Saint Patrick’s day fight. He faces rugged Mexican Ruben Garcia Hernandez (24-3-2) in a ten rounder and the bout kicks off a campaign that could put the affable featherweight on the path to world title contention. Looming this year, however, are two potential showdowns that compellingly link Conlan’s past and present: Olympic foe Nikitin (2-0), and supremely talented measuring stick Stevenson (10-0). Leave it up to Conlan to embark on a path to contention that’s more intriguing than most title reigns.
“You know what? I don’t feel I’ve performed anywhere near my actual level because I haven’t been facing the kind of guys who can bring that out,” Conlan asserts. “I don’t think any prospect in the world has faced the kind of pressure I have, all the attention, the media. Most world title fights, I would say, did not have the same atmosphere as my pro debut. I’m lucky I have that experience with pressure already and I’ve handled these situations before I needed to. That’s something I think will stand me in great stead when I do fight for a title.”
To properly prepare for the next, and more ambitious, phase of his pro career, Conlan amicably parted ways with trainer Manny Robles, who remains a friend, and decamped from the U.S. to London to work with Adam Booth. This means being closer to his family and it’s a decision that has benefited the young prospect both personally and professionally. Although Conlan has found in-ring success thus far, there was a sense that he’d somewhat strayed from the cerebral boxing style that brought him accolades as an amateur. With Booth, Conlan feels he’s now improving by rediscovering himself.
There’s always pressure placed on any bluechip prospect who signs a promotional pact with the likes of Top Rank, especially when they can tap into a fanbase the way Conlan does with his travelling supporters from the U.K., Ireland, not to mention the Irish Americans who also embrace him. But rabid support can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes, in-ring performances are expected to match or exceed the enthusiasm that fans place in someone like Conlan, which can be dangerous.
It isn’t as if Conlan was trying too hard to impress or was brutishly gunning for knockouts at the complete expense of skilled, cerebral boxing; rather, he simply needed a reminder that nothing drastic had to change. A hyper-aggressive pro style didn’t do anything in particular for Conlan because he had already connected with fans and impressed the cognoscenti as a more pure boxer.
“I think my progress has been perfect. I think everything has moved in the right direction, in the right time,” says Conlan. “But I wanted to get back to what worked for me as an amateur and that was using my boxing ability and my boxing brain. I felt that maybe I was falling into a bit of Mexican style, you know, take two punches to land three. I didn’t want that. That’s not how I box.”
But if Conlan’s progress has been “perfect,” there’s also a clear sense of where that progress is taking him. Indeed, it appears that Conlan and Shakur Stevenson are destined to not just fight, but perhaps define each other. Had Conlan not flipped off the judges at the Olympics, his signing with Top Rank alongside silver medalist Stevenson wouldn’t have been as compelling a storyline. Credit Conlan for that, because he expertly used his stateside notoriety to great effect, allowing U.S. fans to experience his natural charisma, which the boxing-mad U.K. public already knew.
Thanks to this exposure, Conlan and Stevenson have been linked before they ever officially punched for pay, and their inevitable showdown, which will occur while they are both in their physical primes, is a hotly debated subject. Conlan embraces this, and there is a certain amount of motivation that comes from tracking Stevenson’s eerily parallel rise. Conlan, though, has a clear idea of how narrative drives the pursuit of in-ring greatness and crossover celebrity, and he’s keen to point out that Stevenson isn’t the only storyline driving his fledgling pro career. Enter: Vladimir Nikitin, the supporting player in Conlan’s unforgettable Olympic standoff.
Only 2-0 as a pro, Nikitin will not catch up to Conlan in terms of bonafides anytime soon, but make no mistake, Conlan is dead set on righting the wrong from Rio 2016. His insistence during our interview that this fight must happen in 2019 speaks to his character, especially as a Nikitin fight is a risk insofar as it’s almost a backward step in his march to contender status and thus carries significant consequences in the event of a loss. The chance to correct a grave injustice, though, is too tantalizing to pass up.
“The Nikitin fight is the short term goal for me,” Conlan emphasizes. “And that’s for the simple reason that the wrong needs to be made right. That’s it. I want to put it to bed right away. That’s the last time I felt sad in the ring, and I never want to feel that again. I would hope that happens sometime this year. The storyline with me and Vladimir is huge. I feel records don’t even matter. We’re fresh from the Olympic Games, we both have a history, and I know he feels it as much as me. His career will be remembered for the controversial decision he got over Michael Conlan. And then, when we face each other again, he will be remembered for being knocked out by me. I do believe that when we face each other it will not go past six rounds.”
2019 could be when the hype and challenges converge, could become the breakout year for this young, eager prospect. The Nikitin and Stevenson narratives could in fact play out, and maneuvering towards a world title shot is the clear goal. Also certain is that all of this will unfold with genuine drama, the kind that seems to follow Conlan like his own shadow, and the kind that sells tickets. But make no mistake, Conlan isn’t afraid of that shadow; he doesn’t run from it and it doesn’t define him. The attention, scrutiny, and pressure are familiar territory for an ambitious fighter who knows how to harness, and, more importantly, relish it.
“I’m very grateful — to be Irish, first off — and to be able to hold that Saint Patrick’s Day date and to have such a fantastic following that travels all the way from Ireland and from all over America as well,” says Conlan who emphasizes that his authenticity, the kind on display at Rio 2016, is why he connects so well with supporters. And as for where he wants to be this time next year, the answer is direct and poignant: “Saint Patrick’s Day weekend. Madison Square Garden. A world title fight.” — Zachary Alapi