Walking from a snow-capped Madison Square Garden to Times Square with Michael Conlan only a year ago would have taken all of 10 minutes.
On Saturday night, 24 hours removed from the Belfast super-bantamweight’s professional debut at The Garden’s sold-out ‘Theater’ arena, that same 10-minute stroll turns into a 45-minute slog through the icy Big Apple breeze, as dozens of fans emerging from Gennady Golovkin’s sensational world middleweight title scrap with Danny Jacobs spot Conlan outside the venue.
They bashfully request photographs before departing with ‘well dones’, ‘good lucks’ and fawning man-hugs, in disbelief that he’d be walking amongst them outside having headlined a couple of doors down just a night previous.
“It’s been absolutely mental since I got here. Way more than I thought,” says Conlan, still smiling having handshook his way free of the masses on 7th Avenue. At that exact moment, a couple of Belfast lads spot him before engaging in a hearty conversation with their hero. They concur with Conlan’s assertion that Golovkin got a tad lucky on the judges’ scorecards, out of earshot from the flag-wielding Kazakhs.
There was a surreal element to all of it; Conlan headlining at MSG’s smaller Theater for his professional debut, and selling all 5,102 tickets a full 3,200 miles from home on Belfast’s Falls Rd — much to the vociferous excitement of the American Top Rank Promotions official who roared that very fact in the direction of press row on about six occasions.
The fight production, too, was bizarre and enthralling in equal measure. Only a tiny pocket of fans caught glimpse of Conor McGregor’s matinee as he emerged on the platform behind the press section, head bobbing to the attritional tune of rapper Fetty Wap, fists pumping towards no one in particular.
Thankfully, a shamrock suit-clad Niall Horan immediately upped the out-of-ring ante not metres from where McGregor swiftly retreated, roaring encouragement at ‘Siobhán’ as a band of Irish dancers displayed their own elite footwork in the ring.
Moments later, McGregor reappeared atop the Theater’s main stand, Tricolour aloft, to a borderline maniacal greeting, leading Conlan down a tunnel of outstretched arms and lit phones before exiting stage left, literally, after Michael Buffer’s introductions.
Conlan was labelled ‘The fighting pride of ALL of Ireland’ as per the Belfast debutante’s instructions, before ditching the Apollo Creed-leprechaun hybrid get-up and going to work on opponent Tim Ibarra beneath the spider’s web of golden Friday night lights.
Outside of a neutral corner, McGregor’s extremely loud instructions to one of Ireland’s greatest ever pugilistic talents — which included ‘be more playful’ — were interspersed with a peevish exchange with boxing’s feared light-heavyweight great Sergey Kovalev, who appeared to take umbrage with the UFC star’s over-the-shoulder snub as the Russian attempted to introduce himself.
The former novice boxer would later accost the assembled boxing media having warmly shaken hands with a number of them just three rounds prior, snarling at those with a laptop in hand that he was going to shock the world should he eventually meet his combat sports soulmate in Floyd Mayweather.
As McGregor indicated to the broadcast, after Conlan had found his range and rhythm in dispatching Ibarra to wild celebrations, this was Michael Conlan’s night.
The fans left to further choruses of olé olé, a pocket of ten or twelve of them hanging over a barricade and singing it to a cackling Evander Holyfield. Some 5,000 dispersed upon the New York streets having witnessed what was undeniably a special occasion, even if its main event was a formality. Conlan graded his initially nervy performance with an ‘F’ — even if it was more of a C2 or C3 — but displayed enough A-side potential to justify the hype surrounding his US arrival.
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