‘Golden Boy’ Michael Conlan must start all over again

Michael Conlan has shed domestic celebrity to start from scratch Stateside in the unforgiving pro game, a game he wants to put back centre stage when he eventually returns home...
‘Golden Boy’ Michael Conlan must start all over again

To a cacophony of howls and gasps from an audience of 3,500 fight fans at Dublin’s Citywest Hotel, Willie ‘Big Bang’ Casey slumped into referee Stanley Christodolou’s arms.

Defiled. Dejected. Defeated.

In a singular stanza, the Limerick super-bantamweight had found himself on the receiving end of a barrage of needle-like left hooks to the body, combined with head-snapping jabs.

A storm had blown in from Central America, and Casey — on whose slight frame weighed the hopes of a watching nation that Saturday night — had been beaten Cuban red and blue.

Having dethroned former Bernard Dunne victim Ricardo Cordoba of Panama just four months previous, it had taken two-time Olympic gold medallist Guillermo ‘El Chacal’ Rigondeaux 169 seconds to remain the WBA super-bantamweight champion of the world.

“It’s all over,” declared Jimmy Magee, as the lights of RTÉ’s big fight coverage prepared to dim.

“Willie Casey — a great big bang, a great heart, a great fellow. But the Roy of the Rovers story for him, I’m afraid, has a bitter ending.”

Considering the monumental success of Dunne — the cocksure and charismatic Dub who had bashed the belt from Cordoba at The Point in 2009 — the Irish boxing community could scarcely have predicted that Casey’s sobering defeat a mere two years later would transpire to be professional boxing’s swansong on terrestrial television in Ireland.

Cash-strapped RTÉ, for whom the lack of a definitive annual schedule rendered pro boxing a precarious venture from a budgetary standpoint, slipped out the side door.

Brian Peters, too, took his leave, at least from his promotional role. And so disappeared the hearty renditions of Sweet Caroline and the Hunky Dorys decals which had become so synonymous with Irish sporting weekends for half a decade.

Like a botched New Year’s firework, Big Bang went down with a regretful groan, and professional pugilism in this country teetered on the precipice of being extinguished by the economic firestorm.

Almost six years on from the Rigo-Casey non-event, now a faded memory in the bowels of Irish boxing’s collective subconscious, the pro sport is threatening its own nuclear detonation following a similarly deflating conclusion to Ireland’s Olympic boxing campaign in Rio.

“I’m under too much stress when I’m back home, if I’m honest,” says Michael Conlan. “I’m always doing things and always busy. At the minute, I’m not getting enough time off for training and it’s becoming extremely hard.”

The 25-year-old family man is audibly aghast at the prospect of yet another drive back up the M1 to his native Belfast — his umpteenth since becoming, in Rio last summer, one of the most recognisable faces not just in Irish sport, but in Ireland.

“I just can’t wait to get over to America and be nobody again,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting over and just being a regular Joe, and going into the gym and putting in that hard work day upon day which I always do, and training to be the best I can be.

“I’m going over on the back of an amateur career, but the amateur stuff is behind me now. In America — let’s be honest — they don’t give a shit about an amateur pedigree, or any big medals. They know who’s a good fighter and who’s not a good fighter. That’s all it is.

“My name from the Olympics is probably the biggest thing. I did notice when I was in America that a lot of people were coming up for pictures with me and doing the finger thing, but I think that’s just because of me and Bob Arum doing it when I signed with Top Rank — not just what happened in Rio. They do like that kind of stuff over there.”

In September, the 2015 World amateur champion inked the biggest paid deal in Irish boxing history, with Top Rank’s signing-on fee alone making him a millionaire. The promotional company which paved the careers of bona fide all-time greats such as Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler had identified Conlan as their number one target months prior to the one-fingered salutes and pointed tirade against the age-old spectre which looms large above boxing’s vested ranks.

The ‘finger thing’ as it were, simply expedited the process, while his phone registered the incoming calls from more stateside prefixes than he could have anticipated had he progressed to win gold at the Games, rather than rage at the injustice of that defeat by Russia’s Wladimir Nikitin.

Set against Conlan’s box-office status, it’s difficult to believe that, two years ago, one of his Olympic predecessors, Andy Lee, returned home from America to a hero’s welcome at Shannon Airport, WBO World middleweight strap proudly perched on his shoulder. The Limerick middleweight was the first Irishman since the great Jimmy McClarnin to traverse the Atlantic and claim world honours on US soil.

But the amiable Lee, despite significant acclaim, was unable to secure the major commercial deals his achievements arguably warranted.

To his pique, the hiring of his first ever agent proved relatively fruitless such was the lowly regard in which boxing was held by corporate Ireland.

One Olympiad later, Lee’s compatriot finds himself in the unprecedented position of having become too marketable for his own sanity.

His ticket to LA is one-way and Conlan welcomes the transatlantic descent to normality.

“I’m not the Golden Boy anymore,” he says. “I have to prove myself again. It’s me, a young kid, coming over. Fresh start. I haven’t had that feeling since I came on to the Irish team in 2011. It’s a great feeling. It’ll probably change fairly rapidly, because I know how good I’m going to be.

“But being in America — it’s a big country. Being in LA — it’s a massive city. I’m not going to have much time to do anything else except training every day and spend time with my family, which I can’t wait for.

“And I know I’ll not have to be doing all of the running around with people asking me to help with this and that — and do this thing here and do that thing there — because I’ll be literally a no-one in the States.

“I’ll be nothing to nobody. It’ll be nice for the first while, anyway!”

Conlan flew this week to the Rock Gym in Carson, California, which will play Ground Zero to Irish professional boxing’s potential resurgence — Stateside at least.

Here, Conlan teams up with esteemed trainer Manny Robles and, more pertinently from an Irish perspective, a former Irish team-mate in undefeated middleweight sensation Jason Quigley (12-0, 10 ko’s).

The Ballybofey bomber arrived in LA when he was signed by Oscar De La Hoya to Golden Boy Promotions in 2014, European gold and World silver medals tucked away in his suitcase.

So close are ‘El Animal’ and Conlan that, during their formative years, they holidayed in Magaluf together. The former’s recent vow that he’ll show Conlan about town is waved off. Fiancée Shauna might be listening.

Business will naturally take precedence, and despite boxing under rival banners, both Conlan and Quigley border on rabid in their insistence that they’ll bring big-time fights back to their homeland.

The key difference is that Conlan’s 2017 homecoming is contractually mandated.

“I want to fight in Ireland,” he says, eyes widened at the very notion. “I said it to Top Rank. They didn’t really care before that, but I said to them: ‘Listen, I want it in my contract that I am definitely fighting at home.’ It was only then they said to me: ‘Oh, yeah! We want to build you back in Ireland as well’.

“Because promoters will tell you they’ll bring you home at some point, but you never get the guarantee.

“So I had it put it in my contract that at least once — and it could be more if it goes well — but at least once, I’ll fight at home every year. Bar none.

“Which other American promoter would do that, you know? If I get that in my contract, that from my debut onwards, I’ll fight at home at least once a year... [Top Rank] are special in that way. My promoters are the best in the business.

“But of course you also need that fanbase. The fans in Ireland are obviously incredible. They’re a different type of fan to any fan in the world.”

Belfast will go bananas when that feverishly anticipated return comes to pass in the autumn.

For now, however, Conlan has the Big Apple in his sights.

He flies back across the States for a press conference next Wednesday at Madison Square Garden’s Chase Square. To promote St Patrick’s Day. Headlining a talent-stacked card, and just a night before reinvigorated compatriot Katie Taylor begins the American leg of her own professional odyssey at the same iconic venue’s larger ‘Arena’.

Midtown Manhattan would have been rendered green by Conlan’s presence alone; still astonished, he reveals that over a thousand tickets have already been spoken for by Irish fans planning the 6,000-mile round-trip. There’s an even greater onus, then, to perform — both inside and outside of the ring. And such is his nature, Conlan turned to one of world sport’s most notorious showmen, not for advice, but to blast the ante all the way to orbit.

“Yeah, Conor McGregor will keep his word, for sure,” he says.

“We’ll both walk out together and Conor will be carrying the tricolour, on Paddy’s Day, behind me. It’s going to be extremely special.

“We’ll raise the roof. He is the hype machine. Everything he touches at the minute seems to be turning to gold. The fact that he’s on board and willing to come along and support me, just shows I’ve earned a bit of respect in the fight world. But to have him there with me, two Irishmen... It just brings the whole thing to a new level.

“What I have planned for my debut is going to be mental. The ring entrance, everything — I have the whole thing planned. I even have my kit picked already. It’s Prince Naseem kind of shit! I’m not copying him or anything, but the way he made a show coming out to the ring, I’m going to make a show, and make entertainment for boxing again.”

The heir to Conlan’s RTÉ Sports Personality Of The Year throne, McGregor, despite his fervent backing for Irish practitioners of the sport he left in his rear-view, remains an elephant in the room for boxing in this country. The UFC lightweight champion is near-universally lauded by Ireland’s fighters, but less so by its writers, with his astronomical success in a separate code of combat perceived by many scribes as an affront to the numerous equal — and indeed greater — pugilistic talents cast adrift by mainstream media while pro boxing jumped the shark.

Nonetheless, there exists an obvious intersection within the McGregor-Irish boxing Venn diagram: A unifying gripe with the State broadcaster.

For professional boxing, in particular, the silence has been deafening. That is, of course, unless you consider an 11:15pm slot on The Late Late Show — that coveted seven-minute interval between Francis Brennan’s bed-making exhibition and an in-depth natter with someone who probably owns a sandwich museum.

But with the emergence of Conlan and his considerable celebrity, along with his former team-mates in Taylor and Paddy Barnes, who scaled such lofty heights for their country throughout the past decade, a dust-covered window has been forced ajar. And Conlan, not alone in such a stance, eyes mutually beneficial opportunities aplenty as his new profession claws itself out of the swamp.

“I think RTÉ do need to get involved in the pro game again. Maybe they’re on a low budget, they probably can’t afford it. But if they can afford the rugby and they can afford the football... Well, I used to say: ‘Why don’t they branch out and show something that we’re actually good at? But I suppose we’re not doing too badly in the other sports now.

“But, we are very good at boxing, and there’ll never be a better time to hop back on board. I feel as though, for the professionals, 2017 will be like 2008 in the amateurs. In 2008, Ireland stood up, and from then on every tournament we went to, we won a medal. And that’s what it’s going to be like in the pros from next year on.

“This is going to be the golden era of professional boxing in Ireland. We’ve had the amateurs, and now that seems to be over. And so now it’s going to be the golden era in the pros. The next few years are going to be very, very exciting.”

Indeed, so minuscule is the Irish television market from his promoters’ perspective, there are even murmurs that Conlan may have secured the TV rights to his homebound throwdown next year.

Were this the case, RTÉ — the network on which he shook the amateur boxing world to its ‘rotten’ core last August — would be his first port of call.

Boxed, shelved and forgotten at the turn of the decade, RTÉ’s prospective return might be viewed as the missing piece in the rapidly re-assembling jigsaw that is professional boxing on this island. Of course, the blame for their absence lay not with Willie Casey for defeat nor the bleakness which followed as he crash-landed in 2011, his chosen craft in tow; the indomitable Guillermo Rigondeaux may well be the greatest fighter that has graced these shores.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, however, that from Irish professional boxing’s more recent ‘Big Bang’ there will be born several stars who can join him in such a pantheon.

In contrast to the summer, perhaps, that fate now rests in the furious fists of Michael Conlan and Irish boxing’s class of 2016.

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