The beaming smile was on Michael Conlan’s face before he even ducked between the ropes for his first Olympic contest.
He had seen his baby Luisne in her mother’s arms on the arena’s giant screen.
The smile that mattered though was the one he put on the faces of Irish officials here by winning a unanimous points decision over Armenian bantamweight Aram Avagyan. To say it averted a crisis in their ranks was not to exaggerate.
— Boxing Ireland Promotions (@LoveIrishBoxing) August 14, 2016
By the time Conlan came to fight, the Irish team of eight had been reduced to two — Conlan and Olympic champion Katie Taylor, who has her first fight today (3pm).
Steven Donnelly and Brendan Irvine had been the casualties on Saturday.
Donnelly fought well against the overwhelming challenge of world number one welterweight Mohammed Rabbi but Irvine was out-classed by Uzbeki Shakhobidin and was probably fighting as a flyweight in a weight division too heavy for him.
“In four years’ time I will be perfect for it,” he said.
So Conlan’s arrival in the ring was the cavalry to the rescue of beleaguered coaches. He had been in Rio 26 days since leaving Belfast and the face had grown longer as the team was stripped by defeats.
“I was most gutted for Paddy because he’s my best friend. We’re more like family and to see him lose was heart-breaking because I wanted us to win gold together,” said Conlan.
“I was gutted seeing the other lads losing but I am here to do a job. I still think I am going to win gold. I love the fact that people are resting their hopes on me. I was the ‘big hope” before, so there’s no added pressure.”
Conlan refused to accept the general consensus that this Irish team lost its mojo when Billy Walsh left for a job with the US team.
“People keep going on about Billy Walsh and it’s getting annoying because Zaur (Antia) is looking after us and my father has always been my main man in the corner. I don’t think we’ve lost much. It’s a series of unfortunate events and it is what it is. But we’re here for gold and the fact Billy’s not here doesn’t mean anything.”
Conlan won a unanimous verdict. Only one judge even gave his opponent a round but Conlan was nothing if not honest.
“It was probably one of my worst performances of recent times. I wanted to box him today but I got dragged into a war. I knew I could out-box him if I needed to. My head said ‘box him’ and my legs said ‘fight him’, so I had to go with my legs. I was in situations I didn’t need to be in, risking cuts.”
But he was laughing all the same. Daughter Luisne does that to him. “To see that (on the screen) gave me such a kick and took the seriousness away from it and made me laugh,” he said.
“She does these wee boxing moves, and shadow boxing around the house with her gloves on. So for her to be here at the Olympic Games and seeing me go on to win gold is a brilliant thing.”
Conlan’s quarter-final opponent is a Russian, Vladimir Nikitin, who beat Conlan at the 2013 world championship when Conlan had moved to the 56kg division only a few weeks earlier.
“I watched it on YouTube when I was in the gym the other day. If they were scoring it like my last world champs, I’d have been given a couple of 10-8 rounds,” claimed Conlan. “I’m delighted I’m fighting him. He takes a lot of punishment and I’ll be giving him more.”
Beyond that lies a possible semi-final against American Shakur Stevenson. “Shakur is a big name all over the world. It will be fantastic to be in the ring with him and take that victory because of how big the American market is for sport.”
And for Conlan. Three more wins could see him exploiting that US market as a professional with a golden Olympic pedigree.
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