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Michael Conlan is gold medal favourite - Billy Walsh

Michael Conlan won gold at the World Championships in Doha last October, but finds himself third favourite heading into the Rio Olympics
Neil Loughran

FORMER Irish head coach Billy Walsh believes Michael Conlan is the number one candidate to win a gold medal at next month’s Olympics, despite bookmakers rating him third favourite to land the bantamweight title.

Ahead of Conlan with the bookies are Cuban Robeisy Ramirez - who beat the west Belfast fighter in the semi-final en route to flyweight gold in London four years ago - and the relatively untested American teenager Shakur Stevenson. This came as a huge surprise to Walsh, even though the Wexford man is preparing to lead Team USA - and Stevenson - into the Rio Games following his acrimonious exit from the Irish set-up last October.

Walsh was in Conlan’s corner when he became the first Irishman to win a gold medal at the World Championships last October and has seen the Clonard switch-hitter make huge strides since returning with a bronze medal in 2012.

Stevenson has huge potential, insists Walsh, but Conlan is edging close to being the finished article: “He’s good, but I think it’s bizarre,” he said when told of Stevenson’s odds.

“Shakur Stevenson is an exciting young talent, but he is young, only just turned 19, he’s never fought at a major championship at senior level. He fought in WSB [World Series of Boxing] and did well, beat a few lads in it, but how can you make a fella like that a favourite when you look at Michael Conlan’s track record?

“He’s the best in the world. But look, somebody must be putting money on him. I’m not even sure how people would have heard of Shakur because he hasn’t been out at a major championship. For me, I don’t know how they can look past the current world champion.”

Ramirez looked destined for great things when winning gold in London, but there have been suggestions he has become disillusioned with the amateur game in the time between, while a move to the pro ranks hasn’t materialised.

Walsh saw him earlier this year for the first time since 2012 and feels Conlan has little to worry about: “Ramirez has fallen from grace - Michael Conlan’s a far better fighter than Ramirez at the moment," he added.

“I watched him qualify in Baku, he struggled. I watched him down in Buenos Aires in the Americas qualifiers and he was terrible. This is a different guy than Michael Conlan fought in the Olympic semi-final. Michael is far more mature and far better.”

Highly-rated American teenager Shakur Stevenson is inexperienced on the international stage heading into the Olympics
Picture by USA Boxing

Conlan is not the only Irish fighter whose downfall Walsh could find himself plotting, with Nico Hernandez (light-flyweight), Antonio Vargas (flyweight), Carlos Balderas (lightweight) and Charles Conwell (middleweight) on a possible collision course with some of Walsh’s former charges.

In the women’s draw, meanwhile, Mikeala Mayer will be among the chasing back attempting to dethrone Katie Taylor. It will be a strange experience, admits Walsh, if a member of Team USA is paired with a fighter wearing a green vest, but it’s an outcome he’s had nine months to get his head around.

“It’ll be a weird experience I suppose but, at the end of the day, my job is here. They pay my wages and my job is to make them successful," Walsh said.

“The only thing I will say is I know all the Irish guys inside out - they don’t know the American boxers like I know the Irish guys. I know the talent and experience the Irish lads have. Some have had over 100 internationals - Antonio Vargas got to the final of the qualifier in Baku and it was his sixth international fight.

“They’re novices on the international stage and how they cope with an Olympic Games is something I have to see. Only when they get on to the big stage with the media circus and that fantasy island people call an Olympic Games will we know how these guys will perform.”

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