From the rage at Riocentro to plain sailing at the Titanic - Michael Conlan's road to the pro ranks

Michael Conlan will make his professional debut at Madison Square Garden on St Patrick's Day. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Neil Loughran

WHAT a difference from the last time Michael Conlan spoke to members of the press en masse. Then, it was just minutes after his Olympic dream had been left in tatters, and seconds since his expletive-laden rant on national television.

By the time he reached the tented mixed zone out the front of the Riocentro Pavilion, the fire had started to burn out. The RTE camera had borne the brunt of Conlan’s raw anger.

What remained was huge disappointment at the grim realisation that four years of blood, sweat and tears had come to nothing.

As he made his exit, accompanied by dad and coach John, Conlan kicked a nearby water bottle with such force that it threatened to land somewhere close to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro.

Gone was his dream of standing on top of that podium. Gone was the gold medal he so craved. And gone too, or so he thought, were the big-money offers to turn over to the professional ranks.

This wasn’t how he had pictured the summer panning out.

“The money side of things is what I haven’t really thought about yet – what this has probably cost me. Olympic gold medals write cheques,” said the 24-year-old in the days after his controversial exit to Vladimir Nikitin.

“I was planning probably a few more holidays than I should have because I was thinking I’m going to have an Olympic gold medal, I’m going to be getting money thrown at me.

“I might not be going on as many holidays as I expected.”

Fast forward nine weeks, and the landscape could hardly be more different.

Sitting inside Belfast’s Titanic building last Friday, at the foot of the famous stairs, Conlan is flanked by manager Matthew Macklin on one side and Top Rank president Todd duBoef on the other.

Now this - this he had pictured.

In the hours after inking a deal with the American promotional giants in September, pictures surfaced on social media of Conlan and Top Rank supremo Bob Arum flipping the bird to the camera - a nod to his infamous one-finger salute to the ringside judges who prematurely brought the curtain down on his amateur days.

Conlan stands by his actions and words that day, but admits he is becoming a bit fed up with being asked to strike that familiar pose by selfie-hunting fans.

“I am you know. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who gave the finger, and I know I won’t be.

“I went to Liverpool there for the Bellew fight and I gave the finger more times in Liverpool than I have in my whole life.”

Undoubtedly though, and unknown to him at the time, the strength of that reaction in Rio back on August 16 - and the column inches it generated – has proved every bit as lucrative, if not moreso, than landing an Olympic gold.

“I hadn’t seen the fight but I was looking at the Newsstand app on my phone that day and it was like the Michael Conlan show, I just couldn’t believe it,” admits duBoef.

“I didn’t go to Brazil, but I had a friend who rang from Brazil and said ‘are you signing that Scottish fighter?’

“I said ‘you mean the Irish kid?’ and he said ‘yeah, it’s going crazy, it’s all over here’. When I saw that I was like, there’s something special here.”

Conlan had been on duBoef’s radar since shining at London 2012 and, now that they have their man, Top Rank are determined to make him a superstar.

And as he makes the transition to the paid ranks, starting with his pro debut in New York’s Madison Square Garden on St Patrick’s Day, duBoef says any concerns about Conlan’s temperament must be viewed in context.

“If he was a pro and that occurred, he would’ve sat in front of a bunch of government-appointed commissioners and they would have been holier than thou and would have fined him and suspended him for four or six months,” said the man who also signed the likes of Floyd Mayweather jnr and Oscar De La Hoya to Top Rank.

“I worry about temperament, but I think this is different. The whole circumstances were different. To see his passion is a good asset. He was real, and he’s going to become better because of that.

“It was a perfect storm, and his response was his response.”

Last Friday’s press call was the official launch of his career back home in Belfast. But the journey really begins on November 10 when he and Macklin head out to Los Angeles to meet up with prospective new trainer Manny Robles.

As the head coach of the LA Matadors team in the World Series of Boxing (WSB), the competition through which Conlan booked his place in Rio, Robles is well aware of what a talent he is getting.

And if he wasn’t already, he’d have been filled in by Jason Quigley. The Ballybofey banger has made huge strides under Robles’s tutelage, and Quigley has warned his former Irish team-mate that he might not be welcomed into the Rock Gym with open arms straight away

“Jason was saying that with a big name like me coming into the gym people might want to take my head off, but to have him there I’ll feel a bit more at home,” said Conlan.

“They might not like me, but hopefully they grow to like me. I’ll make sure they respect me and I’ll put a bit of manners on anyone who steps in the ring and tries to take my head off.”

Along with fiancée Shauna and baby daughter Luisne, Conlan will move out to LA full time at the start of January to begin a new chapter in a career that has already had more highs and lows than the average boxer.

“Rio’s in the past, it’s forgotten about, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m looking to the future,” says Conlan.

“I want to go down as Ireland’s greatest-ever fighter. When I think about it, I want to be remembered the way the best are remembered, the likes of Hagler and Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mayweather.

“I’m not saying I’m going to be better than these guys but in my head I have to think like that, and I know I have the ability and the heart to do it.”

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