Boxing

Belfast warriors Michael and Jamie Conlan talk macho, managers, Macklin and more with Andy Watters...

Jamie gives some encouragement as Michael prepares for his debut at Madison Square Garden on St Patrick's Day
Andy Watters

In round two of a major boxing feature, Belfast warriors Michael and Jamie Conlan talk macho, managers, Macklin and more with Andy Watters...

AW: Michael, you lost at the Commonwealth Games in India and then at the Ulster seniors one after the other, but you haven’t looked back since?

MC: I probably put in one of the best performances of my career against Declan Milligan (in Ulster) but for some reason I was beat 6-4. I said: ‘I don’t care, I’ll just go down and win the Irish seniors’.

AW: And you did and qualified for the London Olympics by reaching the quarter-finals of the World Amateur Championships?

MC: I fought (Nordine) Oubaali in the last 16 and I needed to win to qualify. He was number two seed and he put me down in the first round – I was off balance. I got up and changed my tactics – I went southpaw and I couldn’t miss him with the right hook. I just kept going right-hook, roll, right-hook, roll…

He won the first round and at the end of the second I was behind by two. At the end of the third I was ahead by three.

JC: It was one of the best days of my life. We were at home and we couldn’t get the fight. I knew he was down in the first round and he pulled it back in the second but there was no result, we couldn’t get a result anywhere. We were refreshing the page like mad and my mum was walking down the alleyway praying.

Then one of my brothers said ‘he won’ and me, my mum and dad, my missus and our Sean were jumping around the livingroom, going mental.

MC: Right hook, right hook… I couldn’t miss him and for being such an experienced boxer he just didn’t catch on. I fought him three times and they all went the same way. After it I was like ‘Jesus I’ve just qualified for the Olympics!’

AW: Then you took on Andrew Selby for a medal?

MC: Beating Oubaali took that much out of me I wasn’t even going mental. I fought Selby the next night and I’m not going to say making the weight affected me at all because I thought I won that fight. It was a great fight and I lost 25-24.

Sometimes you think that things happen for a reason because if I had won I would have his draw in the Olympics and he drew the Cuban (gold medallist Robeisy Ramirez Carrazana) early whereas I fought him in the semi-finals.

AW: That medal in London was a sign that you had arrived?

MC: That was the start. Up until that point I had been to two majors and hadn’t got a medal. The next one was a silver at the Europeans, then a gold at the Commonwealths and then gold from there on.

AW: But the pinnacle was becoming the first Irish fighter to win gold at the World Championships?

MC: Yes but I didn’t enjoy it as much as any other gold medal because I got dropped in the last round. I enjoyed it afterwards, but at that moment I didn’t enjoy as much as when I won the Europeans or the Commonwealth Games. It’s definitely still the best achievement of my career, but in the moment it wasn’t what I enjoyed most.

AW: Was it a macho thing because you’d been put down?

MC: Yes, a pure macho thing. Up until that point I thought I was indestructible, I thought I could walk through anything.

JC: He still does, in sparring he puts his hands behind his head and lets the sparring partner hit him in the stomach going: ‘you can’t drop me’.

MC: I don’t let anybody hit me to the head, but I feel I’m strong to the body, I never worry about bodyshots.

AW: Was being put down a reality check for you? It seems like you’ve learned lessons at the right times, right throughout your career.

MC: People think it’s been easy sailing for me and it’s pure talent that gets you places, but it has been a lot of hard work, let downs, injuries and times when I’ve doubted even coming back into boxing.

JC: Before every major tournament something went wrong. For the Olympics he did his nose after getting battered by Eric Donovan, before the World Championships he had a terrible camp and I remember driving him to drop him off for the Commonwealth Games and I had to push him out of the car – he was like a child, I had to push him out of the car.

MC: When I got on the bus I just went: ‘Okay, I’m going to win gold here’. I decided then I was going to win the gold.

JC: That’s what my da has instilled in him. He doesn’t go there thinking: ‘I’m going to win a medal’, he’s going there to win a gold medal. He’s driven more than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s wants to be the best and destroy everybody else.

AW: Do you have that Jamie? You’re fighting for a world title next month…

JC: Yes I have it. Our da has instilled it in both of us. We want to be better than everyone else and be the best we can be. Not just the world champion, the best ever world champion, not just the best in Ireland, the best ever in Ireland…

When he turned pro he said he wanted to be a three-weight world champion, the best boxer that ever came out of Ireland. In our society we’re told not to speak out like that, we’re told to toe the line and be humble…

MC: You have to be selfish. It’s a tough sport and you to take everything you can, while you can. If you say you’re going to be the best, you have to go and do it.

AW: I’m sure Bob Arum (CEO of Top Rank) wouldn’t want you going around saying you’re going to be second best?

MC: No he wouldn’t.

JC: Michael is brazen when he says things, but he’s more confident than cocky. When some cocky prick comes out with that, you think: ‘piss off’ but Michael says it with a conviction that makes you think ‘this kid must be able to do it’. He wholeheartedly believes he’s going to be the best ever.

AW: Rank the top five Irish fighters of all time?

JC: Carl is the top.

MC: Definitely.

JC: Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley is second, he doesn’t get enough recognition.

MC: Then Wayne McCullough.

JC: Then Steve Collins and then Barry McGuigan.

AW: Barry McGuigan comes in fifth?

MC: It’s different for Barry, his was a promotion. It wasn’t the opponents he fought – he fought them at the right time, he fought Pedroza at the right time.

JC: Then he went and lost to Stevie Cruz. Barry McGuigan doesn’t belong at the very top for his sporting achievements, but he became a legend for his media persona during it and after it.

MC: Carl’s achievements stand for all to see, but his media standing and personality also put him up there, he has grabbed everybody but he also has the talent with it. Barry brought Belfast together when there was a war going on and that was unbelievable.

AW: Rank the top five Irish fighters five years from now?

JC: Mick will be there.

MC: I think I’ll be there, definitely. I’ll be number one in five years.

 

The middle digit moment. Michael Conlan react to the judges after his quarter-final defeat to Vladimir Nikitin of Russia during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

 

AW: What about you Jamie?

JC: I have an opportunity to go and fulfil my dreams, yes.

MC: When he beats this guy (Ancajas) he’ll be in the top three, easy.

JC: I’m fighting one of the best fighters in the world at the peak of their career.

MC: Look at the division he’s in, it’s probably the hottest division in boxing right now. Ancajas is class, one of the best fighters in the division, and the other champions don’t want to fight him.

JC: You get very few opportunities like this and my career has built up to this moment – it’s a fantastic opportunity to do it in your home city in front of the people who travelled to the likes of Liverpool and waited until one in the morning and the guys who went to the leisure centres and watched when you were on at 6pm and making up the bill.

MC: It just shows you that patience and perseverance help you get there.

AW: Jamie has always said how highly he rates you Michael, how good is he?

MC: People ask me ‘Who is your role model?’ and the answer is Jamie and it always will be. We don’t have the same styles and our personalities are chalk and cheese but he’s the person I look up to. I know how good he is, I’ve sparred him and he has never shown 60 per cent of his ability.

He goes in there and sometimes he doesn’t do what he’s meant to do. But this, I truly believe, is the coming out party.

JC: I agree, my downfall has always been dropping to the opponent’s level but this guy is world level and I will rise to that level. I feel I can match anything he does.

AW: You’ve got home advantage too?

JC: He (Ancajas) didn’t want to come here – he wanted to fight on the Pacquaio-Horn rematch in Brisbane, he didn’t want to fight someone who was hungry and fighting in their own backyard so far away from his home.

Everything happens for a reason and I believe I was dealt the cards I was at different stages of my career to build the characteristics that are needed to get to this moment and get me over the line on November 18.

 

AW: You are known for all-out wars. What will the gameplan be for this fight?

JC: Box.

MC: Box, box, box… When someone comes with a warrior style he starts a warrior style and he’s comfortable doing it, he knows he can do it. But that is not his style, he is a boxer. He knows he has to keep boxing, he can’t go into war and he’s going to out-box this guy.

He’s going to put on the best performance of his career because, I’m going to put this out there, Ancajas is made for him. He’s made for his style.

JC: It’s going to be a chess match at times and a dogfight at times and I’ve done both gameplans.

It’s something I’m very excited about, this camp has felt so different. It’s been tough and everything has pushed me to the absolute limit but I just feel so happy, I’m in a great place mentally and I know that I’m going to be world champion.

AW: When you think of the effort and sacrifice it has taken to get here you must thank God that MTK (Mack The Knife, boxing management) came along at just the right time for you?

JC: I do. No matter who you are, they treat everybody the same. Mick is the world champion and the highest profile boxer they could have taken from the 2016 Olympic Games – name me a champion from Rio? You can’t, he was the story of Brazil.

They signed him and in the same week they’ll sign somebody who has very limited amateur experience and they’ll give him the same amount of time.

Everybody is treated the same and marketed the same. They fight for their boxer and they don’t prostitute the fighter out to the promoter. They fight their boxer’s case on every single level and that was unheard of prior to this. MTK don’t look at Bob Arum or Frank Warren like they’re gods, they speak of the fighter like they’re the god.

It’s fighter first, promoter second. They understand that the manager, the promoter and the trainer all work for the fighter, but that has got over-turned over the years.

We (fighters) don’t work for the promoter, the promoter works for us. We’re the golden goose.

AW: MTK has changed the landscape and the man behind MTK is of course former world title contender Matt Macklin. Did he want to change things after his own experiences?

JC: Matt was at the pinnacle of the sport fighting ‘Triple-G’ (Gennady Golovkin) in New York. He was on billboards in Times Square and HBO was all over it. Then he got knocked out and had his ribs broken and no-one came near him in the changingrooms after the fight.

The cleaners came in and kicked him out – put him in a taxi and sent him to hospital. He had to look after himself. He realised that this game, professional boxing, is a dog-eat-dog-dirty-dog world, it’s a disgusting game at times and he wanted to change that and put the boxer first and everyone else second.

So far it’s fantastic and it’s working. I have yet to meet a fighter who has said that MTK haven’t done their best for him.

AW: Michael you are with Top Rank and Macklin is your manager?

MC: Yes things are going brilliant.

JC: With Michael things are different but it’s not like he’s getting anything easy. If you ask any boxer they will say he’s the hardest worker they’ve seen.

AW: There have been some well publicised changes in the Belfast scene lately. Have you learned anything from what happened?

MC: Yes, for every fighter in the world. No matter how comfortable you feel with someone, always question what’s going on and always be aware of what’s going on.

JC: Be involved in every negotiation.

At the end of the day, the majority of us doing this sport are coming from working class communities and, yes, we want to create a legacy and be the best boxers in the world and achieve all our talents can, but all we want to do is secure our families financially and give our kids and grandkids a stability that we didn’t really have.

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