Boxing

End of the beginning for Michael Conlan as he returns to Madison Square Garden

Michael Conlan takes on Ruben Garcia Hernandez at Madison Square Garden tonight
Andy Watters

TONIGHT should mark the end of the beginning for Michael Conlan as he returns to the where it all began on St Patrick’s weekend two years ago.

With Paddy Barnes on the undercard, Belfast featherweight Conlan makes his third headline appearance at New York boxing Mecca Madison Square Garden against Mexican WBC Latino Featherweight champion Ruben Garcia Hernandez (24-3-2).

Hernandez is limited but determined and he has been stopped just once in 29 fights and has been in against world champions Randy Caballero and Nonito Donaire.

“He’s very tough – he’s been stopped once and I watched that fight against Caballero,” said Conlan.

“It was just consistent pressure and he was young still and Randy was just after winning the world title (IBF bantamweight) and he was out to make a statement in his home town.

“I watched him against Donaire and he’s tricky, he’s your typical Mexican fighter, he can go to war if you give him confidence but if you take his confidence away really quickly, or don’t let him gain any confidence he’s going to be a bit negative at times but always looking to counter and always looking to put his shots together.

“He’ll be in front of me, he’s not going to be running like crazy and he’ll be tough, he’s a tough, durable dude.”

This is another learning fight for Conlan, probably the last of an apprenticeship which has been a testing one for the west Belfast man who spent his early days in Manny Robles’ macho hurtlocker in Los Angeles before switching to the more technical style of Adam Booth in London.

He expects Hernandez to be tough and difficult to shift but the Mexican won’t force the pace at the Garden.

Going the distance with Conlan has been a feather in the cap of the fighters who have been plucked from relative obscurity to trade punches with him but some haven’t done that.

That has made it difficult for a natural counterpuncher like Conlan, who likes his opponents to put the pressure on him, because he has to force the pace, work the angles and bring the aggression and that is not his natural game.

However, there were signs in his last fight against Jason Cunningham in Manchester on December 22 that Conlan was settling down and had found a solid platform as a pro after a glittering career as an amateur.

Trying too hard to impress, he was caught with a few shots early on but from the third round onwards he gave Cunningham a boxing lesson and the Doncaster man was lucky to survive the distance. Afterwards Conlan was typically critical of his performance.

“If sparring isn’t perfect for me I’m not happy and it’s the wrong mindset because you can beat yourself up too much,” he admitted.

“Adam has seen that I do that an awful lot and he has had a word with me and my dad is always saying: ‘You’re way too hard on yourself’. I want to be the best I can be and show my whole skillset.

“I know I have a lot of ability but I haven’t shown it enough.”

Ten fights into his pro career, it’s still early days for him but by the end of 2019 he’ll hope to be on the heels of the featherweight title holders. Olympic nemesis Vladimir Nikitin also appears on the bill but a match-up with him appears unlikely because the Russian doesn’t have the profile to attract a US audience. Conlan says he’ll fight any of the champions and could be on course for a world title fight this time next year.

“(I’ll fight) any one of them that has a belt,” he said.

“If it’s Warrington, Valdez, Santa Cruz… I don’t mind.”

The champions will be watching tomorrow night when he ducks through the ropes against Hernandez and goes to work. It’s Conlan’s fifth appearance at ‘the Garden’ and he says he’s used to all the razzmatazz of being the headline act on St Patrick’s Day in New York now.

“I got thrown in at the deepend on my debut - it was like a world title fight with that kind of atmosphere and build-up,” he said.

“I’m used to it it’s just another fight for me, fighting there on St Paddy’s day with the atmosphere and the crowd adds an extra few levels to my game.

“The first time I was nervous and I don’t think my performance was too good because I just wanted to get the guy out of there but the second time I was nice and controlled and I got a second round stoppage.

“In that performance I was able to show I could stay cool, calm and collected and get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Paddy Barnes takes on Texan Oscar Mojica (11-5-1) in his fight since he lost a WBC title battle to Cristofer Rosales at Windsor Park in August last year.

The bout is advertised as a bantamweight contest and Barnes (5-1) will hope to return with a win and kick on to another title shot this summer.

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