Jamie Conlan at the forefront of creating vibrant Irish boxing scene as Feile an Phobail bill takes shape
JAMIE Conlan knows all about having to fight for a living.
For the first two-thirds of his career, the Belfast warrior was forced to live off scraps with a fight here and another there. The English promoters were reluctant to run regular shows in Belfast back then so ‘the Mexican' was unable to build any momentum into a promising career.
It was only after Carl Frampton emerged as a world title contender and Matthew Macklin established MGM, now MTK, that Conlan got the exposure he needed to climb the ladder.
He rose quickly too, forcing his way into a world title showdown with Jerwin Ancajas before fate decreed that he would follow a different path.
Now his gloves have been hung up and, as MTK's professional development co-ordinator, he is now centrally involved in guiding the careers of Frampton and his brother Michael and has been at the forefront of building Belfast's increasingly vibrant professional boxing scene.
“When I boxed we were starved,” he says.
“You got one show and were promised the world by Barry Hearn, Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren. They would come in, I would sell 300 or 400 tickets with the promise that I'd be on the next show, I'd do everything I could, then fight and there was nothing after it.
“No-one was ever promoting me or promoting Irish boxing in general but then when Frampton came it became a bit more steady, it started to build and boxing became a bit more sexy although it still didn't have the regular shows, or the boxing scene that it is now.
“The fighters coming through now are blessed and some might say spoilt with the opportunities they are given. The MTK shows are a stepping stone to bigger things – their end goal isn't to fight at the Ulster Hall, we're looking to go bigger with the opportunities of going to fight in America with Top Rank.
“The relationship is only going to grow and get bigger. This is the start of something in professional boxing in Belfast and it's about time we got the coverage and recognition we deserve.
“Boxing has been our major sport – especially in west Belfast – for years, when we were kids most people went to the boxing, whether you were good or not or tough or not you were sent.
“We're trying to get things up and running and with the shows we're doing here everyone is getting the opportunity to go out and better themselves. With the Feile on August 3 on BT Sport I think it's going to be massive for everyone, especially for my brother.”
As we talk, he mentions being “in Las Vegas last week” on fight business and how he covers a lot of miles, putting in long hours, to organise shows and pick opponents. He says he “didn't plan” his switch from prizefighter to MTK suit, but Conlan has always had a sharp brain and was a capable student until he threw his lot in with boxing.
“Every boxer thinks they are going to be a world champion and they don't need anything else but I did a lot of studying before I started fighting and I was working and fighting at the same time,” he explains.
“To me boxing wasn't the end goal, I knew the window was very small and as it was starting to come to an end I was planning my exit strategy.
“Then Matthew Macklin told me he was going to take a role with Sky and he said to me: ‘Just follow me around and see what I'm doing'. I was learning who I needed to speak to and why - it was like work experience.
“To be still involved in the sport at the highest level and see it from a different side completely is amazing. I pinch myself because it's not like work, it is stressful at times but it is very enjoyable.
“I still have a good relationship with a lot of the fighters but you get to see it from a promoters' point of view, understanding the reasons why certain things happen.”
So what is his role? He says it's a “wide variety of different things”. He has learned the boxing business from the bottom up and is now concentrating on Belfast's summer spectacular at Feile an Phobail at Falls Park on August 3.
“One day you're trying to get someone a four-round slot on a bill and then the next day you're meeting with the head of the WBO about a big title fight,” he explains.
“From that you're doing a full show on August the 3rd from understanding the seating plans, making sure visas are in order, flights are booked… Different things.
“I've had things that have gone wrong but I've learned from them and got better. No two days have been the same, everything has been different and everything in America goes through me.
“I wake up a 7am and I'll have numerous emails and messages and I usually stay up to about 2am to deal with the US side of things because everything runs on their time.”
Of course his new role has been an eye-opener for him and he has seen a different side to the fight game. His brother Michael's career so far has been a total contrast to his. Michael will headline at the Feile against Diego Alberto Ruiz and he has boxed every second of every round in a goldfish bowl with the eyes of fight fans across the globe scrutinising his every move and waiting to be impressed.
“I have seen a different side to what Michael has been through,” says Jamie.
“I was selling tickets to get on shows, making little or no money and no-one was backing me but I don't think people get the amount of pressure that's on Michael's shoulders on a daily basis.
“He's on a completely different platform than what I was on. I got to learn my trade after the main event where no-one gave a shit whether I looked good or not but they were learning fights against journeymen.
“He fights a guy and he has to look a million dollars and even at that it will never satisfy some people. He has handled it far better than I could and he's 10 fights and he's getting better every time.”
PAUDIE McCrory warns Steve Collins junior that he is in “for a shock” if he expects to walk through him at the Falls Park on August 3.
Skilful super-middleweight McCrory gets the step up in profile and class he has been looking for while former light-heavyweight challenger Collins takes a step down in weight when they clash for the Boxing Union of Ireland Celtic title on the Feile an Phobail extravaganza.
“It's a massive fight for me,” said St James' native McCrory.
“He is 14-2 and, on paper, it's my hardest fight to date. He's very, very dangerous and the lightest he has ever weighed is 175kg. The fight is set at 168lb so let's hope he can make the weight.
“He says he can but his second last fight there he was 191lb so I hope he is a man of his word and he makes the weight.”
McCrory and Collins - son of Steve senior, AKA ‘The Celtic Warrior', Ireland's first two-weight world champion – do battle on the undercard of Conlan-Ruiz and McCrory (8-0) is confident he is ready for the step up in class.
“I've been asking for this since fight four when I beat Sean McGlinchey, I thought I was ready for it so it's taken me time to take this step up,” he said.
“Originally I was supposed to fight Taylor McGoldrick but now that fight is off and they offered me a couple of people. With the event being in Belfast and Steve Collins having that famous name through his daddy, I thought this was the fight that made the most sense.
“He didn't have much an amateur background but he has always been around boxing with his dad so he's not inexperienced but I think on the night that my amateur experience and my boxing ability will make sure I get the win.
“He's 14-2, he has more experience and he's a naturally bigger man, he has fought on big events and he has fought more rounds than me, so he has a lot of things in his favour and I think he'll be very confident. But this is a chance to get in the shop window for me and it's a chance to prove myself on the big stage and I'm really looking forward to it.
“He will probably think he's going to walk through me but when I start catching him and boxing him, I think he's in for a big shock.”
Collins fought Steven Ward at Windsor Park last year and although he lacks the mix of ring craft, skill and power of his famous father, he is strong and game as they come.
“It's great to be on a stage as big as this,” he said.
“I'm a fan of Michael Conlan so I'm happy to be on his undercard. I'm going to show everyone my capabilities and what kind of fighter I am.
“I don't know much about Paudie as a fighter. I met him a couple of times and he's a nice guy but I put all that aside on the night and I'll just have beating him on my mind when that bell goes.
“Victory here would be great. Paudie will be a great scalp to take. He's an unbeaten professional fighting in his hometown. It'll be a massive win for me and it'll get me up the rankings and into even bigger fights.”
But McCrory will be in no mood to give an inch on his home territory. The Falls Park is his stomping ground.
“I'm originally from St James's which is the next area to it,” he explained.
“It's literally a stone's throw away and I grew up in the Falls Park. I played soccer there, I've been to Feile to watch all the events and if you had said to me two years ago that I'd be on a big show in the Falls Park in front of 9,000 people there's no way I would have believed you. But now it's happening!
“Two years ago I was announced on a Ryan Burnett bill and I thought it would be the height of my career but from then I have progressed and progressed. I've been fully committed to boxing and it's paying off.”
SEAN McComb will go up against experienced Frenchman Renald Garrido on the Féile an Phobail card on August 3.
‘The Public Nuisance' (7-0) takes on ‘Le Lion' (24-24-3) on the ground-breaking MTK show topped by his former Ireland room-mate Michael Conlan, who faces Diego Alberto Ruiz and also featuring Paddy Gallagher's Commonwealth welterweight title rumble against Chris Jenkins.
“I know Garrido has fought some tough operators and is a serious opponent himself. He's never been stopped so it'll be a great test for me,” said McComb ahead of the eight-rounder.
“I think he's even crazier than me outside the ring. You have to be crazy to walk forward eating punches your whole career and enjoy doing it at the same time!
“I believe the more pressure on me, the better I box. I'm really looking forward to it and anyone who knows me knows how well I perform under pressure so I think this'll be a skillful performance
“This bill has shaped up perfectly. It was always huge because it's at Féile but now the card is great in its own right. There are many 50-50 fights and then Mick has another step up. Now I'm also in the hardest test of my career.”
Joining McComb v Garrido and Conlan v Ruiz on a stacked bill is a clash of unbeaten middleweights in Alfredo Meli v Araik Marutjan, a Celtic super-middleweight title clash between Padraig McCrory and Steve Collins jnr and Luke Keeler's step up to world level against Luis Arias – all live on BT Sport in association with Frank Warren and on ESPN+ in association with Top Rank.
The undercard features Olympic hero Paddy Barnes plus emerging forces Callum Bradley, Dee Sullivan and Seanie Duffy.