Michael Conlan ready for date with destiny against Vladimir Nikitin at Madison Square Garden
Boxing: Michael Conlan (12-0) v Vladimir Nikitin (3-0) (tonight, Madison Square Garden, live on ESPN and Eirsport from 9pm)
MICHAEL Conlan drew inspiration for tonight’s rumble with Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin from the movie Rocky IV.
In it, boxer Rocky Balboa travels to Moscow to face seemingly indestructible Soviet wrecking machine Ivan Drago and, wouldn’t you know it, he knocks the evil Russki out in the final round.
That was fiction of course, tonight is fact and the fact that matters is that Conlan’s opponent Nikitin holds two wins over him from their amateur days. Tonight the Belfast man intends to set the record straight in a real life, Madison Square Garden drama.
“Rocky was the underdog in that fight and I have approached this like an underdog because I am fighting someone who has beat me twice,” said Conlan.
“I’m fighting around Christmas time, Rocky fought in Russia on Christmas Day… Watch it and you see how hard he trained in it and the work he put in and I feel I have done that in this training camp. I took myself away from my family and trained as hard as I possibly could because I know what’s at stake and I know what I have to do.”
So much has been written about Nikitin’s previous wins over Conlan at the World Championships in 2013 and in that infamous quarter-final at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Conlan says he is tired of talking about those meetings and he wants to move on.
“I want to put it to bed and move on. I don’t want to hear it no more and I think everyone is the same,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to going in there and getting the victory and looking good doing so. I’m just really happy and really confident because of the work I put in to training camp and everything we have done has been fantastic.
“I have no doubt, I have no fear, and I have no negative feelings towards what’s going to happen.”
Winning tonight will allow Conlan to draw a line over the past and look ahead to a bright future. When the sounds of the Wolfe Tones and James Brown (his entrance music) have died away and the fans have taken their seats in the Garden it will be down to him and Nikitin in a battle of skill and will.
The Russian has a 3-0 record in the pros and has looked a pale shadow of the rampaging pressure fighter he can be in all three contests. Conlan expects better from him tonight.
“He might try and box me more,” he said.
“I think we’ll see better from him than we have seen as a professional because this is his world title fight really, this is his big one and I’m expecting it to be the best Vladimir Nikitin we’ll see.
“Whether he tries to box or come in close and take my head off… I’m ready for anything. Because of what I’ve worked on in training and in the sparring which I’ve had, I’m very happy with whatever way it’s going to go.”
Conlan is the odds-on favourite to win and that has been partly fuelled by the perception that Nikitin is a flat-footed “high-energy slugger”.
The Russian comes to fight and he will swing in the shots – booming long right hands followed by left hooks to the body – but underestimate him at your peril.
You don’t assemble the medal collection he has at European and World Championship and Olympic level without being a top class fighter.
“I think the general public are underestimating him and I think the boxing media are underestimating him because he hasn’t performed to his level yet,” Conlan agrees.
“But I’m certainly not underestimating him and what people say doesn’t matter, what matters is what happens on Saturday night and, as I say, I just have to go back to what I’ve done in training and no stone has been left unturned.”
One factor that is definitely in Conlan’s favour is that Nikitin hasn’t gone beyond six rounds yet and the Belfast man is already a veteran at 10 rounds.
“It’s another box I have ticked and he hasn’t,” says Ireland’s first ever male World Amateur champion.
“He has a big engine but until you do it in an actual fight you don’t actually know if you can or not. There’ll be a doubt in his head and that’ll be something I’ll use to my advantage in the fight.
“If I see him trying to take a break I’ll probably push him a bit to make him deteriorate a bit more and consume his energy a bit more.”
Conlan locked himself away for 14 weeks in camp for this fight. He saw his family at the weekend “three or four times” as he poured mind, body and soul into his preparations.
Coach Adam Booth brought in former super-bantamweight world champion and renowned pressure fighter Kiko Martinez and then rugged Mexican Jose Gonzalez in for sparring.
Conlan has prepared well because he knows the eyes of the world are on him again, scrutinising his performance and looking for weaknesses.
But he is used to coping with the pressure not just to win, but to win in style.
“With most of my fights I’ve had that,” he said.
“The St Patrick’s Day fights and the Fall’s Park fight were the same but I’ve always had that pressure.
“I’ve been able to build that experience of being in these high-pressure situations from day one.
“A lot of fighters don’t get that until they fight for a world title whereas I have got that my whole career.
“It’s nothing new but maybe I put myself under more pressure this time because I’m not going to lose to this guy again. I’ll make sure of that.
“It’s not even pressure, I know what I have to do and I need to execute the plan.
“I feel great, mentally I feel fantastic and physically I’m probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in, everything has just went swimmingly.
“I’m excited, I really am. It’s the best I’ve felt in my whole pro career, maybe even better than in my amateur career because of the way I have focussed on one person (Nikitin) and nothing else – not what’s happening after or what could happen next year.
“What’s in front of me is the main thing I’ve focussed on and it’s the first time in my whole pro career that I’ve been able to do that because so far I’ve always known what my next fight was.
“In my second fight in Chicago I had a terrible fight, a terrible performance.
“I got the win, I got a stoppage but I got up the next morning at six in the morning and went out running because I was that pissed off with my performance. I was thinking: ’That was terrible’.
“I was really embarrassed but my focus wasn’t on that fight because I had already been told I couldn’t get cut or anything because I was fighting on the (Manny) Pacquaio card five weeks later.
“That’s been the way. When I boxed in the big Garden last year I was already told I would be fighting in Belfast so I couldn’t risk getting any cuts.
“But this one, when I know I won’t be fighting for a good while after, the focus has been on this and not what comes next.
“I know I’m expected to win but I know that I’ve lost to this guy twice so I’m not thinking it is a foregone conclusion – that has given me more focus and helped me build confidence.”
He watched the Rio fight again recently and thought he “won it even clearer than I did at the time” and although he insists there is “no emotional attachment” to tonight’s rematch deep down there must be.
“It’s straight business,” he says.
“Who knows when I’m in there though? Things just tend to happen.
“My mindset going in is to have a rude, kind of cocky mentality and box his ears off and if I see the opportunity to stop him and take him out I will.
“This win is just as important as the next win and the win previous to it.
“Every win is more important than the last, in boxing you have to keep winning because it’s like snakes and ladders - once you lose you’re right back to the bottom.
“I need to win and when I do I’ll think: ‘Thank God I’ve won and it’s done’. I’ll be relieved that we don’t have to talk about it no more.”
We’ve been talking about this fight for ages and now it is finally here it is unlikely to disappoint.
There are no titles on the line, no glittering belts to be wrapped around the winner’s waist but so much is at stake in this threshold moment for both fighters in an intriguing clash of styles.
As Conlan says, boxing is like “snakes and ladders” and losing this will see him slip away from the world title shot that awaits him next year.
But it will be a massive upset if he does because Conlan is clearly the better boxer here.
He has the footwork and hand speed to make Nikitin look pedestrian at times and will out-box him.
The Russian will look to cut off the ring but Conlan’s superiority at long and mid-range will force him to try and walk through his punches and close the distance.
Those tactics will prove his undoing and Conlan has worked in sparring on picking him off with damaging shots at close range.
Nikitin is too good not to have occasional moments of success but it’s hard to see him establishing a platform from which to win this fight and Conlan will enjoy coming up against an opponent who wants to fight with him, who will trade with him and go out on his shield.
Nikitin will give his all but expect Conlan to win this one on points in the best performance of his professional career to date.