Family first for Michael Conlan as he targets Olympic gold
When Michael Carruth won gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, he shared a room and some special moments with dad and coach Austin who was there for every step of what became a remarkable journey.
Michael Conlan was born the same year Carruth shocked the world, and 24 years on the Belfast boy will have dad John – a coach with the Irish team – in his corner on Sunday as he begins his bid to emulate the Dubliner and top the podium in Rio.
Neil Loughran talks to father and son about growing up in boxing, coming through the tough times and how they will handle sharing the big stage...
Neil Loughran: Michael, you’re a household name in Ireland now, but take me back to where your boxing story began. John was a coach at the St John Bosco club on the Falls Road and some of your older brothers were already involved – was it simply a case of just following what the others were doing?
Michael Conlan: As every younger brother does, they look up to their older brothers and Jamie and Brendan went to the gym with my dad. I just wanted to do what they were doing. I followed them into the gym and I just fell in love with it right away – I just wanted to be like Jamie and Brendan. I loved to be able to be hit and not get hit, messing around when people were trying to hit you and you were laughing at them…
NL: Prince Naseem was your hero... [John Conlan’s eyes roll to the back of his head]
MC: He was my idol and I tried to do that same sort of thing, annoy people in the ring. I loved the feeling of getting into people’s heads.
NL: John, you would have seen hundreds of kids coming through the doors dreaming of becoming the next Naz or whoever, but was there a point where you realised Michael might have been something special? Did he take to the sport straight away?
John Conlan: Michael took to boxing very quickly... the Prince Naseem thing was something I couldn’t stand. He was a great boxer to watch and he was entertaining but unfortunately every kid came into the gym wanting to be like him, low hands, and they didn’t have the skill sets to back it up.
NL: Could Michael back it up?
JC: Michael did actually, he was one of the few kids who could back it up. He kind of started back to front – he already had a very good foundation in his skill set as a counter-puncher and he has evolved to become an all-round universal boxer over the years. But I remember watching him a few times in spars and, very early on he seemed to just gel and understand the whole concept of boxing. I knew then he was going to be something special.
NL: Michael, you quickly forced your way on to the local boxing scene as a teenager, picking up titles right through the different age groups and winning your first Ulster senior title in 2009. That saw you qualify for your first major international tournament – the 2010 Commonwealth Games. It didn’t go your way, losing on a countback in the first round. How tough was that to take, considering you were only 18, and what lessons were learnt in Delhi?
MC: That was probably the turning point in my career. From the Commonwealth camp [before the Games] I knew I was capable of doing big things because I was sparring Paddy Barnes, Olympic bronze medallist at the time, and I was holding my own. I had always looked up to Paddy so to go in and have such close spars with him and see how well he did at the Commonwealth Games [Barnes won gold], I knew I was able to do well.
NL: So that gave you a sense of perspective and a belief that you were heading in the right direction but, from a father’s point of view John, it must have been hard was it to pick up the pieces after Delhi because Michael was devastated?
JC: It was difficult because I was involved a little bit in the camp. Eamonn O’Kane said to me ‘he’s guaranteed 100 per cent to come home with a gold medal’ – he destroyed everybody. He was probably the hardest trainer, everything seemed to go really well in the camp. I was watching him and I just thought ‘this is his time’, but he got beat in his first fight. When he came home he burst into tears when we were walking out of the airport and I felt so sick and so sorry for him. He took some time off and came back and started to work a little bit harder. I think he knew that he didn’t get his performance over, so the next couple of years were spent just trying to prepare.
NL: Michael went on and won his first Irish senior title, then went to London 2012 and took home bronze. From that point on he has been a public figure as well as a boxer – has that increased profile placed an extra pressure on your relationship, as both father and son and fighter and coach? At one point you were living together before Michael moved out of the family home... JC: Thank God…
NL: ...then the pair of you were working together as well when you were still tiling John? JC: He came in the van and went home in the van, he didn’t work.
MC: He brought me to work so when he made a mistake he could shout at me.
JC: He got money for nothing.
NL: I think we need to get a referee in here! But looking back at that period – living together, working together, training together, presumably boxing was a constant topic of conversation in the house, it must have been overwhelming at times...
MC: It was tough, but it was good as well because you’re always thinking about it then, thinking what you can do to improve, hearing what you can do to improve from somebody else, and that’s what you need. I’d say I probably would’ve been the hardest [to live with] – me or Brendan. Jamie’s very laid back, he probably wouldn’t talk about boxing anyway, but me and my dad would have talked about it and then I would probably take a fit if he told me I was bad or if he told me I’d done something wrong. I didn’t take criticism well.
JC: We didn’t really talk about boxing that much unless it was coming up to competitions. The problem with the boys was they were all the lighter weights so the only time I was on them was when they were making weight...
MC: You weren’t allowed to eat anything in the house.
JC: Michael’s one of these guys who’s head’s always in the fridge. He doesn’t come out with anything in his hand but his mouth’s always chomping. So we had those arguments but when we worked together we worked, we didn’t talk about boxing, and when we trained together we focused on the task at hand.
NL: So it’s something you’ve been able to manage fairly successfully?
JC: It hasn’t been a battle, it’s just kind of gradually evolved because when he came in, I was developing as a coach too. Some relationships between fathers and sons are very fiery, others are very laid back – we’re in the middle. NL: I suppose if you were able to survive the World Series of Boxing (WSB) last year, when Michael and Paddy qualified, then you can get through anything. Seven fights in 14 weeks jetting here, there and everywhere from Italy to Argentina to Venezuela, just the three of you, and with the added pressure of wanting to book those Olympic spots, it must have been fraught at times...
MC: It was hard to stick for 14 weeks.
JC: I kind of lost my cool in Kazakhstan and I learned a huge lesson as a coach.
NL: That was when Michael lost to Kairat Yeraliyev, his second defeat in the WSB at that stage...
JC: Yeah, he was destroying the guy and he got a very bad decision. The whole crowd stayed back and loads told him he’d won the fight, so that was hard to stick when you’re up against things like that there. That was difficult because he could hear me, and he said ‘you being upset, that upset me’. So I learned from that.
NL: And at the end of everything, it came down to the last night in Venezuela. Sitting outside the top two qualification places, Michael considered not even fighting. He didn’t believe things could go his way because, apart from winning his own fight, he also needed Luis Mora Hector to beat Magomed Gurbanov, who was in second place...
JC: He went into the fight with the wrong attitude, he wouldn’t listen to me, and he could’ve won the fight a lot easier against a big, big puncher. But he won the fight, and then the emotional rollercoaster after…
NL: Word soon filtered through that Garcia had beaten Gurbanov, Paddy Barnes ran to the ring apron to deliver the news that Michael had qualified. After everything that you had all been through, that must have been an unbelievable moment....
JC: It was, and flying home on that plane, 11 hours, knowing he had qualified, it all just washed away the whole 14 weeks. We had our moments, but that’s what life’s about. If it was hunky dory all the time, when things get bad then you don’t have that experience of falling out with each other.
NL: That’s true, and you will probably need that experience more than ever in Rio. Austin and Michael Carruth shared a room in Barcelona when Michael won the gold medal, they were together a lot of the time. Describing their relationship, Carruth said his dad was “my mentor and my tormentor”. Is there a bit of that with you two?
JC: He’s probably the ultimate professional on the team, him and Paddy, they’re world class athletes. I don’t need to micro-manage their preparations – I’m one of the coaches for the whole team, so I have a big responsibility for all the athletes. NL: But surely there is more focus on Michael from your point of view...
JC: I do, as a father, keep a close eye on Michael. At a tournament like this there’s a lot of factors – making weight, the draw, stuff like that. I stay on top of things like that but, in the corner, Zaur [Antia] is the head coach so I’ll step back and let him talk. But between me and him we’ll have a plan worked out, during the fight we’ll speak to each other and give him the advice he needs.
NL: What kind of advice do you give in that environment? Michael is an instinctive fighter, how much do you have to just trust him to find the answers in there?
JC: There’s not too much stuff you can tell him in the corner when the fight is in full flow but he’s a universal boxer – he can make those decisions and he’s more than capable of making the right decisions.
MC: Him and Zaur know now that I’m capable of doing anything so when I’m in the ring if they say one thing to do and I can change to do it, I’ll do that. They’ll say to me if something’s working, keep doing it, if it’s not, change it up. It’s what we’ve been practising for years and it all falls into place when you get into the ring, there’s no problems at all. It’s comforting knowing I can change gameplan so easily, but that all comes from the work we’ve put in in training camps. Practice makes perfect.
JC: What we’re trying to develop now is boxers who can think for themselves because, from when I see a shot, call a shot and Michael implements it, you’re talking maybe one or two seconds. That’s too late. We want the boxer to use his own brain and work things out for themselves.
NL: What about between rounds?
JC: Some guys need a kick in the arse but Michael’s nature is that he’s calm, relaxed. He wants to know one or two bits of information and beyond that, there’s no point.
NL: And on the day of a fight Michael, will you want to have your dad and other people around? Or do you prefer to be left on your own?
MC: A bit of both. Sometimes I like to be by myself and sometimes I like to be around people. Maybe more around people, because sometimes if you’re on your own you think about the fight too much, which isn’t good. I prefer to enjoy myself, getting my head off the fight is the best thing I can do. I just like to listen to music and be around people who are going to be funny and have a bit of craic. I like to have fun on the day of a fight, and then about an hour before we arrive at the venue I’d start to focus in, think about the plan, what way I’m going to work. At the World Championships, when I stepped in the ring I told myself I was going to enjoy it. I was qualified already and I boxed with complete fluency, I was completely happy in the ring, so that’s what I’m going to take into the Games with me.
NL: It’s four years since London – what do you expect from Michael in Rio, John?
JC: He’s a different Michael Conlan now. There’s a massive difference now. He was a boy then who didn’t really understand it, his weight wasn’t really on track the way it should have been so by the time he got to the medal bout, it took a toll on him. This time it’s different. His weight’s well under control, he’s a lot stronger, older, more experienced, he relishes the challenge and I totally believe I’ve seen him standing on the podium with his medal with the national anthem in the background.
NL: Michael has spoken with that confidence since he qualified, and you clearly feel the same...
JC: One hundred per cent. I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview if I didn’t believe that