Michael Conlan all set for Falls Park spectacular against Olympic Games nemesis Vladimir Nikitin

Michael Conlan will fight Russian Olympic Games nemesis Vladimir Nikitin in the centrepiece of Feile an Phobail at the Falls Park on August 3 in front of up to 10,000 fans. Andy Watters spoke to Conlan, Top Rank boxing doyen Bob Arum and MTK's Jamie Conlan ahead of the west Belfast summer spectacular…

Michael Conlon who has announced that he will be fighting Vladimir Nikitin in Falls Park in August pictured with boxing promoter Bob Arum. Picture Mal McCann.
Andy Watters

THAT picture of a crestfallen Michael Conlan giving ringside judges a middle-fingered ‘up-yours’ after he’d been blatantly robbed of a decision win against Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin became one of the most iconic images of the 2016 Olympic Games.

The Russian had moments of success in the fight but Conlan had the better of most of the exchanges only for the judges to opt for Nikitin and send the Belfast man home without a medal. Shortly after the shocking decision, Conlan signed as a professional with Top Rank and now the US boxing giants have brought him and Nikitin together again to settle their beef once and for all.

The Olympic rivals – who also fought at the 2015 AIBA World Championships – will meet for the third and almost certainly final time in an open air spectacular at the Falls Park on August 3. Conlan doesn’t intend to let the judges have an input this time.

“This is not going to points,” he said.

Michael Conlan following his Bantamweight quarter-final defeat to Vladimir Nikitin at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro

“I can promise everybody that right now. It’s not going to points, I won’t let it, I’ll take this guy out.”

Nikitin has moved to an unconvincing 3-0 as a professional and the consensus is that we haven’t seen the best of him yet. Conlan (11-0) intends to stop him and if he batters him like he did in Rio – Nikitin was so badly beaten he was unable to fight in the semi-finals – he will deliver on that promise.

“I don’t think he has been the same guy since he got the decision in Rio,” said Conlan.

“I don’t think he has been the same dude since then, his performances haven’t been the same. I don’t feel anger towards him, I’m going to go in and do what I do and then take him out.

From left: Jamie Conlan (MTK), Michael Conlan, Bob Arum (Top Rank), Kevin Gamble (Feile an Phobail), Bob Yalen (MTK). Picture Mal McCann.

“I’m not going to go into a slugfest but I will make sure I stop him. He’s a live opponent and in terms of his quality, he’d be up there with a lot of people and he’s not coming here for a paycheque, he’s coming to win.

“He believes he won in Rio in 2016 and he’s going to come to my back garden and beat me. He’s coming here with intent.”

He added: “Over the last few months I’ve been unsure whether it was going to happen – I was told it was on, then it wasn’t – now it’s done and the feeling of excitement has arrived.

“I’m facing someone who got a decision over me which he probably should never have got but he feels different, he feels he won fair and square. It’s a fight me and him need to have and it’s a fight I need to have now because I want to move on with my professional career, I don’t want to be hanging about waiting to fight Vladimir Nikitin.

“I’m really happy that it’s happening now.

“At one stage, ESPN were saying it wasn’t big enough for a main event.

“But the rivalry has been bubbling since 2016 and when people talk about the fight not being big enough for this event, it’s the storyline behind it. Storylines sell it to boxing fans and the casual fans who were enthralled and feeling what I was feeling during the 2016 Olympics.

“This is a huge fight for me personally and for anybody who watched my performance and my interview (after the fight) and saw my reactions.”

Conlan tried to put the defeat behind him quickly and move on but says he is regularly reminded of the fight and wants to set the record straight once and for all.

“It’s always there, I’m always being reminded about it,” he said.

“To me it was never a loss but it has always been hanging over me, especially when he turned pro. If I didn’t have this fight, if it never happened, it would always be there but now this is closure, it closes that chapter of my life.”

Michael Conlon intends to knock out Vladimir Nikitin at the Falls Park. Picture Mal McCann.

BOB Arum’s only previous visit to Belfast was in late September 1985 when he arrived to watch Barry McGuigan take on Bernard Taylor at the King’s Hall.

The Troubles were raging and McGuigan success and cross-community appeal were among the few bright spots for a city that was in the grip of a bloody conflict.

Brooklyn-born Arum, whose involvement in boxing began with Muhammad Ali versus George Chuvalo in 1966, struggled to take it all in.

“I remember the tension,” he said.

“I’d never been in a place where I experienced that type of tension. You couldn’t go here…. You couldn’t go there… Everybody was warning you away from places.

“They put us out in a place in Hollywood, I don’t know if it still exists, it was a convent that they’d made into a hotel. There was a road leading up to the hotel and about half-a-mile from the hotel there was a security stop and they opened up all of our luggage, they went through everything.

“It was like a war zone. You couldn’t go certain places to even half a meal.

“We had Barney Eastwood at least and he knew his way around, he guided us then.”

But when the boxing started, the tension evaporated as everyone got behind the ‘Clones Cyclone’.

“I remember the fight, I never saw anything like it,” says Arum.

“Everybody came together, everybody had a good time, everybody was cheering for McGuigan and all the tension dissipated during the fight.

“I always suspected that what happened in those days, with the people coming together and rooting for one guy, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, would help lead to a solution to the controversy that enveloped everybody here. I really think that was an incident where sports led the way to a satisfactory conclusion of a problem that everybody said was not solvable.”

Almost 34 years on, Boxing Hall of Fame promoter Arum returned to the city yesterday to look ahead to Top Rank protégé Michael Conlan’s rematch with Olympic Games nemesis Vladimir Nikitin.

“It’s a different landscape now,” he said.

“It’s a normal city, it’s beautiful, the sun’s out – the sun was never out the first time I came – and everything is open. There is no tension.

“When I first came over there was all this tension and I would visit the Protestant side and the Catholic side and I kept asking people: ‘How do you tell each other apart? You all look the same!’

“Now the place is different, everything is different and I think Michael is the kind of guy who can rally all Irishmen behind him. I think his base is expanding.

“We are around fighters all the time and whether they are eastern European or African American they all admire Michael because they think he’s a great guy, a terrific fighter and he’s good for the sport.

“He’s very popular among other fighters.”

Arum views Conlan’s Falls Park rumble with Nikitin as a watershed for the former St John Bosco ABC boxer.

“In the US we have a tremendous Irish population,” he said.

“Mick’s last fight (at Madison Square Garden on St Patrick’s Day) we had everything lit up green and it was tremendous. Apparently he came out to a song that people objected to – I thought it was a great song, it really roused everybody.

“This fight against Nikitin is a closing, obviously with his career people still come back to the fact that he was cheated out of a decision in the Olympics and that is OK, it was good in the beginning for promoting him, but we’re passed that now and after this fight nobody will mention it any more.

“This fight will get a lot of traction around the world because of the Olympics and because of what happened, not because Nikitin is a great fighter. This is a statement that will be made, it will enhance Mick’s popularity and then there will be more difficult tests in the Fall and winter of this year.”

CARL Frampton will fight Oscar Valdez for the WBO featherweight title in December according to Top Rank boss Bob Arum.

Frampton’s last fight was in December last year when he clashed with Josh Warrington at the Manchester Arena. Arum expects ‘the Jackal’ to fight in Boston in August and then look towards the hard-hitting Mexican (25-0 with 20 stoppage wins).

“He is going to fight in Boston on August 10, hopefully, or at worst, on the 24th,” said Arum yesterday.

“My matchmakers are going through opponents and we want him to fight in the States. Then he’ll be in against Valdez hopefully in December.”

He added: “Frampton is a terrific fighter.

“(Josh) Warrington threw a million punches and overwhelmed him but I thought that if they fought again Frampton would win.

“I don’t know where the Valdez fight would be but I think it will probably be in the States because it’s very hard to do an afternoon fight in the United States because of all the football (American Football) at that time of year.”

RYAN Burnett could meet the winner of the bantamweight World Boxing Super Series, says Top Rank king Bob Arum.

North Belfast native Burnett – who is due to fight Jelbirt Gomera at the Ulster Hall on Saturday night subject to the Filipino’s visa issues being cleared up – lost to Nonito Donaire in the quarter-finals of the competition in October.

Donaire now meets Zolani Tete in the semi-final and, if he comes through it and Japan’s Naoya Inoue beats Emmanuel Rodriguez in the other semi, Arum says Burnett will face the winner of the final.

“We signed Ryan Burnett and we’re putting him in a fight but we’re on hold now because of the World Series of Boxing,” he said.

“Nonito Donaire is in the semi-final and we have a whole history with Donaire, we’ve promoted a lot of his fights. Inoue is fighting Rodriguez and I think he is terrific and we have a deal that after this tournament Inoue signs with Top Rank.

“If the final is between Inoue and Donaire, we can have Burnett fight the winner as soon as their able to do the fight.”

VLADIMIR Nikitin has predicted that he’ll knockout Michael Conlan “inside three rounds” according to Conlan’s elder brother Jamie.

Jamie, who was a key figure in making the August 3 spectacular at the Falls Park a reality, met with the Russian when he appeared on the undercard of the Michael Conlan-topped St Patrick’s Day bill in New York.

“He said: ‘I will beat him, I will beat him inside three rounds’,” Conlan explained.

“He is going to be coming out swinging, he’ll be coming out fighting. I am delighted that it’s announced but it won’t define Michael’s career, it’s another step in the right direction. It’s good that we can finally put this to bed and then we can focus on the bigger picture, the picture that I believe we should be attaching Michael to and that is him becoming world champion.”

Conlan explained that the capacity for the bill is currently 8,000 but that could be increased to 10,000 and there may be a live performance from a band to play him into the ring.

“It is going to be big, we’re going to make it special,” he predicted.

“Feile want to make sure that the whole of west Belfast is behind Michael on the night and if we are blessed with the weather it will be an occasion to savour.

“The Feile is the festival for the people and this fight will be a fight for the people. This will rank with every other bill that has been outdoor and big.”

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