Revenge was sweet but there's sweeter to come as Michael Conlan settles old score against Vladimir Nikitin at the Garden

Michael Conlan on his way to a comfortable points victory over Vladimir Nikitin in New York on Sunday morning Picture: Mikey Williams/Top Rank
Andy Watters

REVENGE was sweet but a world title shot will be much sweeter for Michael Conlan who left the past behind him with an emphatic points win over Vladimir Nikitin at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Russian is good, but he wasn’t good enough to consistently worry the slick Belfast fighter who boxed within himself for much of the fight and came close to stopping his former Olympic Games nemesis during a barn-storming eighth round.

Conlan was never in any trouble himself and judge Bernard Bruni scored all 10 rounds for him, 100-90, which was harsh on whole-hearted Russian Nikitin. Judge Pasquale Procopio had it 99-91 while Kevin Morgan had Conlan winning eight - 98-92 – which was fair.

Conlan will return to the New York venue (the Theatre arena) for his next fight on St Patrick’s Day and could then fight for a world title – possibly against the WBO’s number two contender Jesse Magdaleno – at west Belfast’s Feile an Phobail in the Falls Park on August 1.

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This was an excellent performance from him, arguably his best so far as a pro and undoubtedly there is even better to come from him. He will need higher gears when he takes on world class opposition next year but on Saturday night he moved on from Rio and 2016 once and for all.

“Next year’s the Olympics – maybe they’ll invite me?” said a smiling Conlan, who needed four stitches over his right eye due to a head clash.

“But I’ll be boxing on August 1 so I can’t. I would have loved to go to Tokyo and be at the Olympics but it is in the past, 2016 is history, you can’t change it so let’s just move on.”

His opponent Nikitin played his part in what was an entertaining 10-rounder on Saturday night. The Russian confounded many predictions by staying behind a tight defence and looking to out-box Conlan in the early part of the fight. Afterwards the three-time adversaries shared an embrace and let bygones be bygones.

“Vladimir Nikitin is a good guy,” said Conlan.

“I tried to get mean with him but I went in to his changing room and said: ‘There’s no bad blood and there never has been’. His interpreter was there and he said: ‘My bro’.

“In the ring he was saying: ‘Good tactic, good tactic’ and gave me a hug. I like the guy, I’ve always liked him, even in the amateurs I liked him and I wish him all the best with whatever he does next.

“He always looks mean, he always looks angry but he is a nice dude. There is no bad blood, it’s all put to bed and thank God I can get this monkey off my back.”

Conlan was roared to the ring by a sizeable Irish contingent in the crowd at the New York boxing Mecca and chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ rang around the cavernous arena as he overcame an unexpected conservative boxing strategy from the normally ultra-aggressive Nikitin before he took control of the fight from the third round on.

“It’s done,” said a relieved Conlan afterwards.

“There was plenty of pressure on that and I’m happy it’s done, just happy it’s done.

“I was very nervous. Standing there facing him, I was ready but you get nervous until the bell goes ‘ting’ and then the nerves have to go.

“He’s a tough guy, I was looking at him at the weigh-in and the size of his head and neck compared to mine! It was huge. I know there are tough guys who can take shots and you could see that with Nikitin. I wobbled him and tried to go for it (a knockout) a bit. Maybe I could have got him but it is what it is.

“I didn’t think he was going to box and try to keep boxing like he did.

“I would have scored it 8-2, maybe 9-1. It was comfortable and maybe I shouldn’t make it as comfortable as I do but it was easy and what’s the point in making it hard?

“There are gears to go through and it’s all progression as well. Every fight is different and I need to see something different in myself. I wanted him to come forward, be relentless and he didn’t actually do that.

“He tried to box and I heard him saying it before the fight but I was like ‘there’s no chance he’s going to try to box, he doesn’t know how to’ but he did and he made it awkward because I was expecting him to be coming in right from the start. Even when he was coming in I was able to slip and go under and move out again so it’s all progression, progression and moving forward to the bigger, bigger things.

“I know from the amateurs that he’s very hard to get to the body. When I did get him (to the body) I could see he was hurt but he protects himself well so fair play to him.”

Conlan looked to be on the verge of the stoppage win he wanted when he landed a volley of thunderous right hooks to Nikitin’s head when the fighters when tor-to-toe and traded in the eighth – the best round of the fight. The out-gunned Russian, who did have moments of success himself, was on uncertain legs but he gritted his teeth, battled through it and shaded the ninth.

“I hit him with some great hooks,” said Conlan.

“I wasn’t getting the full force with those shots but, listen, he’s a tough guy and he’s always been tough from the amateurs - he usually walks through people so I’m happy enough.

“I wanted to stop him, you could see I was enjoying it when we were going to war but I was told (by coach Adam Booth) to keep to the boxing. It’s not about taking shots.”

The Garden card included a successful WBO welterweight title defence for headline act Terence Crawford and a spectacular knockout win for local boy Teofimo Lopez who dethroned defending IBF lightweight champion Richard Commey in the second round. Earlier Cork’s Neil Murphy lost to Josue Vargas in an IBF North American Super-Lightweight scrap.

Conlan kept the Irish flag flying but he was cut, for the second time in his career – the first was against Adielson Dos Santos on his home debut last year.

“It was the same thing, southpaw, and I turned my head and the other head caught me,” he explained.

“Same eye as well and then the Vaseline went in my eye but then Nikitin hit me a shot and knocked it out of my eye so I was happy enough. It was nice that he did that!”

Next up for Conlan is a return to New York for another Madison Square Garden Theatre spectacular – his fourth in-a-row at the venue. After that it’s Falls Park on August 1 and Top Rank chief Bob Arum has promised him a world title shot before the end of the year.

“That seems to be the plan,” said a smiling Conlan in his dressingroom on Saturday night. He has been apart from his family for most of the last 14 weeks and intends to relax over Christmas.

“First I’ll enjoy Christmas, let’s enjoy Christmas and let’s just say I’ll be a super-middle by the end of it. The fans were fantastic, it was crazy and it was great to have them here.

“I wish I could have got the knockout for them but it is what it is. I’ll go home and have a good Christmas with the kids.”

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