'I can be bigger and better than Frampton' - Michael Conlan sets the bar high ahead of Pro debut
From Halle, Germany to Madison Square Garden, New York, a lot can change in five years - as Michael Conlan is learning.
The world amateur champion finally makes his move into the professional ranks tonight when he is likely to chew on the Big Apple and Colorado's Tim Ibarra in a six-round headliner at 124lbs in the MSG's Theater.
In a notable twist of fate, it is five years to the day since the Belfast native's manager, Matthew Macklin, took on then-world middleweight kingpin Sergio Martinez at the same venue.
Back then, Conlan was busy boxing for Ireland at the Chemistry Cup in Halle back before he went on to claim Olympic bronze along with world, European and Commonwealth gold prior to his controversial exit from the Rio Games last summer.
That eventually led to his pro move under US promoters Top Rank and tonight's much-hyped debut.
Then, like now, his focus was on his own destiny.
"I don't think I watched it live, I was boxing myself," said the 25-year-old on the Martinez-Macklin fight.
"I've watched it back and I seen the atmosphere and I know what to expect.
"I've talked to Matthew about walking out and the reaction and was he nervous and all that," added Conlan ahead of what is likely to be raucous reception in New York.
UFC star Conor McGregor is set to walk the Irish debutant to the ring in front of what is expected to be a sell-out crowd of around 5,000.
Macklin boxed in front of a similar crowd and cut a dejected figure in his dressing-room after losing out in the 11th round of that bout to Martinez. But standing a short distance from that room this week, the former European middleweight champion predicted a bright future for his protégé.
"It's mad that's it's five years," said Macklin. "It'll be nice to have Mick boxing there on the anniversary of it.
"There's been a massive response here in New York," added the manager on the hype surrounding Conlan, whose one-fingered salute to the judges at the Rio Olympics and headline billing tonight has attracted the attention of the American media.
"Everybody is excited about it and I think when his career is over in 10 years he will go down as the best Irish fighter in history."
Colorado native Ibarra is a novice journeyman with an unimpressive 4-4 record and he is not expected to present much of a challenge on the Belfast switch-hitter's big night.
"He could get overwhelmed with the crowd, it's going to be like a deer in the headlights," said Conlan. "I'm bringing almost 5,000 people… He will be shell-shocked."
With Ibarra considered a no-hoper, Conlan admits that the pressure of tonight's grand occasion represents more of a challenge than his 26-year-old opponent is likely to present.
"There's 100 per cent pressure, but I do thrive on that," said Conlan. "It is what makes me a better fighter.
"At the same time, people are going to think that I'm going to go in and blow this guy away in 20 seconds, but the journeymen in America are different from the [weaker] ones back home.
"He's not a bum," added Conlan, although he later dismissed Ibarra's claims that he will surprise the debutant by giving him a wake-up call to the harsh reality of the pro game.
"If he wants to talk s** to me, he can talk as much as he wants - he's still getting knocked out," said the 25-year-old ahead of the bout that will be shown live on BoxNation before a delayed RTÉ broadcast tomorrow night.
A confident Conlan also predicted that he will eventually overtake two-weight world champ Carl Frampton as Irish boxing's leading man.
Frampton was in New York last night as he was presented with the Boxing Writers' Association of America Sugar Ray Robinson 2016 Fighter of the Year award.
"I can go a lot bigger and better than what Frampton has achieved," claimed Conlan. "I am main event at Madison Square Garden from the get-go."
Conlan weighed in at 122.8lbs, with Ibarra one pound heavier ahead of the bout which is held at a 124lb catchweight between the super-bantam and featherweight limits where the Belfast man will pursue titles.
Meanwhile, Limerick's Andy Lee will be in action tomorrow night at the Garden's main arena.
The former WBO world champion has an eight-rounder against Alabama's KeAndrae Letherwood, with the pair set to take to the scales this morning ahead of their support bout to the world middleweight title clash between champion Gennady Golovkin and Danny Jacobs.