Friday 17 January 2020

Conlan needs to avoid a brawl in Nikitin rematch

Vladimir Nikitin of Russia, left, exchanges punches with Michael Conlan during their Bantamweight quarter final bout in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vladimir Nikitin of Russia, left, exchanges punches with Michael Conlan during their Bantamweight quarter final bout in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Seán McGoldrick

Michael Conlan insists it's not personal. But human nature dictates that his rematch against Olympic 2016 nemesis Vladimir Nikitin scheduled for the early hours of tomorrow morning is very personal.

After all, the Russian fighter denied Conlan his cherished dream of winning a gold medal in Rio - ably assisted, of course, by questionable judging and refereeing decisions.

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But therein lies the danger for the unbeaten Belfast fighter who needs to keep his emotions in check.

Conlan and Nikitin first crossed paths competitively during the 2013 world amateur championships in Kazakhstan. It was Conlan's debut in the bantamweight division and he lost 3-0 to Nikitin in the quarter-finals. The Russian went on to win the silver medal.

On any known criteria, Conlan - then the reigning world bantamweight champion - won the rematch in Rio but didn't get the verdict. He argues that deep down the Russian knows he didn't do enough to win in Brazil.

"He needs to prove something because his career will always be remembered for 'losing' to me in the Olympics. He's gotta prove something and I don't believe he will. I've prepared fully and have been training for 13 or 14 weeks for this camp," said Conlan.

Since relocating back to Belfast from the west coast of the United States and linking up with Surrey-based coach Adam Booth, Conlan's performances in the ring have shown a marked improvement.

He remains unbeaten after 12 fights and secured a WBA intercontinental featherweight belt in his last contest.

Unlike Conlan who signed professional with Top Rank immediately after the Rio Olympics, Nikitin didn't turn pro until last year. Indeed, the Russian boxed as an amateur in the National Stadium in 2017 when he lost a lightweight contest to Galway's Patrick Mongan.

This will only be his fourth professional fight and his first since St Patrick's Day.

He was due to face the Irishman in Belfast last summer but pulled out after allegedly tearing his bicep in training.

He will certainly be more comfortable taking on Conlan in New York, even though Madison Square Garden is something of a home from home for the Irishman.

He made his pro debut in the iconic venue on St Patrick's night in 2017 and this will be his sixth appearance at the Garden.

Outwardly at least Nikitin is full of confidence. "I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I won two bouts against Conlan in the amateurs and, right now, this is just another big step in my professional career.

"I am ready for 10 rounds. We'll see what will happen in the ring."

Provided Conlan avoids being dragged into a brawl, he has the skill and speed to see off Nikitin in a scheduled 10-round non-title featherweight contest, though it could go the distance.

The fight is on the undercard of the WBO world welterweight title fight between defending and unbeaten champion Terence Crawford and Egidijus Kavaliauskas from Lithuania.

  • Conlan v Nikitin, live, eir Sports 1, 2am approx (Sunday)

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