Monday 19 February 2018

'It drives me on to be the best I can be, to give my daughter the best life possible' - Michael Conlan talks motivation

Michael Conlan says he has earned the right to be confident heading to Rio. Photo: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile
Michael Conlan says he has earned the right to be confident heading to Rio. Photo: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

John Conlan has a million things to do. He has a squad of Russian boxers coming in the morning and he has phone calls to answer in his role as High Performance Coach for Irish boxing.

This is one of those precious evenings that he gets home to Cavendish Street, west Belfast. Here he starts to talk about his life, his family, his sons Brendan, Jamie, Sean Paul, and of course the World Amateur Bantamweight Boxing Champion of the world, Michael. Time flies because of his charm and magnetism.

His wife Teresa comes home. They haven't seen each other in days and greet each other with a kiss.

This isn't your usual stable for boxers. They are meant to come from broken homes with hurt buried deep down.

Yet this couple have reared three Irish champions. Jamie is a professional currently training in Spain. Michael is a gold medal hope for later in the year in Rio. Brendan decided he had done enough after winning a few Irish titles.

It's Michael we have come to talk about. But to trace Michael, we have to trace John.

As a child growing up in Church Street in the north inner-city of Dublin, John's father Terry was the big influence. As a lathe operator, his job was to make tools for the Dublin Corporation. He could also make golf clubs for his boys.

A soccer player for Shamrock Rovers in his youth, he played every sport. His sons did too.


"We were always encouraged to play stuff," he says. "When we were young, it was very tough, inner city place. One of my friends, his sister had married a German and he came over and started a cycle club. We all borrowed bikes and then went cycling up into the Dublin mountains!

"We always watched the Olympics, which is why for Michael, he understands the dynamics of it because we watched it when we were young and then I transferred it to them.

"My love of sport kept me out of a lot of trouble. I know this myself because I grew up in a tough area and they had a lot of problems, crime and stuff.

"I missed 99pc of that stuff because I was always training in the gym. Some of my friends went onto the dark side. But looking back, sport was really good to me and I enjoyed it, so I always tried to do that."

He played some soccer. A bit of Gaelic football for Good Counsel, who could point to Kevin Moran as a local boy made good. But boxing was always his favourite.

When he was a young man, he met Teresa Strong of Belfast. Ambitions to emigrate to Australia were put on the back-burner as they started a family.

Boxing was his first love and although he had taught his boys the basics, he knew he had to step it up when, "I went out the door one day and Jamie went flying in the gate and had this big lad chasing him. They went at it in the garden. Only kids really.

"But I said, 'Look, I am not having this anymore. You are not fighting in the street. If you want to fight, we will go to the gym'."

With his big brothers making names for themselves, Michael wanted to come along to the Bosco club. He learned fast. Eventually, a coach called Sean McCaffrey got John to arrive a bit earlier each time, and stay a little longer until he was there for the duration of the session.

It began a coaching journey that has taken him from working in the building game to being an international coach. He's tipped to eventually replace Billy Walsh as head coach of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association.

The Bosco club went through a few changes of venue and identity, but the Conlans kept winning. In one session, Brendan, Jamie and Michael all won All-Ireland titles, something never done before or since by three brothers.

Their greatest achievement, however, is the happy home they live in.

"They had a very happy childhood and we have been very lucky. We made a thing of giving them a good holiday every year, being cross-community, we always made sure that they didn't get stuck into the rut of this place," explains John.

"They went and seen other cultures, holidays abroad and everything. We never talked politics, we don't drink in the house. Never."

John has learned to live with watching his son in the ring, taking that punishment, giving it out.

"I have been through that when they were beaten with close decisions. I have had the rants. I have lost my cool, I have shouted at referees and judges…" he begins.

"All that emotional attachment that comes with it over the years has got me into trouble at times. But then the longer I have been with them I realise it doesn't help the situation. It makes things worse, it clouds your judgement. I am no use to them if I am ranting and raving."

Last year, Michael went through the biggest change of his life. In March, he and girlfriend Shauna were blessed with a little girl, Luisne.

"I think it has made me a lot more mature," he reflects now. "I was an immature person, a selfish person and I had to be for my sport.

"I did everything for myself to make sure I was doing the best for myself. Now, I kind of expanded it a bit more and I have become more thoughtful of Shauna and of my parents and what they have done. What Shauna goes through on a daily basis when I am away, because I know how tough it is for them.

"In a sporting sense it has made me a better athlete too. It drives me on to be the best I can be, to give my daughter the best life possible."

The three of them are living now in the Belfast suburb of Mallusk. It might only be seven miles from Cavendish Street, but it's a culture shock nonetheless. He can't sleep because of the lack of background noise.

"There are very young families, they all have young babies and it's going to be good for Luisne growing up as well. It's kind of cross-community as well, there are Protestants, the people beside us are Polish.

"That's what you want. In my area growing up, you were 100pc Republican Catholic and meant to hate people. That's the way it could come across.

"In my house it didn't work like that. We were told from a young age it doesn't matter who you are or where you are from. You are still a person with feelings. A human being, not better than anyone because they are from an area."

Just down the street on the corner of Cavendish and Violet Street, there is a mural of Michael in his boxing singlet and medals from the London 2012 Olympics. At the start, John was pumped by it. Then slightly embarrassed. Now proud again.

Michael just embraces it.

"I was just amazed by it the first time I seen it. Like, normally the only people that get that are dead people, ex-prisoners, Republicans have their faces on the walls. To have my face on the wall, at the age of 20, it's good."

There is a level of expectation on the likes of Michael, on Paddy Barnes and Katie Taylor that they are going to arrive home with armfuls of medals from the Olympics in Brazil.

Already, Michael and Paddy are talking like it is their destiny.


"We have earned the right to be this confident," Michael answers.

"I have been reading 'The Secret' and this is all about my self-motivation. I believe everything I am doing has been meant to happen, and I am helping myself. Positive attracts positive, like attracts like. I really believe that works."

Who recommends his reading?

"My mum. She is a very positive person and always sending me links and stuff, videos and how to prepare for things. I don't really watch them all the time, but coming up to a fight I would watch them because she sends me something every single day.

"She does love it and sometimes it annoys me that she loves it that much because I don't want her to be involved that much because she is my mum. I am the boxer here, you can't tell me!

"But she does love the sport and knows more than a lot of boxers. She is a great influence in my life and she is probably the strongest woman I have ever known."

What goes into the making of a champion? A love of sport. Devotion to the craft. Willpower.

John Conlan gave Michael and his brothers the basics. Showed them the ropes and planted a love of activity, of the world around them and of other people. Their mother gave them the mental tools, the intelligence to figure things out. Not your average environment to bring up boxers?

On reflection, the perfect environment.

Irish Independent

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