Sunday 21 January 2018

Michael Conlan 'more mature' ahead of final step to historic World gold

Michael Conlan goes for World gold in Doha this evening
Michael Conlan goes for World gold in Doha this evening

Sean McGoldrick in Doha

Watching the 2004 Olympics in the company of his brothers and parents in their home in west Belfast, 12-year-old Michael Conlan was transfixed by the performances of Britain's lightweight Amir Khan.

He was just five years older than Conlan and he ended up winning a silver medal.

"I said to my parents, 'I'll be there one day'," he recalls. Eight years later Conlan didn't quite emulate his boyhood hero - but came close, winning a bronze medal at his inaugural Olympic appearance in London in 2012.

Tonight Conlan can surpass the achievements of Khan - who made a guest appearance at the championships last weekend - and be crowned bantamweight champion of the world. Twenty-year-old Murodjon Akhmadaliev from Uzbekistan stands between Conlan becoming the first ever Irish boxer to win a gold medal at world level.

A giant montage of 23-year-old Irishman adorns the front facade of Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiya Arena in Doha, testimony to the fact that the Irish captain is now one of the superstars of world amateur boxing.


He has already qualified for the Rio Olympics and his ambition is to end his amateur career by World and Olympic gold medals to the Commonwealth and European titles he currently holds.

For the moment, however, his focus is on the nine-minute showdown against the Uzbek who won a silver medal at the World Youth championships in 2012 as a light-flyweight. The Irish camp had an opportunity to observe Akhmadaliev up close at the Standja Memorial tournament in Bulgaria this year when he beat the current Irish Elite bantamweight Kurt Walker on a split decision in the quarter-finals.

"I just have to go in there and perform and if I do the gold medal is in my hand. Since I have come into the team I have never cared about who I am fighting," he suggests. But Conlan is now a far more mature and measured performer than the tearaway kid who first burst on to the international scene at the World Championships in Baku in 2011. In order to qualify for the London Olympics in the flyweight category, he needed to beat a talented French boxer Nordine Oubaali, who had won a bronze medal at the World Championship four years earlier and as a junior had beaten Conlan's older brother Jamie.

"After the weigh-in I decided to get completely hydrated and drank loads. I didn't care what I weighed after the final so long as I won," he recalls. Conlan won the fight but discovered to his horror that he had four kilograms to shed overnight prior to his weigh-in the next morning for his quarter-final bout. He made the weight and nearly won the fight, losing by a point on the old computer scoring system to Welshman Andrew Selby.

Conlan credits the birth of his daughter Luisne last March as a turning point in his life. "I want to win the final for my daughter," said Conlan who dedicated his two previous wins in Doha to his mother Teresa and brother Jamie, who were celebrating their birthdays on the day of his fights.

"I'm not boxing for fun now. I need to get as much out of it as possible. Since her birth I've matured ten years. Previously I would have thrown the head (in the ring). But now I have to keep my cool."

Yet just seven months ago almost quit the amateur game. Together with his Belfast buddy Paddy Barnes the pair had journeyed to three continents and six cities covering 30,000 air miles in a 17-week period in pursuit of searching a place at the Rio Olympics through the World Boxing Series.

By the time the WSB road show hit the Venezuelan port city of Maiquetia in April, Barnes' Olympic spot in the 49kg was virtually secure whereas Conlan's hung by a thread after two losses earlier in the series.

Vladimir Nikitin from Russia and Magomed Gurbanov from Azerbaijan were in pole position to secure the two available slots. When word came through from Kiev that Nikitin had won, Conlan was distraught. He thought his Olympic dream was over; he was ready to quit amateur boxing and follow his older Jimmy into the pro game.

In sport nothing is pre-ordained. In a huge upset, an experienced Costa Rican boxer Hector Luis Garcia Mora fashioned a stunning win over Gurbanov, while Conlan kept his side of the deal by achieving a unanimous win.

Just as he stepped out of the ring Paddy Barnes came running at him and jumped on him shouting, "You're going to the Olympics too." All Conlan could muster in reply was: "You'd better not be joking."

Conlan hasn't lost a fight since and now has an opportunity to become one of the most decorated ever Irish amateur boxers.

World Championships, Live, RTÉ 2, 7.00pm

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