Wednesday 13 December 2017

Boxing: Wheel turns full circle for gifted Belfast boy

Michael Conlan has the talent and the confidence to create a big impression at the Olympic Games, writes John O'Brien

A FEW weeks back, Michael Conlan was invited to attend a function in Belfast to share his thoughts about the impending Olympic Games. The young Belfast flyweight was in good company. Alongside him on the podium was his friend Paddy Barnes, the bronze medallist in Beijing, and two boxing legends of the city: John McNally, a silver medallist in 1952, and the bronze medallist from 1980, Hughie Russell.

Conlan had no problem placing himself in such a distinguished narrative. The history of boxing and its eminent place in the sporting fabric of his native city was bred into him from birth and seared into his brain. At a push he could name a fair percentage of the 30 Belfast fighters who have competed for Ireland at the Olympics. He bubbles with pride, too, that he and Barnes alone will fly the flag for the city at this summer's renewal.

"Belfast is a great place to be for a boxer," he says. "Seven of the 12 boxers who have won Olympic medals for Ireland came from Belfast. I used to watch Wayne (McCullough) as a kid. I loved watching him, the way he put pressure on his opponents. I started when I was seven and won my first national title when I was 11. It's what I've always wanted to do."

For the past two years, Conlan has been part of the high-performance unit in Dublin, travelling down the M1 every week with Barnes beside him at the wheel. Five years ago, Barnes sprung from nowhere to reach the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Chicago and nail his place for the Beijing Olympics. Conlan matched his feat in Baku last year, taking even those closest to him off guard with his youthful precocity.

The thread of the story goes back, though. Way back. Over 30 years ago, John Conlan left his native Drimnagh to move to Belfast with his wife Theresa. Times were tough in Ireland back then too and the young couple had a notion of forging a future together in Australia. Yet the idea of staying and laying down roots in Belfast made a perverse kind of sense too. "It was actually easier to live here during the Troubles," John explains. "It was much more affordable."

Growing up in Drimnagh, John's father had inspired a deep love of sport in his children. As a spiritual home, the local boxing club, fused by the energy and drive of the Carruths, was a powerful magnet. "My father drummed the Olympic spirit into us," John remembers. "He loved it and I inherited that and tried to pass it on. Michael would definitely have picked up on that. That sense of tradition is hugely important to him."

In Belfast, John joined the St John Bosco club on the Falls Road and subsequently gravitated to head coach. A small club with a proud tradition: Freddie Gilroy, Sean McCafferty and Martin Quinn had all carried the Olympic flame but, before Michael came along, 44 years had passed without any Olympic involvement. "It's great for the club," says honorary secretary George Boyd. "Boxing in Co Antrim is booming again."

Boyd remembers Conlan buzzing around the gym as a kid, mad to climb into the ring where his two older brothers were already making an impression. At 10, they laced him up for the first time and saw he was a natural. "You could see it in him immediately," Boyd says. "The same as his brothers. I remember turning to Seán McCafferty and saying this boy could be something special."

When he won his first national title at the age of 11, what made it particularly memorable was that his brothers, Brendan and Jamie, also held national titles at the same time. It wasn't quite creating history: the Christle brothers -- Mel, Terry and Joe -- had all won national titles on the same night in 1980, but it was a rare and special achievement all the same.

For all Michael's obvious potential, however, making the leap to the elite national squad required time and patience. As a junior, Conlan tiptoed around the fringes of Jim Moore's cadet squad without breaking through. "That happens," says Ireland head coach Billy Walsh. "He was there but never sparkling or shining. Look at Henry Shefflin: probably the best hurler of all time, but he didn't stand out as a minor for Kilkenny. I played minor for Wexford and I got nowhere!"

In 2010, Zaur Antia, Walsh's assistant, watched Conlan lose to Conor Ahern in the national flyweight championships but his eye was drawn to the beaten boxer. What he saw astonished him: a range of supreme, all-round skills few boxers were blessed with. His technique had a few glitches, perhaps, but nothing that couldn't be ironed out surrounded by the high-tech excellence of the high-performance unit.

Thing was, though, Conlan wasn't the national champion. He had no funding, no place within the system and Antia bemoaned his absence. "For a few years we lost him. I asked Billy many times, 'Where is Conlan? Where is Conlan?' There was some issue with funding I think. They couldn't bring him in. But then he wins the Irish title and he appears again. I said, 'Good. He's a very good boy'."

Over the past two years, Walsh has seen a hugely promising kid develop into a world-class boxer. "He has everything," Walsh says admiringly. "He can fight orthodox. He can fight southpaw. Close-range or long-range. He's so adaptable. Not many fighters can do that. The only negative is he can be a bit emotional. Like myself. Sometimes that can cloud your judgement. But with more experience he's getting better. He's able to control that side more."

At 20, the Olympics brings the toughest challenge of Conlan's life, but they imagine he'll cope. Around the gym he wears a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Believe the hype", a message borne of a confidence and a certain playfulness rather than any sense of arrogance. Critically, he has delivered where it matters. In Baku last year, he toppled the European bronze medallist, the Asian Games silver medallist and the world bronze medallist before losing by a point to Andrew Selby, the reigning European champion.

"Nothing intimidates me," Conlan says. "I'm confident in my boxing and in my skills. When I went to the Worlds I just wanted to perform. To be honest, I wasn't expecting to qualify for the Olympics so that was a bonus. Now I'm here I know I'm capable of a medal but so much can happen. I'll do my best and hopefully do my city and my club proud. Anything after that is a bonus."

Friday brought good tidings. The draw blessed him with a bye in the first round and pitted him against the winner of Ghanaian Duke Micah and Mauritian boxer Oliver Lavigilante. Survive that and things get tougher, but there will be no fear. It has never been Conlan's way.

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