Monday 22 January 2018

Classy Conlan determined to build on momentum after shaking off the ring rust

Michael Conlan of Ireland celebrates defeating Aram Avagyan of Armenia. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Michael Conlan of Ireland celebrates defeating Aram Avagyan of Armenia. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick

As Michael Conlan reflected on his winning debut in the Rio Olympics in the mixed zone on Sunday, his quarter-final opponent Vladimir Nikitin passed through.

Nobody noticed him other than Conlan who paused in mid-sentence, turned and shook hands with the man he has to beat in the Rio Centro today (3.30pm) to guarantee himself a bronze medal and secure a place in an Olympic semi-final for the second time in four years.

He was merely reciprocating what the Russian did when the pair met in the athletes' village shortly after the Games began. It's as if the pair are deliberately seeking each other out as they attempt to seek a psychological edge before their showdown today.

"He came and shook my hand during the week. I just felt his hand was weak. That does play a part. He was wandering around by himself, he seems to be a bit of a loner but it doesn't mean anything.

"He's a great fighter. He's took a lot of shots already in the tournament," said Conlan.

Read more: Michael Conlan reminds fans what Irish boxing is capable of with dominant last 16 victory

The pair clashed once before in the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Almaty in 2013 when Nikitin won an unanimous 3-0 decision on his way to picking up a silver medal. But there were mitigating circumstances, as Conlan remembers.

"The Russian beat me in 2013 but I had only moved up into the division six days earlier. The first day we got here I went into the gym to train and I put it (the Nikitin fight) on YouTube and watched it on the cross-trainer. I completely out-boxed him, but they were just scoring aggressive back then," he suggests.

The Irish coaching staff are particularly familiar with Nikitin as it was at the 2013 European Championships in Minsk that John Joe Nevin - in what turned out to be his penultimate fight for Ireland - outclassed the Russian in the bantamweight semi-final.

Nevin subsequently won the gold medal in Minsk but then opted to turn professional which enabled Conlan to move up a few months later from fly to bantamweight, where he has campaigned since.

Conlan's father John - who is assistant coach together with Eddie Bolger to Zaur Anita in Rio - couldn't concede his delight when the result of Nikitin's contest was announced: a controversial split decision over a veteran Thai fighter Chatchi Butdee.

"This is 10 times a better fight for us," beamed Conlan Snr who said the prospect of his son taking on the Thai had filled him with trepidation. "He a tricky fighter and it wouldn't have been good for my nerves."

So far Conlan's campaign has worked out exactly as he had conjured up in his own mind.

"I was running around the village with Steven Donnelly the first day we arrived here and I said to him, 'I would love to fight Armenia in my first fight, and in my second fight I would love to fight Russia. So my wish has come through."

Even though he won comfortably on Sunday it was a uncharacteristically unimpressive performance from the number one seed.

"It was probably one of my worst performances in recent times, I got dragged into a fight, which I shouldn't have.

"As the tournament goes on, I get stronger and stronger. I think this will just stand me in good stead for the next fight."

Traditionally, Conlan never starts a championship tournament well. At the World Championships in Doha last October he lost the first round of his first fight but then virtually sailed through the rest of the tournament.

He was ring-rusty as well, having not fought since the World Championships; he did feature in a warm-up tournament in Lithuania in May but the fight had to be stopped when he suffered a facial cut due to a clash of heads.

Being prone to getting cut is one of his few weaknesses, though he also ships more punches than he needs too and, at times, he allows his heart to rule his head in the ring getting involved in brawls when it would be more prudent to let him ability to outbox opponents to be his calling card.

With his partner Shauna, daughter Luisne and brother Jamie rooting for him in the stands and his father in his corner, he just needs to recapture something close to his best form today and a place in the Olympic semi-final on Thursday will be secured.

On the other side of the draw, the spectre of American super kid, 19-year-old Shakur Stevenson, looms large after he also qualified for the quarter-final.

He takes on Mongonlian Erdenebat Tsendbaatar today after seeing off local favourite Robenílson Vieira de Jesus in the first round.

The chances of a semi-final showdown between Conlan and Stevenson, who is now coached by Billy Walsh is taking definite shape. Interesting days ahead.

Irish Independent

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