Friday 20 April 2018

Michael Conlan: 'I don't just believe I can win. I know it'

‘Paddy (Barnes) and me are both going in this time with the same goal in mind, which is gold. And I truly believe that we’ll both be Olympic champions,’ says Michael Conlan, who is determined to upgrade the bronze medal he won in London four years ago.' Photo: Sportsfile
‘Paddy (Barnes) and me are both going in this time with the same goal in mind, which is gold. And I truly believe that we’ll both be Olympic champions,’ says Michael Conlan, who is determined to upgrade the bronze medal he won in London four years ago.' Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

For all the turmoil detonated in the Irish boxing camp by Thursday's revelations about Michael O'Reilly, gold medal prospect Michael Conlan was staying serene in the Olympic village yesterday.

The World, European and Commonwealth champion does not step into the ring here for another eight days, beginning his campaign the same day his great friend, Paddy Barnes, hopes to be fighting for gold in the light fly final.

Conlan is due to meet the winner of Wednesday's bout between Armenia's Aram Avagyan and Japan's Arashi Morisaka for a quarter-final place and yesterday was still in light-hearted mode, trolling Rory McIlroy on Twitter with a picture of himself and golfer, Rickie Fowler, captioned "said your a pussy for not turning up! #ohhhhhFightTalk#Olympics# Rio2016"

Conlan, who won bronze at the London Games, could meet his conqueror in 2012, Cuba's Robeisy Ramirez, in an August 20 final.

This time he has come for gold. When Conlan thinks of London now, that bronze medal plundered almost carries the status of a rejection slip. Just not his colour.

Ordinarily, that kind of moxy might grate on an Irish audience. But you would need a wooden heart to dislike Conlan. His boasting isn't hard-edged. It's delivered with a choir boy smile and speckled with the gentle courtesies of someone who knows the distinction between high self-esteem and wanton braggadocio.

Photo: Sportsfile
Photo: Sportsfile

But you must understand that the man who flew to Rio is some leagues above the boy who stole our hearts four years ago in London.

He wasn't meant to be at the 2012 Olympics you see, but he sure as hell is meant to be on Mount Olympia today. Conlan says of four years back: "I was going in without a worry on my shoulders. And Paddy Barnes was telling me how to control everything. Not lecturing me or anything, more having a laugh about it, saying, 'Don't worry about anything, just make sure you enjoy it...'


"So he was like my mentor. He'd been there and done it and was showing me the ropes. Now we're more on a par I suppose. He won't have to babysit me this time! Our attitude in London was just, 'Let's have the craic!' I mean, when the time came to compete, I was really nervous. But I knew I didn't have any problems too, that I was just where I needed to be. Even then, I believed that I could win gold.

"Maybe not as much as I believe now, but I did still think I could do it. And on one level, when I ended up with bronze, I was devastated.

"But Paddy and me are both going in this time with the same goal in mind, which is gold. And I truly believe that we'll both be Olympic champions. And doing it together will make it even better because we have a great friendship. Put it this way, we both got bronze in London, both got silver in the Europeans, both got gold at the Commonwealths. We both qualified for the Olympics via WSB, so it's written.

"I really do believe it's already written we're going to win gold together."

He is the shooting star of Ireland's team now, the kid who never boxed an international at underage and who only really came to know the distinction of wearing a singlet for his country in 2011. But he had 14 fights that year and ended it having qualified for the Olympics.

He and Barnes have, since, become a virtual partnership.

Since setting foot in Rio, their Twitter feeds have been emblazoned with high-watt smiles from tourist hotspots like Copacabana Beach, the Selaron Steps and the towering, iconic form of Christ the Redeemer.

Billy Walsh describes life in an Olympic village as a visit to "Fantasy Island" and Conlan remembers being initially dazzled by his proximity to global superstars like Serena Williams and Usain Bolt in the East End of London. Actually, he remembers initially thinking, 'Wow, these are people I only see on TV. What am I doing here?'

The difference in him between then and now is palpable to anyone who has known him across that stretch.

"I think the key word is knowledge," he says emphatically. "I'm much more knowledgeable now about the opponents I'll be fighting. And I've so much more experience. I'm now current World, European and Commonwealth champion as well as being an Olympic bronze medallist.

"The confidence I had in 2012 is still there, but the belief is a lot greater. I've so much more to back it up now. It's now a case that I know. Not just that I believe, I know. I've seen the world.

"You know I was going to go pro at one stage (having suffered a couple of "bad decisions" in the WSB) after London but my brother, Jamie (a professional boxer himself) told me not to. He said I was too young, that I needed to get more experience. I'm so happy now that I listened to him."

There has, of course, been an even more profound maturing process in Conlan's life since London.

He is dad now to 16-month-old Luisne (Irish for 'Little Flame', a beautiful daughter to he and fiancée, Shauna Olali, and the little girl's influence has been far-reaching.


"Being a dad is now my most important job," Conlan says flatly. "Like I want to do everything I can for my daughter. Before she was born, I was a very selfish person. I would have done everything for myself. I wasn't even doing it for my family, not even trying to make my family proud. I was always just doing it for myself.

"But since she was born, I don't care about anything else. When I've become very wealthy, it will all be for her. I want to give her everything that I possibly can.

"It's getting tougher every time I leave home now. Like last year, she didn't really know me. Now I feel she knows when I'm away. And that's really hitting me, knowing I'm missing her talking more, laughing more.

"When I came back from Uzbekistan a couple of months ago, she heard the door opening and came straight out to me to be lifted up. That's an amazing feeling, really very special. Like she's been going to swimming classes lately and I've missed all that. When I'm away, I go on Facetime with her and Shauna and she starts running around in circles. Goes nuts.

"And I'm like, 'What are you doing?' and she gets all embarrassed. So it's amazing, but it's sad too because you just want to be there. It's tough, but it's just what I have to do. I just have to dedicate this time of my life to this, then spend the rest of my life enjoying my time with her."

His own upbringing educated Conlan on the importance of good family.

Growing up in West Belfast, a young man gets presented with a small multiple of life choices. Many of them lead down dangerous culs-de-sac and, for a time, Michael Conlan flirted with company that might have been ruinous. At the time, his parents - John and Teresa - wouldn't have been aware of how closely their youngest son was sailing in dark waters.

"It's a tough place to grow up in," he concedes. "Not any tougher than a lot of other places in the world but some people fall the wrong side of the tracks and I could have been one of them. I was involved in stuff that I shouldn't have been involved in growing up.

"Now I wasn't the worst guy in the world, but I was drinking and stuff. From the age of 13, I was drinking and I shouldn't have been. But boxing kind of pulled me back from that. I was never caught doing anything, I mean I was good at hiding stuff.


"But the fact that my father was my coach... if he had caught me he'd have killed me. That always played on my mind. I think I was just lucky to have a good family."

Now, almost every day, he drives past a giant mural in his honour on Violet Street that fills him with pride. Yet, he sees it as having one fundamental flaw. The colour of the medal around Conlan's neck is not the one he craves.

This, then, he sees as the moment to put that right. Shauna and Luisne are traveling to Rio where they will stay in a villa with Teresa and Jamie. John, of course, will be in the village and, on fight day, in his son's corner. Here, Conlan senses a glorious omen.

"It's going to be special," he says.

"I was thinking about this the other day, that it's such a good omen. Our two boxing Olympic champions, Michael Carruth and Katie Taylor, had their fathers in their corner. It seems like it's just meant to be, that he's meant to be there for this experience.

"I remember after the Commonwealth Games I hugged him and felt really emotional. Because he probably feels the punches a lot more than I feel the punches. It's his son getting hit. Because I know if it was my daughter... I couldn't do it.

"It's very tough for him. I know we can be at each other's throats at times, but we're so close and so alike. It always works out for the good."

The prayer these coming days in Rio will be that it does again. For in Michael Conlan, Ireland has a compelling gold medal prospect capable, not simply of climbing the highest step on the podium, but of electrifying it with his style.

He is in Rio for one colour and one colour only. He expects to get it.

Irish Independent

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