Sunday 26 January 2020

Michael Conlan: 'I had to spend time with my family after Rio agony or I couldn't have got through it'

Steven Beacom

Belfast boxer Michael Conlan has revealed how he broke down in tears after his Olympic dream was controversially shattered in Rio.

And in an open and searingly honest interview, he has spoken about his continuing hurt at his stunning quarter-final defeat, why he had to leave the Olympic Village to spend time with his family, having no regrets about a post-fight expletive-filled television interview and why he firmly believes that he will be a major success in the boxing ring in the future.

The 24-year-old also thanked the public and sporting world for their overwhelming support.

Conlan has become one of the stories of the 2016 Olympic Games after he was the victim of a staggering judging decision in his bantamweight clash with Russian Vladimir Nikitin.

While the fans inside the boxing arena on Tuesday and all those watching on television were convinced that World Amateur Champion Conlan had comfortably won the three-round contest, the judges gave a unanimous verdict to Nikitin, who subsequently was unable to take his place in the semi-final due to injury, having been outclassed by the Team Ireland star.

Understandably, Conlan was furious about the decision and in an RTE television interview immediately after the fight he let rip at the judges and the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the amateur sport's governing body, claiming the organisation was corrupt and insisting he had been "robbed".

Since the fight, the 2014 Commonwealth Games champion has been spending quality time with his fiancee Shauna and daughter Luisne, soaking up the sun on Copacabana beach in Rio. Michael's mother Teresa and father John, who coaches the Irish boxing team, are also out in Brazil, along with his brother Jamie, an accomplished professional boxer.

They have been hit hard at seeing a dream ripped away from their boy in such contentious circumstances.

For the man himself, considered one of Ireland's finest ever amateur boxers, the pain remains - so much so that he had to leave the Olympic Village.

"I am still hurting," said Conlan. "I had to get out of the Olympic Village and spend time with my family otherwise I would have gone mental.

"I took myself away from it because I didn't want to be constantly reminded about what went on.

"The more the days that pass, the more upset I get and the more gutted I feel.

"It's still hard to enjoy anything, but it's done and I am having family time now.

"I haven't seen Shauna and Luisne in a long time, so it is great to spend time with them and the rest of my family.

"Family is the most important part of my life, and it always will be."

Conlan, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, is scheduled to return home next Tuesday, one week after his fight and that explosive RTE interview that caused ructions all around the globe.

He hopes his hard-hitting words will make a difference for other amateur boxers in years to come, so that they don't have to suffer the way he has. "After the fight was over I felt robbed and got a lot off my chest right away," said the charismatic young man.

"I used some crazy words in a television interview immediately afterwards, but I wouldn't take them back because they were my true emotions at that time. I was honest with myself and honest with every single person who had tuned in to watch.

"If I hadn't have said what I said I would probably feel even worse now. Seeing the reaction it had in terms of getting a message out there, I am glad that I did it.

"I know some people weren't happy with the words I used, but that interview and the reaction it has had has opened the eyes of the world to the corruption in amateur boxing. Hopefully, what I have said can change amateur boxing, and what happened to me won't happen as much to other boxers."

Conlan admits that once he was away from the glare of the cameras there were tears. "After coming out of the ring I did a lot of interviews. At that stage I was fuming and the closer I got to the dressing room the more I started to feel I was going to cry," he told me.

"I didn't cry in any of the interviews, though I was close in the last one when I was asked about my family being in Rio.

"When my family were mentioned I felt so sad because I had brought them all out to see me winning the gold, and then to have that ripped away from us was so hard to accept.

"In the dressing room all these people were coming up to me from the Cuban boxing team to the GB boxing team and telling me I had won the fight. They were devastated by what happened. All the boxing people knew what went on.

"In the dressing room I cried for about 30 seconds. I put my head in a towel and just roared and then dried my face and went and got washed. Then when I went out to see my family I cried for another 30 seconds. My daughter was running about laughing so I thought, 'It's done, get over it'.

"The more time passes, though, the harder it gets because it is starting to sink in now. The first few days I was feeling I was in the middle of a nightmare, but now it has become reality and it is sickening."

What has been heartening for the Belfast native has been the incredible support he has received since being cruelly dumped out of a competition he was widely expected to win.

The boxing fraternity has backed him, along with commentators and members of the public, who couldn't believe that the Russian walked away the victor when it appeared Conlan had won every single round.

Conlan was keen to thank everyone who has been behind him since Tuesday's travesty.

"The support I have had from everyone has been unbelievable, from people at home to people all over the world, and I can't thank everyone enough for the way they have supported me," the boxer told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I want to tell everyone how much their messages and goodwill have meant to me and my family, especially everyone who has been very vocal about the decision and called it how it is.

"It's good to hear people from within boxing and outside of boxing say that I was robbed because that is exactly what happened."

Since Conlan's defeat and the dubious outcome of other results in Rio ring, allegations of corruption have been widespread. Conlan tells an alarming tale of how Team Ireland boxing coach Zaur Antia was informed prior to the fight that Michael's Russian opponent would emerge triumphant.

"Our coach Zaur was told by a Russian two days before the fight that I was getting beat," said Conlan in disgust.

"They didn't tell me about what was said because they wanted me to stay positive. It was so hard on the coaches because they knew what was going on.

"My dad was being so positive before the fight and he was saying to me, 'I believe that you can knock this guy out'. He was trying to motivate me to knock the Russian out because he knew what was going on.

"Since the fight the coaches were saying that they would know if there was anything in what had been said before the fight after the first round. I boxed the head off the guy in the first round and still lost it.

"If you watch the fight back you can see Shauna sitting down after the first round. She doesn't get emotional at fights, but she knew what was going on. She knew what they were doing to me.

"Shauna knew, the coaches knew and my good mate Paddy Barnes knew. I didn't know. No one told me. They all just wanted to be positive with me going into the ring."

Barnes had his own Olympic heartbreak to deal with the previous week, losing his first round light-flyweight fight to Spain's Samuel Carmona.

Conlan was distraught that his pal, who had won bronze medals at the 2008 and 2012 Games, exited so early.

"When Paddy lost I was completely devastated and when I lost he was completely devastated,"the boxer told me.

"We are all part of the Irish team and when any of the boxers in the team lost we were sad because we are team-mates, but with me and Paddy it hurts even more because we are like best mates.

"He was going mental after my fight and wanted to go and see the judges.

"He said he was proud I handled it the way that I did because it was so heartbreaking."

Following his defeat Conlan declared he would not fight as an amateur again.

Had the gifted technician with fast hands and fast feet won gold in Rio, he was still bound for the professional scene, where he will have the style and talent to make money and win titles.

Never lacking self-belief, Conlan believes great things lie ahead for him.

Few would disagree. This kid is the real deal.

"I have a massive career ahead of me," the Belfast man says with the confidence of a champion.

"What has happened in Rio won't define me. It's in the past. I felt it was my destiny to win gold, but it didn't happen. I believe everything happens for a reason and it is all part of a plan which is already written.

"This part has been meant to happen and I will move on from it. It won't change what I will do in the future.

"I will take the rest of the year off and have a few holidays.

"I will also go and talk to a lot of people and take my time before making my next step. Whatever I do I believe I will do it well."

Belfast Telegraph

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