By Jake Donovan
Michael Conlan’s homecoming was as festive as it was productive.
The two-time Olympian and 2012 Bronze medalist continued his unbeaten ways in the pro ranks, scoring a 9th round stoppage of Argentina’s Diego Alberto Ruiz in front of a beyond-capacity crowd Saturday evening at Fall’s Park’s Marquee in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“I’m a proud West Belfast boy,” Conlan noted during his in-ring post-fight interview with BT Sport. “To be able to do this in the park where I grew up is unbelievable.”
For his visiting opponent, it was the exact opposite experience. Ruiz came into the night riding a 10-fight win streak but had never before fought outside of his native Argentina. He played out the pre-fight instructions and final staredown with all of the energy of a boxer ready to shock the world.
By the end of the first round, he looked every bit the part of a replacement opponent.
The night was originally designed to have Conlan square off with a bitter amateur rival, Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin who scored a highly questionable win in their 2016 Rio Olympics quarterfinals meeting. The moment sparked major turnover within the corrupt AIBA organization, with the immediate post-fight reaction of Conlan flashing a pair of one-finger salutes to the judges going viral.
Conlan and Nikitin are both with promotional powerhouse Top Rank, who had the brainstorm to stage a pro meeting between the two in Belfast. The moment was ruined when Nikitin suffered an injury and was forced to withdraw, thus prompting Ruiz to be brought in on relative short notice.
There’s no telling how a Conlan-Nikitin pro bout would’ve played out on Saturday, but it couldn’t have been any less competitive than a first round that saw Ruiz not land a single punch. Conlan wasn’t setting the world afire but his superior skillset was clearly enough to bank early rounds while Ruiz never quite figured out a way to get within punching range.
It was never an issue for Conlan, who worked his jab early and followed with a dedicated body attack. With such a game plan almost always comes a low blow or two, the first such infraction coming early in round four. A warning was issued to the local favorite, but didn’t at all deter him from continuing his attack downstairs which was equally encouraged between rounds by head trainer Adam Booth.
By the midway point, it became clear that the night was going to be a repeat of Conlan’s last bout, where he boxed his way to a 10-round win over Mexico’s Ruben Garcia. It was a largely forgettable performance save for the St. Patrick’s Day-themed event in front a raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theatre in New York City.
The only memorable part of the first half of the contest came late in round six. Ruiz’s father and trainer Ruben jumped on the ring in protest after watching his son get hit with a kidney punch and a right hand to the back of his head, furious that the referee didn’t act upon the pair of fouls.
Calmer heads prevailed, leading to more one-way traffic in a bout that seemed destined to go to the scorecards.
Then came the ending.
Fighting out of a southpaw stance, Conlan found a home for his sweeping right hand which forced Ruiz to the canvas in round nine. An ensuing attack prompted a merciful stoppage which came at 1:34 of round nine.
“I give (the performance) about an eight,” admitted Conlan, who advances to 12-0 (7KOs) with the win.
Ruiz’s 10-fight win streak comes to a crashing halt, as he falls to 21-3 (10KOs).
Following his last win this past March, Conlan insisted he wanted to fight for a featherweight title by that point next year. The vision was to move his next St. Patrick’s Day headliner from Hulu Theatre—where he’s played to sold out crowd three straight years, including his pro debut in 2017—to the main room at MSG.
Given the turnout here, the wish list has very much been revised. The bulk of his career has taken place in the United States, but it’s clear that there’s no place like home—especially to a noted ticket seller like Saturday’s winner and still-unbeaten rising prospect.
“The bossman is here, Bob Arum,” Conlan noted in deferring to his Hall of Fame promoter on the topic of when he gets to fight for a title. “We’ll just have to see.
“It will have to be here, maybe next year. We can put 20,000 or 30,000 in attendance.”
The bout streamed live on ESPN+ in the United States and BT Sport in the U.K.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox