It’s been a long training camp for Mick Conlan as he preps for his Friday night meeting with Ionut Baluta.
“It’s been forever,” he chuckles, only half joking when talking about the time he’s spent in London since mid-January. That’s quite a while for a family man any way you slice it, but given that it’s Conlan’s first start since last August due to an ankle injury, it’s felt even longer for the unbeaten 29-year-old
“I didn't stop training from my injury and I've been in shape, training the whole time,” he said. “Then I came over here mid-January and I was supposed to box on the Dubai show with (Carl) Frampton and (Jamel) Herring (on April 3), but I think Top Rank wanted me to be on my own card. It's been long but I suppose coming back from an injury, it's always good to have the extra bit of time to work on things and get back to where I was pre-injury.”
Conlan is also making his first appearance at 122 pounds since his pro debut, a move he’s been talking about for a while as he chases his first world title. That’s also been a smooth process as he approaches weigh-in day, a reality verified by his usual affable demeanor.
“It's been a gradual process,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna crash it and do it unhealthily. I brought the weight down since we started talking about 122 and this whole fight camp has went great. I've been sparring better than I've ever sparred, my weight's been lower than it's ever been. I'm in a great position now, and I'm actually gonna make this weight easier than I've made featherweight in the past, so it's good. I'm looking forward to it.”
Add in his perfect 14-0 record and the talk that he might be facing WBO super bantamweight champion Stephen Fulton next, and it’s a good time to be Mick Conlan. But nothing’s ever perfect, and in the late stages of his training camp came word of riots back home in Northern Ireland centering on developments stemming from the Brexit Protocol. For some, it’s a reminder of the Troubles that tore the nation apart over three decades, and it’s unsettling to Conlan, especially with his family at home while he’s on the road.
“It's a terrible situation and it's politics and the working-class kids getting dragged into something which they have no reason to,” said Conlan. “It's a lot of bullsh!t going on back home, a lot of backwards stuff, a lot of stuff from the past that should never have been brought back. It's very unfortunate that it's happening, and I think people just need to really understand why. The people here are getting upset at the rioting and the things they're doing, and I don't think they even know why they're doing it. I think the kids are doing it because it's enjoyment, it's excitement. You're doing something you're not meant to be doing, and it's really causing a lot of problems, and it's not showing the right things for the future. But these kids, they're just being brainwashed by the wrong people. The kids from the wealthy areas, they don't get involved in this sh!t because they know it's bullsh!t. It's the working-class kids being brainwashed and being turned against other kids because of religion, and let's be honest, it's not religion, it's just politics, and it's the working-class people who are going to be the most affected by it, as always.”
As for Northern Ireland returning to the days of the trouble, Conlan is optimistic that won’t be the case, and with things calming down over the last couple weeks, there’s good reason for that optimism. That doesn’t mean Conlan isn’t wary about revisiting a time in Irish history that still bears scars for so many.
“There is the potential it could be, but I don't think it will be,” he said. “And I try not to think about it, but it would be very worrying if we were to go back in time like that. I would probably get my family from over there and move somewhere else because you don’t need that stuff. I'm not for it, and I don't think the majority of people in the north of Ireland are for it, either. It's very backward, and it's a small minority of people here causing the trouble, and hopefully it can be contained and put to bed very soon. We've struggled enough and suffered enough through years upon years. And in my opinion, kids nowadays are feeling the effects of it in terms of the mental health coming through the generations and seeing how they were brought up because it was their parents that experienced things they never should have experienced. It leads to bad mental health and bad mental health again and again, so it's something we need to get away from. It's something that needs to be put to bed and not something we should be seeing in 2021.”
Active in trying to bring awareness to mental health back home and an outspoken voice when it comes to social issues, it’s easy to wonder if the two-time Olympian has a future in public service once his boxing career is over. He doesn’t rule it out.
“It's something I would never say never to because if I'm a person who could have a big impression on people and create change for the better, it would be something I probably would consider in the future,” he said.
He could probably run for office today and make a run at it, but there’s business to be taken care of first in the form of Romania’s Baluta. And with Baluta scoring two wins over Conlan’s fellow Irishmen in his last two bouts, motivation and focus aren’t in short supply for the Belfast native.
“I've seen that this guy went and upset two of my Irish compatriots in his last two fights,” said Conlan. “One against TJ Donehy, who had just lost his world title to Danny Roman in a really close fight. And then he went and beat my former Olympic teammate David Oliver Joyce and he stopped him. So he's someone who you can't look past. He's someone who brings a lot of danger if you let him, and he's also riding on a huge wave of confidence after beating two Irish guys. He's calling himself ‘The Irish Slayer’ and stuff, so I think his confidence and his aggression will be his own demise.”
And if Baluta decides to take the fight to Conlan, the 122-pound version of the Irishman has a surprise for him.
“Something I have felt, the way I've been sparring and how I've been performing, the lower I've got, the stronger I've got with my physicality and my punch power,” he said. “This camp we've been working on a lot of technique stuff, but also coming down in weight I'm definitely punching harder, and I do believe I'm going to KO this guy. I'm not gonna hunt for it, but I believe it will happen, and I believe it will happen in spectacular fashion, too.”
If he delivers on that goal, there may be nowhere else to go but to a title fight, and it’s one Conlan has been waiting for since he turned pro in 2017. That’s not an easy thing to do, waiting for your moment to shine, but it is part of the business, and Conlan knows it. More importantly, he’s learned to deal with it.
“I know where I have to get to and I know what I want to achieve, and I just have to be patient,” he said. “There's no point in being impatient and pushing the buttons and asking the questions and trying to make things happen sooner. Sometimes the world doesn't work that way and you just gotta deal with it. I had the first injury in my first career, and I could have sat there and got upset about it, but I didn't. As soon as I had the boot on, I was straight into the gym training and I didn't stop training. I know once the opportunity comes that I will be ready, so there's no point in me getting caught up in terms of I should be here, I should be there, I should have this. I'll be there when I'm there and I know I'll get there; it's just a matter of time.”
More and more people believe that when he gets there, he will deliver and bring a title back to Northern Ireland, just like Carl Frampton did for the first time in 2014. The Irish great recently hung up the gloves after a loss to Jamel Herring earlier this month, and now all eyes are on Conlan to see if he can carry the torch for his nation in the pro boxing ring. It’s an unofficial title Conlan welcomes, but one he isn’t calling for, either.
“I don't feel any pressure in that sense,” he said. “If the baton is passed to me and I've got to carry the hopes, I thrive on that type of pressure, but it's not for me to decide who holds the baton now; it's for the people to decide and if they choose me to do that, I'm honored and I'm grateful and I'll carry that with pride and with honor and go out there and try to do my best to represent the way Carl represented because he achieved so much and did so much for the city of Belfast and the north of Ireland, and Ireland in general.”