By Thomas Gerbasi
You’ve got to feel for Mick Conlan sometimes. Sure, he’s a rising star on the pro boxing landscape, a young man with the potential to one day rule the featherweight division and become an even bigger star in his home of Northern Ireland.
But it seems like he will never shed the moment of pure emotion after his controversial loss to Vladimir Nikitin in the 2016 Olympic Games. Yes, giving a one-fingered salute after the “defeat” may have garnered him more attention and acclaim, but to this day, the selfies with those asking him to revisit that day continue, albeit on a lesser scale than they did in the immediate aftermath of the event.
And not surprisingly, the 27-year-old takes it all in stride.
“It has to happen at least three, four times per week,” he laughs. “I know, it’s crazy, but there was a lot more. It kind of quieted down, which I’m happy about.”
That being said, the attention can now focus on Conlan’s rapidly progressing career, which now sees him at 9-0 with six knockouts heading into a December 22 meeting with Jason Cunningham (24-5) in Manchester. It’s Conlan’s first pro bout in England, capping off a year of firsts that saw him change trainers, change his home base, and fight in Las Vegas and his hometown of Belfast for the first time.
“This year has been fantastic for me,” he said. “It’s been hectic but, at the same time, everything I’ve done this year I’ve been happy with and I feel like it’s moved me in the right direction; not just in sport, but in life in general. Having a new baby, having moved towards home, changing coaches to Adam Booth, who in my opinion is probably one of the best coaches in the world. I feel the bond I’ve gained with him and how my boxing performances have been under him and I still think it’s always improving, so I’m really, really happy with how it’s went. It’s been a hectic year, but it’s been an upward rollercoaster.”
That rollercoaster will only pick up speed in 2019, and while Conlan is still progressing between the ropes, what may prove to be his greatest ally as he continues to step up his competition is that he has seen different aspects of the sport that only a few select prospects get to see on the way up the ranks. Who else gets to headline Madison Square Garden’s Theater, play the big room at MSG, travel to Australia to fight in a 50,000 seat arena and star at home, all within 20 months?
“It’s very important,” Conlan said. “I feel that I’m lucky, in a sense, that as a young prospect I’ve got to compete on those type of stages. And doing all these things so early on in my career, I think it’s gonna mature me a lot quicker as a professional fighter. It’s gonna make me feel a lot more comfortable when it comes to those situations and when it comes to the first world title fight. I can experience those pressures already so I think it’s gonna stand me in great stead for the future and whatever it holds.”
It also brings up an interesting point. Most would assume that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the Irishman to succeed while being a fighter with a target on his back. And there is. Yet even though his opponents will hit the fistic version of the lottery should they put a “1” in Conlan’s loss column, maybe the real pressure is on them, and they haven’t been faring too well thus far.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more in recent times,” Conlan said. “I’ve been watching the opponents and how they come forward and how they fight, and then when they step in with me, they kind of go backward and start moving. They don’t take the pressure really well. Although some will in the future definitely, but the ones so far with the attention being around, and the build-up to the fight, I think it gets to them a bit.”
Another reason why throwing Conlan into the fire from the start has been a wise decision by his team.
“I’ve experienced it from the start, so it doesn’t get to me,” he said. “These guys are thinking they’re gonna come in and do the job, but then when it comes to fight week, they’ve got a hundred media obligations and then you gotta take this guy Conlan who came from the Olympics and is meant to be a big star, and you don’t know how you’re going to handle it. There’s a lot of extra pressure. I’ve seen some of the guys and how much media attention they’re getting from their hometown. And it adds pressure when you get attention from your hometown because people you know are watching and you don’t want to let them down and you don’t want to embarrass yourself.”
Conlan’s felt that heat since he was an amateur, and it hasn’t gotten any cooler for him as a pro. But that’s just fine with him, because he likes it.
“If you sit there and overthink it a bit much, those kind of pressures can get to you,” he admits. “But it’s something I’ve always reveled in, even at home as an amateur fighter. Even going into the Olympic Games I was ranked number one and I was the guy to beat. But this is something I love. I love being the guy you have to beat because I know when I’m in that position and I have that kind of confidence behind me, I’m not gonna lose.”
That quiet confidence makes Mr. Conlan a dangerous young fighter. He’s also a humble one, making him a unicorn of sorts in today’s boxing world. But then again, he would have someone to answer to outside the ring if he didn’t carry himself the way he does.
“I’ve got to be gracious, I’ve got to be thankful, and I know that if I ever got too big for my boots and started to think I was somebody, some kind of big shot, my father would sit me back down on my seat because that’s not the way I was brought up,” he said. “I was brought up being a respectful guy, and no matter how big someone is or how small, you’ve got to respect everybody the exact same.
“I understand the business of boxing, and I understand that you are only as good as your last performance, so you’ve got to be consistent and take the criticism with the good,” Conlan continues. “Sometimes people read into the good stuff too much and let it get to their head. The way I approach things is that I take the good the same as I take the bad. I know not to take things to heart in terms of criticism. At the same time I know how to be gracious, I know how to respect other people, and respect is the key word here.”