Conlan: The Rio deal

THEY are 30 in number and Michael Conlan, a student of boxing, could easily name most of them.

Thirty Belfast boxing Olympians. Nine medals between them, but none of those medals have been gold.

But, according to Conlan, that will change in Rio.

He is fully confident that both himself and his close pal, Paddy Barnes, will be standing on top of the podium.

Even the pattern of Conlan’s career points that way.

Olympic bronze in 2012, European silver in 2012, Commonwealth gold in 2014, European and World gold last year…

“From when I started, gold was always in my mind,’’ he said.

“If I didn’t come back with gold from a tournament, I wouldn’t be happy.

“See me in the Olympic Games in London? I felt I let everyone down because I came back with a bronze medal.

“When I got the Olympic bronze, I was thinking I have to get silver now.

“I was aiming for gold, but got that silver. The progression was there. I knew, from then on, that it had to be gold every time.

“I couldn’t be like Paddy Barnes. He gets called the Bronze Man.

“I’m not slabbering or slagging him, but he’s remembered for two Olympic bronzes.

“I don’t want to be like that. I want to win an Olympic gold medal. Paddy wants to win one too.’’

Conlan believes part of the reason why himself and Barnes are now rated so highly is that they take the best out of each other.

“Being honest here, the past year is the best I’ve ever seen Paddy Barnes,’’ he said.

“That’s not one word of a lie. He seems now to be unbeatable, he has that aura around him.

“I think me and him being away all of the time (with Irish teams and the WSB) has built that into us.

“We’re not competing against the world, we’re competing against each other and that’s even better because it’s a friendly rivalry.

“We still want to be better than each other. I think that’s what’s driven both of us on.”

The two of them lit up London four years ago, and Conlan thinks the older man’s experience was a great help to him.

“The main reason I did well in London was Paddy Barnes,’’ he said.

“He was my mentor. He told me to just enjoy myself but not to get caught up in it all.

“You can get caught up in being too serious. He told me to be myself and to enjoy it.

“We were going around the Olympic village having the crack.

“There were Olympic ambassadors and we stole their bicycles and were flying around on them, shouting at Australians ‘G’day!’ and stuff. They were going mental.

“You see other athletes walking around too serious, too focused, too far out.

“Three or four hours before a fight, we got our game-heads on. Other than that, we were messing about.

“That’s the main thing I learned from London. It’s not life or death, it’s a bit of fun.

“If you don’t enjoy your sport, you’re not going to do anything.”

Conlan has never lacked self-belief, so where does that confidence come from?

“I think it was always in me. When I was growing up, I always loved watching videos of Muhammad Ali and how he went on,’’ he said.

“Even before the last Olympics, I was going ‘believe the hype’.

“And I do believe my own hype. I know I’m a great athlete and the best in the world.

“My family’s part of it as well. My brother, (pro boxer) Jamie, is one of my idols.

“I always looked up to him. And he always tells me how good I am.

“People might think he’s my brother and he’d say that anyway, but that gave me big, big confidence from a young age.

“It’s always pushed me on. Getting respect from your big brother can be harder to get than from random people.”

Conlan is renowned as one of the smartest fighters around, and few fighters are able to switch between orthodox and southpaw in the middle of big fights.

“I believe it’s a complete art, and you have to know every single bit of that art,’’ he said.

“You can’t just have one game-plan, you need to have 10, 15 game-plans.

“Before I was on the Irish team, I was a complete counter-puncher.

“When I met Zaur (Antia), he made me adapt to different styles.

“You need to have the ability to whatever a fight demands.”

Billy Walsh won’t be in Conlan’s corner in Rio, and that will be something he has to get used to.

“It will be different because Billy was good crack and we always had a laugh and he was always joking,’’ he said.

“He had the boss mentality, yes, but he was able to have a laugh.

“It’s going to be interesting, but I think it’ll be OK. I know my Dad (and coach, John) is up for the crack.

“Zaur can be hilarious when he wants to be. His brain is incredible — he’s just a boxing encyclopedia.

“It’ll be different but it’ll still be enjoyable, still be fun.

“I actually wasn’t going to bother going to the World Championships or the Europeans.

“After the WSB, I was thinking ‘I’ve got my Olympic place, there’s no point in doing these as I could get injured’.

“But my Dad was saying to me ‘you can be world champion’.

“And it’s the biggest tournament there is. It’s effectively bigger than the Olympic Games.

“It’s a harder tournament, and Ireland have never had a man win a gold medal at it.

“So to go from not being arsed about it to going to the Europeans, winning there and then winning the worlds…”

SIDEBAR

MICHAEL Conlan has effectively qualified for the Olympics twice, through the WSB and by becoming world champion.

But, last April, he was on the brink of quitting amateur boxing.

Conlan won his bantamweight bout for Italia Thunder in the WSB against Finol Rivas of Caciques Venzuela but needed the results of other fights to go his way to secure qualification.

Russian Vladmir Nikitin won his bout in Ukraine, which didn’t help Conlan’s cause.

But a stunning upset victory for Puerto Rico’s Hector Garcia over Magomed Burbanov of Azerbaijan gave Conlan the golden ticket to Rio.

“When the Russian won in Ukraine, I was thinking ‘fuck the Olympics, I’m going professional’,’’ said Conlan.

“I’d been turned over on two bad decisions in the WSB and felt I couldn’t put up with this shit anymore.

“I felt broken, mentally, and was ready to walk away from amateur boxing.

“Then my girlfriend (Shauna Olali) texted to me saying: ‘Do it for your daughter’.

“I was gutted, but I had to make the trip worthwhile after leaving my baby girl, Luisne, for a week.”

While browsing on his phone, a post on Twitter also struck a chord with Conlan.

It was a motivational message that read: ‘The moment you’re ready to quit is usually right before a miracle happens. Don’t give up’.

“That hit home. It made me man up. I was thinking then that, if I don’t qualify, I don’t qualify,’’ he said.

“I didn’t box at my best, by any means. I boxed 10 times worse than I normally box, but I still came away with a win.

“My intention was to knock him out. When you go in with attitude, it doesn’t work. It was the wrong attitude.”

It was Paddy Barnes who let Conlan know that his Olympic dream was still alive.

“I didn’t know until I got out of the ring,’’ said Conlan.

“I came through the ropes and the next thing I saw Paddy running towards me going: ‘You qualified! You qualified!’

“I was going ‘you better not be fucking joking me’, because that’s the kind of thing he’d do.

“He said ‘no, I swear I’m not joking, you’ve done it’. I just couldn’t believe it.”

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