Michael Conlan: A Fighter, Not Just a Boxer

As published on Pundit Arena

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The Riocentro Exhibition resembled a wake-house as Vladimir Nikitin’s hand was raised aloft following Tuesday’s quarter-final bout with Michael Conlan. Shock mingled with both anger and sadness.

Having had his say with the assembled media, he stormed back to his chambers passing a troop of Irish supporters who looked at him and then at each other, bewildered by the downfall of their Belfast boy.

As with many of those looking on at these Games, not all will have understood the scoring mechanisms, but that mattered little on this day. Michael Conlan clearly won the fight – only Michael Conlan wasn’t awarded the fight.

Such was the farcical nature of the unfolding events that it was like the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre. The crowd hissed and booed but on this occasion, the villains were not to be deterred. An anticlimactic sensation permeated through the arena like a dusty hangover, not so much because Conlan had lost, but because he had been clearly let down by his sport.

The record books will show that Nikitin won the bout, with Conlan down on all three judge’s cards (29-28), but any of his admirers looking on will always remember the dubious circumstances.

In the aftermath of his defeat to Nikitin in the previous round, Thailand’s Chatchai Butdee told the Bangkok Postthat he should have won the fight:

“I think I was more on target. I do not really understand the judges’ decision.”

Conlan echoed similar concerns on Tuesday, albeit with added venom.

It was a disconcerting occasion for the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year, his father John and Zoar Antia. While the Russian was beatable, he was far from being a lamb to the slaughter – indeed Nikita had claimed Conlan’s scalp before.

The 24-year-old has always been the better fighter though. As Nikitin took to the task with fury, going all-out to deny Conlan his accustomed dominance, the Irishman remained at a distance. The crowd began to find their voice as the Belfast man slipped a flurry of punches before landing several of his own. Nikitin never looked to have landed a telling blow. The Russian support grew silent, while those bedecked in green rose to their feet.

Yet, as Conlan returned to his corner after the first round, his hand punching the air with satisfaction, his coaches quickly realised that they would have to conceive of a way of beating not only their immediate blue opponent, but also those seated at ringside. Nikitin was deemed to have bettered his Irish adversary.

Conlan is not the World, European and Commonwealth champion for nothing, however. His adaptability has been one of his greatest strengths and so there was no immediate concern from a strategic perspective. His greater movement would take him away from a Russian flurry while his accuracy would secure the points.

Those sitting at home though were alive to the unconvincing adjudication that has dominated these Games. At the outset Hugh Cahill and Darren O’Neill, commentating for RTÉ Sport, expressed some concern for the private volitions of the Brazilian, Sri Lankan and Polish judges.

But what could Conlan do other than to control the controllable?

Thereafter the statistics back up the claim that Conlan should have been the rightful victor. Over the course of the next two rounds, Conlan out-landed Nikitin 71-49 while throwing an average of 122 per round.

At the end of the bout, Nikitin looked completely deflated. His bloodied head and beaten body stumbled back to his corner resembling that of a broken man (his injuries were such that he was forced to forfeit his place in the competition on Wednesday). Conlan, meanwhile, skipped the other way in anticipation of another Olympic semi-final.

The moment Nikitin was declared triumphant spoke volumes about what had actually played out. As Nikita’s hand was raised triumphantly aloft, his knees buckled beneath him with a mixture of delight, disbelief and exhaustion. Conlan looked at the Algerian referee with disgust: “f*** off!”.

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Immediately faced by the television cameras, an exasperated Conlan left us in no doubt as to who he blamed for the debacle:

“AIBA are cheats. F**king cheats. As simple as that. That’s me, I’ll never box for AIBA again. They’re cheating bastards, they’re paying everybody,” said Conlan in an interview with RTÉ after the fight.

“I was here to win Olympic gold. My dreams been shattered now. You know what, I’ve a big career ahead of me. And these ones? They’ve always been cheats. Amateur boxing stinks. From the core right to the top.

“It’s like Katie (Taylor) yesterday. No way she lost that fight. It was a close fight, but she didn’t lose.

“I thought I boxed the ears off him in the first round, but they scored it against me. So I had to fight his fight, which I did, outfought him. It’s a shambles to be honest.

“I’m gutted, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to go back with a gold medal to Ireland. Now I feel I’m going back a loser. I’m not a loser, I’m a winner. Today just showed how corrupt this organisation is.

“Cheating b****rds” he exclaimed, “My Olympic title has been robbed from me!”

Some inevitably questioned his use of language throughout his tirade and the bitterness with which it was spewed, but taken in context, what is more surprising is that Conlan didn’t go any further.

Speaking to Pundit Arena as part of our ‘Secret Olympian’ series in the lead up to the Games, Conlan professed:

“This game is my life. It is not for everybody and I understand that. To get to where I have got to, to become an Olympian, I have dedicated my life to the sport of boxing. It has made me who I am today.

“I have done the early mornings, I have done the late nights, I have given up things that young people my age take for granted in their lives.”

Conlan is a mature individual. He has had to be. Growing up on the Falls Road in west Belfast, Conlan’s childhood was marred by underage drinking, drugs, theft and vandalism. Given his growing reputation in boxing circles, Conlan managed to keep much of his misspent youth under wraps. There was also the added fear that his brother Jamie would find out.

As an acclaimed boxer in his own right (he is the current Commonwealth and WBO Inter-Continental Super Flyweight Champion), Jamie undoubtedly had a positive influence on his younger brother, while Michael’s growing awareness of his own talent prompted him to take stock of his spiralling lifestyle.

Conlan is mindful of the environment from which he emerged. He will always be a home boy, but he appreciates that he managed to escape a life where many have succumbed to depression, economic uncertainty and even death. Thankfully, Conlan chose a different path.

At all times shrewdly managed and expertly coached, he ascended through the ranks with ferocity. His determination shone through like a beacon of light for Irish sport. No longer was he a fighter – he was now a boxer.

Conlan became a national hero when he claimed bronze for Ireland in London four years ago. His star has been rising ever since, with European and Commonwealth medals adding to his haul. Then last December he was named as RTÉ’s Sports Person of the Year having become the first ever male boxer to return home with an AIBA World Championship gold medal.

Now the proud father to Luisne (1) and fiancé to Shauna Olali, Conlan is a settled character and his one burning ambition was to claim gold in Rio 2016. From the very floor of society, Conlan was set to scale the peak of his world.

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To have such a dream, one to which he has dedicated his life, taken away in such farcical circumstances beggars belief. It is generally accepted that athletes go to their first Games to compete, to their second to challenge.

Gold has undoubtedly been in Conlan’s sights ever since Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez put an end to his tournament in London four years ago. This time around, there would be no stopping him – other than those beyond the reach of his gloves.

The fighter in Michael Conlan resurfaced on Tuesday, but nobody should begrudge him of that. We all have our dreams.