Michael Conlan is often referred to as a slickster – and a damn good one at that. Switching stances, picking punches and avoiding excessive punishment is his game; there’s a time and a place to go toe-to-toe. Bubbling with confidence but adopting a more cautionary tone, tempered with words like “experience” and “learning”, the 26-year-old rated his eight-round points win over Adeilson Dos Santos first as a six out of 10 and then a C-. Solid, dependable, not hitting the expected heights just yet, but moving in the right direction.
“I was in there with a decent fighter, a former world title challenger who was game as a badger, awkward as hell and his arms were longer than my whole body!” buzzed Conlan in his typically loquacious manner.
There’s nothing quite like a homecoming. Ever since Conlan flipped off the AIBA judges and dramatically threw back his amateur vest, the Belfast boy has travelled on an inevitable journey to headline in his hometown. Basing himself initially on America’s West Coast, under the tutelage of reputed Manny Robles, Conlan moved home and hooked up with another established name of the game in Adam Booth. While Robles’ approach centred more on an aggressive, crowd-pleasing Mexican style, Booth has been busy sharpening Conlan’s strengths – his movement, agility and switch-hitting prowess. Fans witnessed a more stylistically comfortable version of Conlan on Saturday night, picking shots from both a southpaw and orthodox stance while trying to evade the powerful attacks of an opponent who looks comfortable at featherweight. It boggles the mind how Dos Santos ever got down to super-bantamweight given his immense frame.
Waiting patiently for some quotes while Conlan got the cut on his left eye patched up (“It was my own fault, and I have been cut in the amateurs, so it didn’t bother me at all”) journalists gravitated towards the refined figure of trainer Booth, who stood unassumingly in the corner, oblivious to the usual excitable post-fight chatter that hummed around the dressing room. As iPhones and recording devices extended into a horseshoe around the eminent tactician, Booth turned a raucous speaker down to a more acceptable noise level and used the music as a suitable backdrop for his eloquent reflections. Journalists were treated to a mesmerisingly detailed breakdown of proceedings, communicated in a style comparable to Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”.
“I’m more satisfied with tonight than I was with the other two,” said Booth, musing on their year and three fights together. “You could see the things he’s been working on, and he had a thing about the homecoming and the crowd and that all takes your energy. It was hot in there too.
“We’ve drilled it in the gym but to do it under the spotlight is still going to take more out of you. Once you get accustomed to it, it really puts a problem on the other dude because he doesn’t know what style he’s supposed to be competing against. He has the different styles in him, and we need to nurture them under the spotlight and tonight was the first time we had a chance to do that,” added Booth.
Dos Santos provided the perfect foil as a credible yet beatable name who had mixed in decent class but never shown enough to slide across into the winning category. The plucky Brazilian first extended Sheffield’s Kid Galahad in 2014 when Galahad was still headlining Mick Hennessy’s Channel 5 offerings. Unbeaten at the time, Dos Santos tasted the canvas twice but ultimately managed to negotiate the 12-round distance, losing widely on points. Boxing here over an eight-round distance meant he was able to condense his experience down into four fewer rounds.
“He was constantly active for three minutes a round,” continued Booth. “Michael shut him down quite early in the fight by messing with his distance and stinging him with some body shots and then switching up the head. The guy didn’t know whether he was going to be there or not and he started choking up on his attacks.”
Taking the risk was not worth the short-term reward for Conlan, who is in this sport for the long haul and maintaining a zero in the loss column is paramount at this stage of his fledgeling career. As the man himself remarked: “I am not stupid and I have to think about the future. I don’t need to be slugging it out with someone who I have more skill than and have to bring myself down to that level.”
Now that Conlan has negotiated eight rounds at a hard pace the logical next step is a 10-rounder, back in the USA around December. Conlan has been away in an English-based training camp since Christmas, leaving his heavily-pregnant partner Shauna to pick up the slack at home.
Before Conlan’s spine-tingling main event entrance there were a few hits and the odd miss on an undercard that was constructed with pure intentions. Gary Corcoran made do with a Ghanaian replacement after Paddy Gallagher withdrew from a potentially spicy affair with a damaged jaw. That was genuine, Paddy doesn’t do pull outs unless it’s entirely necessary.
Tyrone McCullagh looked understandably nervous when boxing on the biggest stage of his career. Opponent Joe Ham was orthodox and steady, neat in his fundamentals – never finding the additional gears to be spectacular. A right hand at the end of the third round dropped Derry’s McCullagh, but he regrouped well. Tyrone once boxed in an Irish Senior Final and nerves got the better than him. Resorting to grappling and constant holding, McCullagh never showed his true colours that night against a certain Michael Conlan no less. The Ham win means that McCullagh is now the Celtic super-bantamweight champion and in line for the vacant British title. Both he and Conlan have come a long way since that amateur meeting.
There was no chance of Jono Carroll and Declan Geraghty offering up a bad fight, taking into account their respective personalities and the previous history of this long-anticipated rematch. Carroll is maturing into an excellent fighter. Having once won the Prizefighter tournament he was signed by Matchroom but chronically underused and undervalued. Frank Warren has found a home for him on these Belfast undercards and America may soon come calling if he continues to mix impressive wins with his vivacious persona. Geraghty, on the other hand, has not transitioned as cleanly as expected into the pro ranks. The soul-searching has already begun after his third loss (two by knockout and the first to Carroll via disqualification). Geraghty was a top amateur, with bags of ability, but it just hasn’t happened for him on the type of level he was expecting to master when switching codes.
The performance of Jack Catterall against Tyrone McKenna was perplexing. Catterall has talent and can clearly punch hard (McKenna attested to this after the bout) and at times puts his combinations together with beautiful precision. It’s always great to watch a fighter up close from ringside who spots opportunities and is able to get into position and exploit them. Catterall has this ability, but there is something slightly missing. He switches off for sections of rounds. Is it a gas tank issue? Was he surprised by McKenna’s undoubted resilience? The answer is unclear. Many feel Catterall will blast through Ohara Davies if they meet on the Windsor Park undercard as expected. Hearts often rule heads when it comes to assessing the potential of such a divisive character like Davies, and it may not be as cut and dried as people think.
All of these fights combined provided a tasty hors-d’oeuvre to the delicious main course that many of the SSE crowd came to sample. Seven years after last trading blows in his native city, Michael Conlan came home.
“The last time I was in Belfast I got fucked over!” he chuckled, in reference to a chilly February evening when Declan Milligan beat Michael 6-3 in an Ulster Elite Championship upset. Milligan drifted away from the sport and off to university. Conlan knuckled down and 18 months later travelled to the London 2012 Olympic Games and came home with a bronze medal. That paved the way for European and World amateur gold medals, a stint in the WSB and a controversial loss in Rio 2016 to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin that culminated in the infamous finger, an AIBA broadside and a phone call from veteran promoter Bob Arum.
It’s now up to Arum, and his Top Rank organisation to plot Conlan’s next move and the MTK boxer is excited to see what they come up with next. No doubt the Americans will have liked what they saw from the main event as it beamed across BT Sport and over in the States via the ESPN+ app. Conceding that a Stateside date is most likely next, Conlan has had a taste of the home life, and the slickster wants to showcase his talents a little more.
“The crowd, the lights, it beats the Garden. When I was standing there, I couldn’t help but sing along. This is unbelievable, this is Belfast, this is what I’ve seen every time Carl [Frampton] fights. My dream is to fight here all the time.
“If I had to choose where to fight in the rest of my career then I’d just fight here.”