By Jake Donovan
The next ring appearance for Michael Conlan represents the best of both worlds: getting in one last fight in 2018 just before the holiday season and returning to a country where he boasts his greatest boxing achievement to date.
As an added bonus, it comes on the undercard of a show where he could very well one day face the winner of the evening’s main event.
“That’s the thing being with Top Rank; they are the absolute best promoter in the game,” Conlan insisted to BoxingInsider.com of the manner in which his pro career has been handled thus far.
The 27-year old from Belfast, Northern Ireland gets to squeeze in a fifth fight in capping a productive 2018 in-ring campaign when he resurfaces this Saturday in Manchester, England. Conlan (9-0, 6KOs) will face domestic trialhorse Jason Cunningham in a scheduled-eight round featherweight bout on a bill where his countryman, Carl Frampton seeks to become a three-time titlist as he challenges unbeaten featherweight titlist Josh Warrington.
Both bouts will be part of a loaded show which will stream live on ESPN+.
“It was very smart of Top Rank to put me on the show,” notes Conlan, who was last seen in a 7th round stoppage of Nicola Cipolletta this past October in Las Vegas. “I love fighting in the United States, but this show is much closer to home (roughly one hour by plane from Belfast to Manchester), which is good for my fans over here who don’t have to worry about flying abroad just to see me live.”
Saturday will mark just the second time in his pro career that Conlan gets to play a venue more befitting his regional base. The lone other occasion came just six months ago, when he soundly outpointed Adeilson dos Santos this past June at home in Belfast.
To return to the UK, however, had to come with more meaning than just for the sake of fighting near home.
“I like fighting in the United States and am fine with a ratio maybe three in the states and then one at (or near) home,” Conlan admits. “This show is a really good one, though, and Top Rank recognized the benefit of my fighting on it. The fact that the main event is right in my weight division, I get a good look at who I can face in the future when I begin facing contenders and eventually challenge for a world title.”
Just two years into the pro ranks, Conlan isn’t quite yet within arm’s length of fighting for a title or even at the contender level. This is where show placement comes into play.
In Cunningham (24-5, 6KOs), he gets a durable southpaw capable of going rounds regardless of competition. The 29-year old from Doncaster has only been dropped twice and stopped just once in 29 pro contests.
For Conlan, it’s also his first look at a southpaw as a pro.
“The stance doesn’t matter to me, but it’s good to see all different styles rising through the ranks,” admits Conlan. “It’s all part of my development as I continue to work on my all-around game. My coach and I practice everything—boxing, short distance, long distance. Our goal is to be a master of all trades, instead of just one.”
The expanded skillset will certainly be a necessityin a loaded featherweight division, from the top level to contenders down to prospects on the rise. One in particular happens to be in Conlan’s promotional stable.
Top Rank signed the two-time Olympian around the same time they secured the services of 2016 Olympic Silver medalist Shakur Stevenson. Company founder and Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum has ever shied away from the selling point of one day matching them together, once it can be built into a superfight.
There already exists built-in history. Both competed as bantamweights in the 2016 Rio Olympics and were on a direct path toward meeting in the medal round.
That’s when Conlan forever remained a fixture in the spotlights. Having already captured a Bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics for Ireland, a repeat was well within reach and seemed to have occurred following his quarterfinals meet with Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin (now also with Top Rank as a pro).
Most observers had Conlan winning by no smaller than a 2-1 rounds margin, but the ringside judges saw a very different fight. Nikitin was awarded a unanimous decision—losing just one round among the three official scorecards—with a dejected Conlan reduced to his infamously flipping off the judges before erupting in a profanity-laced post-fight tirade.
It wasn’t at all how he envisioned his decorated amateur career coming to a close, but in a way helped his profile upon turning pro. But while some can leave bad memories in the past, Conlan—unable to shake loose the wrongdoing—has instead chosen to own it.
“For me, Rio is remembered forever,” Conlan confesses. “No matter how hard I try, I can never get over it. At the same time, it’s a good thing if you think about it because it’s given me a great attitude towards professional boxing.
“It put me in a very good position from a media perspective. It’s great focus for where I want to be as a professional—never take any situation for granted. Just keep working hard and good things will continue to happen.”
While Rio still remains on the mind, his latest trip to the United Kingdom conjures up a different type of amateur boxing memoir.
“This is my first time fighting in England since London 2012 (Olympics),” Conlan fondly recalls of his Bronze medal run as a flyweight, losing to eventual Gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez of Cuba. “It’s brought back some great memories, but I’m so much a different fighter today than I was back then.”
By this time next year, he hopes to not even recognize the fighter he is today.
“First thing is to take care of business with Jason on Saturday,” Conlan notes before turning his attention to 2019. “God willing I come out victorious and healthy, next year will be all about building towards the path that leads to contending for a title. In 12 months, hopefully we’re talking about fighting for a world title or taking a title eliminator.
“But me and my team just worry about the battle plan in the ring. I have the best promoter in the world behind me. Top Rank knows better than anyone else how to move a fighter, so we’re in no rush.”
For now, being at—or near home—is a good enough way to end the year.
“We knew turning pro that the majority of my fights would take place in the United States, and that’s great for my worldwide appeal,” Conlan notes. “But getting to occasionally comes home makes it feel like a big event. That’s a great thing. Fighting at home always is, but getting the big fight night treatment just makes it even more special.”