RESEARCH any boxing warrior that came before Jamie Conlan and you will, after intense scrutiny, find that quiet night where wanting an easy route home outweighed the natural desire to trade and brawl. The inspiration behind playfully labelling the Belfast man as “Irish Gatti” demonstrated such qualities later in his exciting career, when Buddy McGirt somehow managed to persuade Arturo that picking the lock was sometimes more constructive than swinging a sledgehammer. Danny Vaughan, the Liverpool trainer and Conlan’s mentor, is now presented with the task of keeping his charge similarly disciplined when Jerwin Ancajas visits the old Odyssey Arena on November 18, with his IBF super-flyweight strap at stake.
“I honestly don’t know how Danny hasn’t got a full head of grey hair,” jokes Conlan in a strong Irish brogue that is followed by a mischievous laugh. The imminent world title challenger has developed quite the reputation for disturbing brutality in the ring and although he has amassed a gruelling body of work, Conlan insists that he intends to leave that version of himself, one boxing fans are now accustomed to, at home when opposing Ancajas.
“People are going to be shocked and they forget that I can box and won all sorts of titles as an amateur,” he explains. “It was the same with my mate, Derry Mathews, he had a few good fights that were up and down but people don’t remember him being a top amateur. If I had the choice and Danny had the choice, then of course we’d love to get the job done that little bit easier, because it’s not nice waking up in pain for the weeks after a fight. But sometimes that crowd just gets a hold of you and you want to give these people, people you’ve known all your life, something for the money that they’ve spent.”
The idea of fighting for the most prestigious honours came and left Conlan’s mind with alarming frequency during a flawless 19-fight career that has sometimes lacked momentum. With guidance coming in a variety of forms when starting out, consistency was absent, and it was not until joining Matthew Macklin and Daniel Kinahan at management group MTK Global that Conlan was able to remind himself of his gloried days in a vest, when boxing was something he enjoyed.
A product of West Belfast, a tough region, Conlan latched onto the valued identity of being a boxer from an early age. His name, like his father before him and younger sibling, Michael, afterwards, was announced at the fight venues of his home city as Jamie collected a cluster of amateur championships. That domestic success was rarely replicated internationally when fighting for either Ireland or Northern Ireland, and any chance of Conlan finally displaying his talent on the biggest stage in the unpaid code was cut short when his brother arrived on the senior scene.
“My dad entered both me and Michael in the Ulster championships [in 2009],” he recalls. “I was expected to win them but Michael was only 17 and our dad thought it’d be good to get him some experience fighting against proper men. He went into the tournament and he kept winning and so did I and it ended up being the both of us in final. Obviously there was no chance of us fighting each other but I thought it was best that it was time for me to turn professional because Michael was proving to people just how good he was and I’d probably accomplished all I was going to as an amateur.”
Despite the fact he was about to embark on an adventure that is typically littered with a warped unpredictability, Conlan’s biggest fears still pertained to the amateur version of the sport, as the anxiety of viewing his brother overcome global opposition to become the world’s best amateur bantamweight gripped him. Michael arrived at every gala event including the World Championships and Olympics as a certainty to medal and one of the favourites to take gold. He stood tallest at the Worlds in 2015 but the summer showpiece that followed less than a year later stole Irish hopes and dreams, as Conlan would exit the tournament following a highly controversial loss to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin. Mick refused to take the perceived robbery lying down and took aim at the judges and governing body AIBA in a profanity-laced, demonstrative rant. The angel-faced youngster had given his entire body to the sport of boxing, including his now-famous middle finger, and it was time to join his big brother and fight for pay.
“How could they do that to him?” demands Jamie, still seething over an injustice that irks more than a year later. “He put his entire life into that one moment and it was taken away from him. That result hurt me so much and I’m like that every time he fights because seeing him win means more to me than winning myself and I mean that. When he fights I get so nervous and I can’t relax in the slightest. I’m fine when I fight and I don’t suffer with any nerves at all but when my little brother gets in the ring then I feel so much pressure because all I want is to see him do as well as he possibly can.”
While the younger Conlan’s trail to the top has a more established roadmap due to his stellar background, Jamie’s route to prizes has been anything but straightforward. Injury and politics, two of boxing’s most daunting roadblocks, ensured a frustrating ride but the last few years have seen Conlan enjoy regular activity and the manner in which he has achieved his victories has certainly enhanced his profile.
Conlan’s yo-yo battle with Anthony Nelson was unforgettable as the former rose from hurtful shots to close the show with a wonderful body attack that split his opponent. The majority of fighters never engage in such a dramatic contest but this brand of action has now become the theme of Conlan’s career. He was down twice against Junior Granados in 2015 before rallying to win on points, and hit the deck in his last outing tackling Yader Cardoza, before emerging with split decision verdict. With his unbeaten record still intact despite a handful of almighty scares, Conlan laughs disbelievingly when we reflect on his career highlights.
“It sounds bad when you remind me of some of those nights but it’s like I have a duty to the people of my city,” he states. “They work all week then spend their hard-earned money on coming to watch me and they deserve to have a show put on for them. I can box, people forget that, but when the noise gets a little bit louder with every exchange then it’s hard to step back. I’d back myself in a fight with anyone and I’ve overcome cuts and knockdowns to get up every single time and somehow find a way to win when it probably seemed I was done. Winning like that does give me confidence because I know I can cope with it once it gets hard, but I do admit I have to be smarter sometimes and I promise you’ll see that in my next fight. It would be nice to just get to the end of a fight once with my face looking okay and the scores all saying 120-108. I’d certainly take that in my next fight.”
In Ancajas, Conlan gets a youthful but hardened Filipino defending his IBF super-flyweight title for the third time, in what is set to be the most difficult assignment of his career. Negotiations for the imminent conflict originally suggested Conlan head to Australia for the bout, but home advantage was ultimately secured for the challenger and, although not foolish enough to believe that a relentless Belfast crowd guarantees victory, Conlan insists they can make a difference.
“I’ve already heard from my team that he doesn’t want to come here and I don’t blame him,” states a knowing Conlan who I sense is distracted from our late night conversation by a vivid fantasy centring on the rapturous greeting that will welcome him at Belfast’s SSE Arena. “When that bell goes it might just be me and him, and even if the crowd doesn’t get to him, it’s going to get to me and that will allow me to go to another level in this fight if I need to. Danny has sat down and put so much time into this game plan and for me to win a world title with him in my corner in my home city with all my friends watching is the type of stuff you only dream about when you’re a kid. I know full well what I’m up against, a solid world champion with more experience than me but someone who I know I can beat if I’m at my very best and if I get the tactics right.”
A beautiful renaissance is currently occurring within Irish boxing, and Conlan is at its epicentre. November 18 is likely to be a wild night that brings together some superb Irish talent including Conlan, Carl Frampton and Paddy Barnes. To stand out on such a star-studded occasion takes a certain character and Conlan believes he is that man. His performances over the last couple of years have catapulted him into the hearts of Irish boxing fans already; one last heroic push will forever keep him there.