IRELAND’S Michael Conlan boasts just eight pro fights to his name, and Russian Vladimir Nikitin just the one, but already the pair are inextricably linked and seemingly on course to fight at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick’s Day.
That’s “the talk”, Conlan says, and the reason these two have established a rivalry at this early stage of their respective careers is a simple one: they have history.
Back in 2016 at the Rio Olympics, Nikitin scored a controversial decision over Conlan, despite appearing to be outboxed for much of the contest, and what followed the verdict guaranteed they’d see each other again. As all hell broke loose, Conlan spoke his mind, a nation was outraged, accusations of skulduggery shrouded the tournament, and a scorned Irishman flipping the bird became an enduring and iconic image of the 2016 Games.
In time, these moving parts would produce a pro boxing rivalry, Conlan vs. Nikitin, complete with an in-built narrative and organic bad blood. A rare thing, it must be said, in this day and age.
“The fact that I have storylines already established in my pro career – me vs. Vladimir Nikitin, me vs. Shakur Stevenson – is brilliant for me because they’re big potential fights and they’re money fights,” Conlan, last seen outpointing Adeilson Dos Santos in June, tells Boxing News.
“I have better chance of making money because of rivalries like those. And that’s what I’m in the sport to do – make money.
“You don’t normally have rivalries this early on in a career. They’re potentially big rivalries, too. A lot of people are already talking about those potential fights.”
American Stevenson, the silver medallist at the 2016 Games, is similarly inexperienced. He’s just 7-0 (4) as a pro. More importantly, he’s just 21 years of age, significantly younger than both Conlan, 26, and Nikitin, 28.
“Shakur’s only young,” says Conlan. “When I’ve been around him he has been very friendly and respectful and has said we’re going to make each other millions. But then I see him on camera pretending we dislike each other and saying we’ve got to ‘go to work’ and all this other balls he’s talking.
“It is what it is. We’ll fight one day and make a lot of money, but I’m not going to force it.”
Stevenson can wait. First, Conlan wants to get to grips with Nikitin, 1-0 (0), an Olympic bronze medallist whose vast amateur experience should be enough to accelerate his progress in the pro ranks and ensure he’s ready for a 10 or 12-rounder by March next year.
“The one with the Russian is the one I’d be most interested in at this point, just because of what happened in Rio,” says Conlan, 8-0 (5). “I know it wasn’t his fault, and that’s fair enough, but I just want the chance to go in there and show what happened in Rio was no fluke. I didn’t beat the s**t out of him by luck and then he got the decision. I can do it and want to do it again. I want to right a wrong in my career. Once I do, I’ll be happy.
“With Vladimir, he probably feels a bit of genuine bad blood towards me. His whole pro career has been based on controversially beating me in Rio. That’s what he’s going to be remembered for. So, he’s going to want to go and avenge that. He’ll want to be able to say, ‘I didn’t just rob him, I can beat him legitimately as well.’ That’s his incentive.
“My incentive is to beat him because he has that amateur win over me. It’s not a bitter rivalry by any means but we know there’s unfinished business that needs to be settled.”
Conlan adds: “I think that can happen on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the talk. I’d love for it to happen on St Patrick’s Day. And when that fight happens, they’ll have to put it in the big room at the [Madison Square] Garden.
“It will need to be for some sort of belt as well. Maybe an intercontinental title or an NABF belt. If I can sell out the theatre at the Garden fighting a guy [Tim Ibarra] who is 4-4 in my first fight, I can easily do 10,000 in the big room. It will be amazing. It would be something to really get excited about.”
It might seem early, given their lack of pro rounds, but for Michael Conlan, he of the middle finger salute and the medal-less neck, a return with Vladimir Nikitin has been a long time coming.