ACCORDING to the script, Michael Conlan was supposed to fight Vladimir Nikitin this Saturday (August 3) at Falls Park, Belfast, the idea being that he would gain revenge for the farcical decision he lost to the Russian at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Instead, just as he was robbed in Rio, Conlan has been robbed of his shot at redemption following the withdrawal of Nikitin due to a bicep injury. He must now console himself with a 10-rounder against Argentina’s Diego Alberto Ruiz.
As far as replacements go, Ruiz is a solid enough opponent whose pro record makes for better reading than Nikitin’s even if the overall story is no longer quite so compelling. He has lost just two of 23 professional fights, both early six-rounders (one of which ended in a disqualification), and is undefeated in his last 10.
Admittedly, the fact he has yet to box outside Argentina makes for ominous reading, but perhaps Ruiz, 25, has simply been waiting to make the move as opposed to actively avoiding it.
“If I’m honest, and I don’t mean to sound stupid, I’ve only watched 40 seconds of him,” said Conlan, 11-0 (6). “That’s because I’ve listened to Adam (Booth, trainer) and Jamie (Conlan, brother and manager) and from what they’ve told me I know what he’s about.
“He’s aggressive, he comes forward, and when someone attacks him, he takes a big leap back. He kind of gets stronger as the fight goes on and he’s obviously on a 10-fight win-streak. He has high elbows, so his body is going to be open, and the jab will be key.”
Conlan concedes the biggest threat this weekend could be his own complacency. It’s a significant event, after all, one designed to celebrate his achievements and popularity, and there is always the danger, with so much at stake, that it all goes wrong. What’s more, it’s as a good time as ever to be an underdog called Ruiz.
“There’s always the chance of something going wrong,” Conlan said. “Look at (Anthony) Joshua and (Andy) Ruiz. He maybe got complacent in terms of what was immediately ahead of him.
“I know I haven’t got complacent, though, because I know what I’ve been doing and I know how I’ve approached this fight mentally. My mindset hasn’t changed.
“This will probably be a harder fight than the one against Nikitin. But I feel like I’ve been training for a world title fight and I know, no matter how hard it gets, I will have 50 different styles I can use to navigate my way through the fight.
“So far as a pro I haven’t even shown sixty percent of what I can do. I feel this fight will be a coming-out party in terms of what I can show I can do. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Another thing Conlan is excited about is the venue: the Féile Marquee in Falls Park. Established in 1873, the 101-acre park used to be somewhere Conlan would both regularly play-fight and play truant from school and is just a two-minute walk from his parents’ home. In fact, so close is the park to his mother and father, they have been known to often sit in their garden during the Féile an Phobail festival to soak up the sounds of the music free of charge.
This weekend their boy takes centre stage.
“What I’m doing in this fight is creating history for the people of Ireland, for the people of west Belfast, for my kids, and for their kids,” Conlan, 27, said. “I’m going to have to wait until after my career is over to truly appreciate that.
“You always hear older people say, ‘I remember where I was when (Barry) McGuigan fought (Eusebio) Pedroza…’ Well, people will one day be saying the same about my fights at Falls Park.”
With this kind of excitement and expectancy comes pressure, of course, and one wonders how this will manifest on the night. Ruiz, aware his role is that of tourist and opponent, will feel not a bit of it, making him all the more dangerous, whereas Conlan insists Ruiz’s ignorance to the Belfast experience will be far from an advantage come fight night.
“Almost every fight I’ve had has been massive and a big event,” he said. “As Floyd Mayweather says, I have been “under the lights” from day one as a pro. He says people are never the same when they face him because they’ve never been under the lights. In this case, Ruiz hasn’t. He’s going to be coming into the lion’s den, an absolute cauldron, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with that. I’m used to that pressure now.”
A win for Ruiz won’t be anywhere near as dramatic or notable as the one another Ruiz produced in June, but it would certainly put a dampener on Conlan’s west Belfast festivities.
It would also be most unexpected. For Conlan, as he quite rightly points out, is a 27-year-old whose very disposition seems ideal in terms of coping with events like this and opponents like Ruiz, 21-2 (10). He should be good enough to dominate behind his educated jab, hurt Ruiz with his inside work, and dominate over 10 rounds. Better yet, Conlan might even be pumped up enough, buoyed by the fervour of his home fans, to force his first stoppage win since October.
Also on the show, another Belfast man, Paddy Gallagher, gets the chance to win the vacant Commonwealth welterweight title, as well as the British welterweight title, when he goes up against Welshman Chris Jenkins, 21-3-2 (8).
Gallagher, 16-5 (10), has suffered his fair share of setbacks in a seven-pro career but has rebounded well from each of them and now gets his reward for perseverance. Jenkins, meanwhile, recovered from the disappointment of losing a British super-lightweight title fight against Tyrone Nurse in 2015 to rip the welterweight version of the belt from Johnny Garton in March.
At middleweight, Luke Keeler, 16-2-1 (5), represents Dublin in a tough-looking assignment against American Luis Arias, 18-1-1 (9), someone who went the full 12 rounds with Daniel Jacobs less than two years ago.
THE VERDICT The pressure is on Conlan to produce against Ruiz.