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Michael Conlan: ‘People think this is just a sport. But it’s not just a sport. It’s life or death’

Michael Conlan
Action Images/Reuters/Jason Cairnduff
Michael Conlan considers the dangers boxers face. He speaks to Elliot Worsell

BEFORE throwing his first punch of the day, Michael Conlan needed to talk about it. He needed to talk about how two fists – tools of his trade, tools he would soon wrap and throw – led to the death of a 28-year-old Russian with whom he once shared a fight card, a profession and a dream. “I knew that guy,” Conlan said, shaking his head. “We boxed on the same show. He was a great guy.”

The morning after Maxim Dadashev passed away from injuries sustained in a fight against Subriel Matias, Conlan was back in the boxing gym, his home away from home. Around him were Harlem Eubank and Shannon Courtenay, fellow boxers equally shaken by the news but willing to let Conlan, the gym’s senior statesman, make sense of it all on their behalf before apologising on boxing’s behalf.

Conlan’s fists didn’t kill a man, no, but still he uses them, these fists, to make a living. They would that Wednesday be used to hit bags and pads, while in 10 days’ time they would be used to damage Diego Alberto Ruiz, his next opponent.

“People think this is just a sport but it’s not just a sport. It’s life or death,” Conlan continued. “It’s not football. You’re not kicking a ball up and down a field. You’re selling brain cells. You have to try to navigate your way through a fight losing as few brain cells as possible and you need to get well paid for the brain cells you do lose.

“This brought it all back to reality for me. I had to sit and think about what it all meant.”

Michael Conlan
Michael Conlan in action Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Once Michael saw the news break on social media, his first thought was to ring his brother, Jamie, a former pro. Jamie knew the reason for the call before Dadashev’s name had been mentioned but asked Michael nonetheless if he had heard the news. Michael confirmed he had. Jamie then asked his younger brother if it was playing on his mind, to which Michael responded: “No, of course not.”

He was lying.

“Of course I was thinking about it,” Michael admitted the next day. “F**k me. He had a kid. I’ve got two kids. He was 28. I’m 27.

“I knew there was a danger of me overthinking it. But I ignored social media and thought, Right, I need to be realistic here. You can work any job and there’s no guarantee you’re going home safe. Boxing is obviously dangerous, you know it can happen any time, but it still only happens rarely. You never think about f**king dying when you go in a ring.

“I made that decision within half an hour of finding out the news. It could have gone the other way, but fortunately I am in a really good place at the minute, mentally, and that helped me not read into it too much or give it too much attention.”

Just as astute, you suspect, was Conlan’s decision long ago to adopt a hit-and-don’t-get-hit approach to boxing, one at odds with his brother’s style and styles typically associated with Irish fighters.

“I’ll always give credit to my dad for me being a kid who loved hitting and not getting hit,” he said, mind still on a deceased Russian with whom he once shared pleasantries in Las Vegas. “That was always my style. That was always what I focused on as a kid. That has helped put me at less risk.

“Jamie, on the other hand, was always in wars. Before he even started getting in wars, he used to watch them on television and say, ‘I’d love to be in fights like that.’ I always said, ‘I wouldn’t.’

“I knew I could do it and I’ve had a few of them but it’s not something I want or need to do. It is pleasing to fans but it’s not pleasing to your family and it’s not good for your health.”

Conlan was cognisant of this long before Maksim Dadashev tragically passed away on July 23, 2019. In fact, the dangers were clear to him once boxing transitioned from a sport, something he did for fun, to a profession, only to become even clearer whenever he watched Jamie gallantly attempt to win fights with his heart before retiring in 2017, to Michael’s relief, at the age of 31.

“We actually spoke about that yesterday,” Conlan said. “He said, ‘During the time I was fighting, I never even thought about it. Not once did it come into my head that I could die in the ring.’

“Jamie has been very, very lucky in terms of coming away from boxing unscathed. Some people leave this sport and are later unrecognisable. Others aren’t even that lucky.”

Michael Conlan opponent
Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin got a controversial decision against Conlan in the Olympics Action Images/Peter Cziborra

Suffice to say, protection is needed. It’s needed in the ring, in the form of a watertight defence, and it’s needed in terms of sensible matchmaking. Conlan has benefitted from the latter, while every day he works on the former.

“I’m very, very fortunate,” he conceded. “I’m under the microscope all the time and on the big stage but am being looked after and paid well. I’m being managed the right way. I wasn’t thrown in hard fights from day one. I wasn’t put in with big punchers. I’m not in the gym having sparring wars to make money and help other fighters out.

“People can say I should be matched harder but, for me, I’ve been matched perfectly. Everything is moving in the right direction, at the right speed and right time. Who knows what’s around the corner?”

Ahead of any mention of boxing’s latest tragedy, Conlan had smiled, somewhat ruefully, when pointing to a white T-shirt on which the word ‘REDEMPTION’ was written. Humorously, in place of the ‘I’ was an orange middle finger, a nod to the Belfast man’s reaction following his controversial 2016 Olympic Games defeat to Vladimir Nikitin, and the idea, Conlan explained, was to sell these T-shirts ahead of his proposed rematch (as pros) with Nikitin on August 3.

This plan fell apart, however, the moment Nikitin withdrew from the fight on account of a bicep injury, leaving Conlan in need of a new opponent and with surplus T-shirts he now believes will never be sold.

“I’m still thankful for the Nikitin fight being made and experiencing that big fight feel for the first time,” he said. “This one had me thinking, Okay, this is a fight I can really get my teeth into. And I did. I started training for it on April 8 and have been training as if I was preparing for a world title fight. It put me in a mindset I need to be in.

Michael Conlan
Conlan gives an intelligent assessment of his progress in the sport Mikey Williams/Top Rank

“I do believe I’ll be a three-[weight] world champion and I do believe I can beat any of the world champions right now. This camp has firmed up those beliefs and I’m excited to continue this mindset for the rest of my career. I feel like I’ve moved from prospect to contender now.”

By the time Nikitin recovers and feels fit to rearrange, Conlan fully expects to have graduated from contender to title challenger. It’s for this reason he senses he will never again cross paths with the Russian.

“It feels like it’s gone now,” he said. “He’s apparently got a torn or ruptured bicep, which is a hard injury to recover from. It takes a long time. By the time he comes back, it’s just going to look stupid. It already looked stupid, on paper, with me having 11 fights and him having three.

“It was just about the story. That’s all it was. For me, the time was right. Now it’s gone, it may never happen again.

“But I’m at peace with it. I honestly am. I feel like it doesn’t matter anymore. I know what happened and Vladimir knows what happened.”

Losing to Nikitin in Rio would have been tougher to accept, Conlan says, had the fight been a close one, had the corruption not been so obvious, and had he tamed his middle finger and accepted the loss like a good little boy. But the reality was this: Conlan, while still in Rio, was contacted not only by Top Rank, his current promoters, but Frank Warren and Richard Schaefer and was, thanks to the post-fight outcry and the refreshingly honest way he dealt with it all, well on his way to becoming a pro star.

Eight months later he made his debut at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“There was a lot of attention, yeah, what with walking out with [Conor] McGregor and s**t like that,” Conlan said. “I was fighting someone who was 4-4 and going out thinking, Wow, this is amazing. Then I was in the fight thinking, ‘Right, I need to get this finished now.’ I was just running in trying to stop the fight. It was stupid.

“Being so experienced, what was I doing? But, at the same time, that’s where I’m benefitting now because I know all about the hoopla. I’ve been through the St Patrick’s Day fights and seen the same crowds and media and had the same attention.”

If he has it his way, Conlan would like to be rich, not famous. For having sampled it, he knows attention brings only unrealistic expectations – and abuse.

“It puts you under scrutiny,” he said, “and you get a lot of people writing, ‘You’re a d**k,’ or, ‘You’re s**t.’ People moan and hold me to a high standard because of my amateur career and the hype but amateur and pro boxing are totally different. That’s the truth.

“I’ve always said, ‘If you put a s**t guy in front of me, I won’t perform good. I’ll still win, but I’ll perform f**king s**t.

“But if you put the best guy in the world in front of me, I’ll perform like the best guy in the world. I’ll beat the best guy in the world. That’s the way I’ve always been.

“In the national championships, I was s**t. But then I go and win world titles. I know that when I go up in levels my game raises all the time.

“Maybe it’s arrogance. Maybe I’m subconsciously thinking, Why the f**k am I even fighting this guy? Why am I at this level? But I feel once the level of opposition goes up, I’ll shake out of that mindset and raise my game.

“As an amateur, I was fighting the best in the world five days in a row. That’s mentally stimulating. You’ve got to be at your best just to compete. As a pro, though, you’re more bored than stimulated, especially in those early fights. You can lose concentration. That can cause an upset for a lot of fighters.”

Michael Conlan
Michael Conlan fought the best in the world as an amateur Action Images/Peter Cziborra

In Conlan’s second pro fight, he faced Jose Alfredo Flores Chanez, a natural super-flyweight, and remembers feeling “disgusted” with himself for beating up someone so woefully out of their depth.

“That was the worst performance of my f**king life,” Conlan said. “I went to the after-party, didn’t drink, went back to my hotel and got up at six in the morning and started training. I put my f**king sweat suit on and went to the hotel gym. Manny Robles (Conlan’s former coach) was there walking on a treadmill. He goes, ‘Good to see you down here, kid. That’s what a champion needs to do.’

“But I needed to do it because I was disgusted with myself. It felt like I had just bullied some little kid and not even done it impressively. The whole thing was dumb. The majority of people were thinking, Oh, look, Mick must have fallen out with his gardener. It was such a mismatch.”

That Wednesday, not long after wrapping his boxer’s hands, Adam Booth, Conlan’s current coach, pointed to the featherweight and said: “My main remit with him is to stop him getting brain damage.”

It’s a line Booth has applied to most of his boxers, by now his modus operandi, yet the comment resonated more on that day than any other. It became increasingly pertinent, too, when Conlan, before hitting pads, took advantage of a rare lull to confide in Booth and reveal the moral dilemma he experienced the night before. “It won’t affect me,” Michael promised. “I put it right by thinking of the dangers of other jobs. You can die fishing.”

Listening, Booth nodded his head, then signalled for punches to be thrown. It was the response Conlan was looking for. The response he needed.

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