IT DOESN’T SOUND casual or forced when Michael Conlan describes the Olympics as “just another competition.”
It doesn’t sound like some sports psychologist’s trick to help him cope with the pressure of performing on the world’s biggest stage.
Honest and revealing, it sounds like the assessment of a boxer who believes in his own ability. For a young man of 20–still a child, some would argue–Conlan is remarkably mature.
Of course, it’s easy to be philosophical and take a sideways view of the Olympics when you know that you’re definitely going to be there. Along with Darren O’Neill and John Joe Nevin, the young Belfast flyweight is one of only three Irish boxers to have booked his spot in the London ring already, while some of his higher-profile team-mates like Joe Ward and Beijing medallist Paddy Barnes are counting down the days to their make-or-break final qualifier in Trabzon next month.
Conlan, meanwhile, is continuing his preparations with a minimum of fuss. On Tuesday, he flew out to Cologne in Germany with O’Neill, Nevin and the other Olympic hopefuls for a 20-day training camp which culminates with a multi-nations tournament later this month. After that, it will be another training camp and more sparring in the Ukraine.
Last month, Conlan was there when the same squad was put through its paces at an army training camp in the Curragh. Even for these young men, used to pushing themselves through the pain barrier round after round, it wasn’t easy.
“You start pulling tyres and at the first obstacle, I nearly started crying,” Conlan says. “I just wanted to stop.”
“When you’ve done it, you feel amazing. After you get past the first one, you’re flying, I just kept going. But doing that first one with your hands, pulling tyres across a football pitch, it’s so hard.”
Conlan (red) sidesteps Chris Phelan’s punch in this year’s 52kg National Elite Open Championship final (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
If the whole training schedule sounds intense, that’s because it undoubtedly is. But the alternative is to go “stale”, Conlan says, something which Irish head coach Billy Walsh will never allow.
“He’s getting us to fight. Sometimes it can be annoying having to fight so much, but you know at the end of the day, it’s because it’s good for you.”
An Olympic boxer himself in the 1980s, Walsh knows exactly what his charges are going through, both mentally and physically, and he knows what it takes to draw their potential out.
When you’re down, he’s the one to say to you ‘Look, you need to get up off your arse, get your head into gear and put the work in.’
If you don’t put it in, you’re not going to get it out. And if you don’t put it in and don’t do what your told, he’s not going to be there to coddle you or say hard luck. You didn’t do what you had to do. If you’re going to work with him, he’s going to work with you.
That work certainly looks to have paid dividends for Conlan over the last 15 months or so. In January, he comfortably defended his national senior title, beating a good opponent in Ryston’s Chris Phelan for the second year running.
Last October, he proved he can do it on the world stage as well, stunning the second-seeded Nordine Oubaali of France to qualify for the quarter-finals of AIBA World Amateur Boxing Championships.
That win against Oubaali, a never-say-die comeback late on in the bout, guaranteed his place at the Olympics. And while Conlan deserves all the credit for a brilliant individual performance, he’s quick to recognize the contribution that his family and his club, the famous St John Bosco BC in Belfast, have made.
Brother Jamie, a professional boxer himself, has pulled on the pads for sparring sessions. But it’s dad John who gets most of the credit.
He’s non-stop help. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
He’s a great coach; he doesn’t just help me, he helps everybody at the club. He’s not a one-person man, he’ll help everybody else out.
Coming from a family with such a strong boxing tradition, it made perfect sense when Conlan, aged seven, started to follow his older brothers down to St John Bosco to watch them work out. From then, it was only a matter of time before he started hitting pads and punching bags himself. By 11, he had won his first Ulster novice title.
This summer, he’ll become the club’s first Olympian since Marty Quinn boxed at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. His rise on the national and international stage have brought the club back to life, he says.
“You see kids, they’re coming up and saying they’re gonna beat you. One kid says to me the other day, ‘I’ll beat you one day.’ I just told him, ‘No you won’t, don’t even think about it.’”
In London, Conlan won’t be up against young kids with a desire to take the local champion down a peg or two. These are men, the best that the 52kg division has to offer.
I’m not worried. I’m not nervous. It’s just another competition for me. I’m not treating it as the biggest competition of my life, I’m just treating it as one fight at a time.
Obviously it is the biggest moment of his young career, Conlan concedes, “but I don’t feel like that when I’m in the ring, I don’t feel like that when I’m coming up to the fight. It’s just another fight and just another person fighting me who has two hands, two legs and one head.
“I know I’m up there with all the top guys, but I’m not worried about anybody else and I’m not looking out for anybody else. When I get in the ring, I just have to do what I do and perform.”