FOUR years ago, Michael Conlan went to the Olympics as something of an unknown quantity. Fast forward to today and the Clonard clubman heads to Brazil as the poster boy of the Irish team. It has been an incredible journey.
Back in 2012, the 20 year-old made the podium having reached the semi-finals and took bronze home.
While that was a remarkable achievement, it was to get even better. There has been Commonwealth Games gold, European gold and last year, the ultimate, as he took gold at the World Championships.
One more gold is needed to complete the set and the 24 year-old has travelled to Brazil, not in hope, but completely convinced this is his time and he will secure the medal he craves. It won’t be easy however, with Brazilian Robenilson de Jesus, Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez who beat him London, Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin who defeated him at the 2013 World Championships, France’s Khedafi Djelkhir, China’s APB champion, Jiawei Zhang, USA’s Shakur Stevenson, Kazakhstan’s Kairat Yeraliyev and Murodjon Akhmadaliev – his defeated opponent in the World final – all identified as major threats in a bantamweight division that oozes quality.
“I definitely believe that on my day none of them can beat me,” counters the World champion.
“I just have to make sure I make it my day every time I step into the ring. “One thing for sure is that I won’t have to fight all of them. I should have four fights max because I will be seeded. There are 26 in the weight and that will mean I go straight into the last 16. I can do four fights easy enough, I did that in the Worlds and felt in great shape going into the final.
“I think the big thing that helped me in the final was that the kid I boxed had been through wars and I boxed smart.
“The plan going into these Games is to box smart, keep my distance and don’t get drawn into any wars. If I need to go to war I can, there is no problem there, but there are some great fighters in these Olympics and I respect all of them. I wouldn’t disrespect anybody. People might think I’m overconfident because I’m saying I know I win gold, but I have respect for everyone.
“I’m going to make sure I’m going to win the gold, it’s not like I’m going to walk it and I’m not putting any effort in, I’m putting so much effort into this gold medal.”
Certainly, it is widely accepted that Conlan leaves no stone unturned in the gym and is an example to any young boxer given his meticulous training regime.
That effort has been reflected in results and while being crowned World champion is the ultimate honour, in ‘amateur’ boxing, the Olympic Games is the shop window with a much bigger audience and Conlan is adamant past glories remain in the past and it’s all about the here and now.
“I am where I need to be, no further or less than where I should be going into the Games. I know everything is going to work out, I just have to have belief and I will,” he repeated.
“Olympics is the pinnacle. The World Championships are probably harder, but there is no doubt the Olympics is the pinnacle. At the World Championships you aren’t competing in front of the world, but at the Olympics you are and everyone is watching what you do.
“It was hard to get over the World Championships because you would be resting and could start thinking ‘ah sure I’m world champion, I don’t need to do anything now’ and believe in your own hype. I haven’t. I have knuckled down because I want to be ten times better than what I was this time last year so come Rio, I believe I will be a lot better than what I was in the World Championships.”
The West Belfast man oozes confidence and is in no doubt about where he can go in these Games. Gold is the only thing on his mind, but the constant predictions are surely putting more pressure on himself?
“I say these things to make myself work harder,” he explains.
“I know people are saying that I am putting this pressure on myself, but it’s not pressure to me – it’s motivation, it’s something I love and what I want to do.
“I love making people believe I am going to win gold because if they are believing in me, then I believe in myself even more.
“Me saying those things is what I truly believe and it’s a motivational strategy to make sure I push myself even harder.”
Four years ago Conlan was the fresh-faced youngster on the team with absolutely no pressure on his shoulders. This time, there is another West Belfast 20 year-old who will represent Ireland at flyweight and Conlan believes Brendan Irvine can emulate his performance from London and medal.
“Wee Brendy has it all, very talented and a smart fighter,” says the World champion.
“He’s young and like me a bit. No doubt, people will tell him Tokyo is his Olympics, but if he wants it enough he can go there and do well.
“I told him that if he gets a medal not to go pro as he is young enough to go for another Olympic Games. He is the same age as me (when I was in London 2012) so he agreed to that, but then there is a chance he could go pro after because there is no reason why he can’t get a medal and even go all the way. He has the ability and talent. If he uses it he can beat anyone.
“There is a big difference between him and me at the last Games because he is coming in having competed for Ireland right the way through from underage. I never competed for Ireland underage. I only had 23 fights for Ireland back then so I was almost like a novice going into the Olympics but still went and got the bronze.
“This time, I have something like 150 fights (for Ireland). I’m the World, European and Commonwealth champion and the Olympic bronze medalist. The amount of experience I have now is a huge difference and I think that played a big part the last time against the Cuban.
“He was younger than me, but he was a World Youth champion, a World Youth Olympic champion and that all played a part. Even the weight difference, I was making 52 (kgs) then and I was killing myself to get down to that, but now at 56 (kgs) I am making it comfortably. I’m strong, I’m big at the weight and doing a lot of strength and conditioning work. I did no strength and conditioning for London so there is a massive difference between me now and then.”
If one is looking for an omen, then Ireland’s past two boxing gold medalists offer one. With Billy Walsh now head coach of the USA, Zaur Antia is interim head coach while Conlan’s father, John has stepped up to form part of the Irish team.
Having his dad there to share those special moments has been incredible and he says it will be even more special to have his family out in Rio when he hopefully claims that gold medal he so craves.
“It’s a great omen as our only two Olympic champions have had their fathers in the corner – Michael Carruth and Katie Taylor,” acknowledged the Clonard man.
“To have my father there is a fantastic omen. To have him there in the corner when I won gold at the Commonwealth Games was special, but this is ten times bigger. It was amazing to have him there (in Glasgow) when I won, to jump and hug him in the corner was amazing, but to have that in the Olympic final…. I can just see myself doing that again. What I can really see is spotting my family in the crowd, going over and picking up my baby after winning gold. I can really see that.
“Then again, in the World final I thought I would run around the stadium with the flag but then I got knocked down (in the third round) so I didn’t want to do that because I was a bit embarrassed, but no I can’t wait for it, it’s going to be an exciting time.”
It most certainly will be an exciting time for the Conlan clan should their golden boy fulfil his mission. Having broken new barriers with his World Championships’ success, who would bet against him rounding off an incredible amateur career with the biggest prize of them all?