Michael Conlan relishing 'chance at redemption' over controversial Olympic loss

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Michael Conlan still believes he was robbed of a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Michael Conlan still believes he was robbed of a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

This isn’t a chance to right a wrong, to make a stolen dream a reality. There is no way that Michael “Mick” Conlan will ever get the Olympic medal he so desperately wanted to earn in 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, no matter the outcome of his fight on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York against Russian Vladimir Nikitin.

The 2016 Olympics were chock full of elite professional boxing prospects. One of them, featherweight Shakur Stevenson, has already gone on to claim a world championship. Many others will follow in short order.

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Conlan hopes to be among them. First, though, he has to win a rematch of perhaps the most famous — infamous? — bout from the Rio Games.

Representing Ireland, Conlan was competing in his second Olympics in 2016 after having won a flyweight bronze medal in London in 2012. In the quarterfinals, he met Nikitin, with the winner guaranteed at worst a bronze.

“Obviously, the Olympic Games are huge and it’s the pinnacle of your amateur career,” Conlan said.

The Conlan-Nikitin bout was entertaining enough, though its notoriety stems not from anything that happened during the nine minutes of action, but rather from the result and Conlan’s reaction to it.

Conlan felt he’d done enough to win the first round and walked confidently back to his corner. But his teammate, Paddy Barnes, was in the stands and saw the scores when they were flashed on a television monitor. It was not good news. Nikitin had taken the first round.

Barnes signaled to the coaches that Conlan had lost the round. He’d been suspicious that he might get cheated, and the result of the first round scoring only confirmed that hunch.

“You know, it’s difficult when you go in with a plan and the plan seems to work and they tell you that it doesn’t matter, you’ve lost the round anyway,” Conlan told Yahoo Sports. “So we had to change tactics. The fight became harder than it should have been.”

Both men were bloodied when the fight ended, but Nikitin had blood pouring down his face from numerous cuts. He didn’t look like a winner.

But when the scores were announced, he was. He was beaten up enough, though, that he wasn’t physically able to fight Stevenson in the semifinals and had to forfeit a chance to fight for the gold medal.

Vladimir Nikitin (L) reacts after he won against John Michael Conlan (R) in the quarterfinals during the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Vladimir Nikitin (L) reacts after he won against John Michael Conlan (R) in the quarterfinals during the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Conlan, his team and fans were irate. Conlan made an obscene gesture in the ring toward the judges, while his coaches screamed angrily at them. Their session with the media was surreal, as allegations of corruption flew.

Not long after he left the boxing venue, Conlan tweeted to Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him how much it had cost him to pay off the judges.

That made Conlan one of the 2016 Games’ most notable figures, but it wasn’t for the reasons that he had hoped.

He also knew that his days as an amateur were over.

“There was just no way I was ever going to fight in an [AIBA-regulated fight] again,” Conlan said of the amateur game’s governing body at the time.

Conlan also knew that he’d have to see Nikitin again. It wasn’t out of anger or a desire to exact revenge. Conlan understood that Nikitin had fought his hardest to win a medal, just like he had. He had no issues with Nikitin personally.

As a competitor, though, he relishes any opportunity to avenge a defeat, even one as disputed as that had been.

“What happened, happened, and I’m not thinking about it in that way,” Conlan said of his Olympic loss to Nikitin. “I’m just looking at it as a chance to fight someone who has beaten me before and a chance to get that back. It’s not about emotional feelings. It’s a chance at redemption and it’s a fight that both Top Rank and ESPN wanted to happen, so I’m happy to do it.”

Saturday’s bout will be on ESPN underneath WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford’s title defense against Egidijus Kavaliauskas. It’s a taking care of old business type of fight, since Nikitin is only 3-0 as a pro and Conlan is 12-0 with seven KOs and believes he’s on the verge of a championship shot.

The progress he’s made in 2019 is substantial and he feels he’s set himself up for a big year in 2020.

“I believe I’ve had some massive change,” Conlan said. “When I turned pro back in 2017, I was very upright with a very amateur kind of style. I had no pro style at all. I was rushing things a lot then. Now, I’m more settled and I have more of a pro game. I’m controlling the distance better, picking my shots better, my defense. I think everything has really moved substantially forward.”

First, though, he’ll have to go back for one night, to meet the man who in an odd sort of way helped to make him so famous.

“At the end of the day, it’s a fight and I want to win every time I go out there, no matter who it’s against, so in that respect, it’s not any different from any other fight I’ve had,” Conlan said. “But there is a lot of talk and attention on this one because of our history and so I want to go out there and get the win and give a good performance that people will remember.”

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