Two years after controversial Olympic loss, Ireland's Michael Conlan wants his big-money rematch

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Conor McGregor and Michael Conlan celebrate Conlan’s TKO win over Tim Ibarra after a super bantamweight bout at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on March 17, 2017, in New York. (Getty Images)
Conor McGregor and Michael Conlan celebrate Conlan’s TKO win over Tim Ibarra after a super bantamweight bout at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on March 17, 2017, in New York. (Getty Images)

Michael Conlan stretched out on a couch in front of his hotel room at the Park MGM, a view of Toshiba Plaza at T-Mobile Arena behind him. A few weeks ago, the plaza was filled with his countrymen, who had made the journey from Ireland to Las Vegas to watch Conor McGregor fight Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

In time, those same fans may make the trip to Las Vegas to cheer on Conlan in a mega-fight.

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He’s still in the embryonic stages of his professional career, but few young fighters have his instinct for how to build himself. Conlan, who is 8-0 with five knockouts as a pro, will fight Nicola Cipoletta on Saturday in an eight-round featherweight fight at the Park Theater in Las Vegas on ESPN+.

“He totally gets it,” said Top Rank president Todd duBoef, who signed Conlan following the 2016 Olympics. “He has a lot of potential as a fighter, but he has the intangibles, as well. He understands the business, not just the fighting aspect of it.”

Conlan made perhaps the most famous tweet of any Olympian at the 2016 Rio Games, when he tweeted to Russian President Vladimir Putin following a hotly disputed loss to Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin.

“How much did they charge you bro??” Conlan wrote to Putin. The tweet was liked more than 39,000 times and retweeted more than 18,000 times. It drew 800 comments.

He was outraged during interviews, and grinned slyly as he spoke about it in his Las Vegas suite, particularly during a television interview on Irish network RTÉ.

“They’re known for being cheats and they’ll always be cheats,” Conlan said to RTÉ only seconds after leaving the ring in Rio. “Amateur boxing stinks, from the core right to the top.”

That was one of only many gems he let loose that morning. He smiled as he reflected on it the other day.

“You know, there were a few things I said and I thought to myself, ‘What just came out of my mouth?’” Conlan said.

Michael Conlan of Ireland gestures to the crowd after his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin at the 2016 Rio Games. (AP)
Michael Conlan of Ireland gestures to the crowd after his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin at the 2016 Rio Games. (AP)

He’s more than two years removed from that defeat, but he’ll have an up-close reminder of it on Saturday. For the first time since the Olympics, Nikitin and Conlan will fight on the same card. Nikitin will face Clay Burns in a six-round featherweight bout earlier on Saturday’s card.

Though Conlan wants a rematch against Nikitin, it’s not because he holds a personal grudge against him. He understands that because of their Olympic history together and his reaction to their fight, it’s a big-money fight for him.

But he said it’s not difficult to see Nikitin and think of what might have been. Conlan won a bronze medal at the London Games in 2012, but remained in the amateurs to chase a gold. Nikitin was so busted up after his “win” over Conlan that he couldn’t make his semifinal fight against Shakur Stevenson of the U.S.

“If I’m honest, I’m not emotionally involved with it,” he said of Nikitin. “It’s in the past, and it wasn’t his fault. He’s not the reason I didn’t win. There were things going on in the background, which was the reason. I don’t have any bad blood toward Vladimir or his team.

“He’s just a guy who got a victory over me. It was so controversial and so public and so emotional at the time, people have gotten themselves emotionally invested in it and they want to see what happens the next time we see each other.”

Conlan’s immediate focus is on winning his bout Saturday against Cipoletta, which he is overwhelmingly favored to do. He hasn’t faced the toughest opposition as a pro and it’s been hard on him, because he’s talented enough to have blown out most of his opposition just on sheer talent and not by having to systematically break them down.

His short-term goal, though, is to get a match with Nikitin. It’s one of the things that makes Conlan different. He understands how boxing works. Early in his career, even though Floyd Mayweather was an unbelievably gifted fighter, he didn’t sell many tickets and wasn’t considered a draw. But when he figured out how to handle the media, he became the biggest attraction in the sport and holds every meaningful pay-per-view sales record.

Conlan knows it’s a two-pronged job: He has to not only improve as a fighter, but also to sell himself as an attraction.

“I know what boxing is, first and foremost,” Conlan said. “It’s a business. It’s not a sport any more. Professional boxing, anyway. I know a lot of the best fighters in the world go unrecognized because they’re not involved in the media. They can’t talk and people don’t pay attention to them. If you can be seen as a person who any normal guy walking down the street can walk up and talk to and have fun with and share a laugh and don’t take things too seriously, people relate to that and they want to be involved with it.

“I understand how important that part of boxing is. It’s something I have tried to embrace and feel I do well.”

He’s well-spoken and thoughtful, and those traits are going to pay dividends for him as he takes bigger fights. They’ll get the curious to come out and watch, but it’s going to be his penchant for exciting fights that will keep them coming back.

“We knew Michael was special when he sold out the Theater for his professional debut,” said Joel Fisher, executive vice president of MSG Marquee Events. “He is an exciting fighter to watch with a growing fan base and we can’t wait to have him back at Madison Square Garden.”

Conlan is expected to fight in Manchester, England, in December and then at MSG on St. Patrick’s Day in 2019.

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