IT’S BEEN SOME year for the Conlans of Belfast’s Falls Road.
The youngest of four brothers, Sean Paul recently graduated from college with a degree in web design; the second-youngest, Michael, made his professional boxing debut in front of a 5,000-capacity crowd in The Theater at Madison Square Garden back in March, and will aim to finish the year 5-0 at the same venue next month; eldest brother, Brendan, tied the knot as recently as three weeks ago.
That leaves only Jamie, the second-eldest, who’s set to become a father for the first time in February – this less than three months after he fights for the IBF World super-flyweight title in front of 11,000 fans his hometown.
They’re doing all right, those youngfellas.
“I actually haven’t really thought of it like that, there,” says Jamie, who takes on Pinoy ‘Pretty Boy’ Jerwin Ancajas in a fortnight’s time, live on BT Sport from Belfast’s SSE Odyssey Arena.
“I haven’t been able to think about it all together – I’ve just been taking it day by day! Take each one as it comes. I haven’t really sat back and absorbed it all yet.
“The boxing part of it is just what I do, what I’ve always done, and what I love. Brendan getting married was brilliant, and Michael is flying of course. The baby and stuff, I’m obviously very excited for, and becoming world champion is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. So, I suppose it’s all just happening at the same time. The right time.
To become a father while being a world champion – that’d be the ultimate goal. That’s kind of… You’re succeeding at life, then, basically. You’re completing all your dreams at the one time. God, that’d be fantastic. It’s such an exciting part of my life, and something I’m very grateful for.
“It’d be for our own parents to analyse more than anything, I think. They’re seeing the bigger picture while we’re focusing more on just getting better each day. For my mum and dad, they’re seeing all four of us. I’m sure they’re proud. They’d be a bit more reserved, but I’m sure they’re proud.”
As is its wont, brotherly love can be overbearing, particularly when it’s of the ‘tough’ variety.
Jamie and Michael Conlan have thumped the heads off each other since childhood, naturally, but when the older boxing brother embarked on his first world championship training camp in Danny Vaughan’s Glasgow base last month, his California-based younger sibling – having traversed the Atlantic on his holidays – paid him an unruly visit.
The week before their brother’s wedding back home, both Jamie and Michael were in Edinburgh to watch Paddy Barnes’ fourth professional outing on 6 October; Jamie, his face famously penetrable, was sporting an obtrusive shiner beneath his right eye after a week spent sparring his brother.
In Barnes’ dressing room following a routine fourth victory, I asked Michael if he might have eased up considering Jamie was due to fight for a world title in less than six weeks’ time, and were he to sustain a cut, his career-biggest night would be no more.
“No,” replied Michael, stony-faced and arms folded. “I want him to be ready.”
As it so happened, the two-time Olympian had caught Jamie on the hop in an ambush conspired with the latter’s trainer, Danny Vaughan.
“Actually, the first day we started sparring, we were supposed to do what’s more like a technical session – a ‘school sparring’,” Jamie says. “It’s not really full-on sparring, and you kind of have a different mindset going in.
When I got into the spar, I thought it’d be more of that technical stuff, but then for the first two rounds he tried to kill me!
“So it just all changed very quickly. We did eight rounds the first day, and I soon realised this was not your typical going-through-the-motions spar. I’m thinking, ‘this is an all-out spar, here.’
“That used to be the case a lot – we were very hot and heavy when we trained in Breen’s gym – but just for this one, I got in there under the assumption that we were going to be working on more of a tactics thing, like, ‘you go, I go’ – it’s called school-sparring or school-boxing in the High Performance team. It’s kind of more of a controlled spar.
“But Michael and my trainer, Danny Vaughan, knew the plan as we got in there. I didn’t.
I said to Michael after, like, kinda… ‘what…what the fuck was that?’ And he says: ‘I wanted to put it on ya, because you have to do this here and you have to do that there…’ And I was like: ‘I know, but I thought we were just going over stuff!’
Sure enough, the cruel-to-be-kind approach ensured the 31-year-old entered the most gruelling training camp of his life in the right frame of mind; no messing, no shortcuts, no mercy.
“The next day, then, Michael and I get in sparring again, and I just had that feeling,” says Conlan. “We had a fantastic spar for eight rounds. I felt great in myself, very comfortable in the gameplan we have in place – the one we’re working on. We both let the shots go. It was heavy spar, and it was great to mix with him.
“I got up to the pace that I should have been operating at, and I was firing on all cylinders.
And I knew by his reaction that I was annoying him, I was getting to him. Because, you know, I’ve sparred him so many times, I know his trigger points.
“We finished up on the Friday before heading to Edinburgh, we got another eight rounds in, and it was really enjoyable because you know when you’re working with Michael, the guy you’re going to be fighting against isn’t going to be as big or as strong. He doesn’t possess the same stuff that Michael possesses.
“It ticked all the boxes that I wanted to tick, automatically. And it’s great to get that feedback afterwards – from both Danny and Michael: ‘here’s what you’re doing well, here’s what you’re doing wrong.’
For Conlan, a maiden world title tilt in his home city is the culmination of diligence on either side of the ropes.
His countless show-stealing wars in the ring aside, ‘The Mexican’ has fought hard for Belfast’s right to be considered a viable big-fight city by promoter Frank Warren, for whom the epicentre of operations has traditionally lay across the Irish Sea.
In two Saturdays’ time he’ll partake in his third successive fight on home soil, and Belfast’s second world title bill inside a month. Conlan has played a major role in its emergence as the true fight capital of this island and beyond, both in a pugilistic and administrative sense.
In doing so he’s helped pave the way for Ireland’s next generation to demonstrate their skills either at home or not too far from it, where until only recently they were starved of such opportunities.
When you put it that way, though, he nearly pukes.
“I wouldn’t…ah, I don’t think about it like that, there, you know? I’m just happy for all the fighters on the card, and also the lads who fought on Ryan Burnett’s card as well. They’re finally getting the chance to earn a living, to showcase the talent they have on an international stage.
“It’s something we’ve lacked over the years, but this show that I’m on, you’re talking about a double world-title fight on November 18th, with Carl Frampton as well, not even four weeks after a world-title unification fight – in the same city, in the same arena.
That’s very uncommon in any major city in Ireland or the UK – even London, as big as it is – to have such massive cards in the same city, so close together. That shows you the strength and depth that Belfast has. And it’s about time the tv networks have tuned in and jumped on board.
“And with Carl coming back, you’ve got that extra element to it, because he’s an international boxing superstar at the minute. He went over and conquered America, became The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year and stuff, and now he’s on the comeback trail after the Leo Santa Cruz defeat.
“For him to come back to the Odyssey Arena and to be a part of this night, it’s just fantastic for everyone involved.”
Needless to say Frampton’s headline status on 18 November doesn’t trouble his friend and fellow Whatsapp group member Conlan remotely, even if on this occasion it’s Conlan who’s scrapping for world honours while Frampton climbs the ladder.
“Ach, it does not bother me one bit,” Conlan says. “Not even in the slightest. I can fight at six o’clock in the evening or I can fight at 12 o’clock at night.
“I’m getting in the ring and I’m fighting for a world title – that’s all that matters to me.
Being anywhere on a bill or on a poster or anything like that, it just kind of… It’s slightly egotistical, to be honest, and I just don’t go anywhere near that kind of stuff – I’m allergic. It’s irrelevant: the main goal is to become a world champion, and it doesn’t matter what time of the night or who’s on where.
Starring alongside Frampton and Conlan on home ground will be three-time Olympian Paddy Barnes, a close friend of both, who’ll defend his WBO European flyweight title in a fifth contest as a professional.
The Jackal, The Mexican and The Leprechaun, having each toed divergent career paths, will reconvene on the other side to star in one of the biggest nights of boxing in their hometown’s history.
Its significance is patently obvious to Conlan, whose road to recognition was one far less travelled than that of his pals.
“You go through the whole amateur system and you look at the people around you, and it’s very rare that the same guys who were with you in that circuit are the same guys fighting alongside you in the professional circuit at the top of the game.
It’s great for the city, too, because we’re all from different parts of the city, and we’re bringing the whole city together.
“At times you have to pinch yourself. I certainly do.”
You couldn’t blame Conlan for checking his privilege, even if it’s one he’s earned the hardest way imaginable.
His amateur career was solid if unspectacular, paling in comparison to that of two-time Olympic bronze medallist Barnes, and he’s never had the promotional clout which propelled Frampton to his aforementioned stardom (only while combined with superlative ability, of course).
There was no RTÉ exposure – not even every four summers; there was no big break in front of the Sky Sports cameras; there was nobody footing the bill while he chased the quixotic dream.
For the majority of his eight-year, 19-fight career, there wasn’t so much as a prayer.
“For many, many years I didn’t think anything would come from the boxing game whatsoever,” Conlan says.
It was so stop-start, there were so many false promises. The amount of times that I had conversations with my dad, where I’d tell him: ‘listen, I’m going to pack it in.’ I just couldn’t… It was breaking my heart too much. I was pushing and pushing and pushing and just getting nowhere.
“My dad wouldn’t really fight me on that, you know? He’d tell me: ‘look, I’m behind you. I love you as a son.’ I think it happened maybe two or three times.
“There was one particular occasion where this fight was pulled at short notice: I had trained for maybe eight or nine weeks. It was one of [then Frank, now Kellie] Maloney’s fuckin’ bills – it was terrible. I was fucked around more times…
“Ah, I’d trained hard for this fight for over two months, bringing in stablemates to spar every day, so it was tough mentally as well as physically. It came up to about two weeks out from the fight and I got a phonecall saying the fight was off. But, in actual fact, I found out the fight was never on to begin with!
You’d just be like: ‘nah, I can’t be doing this.’ It was coming up to Christmas, and you’re living fight-by-fight. But you couldn’t survive solely on your fight wage, so I was working as a porter in the maternity ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital, so I was.
“It was just kind of… It was a serious backwards step, and I was ready to get off. But I took a week out, and then started easing myself back into it with a few wee bits and pieces while working in the hospital.
“It’s very hard to get rid of that love for the sport. Once it gets you, it sucks you in. It’s like a drug to many boxers.”
“But as well, I had some really great fights that very few people got to see,” Conlan continues.
“I fought Mike Robinson on Carl Frampton’s undercard against Kiko Martinez; I think I sold 500 tickets and I ended up being put on two fights after the main event – a real floater because no fight on the main card finished early.
“And a fight like that, against a recognised guy – he was big with Sky Sports at the time, he’d fought on a Klitschko undercard in Germany, and he was coming in as close to favourite as you can get – and nobody saw the fuckin’ thing.
“I fought on one of Maloney’s bills at one o’clock in the morning against another guy who was tipped to beat me – from Wales I think he was [Kyle King] – and I knocked him out cold. No one was there to see it.
“There was a lot of times when I was knocking on doors and no one was answering.
“It really all only started to turn around about three years ago in Dublin with the Junior Granados fight, when I’d went with MTK.”
It was on that night, 4 July 2015, when Conlan’s legend began in earnest, or perhaps more pertinently, began to garner significant attention; down and all but out against the unheralded Mexican, twice he peeled himself from the floor – the second time with a defiant pounding of the canvas befitting of a movie – en route to a scarcely believable but deserved points victory.
And so with great gall and gusto, BoxNation’s love affair with Conlan was born. The 1,500-or-so in attendance too, headed out onto the South Circular Road knowing they had witnessed something a bit special, but probably still not knowing the half of it.
“At that stage I was working on a building site with my brother, Brendan, and putting down paving, so we were,” Conlan recalls.
I was ranked number five in the world and working on a building site. The lads on site were gobsmacked: ‘how is a number five-ranked fighter in the world working on a building site?’ They couldn’t understand how it had panned out this way.
“It’s just the way it happened. I just had to stick with it a lot of the time. I love the sport of boxing, and I’ve never done it for like fame or people to know me, or flashiness. I don’t drive a flashy car, I don’t run about in designer gear.
“If you didn’t know I was a boxer, I’d never tell you I was a boxer. It’s something I don’t pride myself on – I’m the complete opposite, actually.
“It’s just something I love to do, and something I’ve been born into. It’s in me, somehow.
I don’t know how…well, I do know how it’s ended up this way, with a world title shot: it’s because I never gave up. As I said, I had many a conversation with my dad about giving up. I kept saying to myself: ‘you know what? There are easier ways to make money, and there are a lot less heartbreaking ways to make money.’ I had all my education behind me – I could have went back to school, I could have went on to a different career, but I just stuck it out.
“There was a lot of bad times,” he sighs, pausing briefly.
You see a lot of these young fighters coming through now and they’re on Instagram, putting up this and that. It’s all fake. In this game, there’s not many people who make it to the big time and make millions. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of relying on your wife or your missus to support you in times when the money isn’t always coming in. Because it’s not a reliable source of income.
“But I do believe everything happens for a reason. I was given that path, different to Mick, different to Paddy, different to Carl – with no backing. That taught me lessons not just as a boxer, but as a man, as a person. It’ll stand to me later in life.
“I’m content with it now. I’m very happy with the sport, with where I am in my career, with what I’ve achieved so far in my career. I’m grateful for everything that’s happened. It’s on to the world title now. This world title fight is everything.”
In the two-and-a-half years since defying boxing logic at the Stadium, Conlan’s propensity for frenzied, gut-churning warfare has seen him achieve cult status in the world of fight fandom.
‘The Irish Gatti’, as coined by the venerable Paul Gibson following another exhilarating up-and-down with Anthony Nelson last year, now reigns alongside his younger brother, Paddy Barnes, Andy Lee, Carl Frampton and Katie Taylor as one of the most recognisable active boxers in his homeland.
He excites almost by accident – ‘Jesus, Jamie Conlan’s at it again’ – but when IBF World super-flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas rocks into Belfast in a fortnight, Conlan is adamant that he won’t willingly be drawn into yet another phonebooth war with a fighter who is, by a considerable margin, the most formidable opponent he’ll ever have faced.
Not dissimilar to his days spent on the building site, safety will be paramount if he’s to complete the job – or at least that’s the consensus.
“Like, I feel this fight is just different,” he says. “There’s just something different about the whole thing – everything we’ve worked on has been different to my other fights.
“In those other fights, I always felt that little bit of superiority, but with this one I know I’ve got to be at my best, I’ve got to tick every box. Everything we’ve worked on is tailored toward doing that.
“The gameplan we’ve set out is spot on, and I’ve got to follow that. Like, don’t get me wrong, I’ve said that numerous times and ended up getting dragged into stupid bloody wars, as you’re saying, but I feel that if we don’t get drawn into any craziness, it will be my night. I’m 100% positive that it’ll be my night if we stick to what we’ve got to do.
But if it has to go the way so many of my other fights have went, I know I’ve got the characteristics: I’ve been there. I’ve been through those moments where you don’t think you have anything left, and you have to pull something out. He hasn’t.
“If it has to, I can always go there. And if I go there, with the backing of my own support, they’ll add that wee bit extra to drive me on, of course, because you don’t want to let them down.
“I don’t want to sound over-the-top, but I feel really confident. I feel like a different animal in this camp. I know I have to be switched on, and I know I have to perform to my absolute, ultimate best. I also know that he has mistakes in his locker that haven’t been exploited yet, and I feel I’m the man to exploit them.”
There’s a new arrival to welcome to the Conlan clan before Jamie either defends his new crown or rejoins the queue, but three months later, in May, another landmark family event might well beckon: Michael Conlan, six years Jamie’s junior, is set to headline an ESPN-broadcast card in Belfast on what will be his Irish debut as a professional, and the fight’s timing aligns nicely with the 31-year-old’s schedule.
It’s long been a dream of theirs – and a nightmare of their mother’s – to fight on the same bill, but having thrown every punch with young Mick since his Madison Square Garden bow in March, and indeed during the 15-or-so years prior, Jamie is no longer convinced by the notion.
“I don’t know, actually. There’s a difference between me and Mick because no matter what, I’m the older brother. And the older brother has to look out for the younger brother.
What he goes through in terms of worrying about me, I go through that tenfold. I feel it’s a lot harder on me when he fights than when the shoe is on the other foot – even though the type of fights I’ve gotten into are, of course, very hard for a family member to watch.
“But no matter who he fights…ah, listen, to me he was the best amateur in the world, and I feel he has the potential to be the best boxer ever to come out of Ireland.
“But it doesn’t matter. It does not matter. He’s still my younger brother, and you’re taught to defend your younger brother, to look after him. It takes that wee bit extra out of you when he steps through the ropes.
“It would be very hard to fight on the same card as him. But at the same time, it’d be a momentous occasion to be involved in, to have two brothers fighting on the same Belfast card – especially if I’m world champion by then and he’s fighting for a title of some sort. That would probably be a bit too hard to turn down.
“I’d love to just watch it!” he laughs. “But no, I’d like to be involved in the ring as well. There are different highs and lows to both of them.”
Some time after speaking with Jamie, I text Michael Conlan asking which college course his younger brother, Sean Paul, received his degree in. I explain that I’d like to include it in the opening few lines of this interview so that I can briefly outline what a massive year it’s been for his family.
He responds from California with an audio message on WhatsApp.
“It’s been a huge year,” he says. “I’ve made my pro debut in the Garden, and then our Sean Paul has got his college degree in web design, and all that stuff – all that…fuckin’…tech stuff, whatever it is! He got a college degree in that, and then our Brendan got married.
Jamie’s fighting for the world title, baby on the way also, so it’s massive for him. I couldn’t be any more proud of him. My dream is for both of us to fight on the same card as world champions – that’d be a fantastic feat if Jamie goes and wins the title, which I do believe he will.
“We’re all excited in the house about that – not just me, but everybody. We’re all on the same journey together because we’re brothers, and obviously mothers and fathers as well! All involved.
“It’s just a massive year for the family. I think everybody in the family is very proud, and we’re all moving in the right direction.”
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