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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Michael Conlan (R) and TJ Doheny engage at Falls Park.
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Michael Conlan drops and decisions teak-tough TJ Doheny in front of 8,000-capacity crowd
The Belfast man impressed as he beat Portlaoise’s former world champion by unanimous decision to edge closer to world-title contention.

MICHAEL CONLAN BOLSTERED his credentials as a world-title challenger with an impressive, often entertaining unanimous-decision victory over Portaloise’s former super-bantamweight world champion TJ Doheny at Belfast’s Falls Park.

Hometown hero Conlan, now 16-0 (8KOs), dropped Doheny with a body attack in the fifth round and dominated large spells with his significant height, reach and speed advantages, earning victory on judges’ scores of 119-108 and 116-111 x2.

Perhaps due to age, his 17-month layoff, the jump in weight, or any kind of combination of such factors, Doheny (now 22-3, 16KOs) didn’t quite resemble the sharper former self who won a world title in Japan and later contested a fight-of-the-year contender with Danny Roman. However, that same grit he displayed after being dropped twice by Roman was still there in spades as he ground his way through a tough evening, finding plenty of moments of success but not piecing enough of them together to win rounds with any regularity.

mick-conlan-celebrates-winning Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Doheny applauds in the background as Conlan celebrates. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Conlan’s performance was for the most part effective and mature, though there were several occasions — including during the final seconds — when both men threw caution to the wind and let rip in exciting exchanges.

The former Irish Olympian stressed post-fight that he still intends to challenge for world honours at 122 pounds, dispelling suggestions he struggled with his weight cut for tonight’s bout.

Doheny’s entrance and the sound of his name were roundly booed before the first bell, although his travelling support from Portaloise and other corners of the country were audible between the jeers. The reception for Conlan was, as expected, thunderous, as the majority of the 8,000 present belted out ‘Grace’, which was performed live during his ring-walk by Róisín O and Aoife Scott.

A cagey opening saw both men exchange jabs as they felt each other out, switch-hitter Conlan eventually finding the mark with his backhand left as he swapped into the southpaw stance. It was a round which consisted mostly of feinting and posturing, neither man really gambling.

Conspicuous, though, was the size difference — which was to be expected with the taller Conlan a more natural featherweight (126lbs) than his visitor. Doheny had taken umbrage with what he claimed to be the moving of the goal-posts regarding weight during fight week having originally purportedly agreed to a super-bantamweight (122) clash, with the pair eventually meeting at a 124-pound catchweight — albeit Conlan missed the weight by a few tenths of a pound.

The Laois man nullified Conlan’s reach advantage early, though, making the Belfast man miss plenty in another quiet second. Conlan’s output was higher but he found mainly elbow, glove and fresh air as Doheny bobbed and weaved in front of him.

Doheny exerted more offensive pressure in the third, referee Howard Foster pulling the fighters apart after they became tangled in an exchange initiated by a strong Doheny left hand to the head. Conlan, though, finished it the stronger, finding Doheny’s body and budging him off balance with a tidy right hand.

He continued that momentum into the fourth, punctuating his dominance with a handful of tidy right hands — the last couple of which, fractionally on either side of the bell — were the most effective. Conlan appeared to shout in Doheny’s face as he retreated to his corner, but it did little to wake Doheny in the fifth.

Instead, it was Conlan who put his foot down and lashed Doheny to the body, a couple of initial shots catching the former world champion’s attention before a barrage to the midriff forced Doheny to take a knee.

mick-conlan-and-tj-doheny Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Conlan unleashes on Doheny against the ropes. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Wincing as he returned to his feet, Doheny paced from the neutral corner to his own before opting to continue. What followed was a barn-burning 30 seconds in which Conlan seemed destined to find the finish until Doheny — eventually — tied him up. Indeed, it was Doheny who finished the round on the front foot, catching Conlan’s attention as he swung for his life. Still, it was a 10-8 Conlan round.

Conlan gifted Doheny an extra 30 seconds’ recovery time through an inadvertent low blow in the sixth, and it was an altogether more even round as Doheny at one point backed Conlan to the ropes and the pair traded heavy-enough blows. Conlan, though, was the more active and might have nicked it.

Doheny, in turn, looked to pick up the pace in the seventh, stalking Conlan around the ring to limited success. He landed a thudding overhand left as he read Conlan’s head movement early in the round, though Conlan looked relatively comfortable on the back foot from that point until the bell.

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Into eight, and Conlan’s lead on the cards was likely unassailable. He switched back to orthodox for the first time since the opening minutes, presumably in a bid to slow any of Doheny’s momentum, and took the round clearly with some neat work. Doheny did land another warning shot with some 15 seconds remaining in the round, wobbling Conlan ever so slightly with another booming left to the side of the head.

Nine was tight, Doheny imposing himself somewhat but still eating plenty of firm shots as Conlan’s faster hands paid dividends in close exchanges. You couldn’t fault the Portaloise man’s heart but his own speed — both hands and feet — has faded, and that reality was consistently preventing him from making a greater dent.

The tenth was almost a carbon copy of the preceding round.

mick-conlan-and-tj-doheny Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Conlan catches a Doheny right hand on the glove. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

However, the 11th saw Doheny dominate — for the most part. ‘The Power’ landed at will in the opening minute after Conlan again switched to southpaw, and though the two-time Olympian regained parity for the second minute, Doheny again poured it on until the bell. It was unquestionably a Doheny round.

Conlan utterly reversed that momentum in the 12th, working his way back into the front seat behind his jab. He rattled Doheny’s rib cage, testing his will once more. But credit the Leinster man: he gritted it out and caught Conlan with a jolting right hand which sparked an all-out brawl for the final 10-15 seconds.

The crowd rose to its feet at the final bell, their Irish-boxing-great protagonists parking the animosity of midweek to embrace.

Upon the announcement of the verdict, which had more than an air of inevitability about it, Conlan raised Doheny’s hand — a gesture which was reciprocated by his supporters, many of whom have supported Doheny on other nights.

As for whether he’ll return for another one remains to be seen, but for Conlan, bigger nights are around the corner.

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