Ireland’s next top boxer has a rare shot at retribution after losing at the Olympics because of a ‘fixed’ fight: ‘It’s personal for my career, my legacy’

Michael Conlan, Ireland’s next top fighter. Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
  • Michael Conlan is Ireland’s next top boxer.
  • The 27-year-old is a former two-time Olympian who lost at the 2016 Games in Rio because of an apparently fixed fight.
  • The man who benefited from the fix, Vladimir Nikitin, was awarded a win, but Conlan beat him so bad he couldn’t even continue in the Olympics because of his injuries.
  • Now, Conlan has a shot at retribution as he and Nikitin are booked in for a rematch at Madison Square Garden in New York in December.
  • Conlan told us it is a fight he is diligently preparing for, using visualisation techniques he has practised for years, together with the clever strategies his trainer Adam Booth is known for.
  • For Conlan, it is personal, for his career and his legacy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

DUBLIN – In Rio de Janeiro three years ago, a young man’s dream was shattered.

The Irish bantamweight boxer Michael Conlan arrived at the 2016 Olympic Games with an excellent reputation as a top tier amateur athlete and as the reigning World Amateur Champion. He was a medal favourite.

Conlan was confident. You could tell by watching the way he jigged his way to the ring for his quarterfinal clash against his Russian opponent Vladimir Nikitin. Irish tricolour flags bobbed up and down in a crowd in which his mother, father, and fiancee were watching, waiting, for Conlan to box his way into the semifinal of the Olympics to fight for yet another medal.

The fight was an aggressive one. But for every punch Nikitin threw, Conlan seemed to land two. He was too fast, too active, and was able to bloody Nikitin at will.

By the end, Conlan had barely broken a sweat. But Nikitin, bruised and battered, still won the bout, judges decided. Conlan’s Olympic dream was over.

Before he left the ring he flipped his middle fingers at the judges and had choice words for the entire amateur boxing industry. He wasn’t going to leave quietly. F— ’em, he thought.

“My dream has been shattered now,” Conlan fumed to RTE on his way out of the arena. “They’re known for being cheats. And they will always be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

Michael Conlan's middle fingers
Conlan flipped his fingers during the Olympics. Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

It is a viewpoint he still holds, telling Business Insider recently that incidents to this day show him “how corrupt amateur boxing can be.”

To put the Nikitin loss in 2016 in greater perspective, Conlan looked like he had barely even warmed up by the final bell while his opponent was bleeding from multiple cuts, beaten up so bad he couldn’t actually continue in the Olympics. He was forced to withdraw from the semifinal because of injury.

The Guardian quoted a senior official at the time who said boxing at the 2016 Games proved “corruption is alive and well.” The Irish Times even reported in 2018 that the Irish boxing team was told before the fights that the medals had been pre-determined. The fights were apparently fixed, and it was all a sham.

Conlan is not the only pro boxer to rue the last leg of his amateur journey. Floyd Mayweather was “robbed” at the 1996 Olympics and Roy Jones Jr. was “cheated” out of the gold medal in 1988.

But fast forward to 2019 and Conlan has been given an opportunity that Mayweather and Jones Jr. never received – revenge against the other fighter, the one who escaped with the dubious win.

I watch that and let that feeling build to help motivate me, push me, and relight that fire of those feelings of why this cannot happen again.

Conlan recently got a call telling him he was going to fight Nikitin again, this time as a pro. It’s all booked for December 14 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The Conlan vs. Nikitin battle is one fight in a studded card topped by Terence Crawford’s welterweight world title defence against Egidijus Kavaliauskas.

“It’s very, very sweet to get the news,” Conlan told Business Insider. “Everybody thinks the story is perfect, that I’m just going to win it, right the wrong that should never have been written. That’s not the case. The case is this fella has beat me twice.

“No matter what, if you think the decision was wrong or you think it was right, this guy has beat me twice. In the Olympics, yes I thought I won and I showed why, but he beat me before as well. I’ve got to go into this fight thinking it’s not a given.”

Read more: Conor McGregor’s coach still thinks he’s the best fighter in the world despite his heavy beating by Khabib Nurmagomedov

In Conlan’s corner is the “Dark Lord” of British boxing Adam Booth, a strategist renowned for training and cornering the former two-weight world champion David Haye and the former super middleweight world champion George Groves.

Booth and Conlan expect a more aggressive Nikitin than the Irishman experienced as an amateur. “Adam was saying he has improved from the amateurs, a little more reckless, thinking, ‘This isn’t the amateurs anymore, I can go in, do what I want and throw bombs.’ He tries to take your head off.”

He added: “But what I’m going to enforce against him will work beautifully, and it will be a really exciting fight for fans.”

While Conlan said he hasn’t been watching too much footage of Nikitin’s fights to prepare for the December 14 showdown, he has been watching the 2016 Olympics, his post-fight interview with RTE, and the recorded reactions of his family in the crowd. He wants to recapture the emotion of having his gold medal dream shattered.

“I watch that and let that feeling build to help motivate me, push me, and relight that fire of those feelings of why this cannot happen again.”

His trainer, Booth, will likely play on those emotions during their training camp. “He’s good at getting in your head, Adam, as your coach. He knows the things to target to help push you, and his tactical abilities are unbelievable.”

If it sounds like this is all personal, that’s because it is, even though Conlan stresses that he doesn’t have anything against Nikitin, more the situation.

“It’s not personal with Vladimir Nikitin but it’s personal in terms of my career, the history of my career, and when I look back, the legacy of it. It will look beautiful when I fix what shouldn’t have happened. But this could go absolutely wrong so I’ve got to put the work in to make sure the happy end to this story does come true.”

Conlan’s story is already filled with iconic moments and it’s all down to the Law of Attraction, he says

Does Michael Conlan know Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor walked Conlan to the ring for the boxer’s pro debut in 2017. Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Not yet a contender, Conlan remains at the prospect level in world boxing, albeit a blue-chip one. He is 12 fights into his professional career, with seven knockouts, unbeaten.

Not content with the iconic middle finger salute in Rio, Conlan has masterminded multiple moments like that in the paid ranks – from having the former UFC champion Conor McGregor walk him to the ring for his professional debut at Madison Square Garden, New York in 2017, to generating an extraordinary atmosphere inside the Marquee in Falls Park, Belfast earlier this year.

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These moments have helped bring him to the forefront of boxing’s media, pushing him ever closer to where the big money lies – being a future crossover star.

He told us he thinks these moments into reality using the same technique as McGregor. It is the Law of Attraction at work, Conlan said – a New Thought philosophy which is the apparent ability to attract into our lives whatever it is we are focusing on by using visualisation techniques. It’s the idea that positive thoughts bring positive experiences.

“You attract what you put out there,” Conlan said.

“Even the McGregor thing itself, the entrance, and the atmosphere, before I even started boxing I envisioned these things. Before my debut, this was what I want to do, big entrance, music on, complete atmosphere when I walk to the ring.

“My brother Jamie, who was already professional at the time, he said, ‘Are you stupid? You don’t get s— like this in your pro debut.’ And I was just, ‘This is what I want to happen.’

“It all ended up happening. It got even bigger with McGregor being involved. The first time I met him, I’ll be honest, it’s the only time I’ve ever been starstruck and I’ve met a lot of famous people.

“But the reason I got starstruck was because of who he was, how big he is. He was in the peak of his sport at the time and he was so down-to-Earth, so humble, and so nice. I was like … it blew me away.

“There’s things, how my career is going, they’re not randomly happening,” Conlan said. “I feel like I’ve brought it into existence by thinking about it and processing how to make it happen.”

Watch his Belfast ringwalk in August, 2019, below:

His peers say he’s ‘a top class athlete’ destined ‘for a world title’

When Business Insider visited the Colosseum gym in the Ballyfermot district of Dublin recently, two of the fight club’s most prominent athletes – Luke Keeler and Davey Oliver Joyce – had high praise for Conlan.

The 32-year-old featherweight Joyce, an 11-1 boxer with eight knockouts, has trained and sparred with Conlan. “He’s one of the best athletes I’ve shared a ring with,” Joyce said. “His personality shows it all. The way he acts, the way he behaves, and the way he controls himself in the ring. He’s a top class athlete.”

The middleweight fighter Keeler, who is plotting a way to entice McGregor into a boxing ring, also lauded Conlan. “He’s a special talent,” Keeler told us. “When he steps up, you’ll see his level rise. He’s set for a world title.”

Read more: An Irish boxer is challenging Conor McGregor to ‘stay sober’ long enough so they can end their war of words and fight for a world title

Conlan certainly has the backing as he is represented by Top Rank, a boxing promotional company in its 46th year, which helped shape the careers of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather.

Mayweather even tried to sign Conlan to his stable at Mayweather Promotions, but Conlan said he never took the offer seriously. There were superior firms vying for his signature, he said. “They put interest in me but they were a team I was never going to sign with,” Conlan said. “I don’t believe they’re a good promotional set-up. Top Rank are.”

Top Rank will help shape Conlan’s career, but he does have ideas on the direction he would like to see it go in, including a blockbuster bout against the wildly popular British fighter Josh Warrington, the tough Mexican world champion Leo Santa Cruz, and even a stadium fight in Ireland.

“Josh Warrington has a big fanbase and his boxing style is suited to me,” Conlan said of the current IBF featherweight champion. “It would be a pleasure to watch as a fan, and even as a fighter.”

“Leo Santa Cruz I’d like as well. He would be a big name. Whether it’s the US or in Ireland, no problem.”

Conlan continued: “One day, 100% I’d also love to fight at Croke Park. It’s the biggest stadium in Ireland, one of the biggest in Europe. It would be unbelievable … the biggest thing.”

No doubt, knowing Conlan, he’s already visualized his entire career. When it comes to those iconic moments, the middle fingers, the McGregor walkout, and the Belfast atmosphere, Conlan may well only be getting started.

But first he fights Nikitin on December 14. And that, for Conlan, is personal – for his career, and his legacy.

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