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With the future of Olympic boxing in danger because the sport has become so corrupt, Mick Conlan has become its most unlikely advocate. After all, the Irish junior featherweight and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist’s most famous moment was when he gave the middle finger to the judges that robbed him against Russian Vladimir Nikitin and said in a postfight interview that “AIBA are cheats,” “my dream’s been shattered” and “amateur boxing stinks from the core up.”
But while you can’t turn on ESPN without a former college athlete calling for the death of the NCAA’s “shamateurism” or college football players bailing on their team’s bowl games in favor of NFL draft preparation, Mick Conlan is desperate to save Olympic boxing. Just last week he let his feelings be known, tweeting, “Amateur Boxing needs to be in the Olympics 2020, the future of the sport Amateur or Pro depends on it, I still believe the ultimate goal for any young boxer should be to become Olympic champion.”
But why would a fighter who was both cheated out of his lifelong dream -- not to mention held at gunpoint during the 2016 Rio games -- be such an advocate for Olympic boxing?
“Look at all the greats. Look at all the best fighters of all-time, well most of the best fighters ever, most of the best boxers of all time have all had extensive amateur backgrounds and had great success in the Olympics,” the 27-year old told Sherdog.com. “Whether it’s Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, the list goes on and on, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya. As an amateur fighter, to reach the Olympics is always the pinnacle and I think that if you take that away, a lot of people will turn pro a lot sooner than they should, without having enough experience. Without the Olympics there’s nothing to really entice you to stay amateur and to get that experience and develop as a fighter. I think that for the development of boxers, for the development of amateur and professional boxing in general, you need to have the Olympics.”
While Conlan would like to see the Olympics go back to the old amateur scoring system, and move to five judges instead of three, he hopes that the increased presence of social media, and the mainstream media’s attention on corrupt amateur boxing scoring, will straighten the sport out in time for the next Games. The question is whether it’s already too late; Conlan has already seen Irish amateurs turn pro because of what happened to him in Rio, a move he disagrees with because, despite what he went through, Conlan sees the Olympics as one of the fundamental aspects of his development as a fighter.
“A good many of the Irish amateurs I know have turned pro already because of what happened to me in Rio, but I think the experience of the Olympics would develop them as a fighter,” Conlan said. “I wouldn’t be the fighter I am today if I didn’t stay an amateur for so long. What happened to me happened, I didn’t get what I wanted to get, I didn’t achieve all my goals, but I still don’t regret staying amateur because I do believe it made me the fighter I am today.”
And who is Conlan today? He’s a professional boxer, undefeated at 9-0 with six knockouts, has headlined at Madison Square Garden and on Saturday will fight England’s Jason Cunningham in Manchester for the Central Area super bantamweight title. Cunningham is a gritty veteran and the first southpaw Conlan will face as a professional, but it is the unique atmosphere that makes this fight most intriguing. This will be the first professional fight where Conlan will likely not be the crowd favorite, a role he is both looking forward to and mentally prepared for.
“I think this is going to be the first time where my opponent will have as much if not more support than me and that’s something I’m excited about,” Conlan said. “I want to experience, I want to feel that kind of atmosphere where you’re the enemy and you’re coming into their territory trying to take over, but that’s something I’ve prepared for mentally.”
Why is Conlan not especially worried about dealing with a potentially hostile crowd? Because he has dealt with it before, many times, as an amateur, yet another reason he may feel so strongly about saving amateur boxing.
“The majority of the time when I boxed as an amateur it was in different countries, in opponents’ backyards,” he said. “I beat guys in their backyards many, many times and it never bothered me. I had 249 amateur wins and 14 losses, so I’ve experienced almost everything you could experience as far as crowds and opponents. It’s all about controlling your emotions in the moment and that’s something I’m really good at”
But Conlan isn’t just coming to win, he’s coming to knock out Cunningham, who has been stopped only once in 29 career fights, in the fifth round. While so many fighters are unwilling to be so specific, Conlan has visualized this victory using techniques he learned in the New Age self-help book “The Secret.”
“I know Jason’s a tough character,” Conlan said. “He’s a southpaw and will be my first southpaw as a pro though I’ve fought many as an amateur. He’s gonna come to win, he’s not gonna come to lie down. He’s a durable opponent but I have a feeling I’m gonna win by KO in round five. The reason I say round five is because it’s been on my screensaver for the last month and a half on my phone, so every time I look at my phone it’s in my conscious automatically.”
“I read ‘The Secret’ a few years ago now, so I’ll go back and read bits of it, or if I see quotes from it I’ll retweet it. I like to see things that I can accomplish, the positive mentality, and I thought in the past it has worked for me so why not keep using it? And I do, I don’t read it consistently every day, but I try to live by the words that they say. When I hit my phone, it comes up on the screen. ‘Michael Conlan Wins Dec. 22 by Fifth-Round KO’ and there’s a picture of the belt underneath, so I’ve already seen what I want and how I’m going to get it.”
It’s no secret that Mick Conlan is a future star, on track for a 2019 title shot. But what happens if Conlan can’t get the knockout and the fight goes to decision? What if the judges cheat him again? Pro boxing is far from immune to sketchy decisions, after all. Will Conlan bring his famous fingers out of retirement?
“Of course, of course, whatever happens I only have one way to answer the bullshit” Conlan said. “Whether it’s bullshit from someone’s mouth or bullshit from anything, I’ll always salute them with the middle finger, that’s me.”