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Jamie Conlan enjoyed an excellent career in the ring but he is now tasked with guiding the fortunes of fighters

SPORT: The Ultimate Warrior

Jamie Conlan celebrates his Commonwealth super-flyweight title win in London four years ago 
©INPHO/Presseye/Jed Leicester Jamie Conlan celebrates his Commonwealth super-flyweight title win in London four years ago ©INPHO/Presseye/Jed Leicester
By David Mohan

“Unbelievable. Jamie Conlan looked like he needed a miracle and it’s exactly what he found,” roared Box Nation commentator Alex Steedman, with his co-comm Barry Jones in agreement: “Jamie Conlan never disappoints. He’s always in dramatic fights and never does things easy.”

London’s Copper Box Arena had been purposely built for the 2012 Games and was used mainly for ‘European’ handball but on April 30, 2016, those in attendance witnessed something quite special in the art of hand-to-hand combat.

The Commonwealth super-flyweight title fight between Conlan and defending champion Anthony Nelson was later to be named ‘Fight of the Year’ by the British Boxing Board of Control and was typical of how the Belfast man had fought back from the brink on several occasions to prevail.

Retirement had more than crossed his mind a number of times in the past for varying reasons, but something told him to stick with it. It was that fighting spirit that would see him come through in eight rounds against Nelson after a ding-dong affair and deliver the title – a night he looks back on with fondness in his own, mild-mannered way: “I’d always be overly critical of myself and don’t look back too much, but yeah, that’s one I would look back on and be happy with the manner of the win.”

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Growing up in Cavendish Street, Jamie is the oldest of four brothers and while it was playing soccer with Celtic Boys that held his early attention, boxing was in the family blood.

His dad, John – a native of Drimnagh in Dublin – was a former amateur boxer but had turned to coaching so the sweet science was part of the family DNA. With his brother Brendan attending the St John Bosco club, Jamie would follow.

Jamie would enjoy a fine amateur career boxing for Bosco, collecting a number of national junior titles under the guidance of his father and ex-Olympian Sean McCafferty with senior medals to follow.

Four Ulster Elite titles on the spin had been secured and in 2009 he was on course to make it five, but another of the Conlan clan was about to announce his arrival.

Michael would turn 17 during that year’s championships and had been marked-out for big things, but the agreement between the brothers was that if both were to get to the final, Jamie would be afforded the walkover…

“He looked phenomenal in his semi-final against Ruairi Dalton, who I’d had a tough fight in the final with the year before,” recalls Jamie.

“We were adamant that if we both got to the final, I’d take it (by walkover) but it was coming up to a Commonwealth Games year. Once I’d seen him on Friday, I said to my dad that I’d retire and that he was the one.

“We sat down as a family along with Sean McCafferty and I pushed for Mick (to get the walkover) as it would be perfect timing for the 2012 Olympics as he would get the experience of going away ahead of the (2010) Commonwealths, so we made that decision.

“I was going to retire because we’d be the same weight for a load of year, but John Breen then gave me a call to turn professional.”

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Martin Rogan’s emergence in the late noughties had captured the imagination of Belfast’s fight fans. The popular heavyweight scored a huge win over Matt Skelton to take the Commonwealth heavyweight strap but would lose it due to a damaged eye against Sam Sexton when it seemed he was on the cusp of victory.

Therefore, the rematch between the pair back at the Odyssey Arena on November 6, 2009, was the talk of Belfast as the crowds packed the arena.

The undercard would feature a host of local talent and thanks to Neil Sinclair’s stoppage win over Janos Petrovics in the chief support, there was time for Conlan – the night’s designated ‘floater’ – to make his professional bow in front of a packed hall against the tricky Anwar Alfadli.

“It’s a bit of a blur, but John Breen was with (Paul) McCloskey the same night in Magherafelt so Eamonn Magee and my dad were in the corner.

“I just remember it being a really small changing room with Kevin O’Hara and ‘Sinky’ there too. I had a huge crowd down and sold a load of tickets, so it was the perfect platform to get going.”

Conlan would pick up the victory and this would lead into a good 2010 with a further four victories amassed. That would have been five had the ‘big freeze’ of early December not prevented his opponent from flying into Belfast, so instead he and Troy James – who had the same problem – ended up having to take part in a bizarre exhibition between super-flyweight and lightweight on the same night Carl Frampton won the Celtic title against Gavin Reid. This slice of bad luck was to be a prelude of things to come, for Conlan boxed and won just twice the following year although this wasn’t enough to prevent him being named ‘Prospect of the Year’ by Irish boxing writers.

If 2011 was frustrating, 2012 would almost see him walk away from the sport as promises came to nothing and his only outing was in Liverpool in a six-rounder against Elemir Rafael after the Olympia had cleared out following David Price’s win against John McDermott.

“It helped me see the darker side of the game where it is less of a sport and more of a business,” recalls the 33-year-old of that period.

“I remember training for eight weeks after I was told I’d a British title eliminator against Paul Edwards (on that Liverpool card). Eight days before the fight they phoned me to tell me it was off but I was still on the bill in a six-rounder.

“I flew over on the day and was told I was first on, then it was changed to right after the main event. Paul Edwards was actually in the changing room with someone else and he told me he’d pulled out eight weeks before and nobody told me. I had been training for a British title eliminator when one was never happening.

“I was working two different jobs at the time so it was tough.”

He needed a break and it was to come. While he was again to appear after the main event – this time Frampton’s victory over Kiko Martinez in a European title fight – Conlan was to take on the dangerous Mike Robinson. He took his frustrations out on the visitor, dominating and then stopping him in the 10th.

This victory would finally see his career take off with the WBO European title secured in April 2014 against Benjamin Smoes and after a defence against Gabor Molnar, his next outing would be his toughest yet against Jose Estrella at the Titanic Slipways.

He had to dig in at times and a cut didn’t help matters, but a points victory and the WBO Inter-Continental strap had been secured: “At the time he’d only just lost to Luis Nery who was the WBC bantamweight champion.

“I got cut in the second or third round and couldn’t see for a round or two. Magee was a lifesaver a lot of the times in my career with that.

“He (Estrella) was a bigger guy and a heavy hitter but that was a big win and I ended up number five with the WBO or something, but I ended up running into complications with Barry (McGuigan) and that was it.”

It was the last of a four-fight run under the Cyclone Promotions’ banner and was again to prompt thoughts of retirement, but a couple of months later things would change, sending his career and life in a new direction.

“After that fight, I ended up working on a building site on the same spot where the fight took place doing flagging,” he revealed.

“Around the same time, I was at Matthew Macklin’s fight against (Jorge Sebastian) Heiland in Dublin and Peter McDonagh – who used to come to Breen’s gym for sparring – came over and asked me to go to (Macklin’s Gym) Marbella and that gave me a new lease of life.

“I came back from that and told John I was moving over there to train with Danny Vaughan and that kick-started my career. How I perceived boxing and everything around it just changed.”

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Conlan had been renowned for his sparring wars in the gym, so much so that he was known as ‘The Mexican’. While he was usually a little more measured on fight night, that alias was to prove apt in the coming years.

It all began in his first fight under Vaughan and the MGM banner at the National Stadium, Dublin on July 4, 2015, against Mexico’s Junior Granados.

The Belfast man hadn’t been well-known outside of Irish boxing circles and while he always enjoyed good support, this night was to change everything.

Things seemed to be progressing well as he banked the rounds, but in the second half of the fight Granados sprang to life and had Conlan down twice in the seventh with crippling body shots that almost spelt the end, but roared on by the crowd, somehow he found the resolve to rise, see out the round and box his way home.

“I don’t understand how the whole thing flipped and we ended up in these crazy, up-and-down fights,” he pondered.

“Maybe it was with the level of opposition getting better but it all helped make people sit up and take notice.

“The Granados fight ended up opening a lot of doors. I brought about 300 from Belfast but I ended up getting this cult following.

“I said to Danny after the fifth that it was easy and I would put it on him a bit in the next round, but he hit me on the top of the head and I didn’t think it hurt, but my body did because my legs were going everywhere. It was a tough night and the first time I’d been down.”

The win saw his stock rise and following a routine win back at the Stadium, it was off to London for that fight against Nelson that was to surpass the drama of the Granados war.

Despite being cut in the opening round, Conlan put the defending champion down and almost found the stop in the second, but the man from South Shields rallied, dropping him with a right to the head in the third and again in the seventh that seemed to leave him on the brink of victory. But there was to be a twist in the eighth as Conlan landed a crippling body shot that closed the show and secured the Commonwealth super-flyweight title – a fight that will live long in the memory: “I was super-confident going into it but I saw that he was confident in fight week. I’d dropped sparring partners, felt good and weight was good apart from the last few pounds, but I felt good when I rehydrated.

“It was a crazy fight and one I knew I would win, but not how.”

It now seemed that a world title shot was on the horizon but after two routine wins, those plans were almost derailed at the Waterfront Hall against Yader Cardoza on March 10, 2017.

Again, Conlan was down and again battered and bruised, but he somehow managed to squeak home.

“Cardoza was the hardest puncher I was in with,” he confirmed.

“I look terrible after most fights with my eyes swollen, cuts and hands black and blue but after a few hours I’d be grand but after the Cardoza fight back in the hotel I was in pain the whole night.”

The WBO title picture was a little muddied with holder Naoya Inoue ready to relinquish and move up in weight. The deal had been done for Conlan to face Rex Tso for the vacant strap, but with Inoue holding matters up and making the super-flyweight limit of 115lbs becoming a major issue, his crack at a world title could not wait.

By now, younger brother Michael was making his way as a professional and Jamie had made the trip out to Brisbane to watch his sibling in action against Jarrett Owen on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao’s shock loss to Jeff Horn.

Yet, another Filipino fighter who was to catch the eye as Jerwin Ancajas’ seventh-round demolition of Teiru Kinoshita to retain the IBF title was to prove a sign of things to come.

Conlan admits he was convinced that ‘Pretty Boy’ was all wrong for him having watched him in action, but when the offer came to challenge for the title at the SSE Arena in November 2017, he simply had to take it.

“In many ways, all boxers have to be a bit deluded because we have to believe you can beat the other guy no matter what – something that separates boxers from normal people,” he explains.

“We had a gameplan we thought would work, had a great camp, but the weight was a killer for that one. I maybe peaked a week before because I had been training hard, but he just had that style that was wrong for me and even if I was 100 per cent he still would have beaten me.”

Conlan was down from what seemed an innocuous body shot in the first, but looks were to be deceiving as this glancing blow was to effectively spell the end.

While he bravely battled through until the sixth round, the fourth and final knockdown was to see his challenge for the top prize end, as-well-as his career in the ring: “He got me with a backhand in the first round that winded me and it just didn’t ever leave me – it was so weird. His distance was amazing and when I tried to walk him onto shots, he just got me and when he landed that body shot in the first that was it really.”

Walking away from boxing can be difficult for many fighters. The thrill of battle, the glory and adulation that comes with it can be a temptation too tough to turn down, but it was never about that for Conlan who quietly slipped away from his career as an active fighter.

“I had a baby coming and said to the mrs before (the Ancajas fight) that win lose or draw that was it for me,” he explained.

“I’d been saving up for years before that and we’d bought our house. The boxer’s ego didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t need money because I’d saved enough to take care of us.

“The dream for me was to become a world champion and retire. It didn’t work out that night but I’m still happy and content with how it worked out. I loved every minute of it.”

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The days training in Marbella alongside some veteran fighters such as Macklin and McDonagh brought thoughts of life after boxing to the fore.

With Macklin now managing the fortunes of Michael Conlan and Jamie there to support his younger brother every step of the way, he was to gain an insight into what life is really like behind the scenes.

Shadowing Macklin in this time, Conlan wasn’t to know it, but he was being groomed to take over with ‘Mack The Knife’ about to take on full-time punditry work with Sky: “a bit of a ‘Mr Miyagi’ treatment from Macklin – but I learnt it.”

Following the defeat to Ancajas, Conlan was offered the role of Professional Development Coordinator with the company, now rebranded at MTK Global. The job was to see him guide the new talent who were making their way in the sport, but he soon found himself not just managing Michael, but up to 16 others.

“I wasn’t sold on the manager role,” he admits.

“With Mick, yes, but then I ended up signing Sean McComb and Steven Donnelly who I thought was good talent coming through. It gathered pace from there and in the end, I was looking after 16 fighters. Féile came around last year and I ended up being an event organiser of sorts.”

Jamie Conlan had never intended to be a professional boxer at one point and certainly not involved in boxing management or promotion, but today he finds himself negotiating with top promoters such as Top Rank and making broadcast deals with Sky Sports.

Last month, he was elevated to the role of Vice-President with MTK – a nod to the incredible strides he has made in such a short space of time. It’s a new challenge, but one he’s enjoying and has thrown himself into with the same relish he did inside the squared circle.

“Bob Yalen (President) said to me around November last year about being a Vice-President,” he revealed.

“There were other guys in the frame but he thought with me being an ex-boxer I was the right fit. I ended up in more meetings with TV companies and doing more with the shows like the Golden Contract and working with Sky Sports. There are more boardrooms now and more strings to my bow.”

Watching his two young children grow up is what gives him the real thrill these days. Michael now does the fighting for the family and that world title may well be secured for the Conlan clan yet, but for Jamie, his battles are now on behalf of fighters, rather than against them.

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