Belfast's Michael Conlan (7-0-0, 5 KOs) will box for the first time as a professional in his home city on Saturday. The Top Rank fighter has boxed his first seven pro bouts in the United States so this is an ideal chance for his fans from this side of the Atlantic to catch him in a more local setting. Conlan's homecoming will take place at SSE Arena. It will be broadcast on BT Sport in the UK and Ireland and streamed on the ESPN+ app for viewers in America.
Conlan has had an eventful start to his professional journey; already relocating and changing trainers as well as settling on a weight class – of course his exit from the amateur code wasn't without drama either. Michael ended his amateur career when he was cheated out of the chance to fight for a medal by atrocious judging at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. Conlan's disgust with AIBA that day led to an angry outburst live on Irish TV.
The boxer was justifiably outraged as victory was awarded to his Russian opponent, Vladimir Nikitin. Nikitin, ironically, was so badly beaten up by Conlan that he couldn't take his place in his scheduled semi-final so AIBA effectively ruined their own competition with their incompetence. In a round about way the scenario also benefited Conlan as the way he went after AIBA with both barrels gave him a much more high profile beginning to life in the paid ranks.
After debuting in March 2017 at Madison Square Garden's Theater near the super-bantamweight limit and hovering around 123-125lbs for his following two fights, Conlan is now no longer in between weights – he will be campaigning as a featherweight.
Initially electing to move full-time to California with his family, Michael was trained by Manny Robles for his first five fights. With the arrival of a second child imminent Conlan made the decision to return home to Belfast and has since been working with London based trainer Adam Booth. Saturday's bout will be their third together. What Robles started, Booth is now fine-tuning, resulting in Conlan developing into a very fine professional.
And Saturday's fight will be his toughest test at this level so far. Former world title challenger Adeilson Dos Santos (19-4-0, 15 KOs) of Brazil will be the most experienced pro Conlan has gloved up against so far. The bout is scheduled for ten rounds and the Brazilian will be looking to ruin the homecoming festivities. It will be interesting to see Conlan matched with a man who possesses a very combative style.
Dos Santos doesn't seem to have much patience – he's in a hurry to get involved in some toe-to-toe exchanges. He likes being on the front foot and uses a pawing jab in order to setup his big right hand. From what I was able to view of him he uses his left to throw hooks about as often as he uses it for jabs. This results in him being open to counters and vulnerable to quicker opponents. His footwork is sharp enough and he often starts rounds on his toes bouncing in and out of attacks but tends to hold his feet the longer the round goes as his willingness to stand and trade gets the better of him.
Since joining up with Adam Booth, Conlan has added a couple of wrinkles to his game, wrinkles which should give him options on Saturday once the fight has settled down. His first bout with Booth in his corner saw Michael breaking down David Berna with a sustained body attack. Conlan was definitely sitting down on his shots more that night and got the result when, after having had Berna down twice, the referee intervened to stop the contest as Conlan was unloading on his opponent in the second round.
That was followed by a nice display of intelligent boxing last month in New York on the Lomachenko-Linares undercard. Opponent Ibon Larrinaga…
..was there to survive, so while still sitting down on his shots at times, Conlan boxed an intelligent fight, seemingly content to get the rounds under his belt and win a shutout on all three cards. His boxing that night caught my eye, I enjoyed the way he maturely handled such a negative opponent. He never looked rushed or flustered and was able to showcase his boxing ability on a high profile promotion.
On Saturday Conlan should be able to do the same if Dos Santos enters the ring with a similarly negative attitude or, if the Brazilian is his usual attack-minded self, Conlan's hard counters and body shots will be more than capable of ending the fight early.
On occasions like this it is always worth considering how much of a factor pressure will play. This is a big event for Conlan so is there any chance, with the added expectations of the huge home crowd, of Conlan freezing? I don't think that will be an issue as Conlan's fans basically took over the MSG Theater for his debut and he has been boxing in large venues, always with a healthy amount of backers watching him ever since.
The boxer himself addressed this when speaking to the website for his management company, MTK Global yesterday: “I've never felt threatened by the pressure of living up to the expectations in Belfast. That stuff just doesn't bother me and all I really have to do is be myself. I've got this huge homecoming night and that has resulted in a lot of great fights getting made on the card so the whole environment is positive.”
As Michael mentioned, a competitive undercard is set to take place before he tops off what is sure to be a great night of boxing in Belfast. Scotland's Joe Ham (14-0-0, 5KOs) and Northern Ireland's Tyrone McCullagh (10-0-0, 6KOs) will clash for the Celtic super-bantamweight title. Another Scotsman, Lewis Benson (10-0-0, 2KOs) gloves up against England's Johnny Coyle (18-0-1, 2KOs) in a welterweight contest. Jono Carroll (15-0-0, 2KOs) of Dublin will take on fellow Dubliner and southpaw Declan Geraghty (17-2-0, 4KOs) in a super-featherweight bout. Belfast's Tyrone McKenna (16-0-1, 6KOs) and England's Jack Catterall (21-0-0, 12KOs) will do battle in another all southpaw fight at light-welterweight. McKenna vs. Catterall is seriously good matchmaking and could steal the show.
The main event is Michael Conlan though. He may not have been rewarded with an Olympic medal in Rio to go along with his London 2012 bronze but Commonwealth Games gold in 2014 followed by World and European gold in 2015 ensured Conlan's place in history as an Irish boxing hero. Now, with his burgeoning professional career off to a very encouraging start the interest in his reunion with his Belfast fans is high. A celebratory, festival type atmosphere is expected and I expect it to continue into the night as Michael Conlan sends his fans home, or to the bars of Belfast, happy and genuinely excited for what is to come.
Read more from Morrie here.