A jam-packed weekend of boxing at Madison Square Garden gets underway on tonight in the Theater at the famous New York venue.
Headlining the Top Rank card is Belfast native Michael Conlan, making his first appearance as a professional, against Tim Ibarra.
If Saturday night's big room card headlined by Gennady Golovkin vs. Daniel Jacobs is the main course then Conlan's St. Patrick's night introduction to the pro level of boxing is certainly a fitting appetizer.
Now aged 25, Conlan waited until after the Rio Olympic cycle to turn professional, and the Irishman will aim to make steady progress up the rankings. A decorated amateur, Conlan wanted to round off his days in the vest by winning Olympic gold in Brazil last summer. As has been well documented Michael was the victim of abysmal judging in his quarter-final bout with Russia's Vladimir Nikitin. Immediately after the result was announced Conlan gave an emotional, strongly worded interview with the Irish broadcaster RTE.
Conlan now acknowledges that the way his Olympic dream was shattered has given the start of his professional crusade a lift. “It's giving me a bigger pro career boost than had I won gold. I wouldn't be topping the bill in Madison Square Garden off the back of a gold medal. Although my ability plays a part, I know my reaction and the media hype post-Rio has got me a headline slot,” the boxer told The Guardian newspaper in January.
Since Rio, Conlan has made huge changes in his life to enable him to be as successful as possible in what is now his full-time job. Sought after by all the major US and UK promoters Conlan decided to sign with Top Rank. Bob Arum's outfit has a proven track record when it comes to developing novice pros with potential into champions. Expect Conlan to be matched with increasingly difficult opponents and to be exposed to all styles as he serves his apprenticeship in the paid ranks.
Conlan has also relocated from Belfast to Southern California. The Irishman made the decision to train with Manny Robles at his Rock Gym in Carson, California. Robles is a highly respected trainer and Conlan now has current world title holders Oscar Valdez and Jessie Magdaleno as gym mates.
Launching himself in the 122lb super-bantamweight division Conlan will be gloving up against Colorado's Tim Ibarra (4-4, 1KO). Ibarra's progress has a strange balance to it. Four outings in 2012 (two wins, two defeats) then a lengthy break followed by four outings, with the same win/loss record, last year. Conlan should have no problem getting the job done. By sparring with Valdez and Magdaleno he has already experienced professional style boxing of a far higher standard than anything Ibarra is capable of offering.
As much as the outcome of the fight is not in doubt tonight's outing is a great event for Conlan and his supporters to be involved in and enjoy. With New York's large Irish-American community along with many of his countrymen flying in from Ireland the MSG Theater will feel like a little pocket of the Emerald Isle on St. Patrick's night. The atmosphere in the building will be sensational as the main event gets underway – I would advise anyone who can to attend and experience it first hand.
It will be interesting to see how Top Rank develops Conlan and how aggressive they are in stepping him up through the levels of opposition. For now though, all of Michael's focus will be on putting in a good performance against Ibarra and taking his first steps towards professional honours. The journey begins on tonight.