by Kevin Byrne (follow Kevin on Twitter @kevoobyrne)
Michael Conlan is going for his fourth Irish senior title in a row at the National Stadium, but this is his first entrance at bantamweight.
The Belfast boxer explained that the move up in weight was always going to happen and had been discussed with former team-mate John Joe Nevin and Ireland coach Billy Walsh, with a supposed agreement with Nevin in place that he would move up to 60kg to facilitate that switch.
Now that Nevin has exited stage left to follow his pro dream in America, any possible confrontation between the two has been averted, which might be a shame because Conlan is showing form to suggest he will become a bantamweight of real note, just as he was a flyweight of true distinction.
His semi-final dismissal of Barry Walsh last weekend showed a man nearing his peak, not bad considering he told Irish-boxing.com afterwards that it was his first bout since the World Championships last October in Kazakhstan, from which he returned home without a medal after defeat in the quarter-final.
In other words, just one more victory from guaranteed bronze. That was his first mission at bantamweight and came close to being another major success for the London 2012 bronze medallist, and silver medallist at the European Championships of 2013.
“That was my first fight since the World Championships so I was happy enough with the performance. I just kept my distance and let the shots go,” Conlan said following his win over Walsh which secured passage to the final, where he will meet Belfast friend Tyrone McCullagh.
“I’ve been getting great sparring with the likes of Davey Oliver Joyce, who’s in the best form he’s been in I think, sparring Eric Donovan, Sean McComb – good hard punching with bigger guys.
“I feel great at the weight. I feel a lot stronger than what I have been. I’ve been putting people down in sparring, like. I’m not going to name any names, but I’ve been putting a lot of heavier weights down, 64kg and all. So I’ve been feeling very good.
“I’m fighting next Friday against Tyrone McCullagh. We’re good mates – we went to Ibiza and all together. So we’re good mates, but I’m looking forward to the fight.
Have you ever boxed each other before?
“We’ve never boxed each other before, we’ve always been at different weights. This is the first time. I told him Joe Fitzpatrick would beat him in the Ulster seniors and I don’t think he liked that because Joe Fitzpatrick did beat him. So Tyrone told me he wanted to fight me in the Irish seniors because he was going down to 56kg – I said ‘no problem’. We were seeded on both sides of the draw so I said we’d meet in the final. Now we will, it’s brilliant.
“I know I’m going to win. I’m so confident. I’m not overly confident, but I know how to beat him.
Your move to bantamweight; was it planned all along or did it come about because John Joe Nevin went pro? Let’s say JJ didn’t go pro – would you be challenging him now at 56?
“Yes, 100 per cent. It was the plan to move up this year anyway and for the Worlds, I didn’t have to make the weight (of 52) so I moved up then and lucky enough, John Joe was gone.
“The plan was with Billy Walsh, we all sit down and talked and John Joe was going to move up to 60kg and I was going to go to 56kg, for Rio that was the plan. So my move up in weight was inevitable.”
That was the aim, as you say, but we spoke before and you were considering a move to the pro game after this summer’s Commonwealth Games. What’s the plan now?
“I’ve said things before, but I’ve kinda screwed the head on now. I know not to say things now because it’s boxing – things change. I could be gone, but I couldn’t be gone.
“I’m on great funding off the Irish Sports Council, absolutely brilliant, and they do really well for us. If a great offer came along with the pro, obviously you’re going to go along with it. And I will do it in my career. It could be after the Commonwealth games, it could be after Rio. I’m not sure.”
Have you learned lessons that what you say makes headlines?
“You kinda look stupid sometimes when you’re saying ‘I’m going pro’ and then it’s ‘nah I’m staying amateur’. There’s no point in saying anything because it’s boxing.”
Do you find it’s easy to make headlines if you mention a potential move to the pro game, more so than when you win medals on the international stage?
“It’s good publicity. Paddy Barnes is never out of the papers when he says he’s going pro. I don’t think that man is ever going to go pro. He’s so secure with the Irish Sports Council that I don’t think the pro move is going to happen there.”
Are you happy enough then in the IABA system?
“It’s brilliant and I love the new scoring and boxing with no headgear. It suits me. And the Sports Council, they’re doing a brilliant job with the finding. Maybe the facilities aren’t the best but I’m sure that’s going to pick up, and they’re trying to get a new gym for us.
“When I have the headguard, I can see everything. It’s a whole new world. I feel without the headguards on suits me.”