“He’ll be a world champion within two years. I’m absolutely certain.”
Boxing trainer Danny Vaughan, a softly spoken Liverpudlian with over 20 years’ experience in the sport, is not one for hyperbole so when he tells me this, I know he believes it.
The subject is his newest charge, Jamie Conlan, and we are standing in Matthew Macklin’s gym in Marbella awaiting the Belfast super flyweight’s emergence from the dressing rooms. The MGM is the latest Iberian hotspot to welcome an influx of Irish and Brits, though we’re talking boxers not boozers here, and it is immediately easy to see why.
It is a vast space, easily big enough to be dissected by a 25m straight line running track. To the left are all the free weights and mirrors a gym rat could wish for. Straight ahead are a regiment of bikes and treadmills for those eager to cut a few pounds ahead of weigh in. To the right, and most impressively, sit two boxing rings and a selection of heavy bags suspended from the ceiling like an array of carcases in a butcher’s deep freeze.
When you consider the generally favourable climate and spa facilities including a sauna, steam room, plunge pool and the invitingly named, relax area, it is clear why the likes of Billy Joe Saunders call the place home when it is time to knuckle down.
Jamie soon appears and thanks me for coming. As always with fighters, regardless of weight class, he is smaller in the flesh and fully clothed than he appears when stripped to the bare essentials in the ring. “I’m going to do a bit of cardio,” he says, “but we can chat away while I do it.”
With all sparring complete and fight night just around the corner, it is probably as light a session as he’ll ever do and, though beads of sweat do form, it’s all carried out while effortlessly answering my questions.
A brisk cycle gets the blood pumping before the ping of his skipping rope nipping the running track under the soles of his levitating feet echoes through the gym. The shadow boxing begins languidly but soon the jabs are flicking out with increased spite as he circles an invisible foe before suddenly planting his feet and digging a hook under an elbow and into a set of exposed and vulnerable ribs.
As he climbs out of the ring, the English super lightweight and captain of the GB Boxing Team at the 2012 Olympics, Tom Stalker, cycles into the gym wearing little more than a pair of swimming shorts and his standard fixed grin. We hear him before we see him and, pausing only to shake my hand, his animated story, delivered in a Scouse accent thick enough to give Jamie Carragher a run for his money, continues at pace until he merrily peddles on in search of fresh listeners.
“He’s like that 24 hours a day,” Jamie smiles. But it is all good of course. The young Irish lightweight, Declan Geraghty is also going through his paces in the gym, while the English lightweight, Derry Matthews, is a member of the team as well. Surrounded by such quality can only benefit all four men and the camaraderie that evidently exists must go some way to easing the difficulty of months away from loved ones back home.
Conlan is wearing his old club colours, the St John Bosco Boxing Club in West Belfast, and seeing the tracksuit compels me to ask how smoothly the transition from the Falls Road to Puerto Banús, Spain’s answer to Monte Carlo, is going.
“It was a little difficult at first,” he admits, “being away from family and friends always is. But I’m here for business and it has to be done.”
The business move also necessitated a split with long time trainer and mentor and friend, John Breen. “It was the most difficult decision of my life,” he tells me. “There were tears but this was a massive opportunity to advance my career, to get paid for training. I couldn’t turn it down.”
The wound caused by the rupture is still raw, and probably runs a little deeper for Breen back in Belfast, but Jamie never has and never will have a bad word to say about the legendary trainer who took him from a young boy to where he is today. Nevertheless, the change has clearly reinvigorated the 28 year old.
“There have been big differences in camp from what I’d been used to. Danny has his own methods. It reminds me a little of training with the Irish High Performance Unit back in the amateurs. Everything is monitored and the attention paid to recovery and diet are two of the biggest changes.”
“I’ve discovered porridge,” he laughs, as if it is some mysterious mollusc trawled from the depths of the Alboran Sea and served as tapas with a glass of tinto de verano. Jamie takes his with a drop of honey, while plenty of green tea and poached eggs have also been added to the menu. We joke about it all but these are the little percentages athletes strive for in their never-ending quest for a competitive advantage, and Conlan believes he’s already reaping the benefits.
“I’m feeling stronger. I’m sparring light welterweights and feeling fresh at the end of the session. I’m running more often and further than ever. I was never much of a sprinter but I’ve improved in that as well. I can’t wait to see the difference in the ring.”
The ring in question is that which lies in the centre of Dublin’s National Stadium. This Saturday when Conlan enters it he will be headlining the joint Frank Warren & MGM show, New Beginning, live on BoxNation. His status at the top of the bill on a major televised promotion is further evidence that the migration south looks to have been a wise move.
His opponent, much like Jose Estrella last time out, is another tough, come-forward Mexican. I wonder what similarities Junior Granados shares with his paisano, against whom Conlan scored a tough but convincing unanimous points victory on the undercard of Frampton Martinez II last September.
“He looks to be of similar stature but with better skills and maybe even more aggressive. But to be honest I haven’t seen too much of him. I don’t spend too much time looking at videos, I just let Danny get on with that.”
The faith Conlan clearly has in a coach he only linked up with barely four months ago is great to see. As is the enthusiasm for the little tweaks Vaughan is looking to make to a fighter who was recently ranked as high as four in the world by the WBO.
“We sat down and looked at a tape of the last fight and Danny made some great observations. I see now that it doesn’t always have to be pressure, pressure, pressure for three minutes of each round. So I’ve been working more on fighting off the back foot as well. And, of course, everything from behind the jab.”
It all bodes well for Jamie who remains unbeaten in the professional ranks as he enters the prime of his career. As a natural home bird, the move to España can’t have been easy but it was a brave and sensible decision. He knows he’s just two or three good victories away from demanding a world title shot and he has now positioned himself in the best place possible to achieve those wins: from here on in he’ll control his own destiny.
Once showered we head next door for a bite to eat. Jamie orders first and, sure enough, it’s a pair of poached eggs and a cup of green tea. He seems happy enough but I still don’t have the heart to devour the burger and chips I’ve been thinking about since breakfast in front of him.
“Just a café con hielo for me thanks.”