LONG READ: Jamie Conlan – Unconquerable Soul

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul

Invictus, William Ernest Henley (1875),

Why do people love Jamie Conlan?

As BoxNation MC Mark Burdis says – “Heeeeeeee’s The Mexican,” and yes, his numerous Fights of the Year made Conlan one of boxing’s most unmissable entertainers.

However it’s more than this – it’s the man, rather than the Mexican, and it’s not just a ‘top bloke’ or ‘sound lad’ tag either. A throwback fighter no doubt, you could say though that Conlan is a throwback sort of person, a wise head on young shoulders, a real man just trying to do good in a “fake” world.

It’s a hotel lobby in New York City on a wintery Monday morning, Mick Conlan has just moved to 5-0 following a classy win over Luis Fernando Molina at Madison Square Garden the previous Saturday. The 2015 World Amateur champion just wants to get home though at this stage, the common fight week cold (amplified by some celebratory pints) has Conlan looking puffed up and groggy.

Indeed, even more so than usual, the Top Rank starlet looks like his elder brother does after most fights. However, it’s three weeks on now from Jamie Conlan’s sixth round stoppage loss to IBF super flyweight world champion Jerwin Ancajas, and the 31 year old is looking fresh. Smiling widely he plays with little Luisne Conlan, Mick’s hyperactive young daughter, showing no signs that he suffered a punishing knockout defeat just 23 days earlier.

Yes, there are battle scars, but that is nothing new. His brows are noticeably gnarled – scar tissue which stems from a clash of heads with limited Belgian slugger Benjamin Smoes back in 2014, which has been ripped open again and again, Jose Estrella, Junior Granados, Anthony Nelson, Yader Cardoza, Jerwin Ancajas, wars which painted the canvas crimson.

Each of these fights has seen Conlan hurt, with the Belfast man coming back to win – until November 18th at the Odyssey Arena, when Filipino Ancajas was just too much.

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“It is what it is,” reflects Conlan who has dealt well with the realisation that most boxers must, at one stage, make – he is not invincible, it won’t always work out.

“When you know you put it in in camp and you’re beat by a better fighter, you have to just take it on the chin and move on with it. The guy was just a better fighter than me. He was better than what I expected – although, other than the body shot in the first round, everything else was as I expected. He was as fast as we expected, his footwork was his main thing. His feet were just fantastic and once he hit you with that shot, you lost that percentage of speed and timing, he was near enough impossible to catch.”

That one shot.

In a way, the fight was over before it began, with Conlan suffering a delayed reaction knockdown in the opening round. The punch that put him down, eventually, seemed innocuous, but it landed in such a way that would make a liver shot seem like a glancing blow to the gloves

“The first one, the solar plexus, I’ve never felt pain like it,” explained Conlan. “Other than that there though, he didn’t hurt me. All the other body shots that were dropping me, it was just because the damage had already been done. When he hit me with that shot, my arms went heavy, my legs went heavy, everything sagged, he took everything out of me. It just sapped my energy, it was a ridiculous feeling. Even when I came back to the corner, I still couldn’t breathe. I’ve never had that feeling and I’ve been hit hard – like, Granados hit harder, Cardoza hit just as hard, if not harder, and he hit you weirdly, on the back of the head.”

“Just one accurate shot… I don’t know. My mind was telling me to do this, do that, but my body was saying ‘fuck off’.”

 – In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud

jamie conlan

Conlan is too honest to try and explain away a defeat. Following another war back in March against Yader Cardoza he had hinted at weight issues, but here moved to quickly dismiss rumours of imperfect preparations. On the question of being drained, the super flyweight described how “this time we went and got it scientifically measured. We went to Liverpool University, Team Sky, a guy called James Morton from Belfast, and they took my bloods, did all the checks, saw how much fat I had, how much muscle, what I can hold, what I can lose, whether it was damaging my muscles. The last bit is a killer, but I can make 115lbs – I don’t think I’m different to anyone else.”

“I had a great camp. We brought in great sparring, the guy who we had in sparring won the WBC International title at super bantamweight – and in the last two spars I dropped him both days. He was a super bantamweight, he was southpaw, he was tricky, doing everything, fighting me.”

“Being honest, I never look great in camp, my sparring would just be to be getting the rounds in, working on things, losing weight. I’d start off good and then usually the end of camp would be about losing weight, but this one was different, I felt the weight was coming down nicely, the sparring was great, I couldn’t have asked for any better. Everything was dead on. We ticked all the boxes, I sparred more in that camp than for the last three years together.”

 – Under the bludgeonings of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed

Conlan has built a reputation from getting off the floor. Between Granados, Nelson, Cardoza, and Ancajas, he has been put down a total of nine times. Every time he has stood back up – with referee Steve Gray saving him from further punishment last month. As such, it was a stark contrast talking to Conlan in the aftermath of Guillermo Rigondeaux’s defeat to Vasyl Lomachenko. In the headline fight of a card where Mick Conlan played chief support, the hugely talented Cuban had quit on his stool before the seventh round of that bout after being dominated by the Ukrainian – albeit without shipping notable punishment.

Such a move wouldn’t have entered Conlan’s mind – even when every body shot scoured and Ancajas had built an unassailable lead on the cards. It’s something that has been ingrained, and the Falls Road man credits his Drimnagh-born father, John.

“For my dad, for both me and Michael, giving up was like taboo, you don’t do it. Even still, no matter how much you’re outnumbered, you don’t give up, you keep going until the end.”

It wasn’t even pride that kept getting Conlan up. It was pure, unshakable belief, and he admits that “I just kept saying to myself, ‘he tires late on, you can get him at the end, just keep there, keep getting up, keep on your feet and we can drag him into the later rounds and pull something out’. I still believed, I believed from the moment we signed the fight that I could win the fight. I was in no false sense of security of how good he was, I knew, rightly so, that I was the big underdog, I knew Manny Pacquiao was tipping him to be the next big thing – but I still believed I could pull it off, I had everything in my arsenal to pull it off.”

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Taking such a decisive defeat would shake anyone’s belief. Is Ancajas special? – or is Jamie just not a world level operator? A difficult question to even contemplate for any fighter, the man himself approaches the subject with his usual honesty and consideration.

“It’s a bit of both,” Conlan reasons. “The Granados fights, all those fights, they were fringe world level and I made hard work out of them. Maybe that was my level, maybe I just met a fantastic world champion. In saying that though, without being disrespectful, there are other world champions there that I would class myself as better than – not necessarily in the super flyweight division, but in the UK as a while.”

“Looking back on it, hindsight, you never know what could have happened, but everything happens for a reason – I got out with my health intact, there was no real physical damage after the fight, I was just emotionally hurt. My ego took a dig. No matter how big an underdog you are, it’s always a tough pill to swallow, losing – but to lose to the better man… I didn’t lose because I was unfit, I didn’t lose because I underprepared, I tried everything to win, he was just the better man.”

“The whole thing, the world title thing, the whole thing was chasing your man Rex Tso really. The build up was to that, and I believe that he was the same calibre as myself. It would have been a fantastic fight, we would have been more evenly matched than myself and Ancajas, and that was what we had been gearing up for for the past three years. But you have to take the opportunities that are given in front of you.”

“Everything is about timing and luck – everything happens for a reason, and maybe my quest for greater things wasn’t meant to be. When you live one way, on the edge, in all those fights, a gunslinger, you’re going to get found out one day.”

While he can acknowledge his own limitations, Conlan is still a winner and has a mentality to reflect this. The heroic loss, the gallant effort, the peoples’ champ, all these labels and terms are foisted on ‘The Irish Gatti’, but it is not something which he wants to embrace.

Conlan outlined how “it takes the edge off the defeat, it definitely does. It’s a bit easier to deal with the defeat – but I don’t think I could ever be proud of a loss. It’s like anything, you can’t polish a turd, you can’t put a shine on a loss – it still smells like shit. It still hurts, it’s still going to hurt no matter what.”

“I’ve yet to look back on the fight. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it. I may watch it once and that will be it. If I was to watch it back I’d probably be going ‘ah, I should have done this.’ I critique everything, but he was the better man, a world class operator, and that’s the way it is.”

“Time will tell and probably in hindsight we will realise how good he is, and maybe then you can look back with a bit of pride.”

If he may not yet be able to take pride from his showing versus Ancajas, there is plenty for Conlan to be proud of. Never mind his performances in the ring, he is fighter who played a substantial role in reinvigorating the sport in Ireland, Irish boxing owes Jamie Conlan, but the Belfast little man is not one to bask in adoration.

Something of a reluctant warrior, Conlan explains how “I’m not necessarily sick of it, but I don’t like to live off it. I’ve said it on numerous occasions, if you didn’t know I was a boxer, I would never tell you I was a boxer. If people ask, I’m not joking, it’s happened many a time, if someone comes up and says ‘are you the boxer?’ I say ‘no, that’s my brother’. It’s is not something I pride myself on, it’s something that’s just ingrained, something that comes naturally. When someone hits you, everything just changes, the heat of the moment.”

Jamie Conlan vs Junior Granados

It can be reductive to pin-point a seminal moment, but July 4th 2015 is, without doubt, one in the life of Jamie Conlan. Initially viewed as an odd choice of headliner for a show in Dublin, his epic with Junior Granados saw the birth of both a narrative and a star. Down twice in the seventh, Conlan rose and rallied to defeat the Mexican in what was the Irish Fight of the Year.

A career transformed over the course of an hour, Conlan agrees he owes a lot to that night – which in a way was a perfect storm helped by a heavy-handed Yucatec and a few too many bowls of porridge.

“That’s exactly when the world title chase came,” recalls Conlan. “Even though I was WBO Inter-Continental champ before that, I was #4 or #5 in the world, but I was still down the card. The night I won the WBO Inter-Continental title and became #5 in the world, I was on at maybe 7 o’clock – the Frampton-Kiko Martinez bill, outdoors. The previous fights then I was on after the main event!”

“If you were in the boxing public, you’d know who I was, but if you were just a casual fan you wouldn’t have had a clue. Everything started from that night in Dublin – and if I had won a clear points win, maybe I wouldn’t have been here today talking about just fighting for a world title.”

“My boxing ability gets overshadowed, the whole start of my career was about my boxing ability, my skills, staying on the outside. Just, the last three years, you only got public recognition for the other side, for showing the heart and the balls, all that ”

jamie

A night that lit a fire, Conlan went on to secure for himself what few others in boxing have and he details how “I got a chance to fight for a world title, I made great money off it, I’ve done really well for the future. I was blessed to have the opportunity and now I have the house all done and dusted, we’ve just moved out of West Belfast to Derriaghy in the country, a lovely area and a lovely big house. I’m privileged to be able to do that for the missus and for the family. I’ve got lucky – I didn’t become world champion, but I got lucky, I was able to provide for my family and set a future in place. Now, after boxing, I’ve got even luckier, I’ve got a job in the industry.”

While he is yet to make a decision on his future inside of the ring, Conlan has one sorted for afterwards – Professional Development Coordinator with his management outfit, Mack The Knife Global. It’s a perfect role for a fighter who is also a qualified aircraft engineer and a qualified tiler.

While he is understated regarding his own pugilistic position inside the ring, Conlan’s passion is undoubted, and he notes how “I’m a fanatic. I’m a fan more than I’m a boxer. I’m a fan first, I’d know more about others and be very up to date. It’s something I’ve always been like, even when I was an amateur I’d have known everyone. I wouldn’t say it, but I’d always take a note of wee small things. To be involved, it’s work – but it’s so much easier. You could do a twelve hour day and you’re buzzing!”

“I’ll sit down after Christmas and go over the role, what it is exactly, the ins and outs. I have a rough idea, a description of the job, but I’ll go over the finer points and when we’re going to get started. The new role, it’s a godsend really. I’m very grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity. I’ve always been helping out with Michael since he was an amateur, I’d always be in the background. I wouldn’t mind passing on stuff and picking up stuff off other people. I just like being involved in it, being around.”

“I’m excited, I was at the Ulster Elite Seniors there and I was thinking ‘there are some fantastic pros here’. I think finally with the TV stations coming on board, Sky, BT Sport – you saw the viewing figures released, BT Sport are raving about the Frampton card, they’re delighted. That was meant to be a blowover and people were semi not committed… it’s only going to get bigger. You’ve Lewis Crocker coming through, Gary Cully, Mick, Paddy Barnes, the list goes on. The Irish, along with one or two other nationalities, they really get behind their sports stars, they’re fanatical. You see it when they come over to New York, and it’s not a football team, it’s not a country, it’s one guy, Mick – who’s 1/200 to win! Just wait until it gets bigger.”

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As it always does, conversations with Conlan will at one stage move toward his phenomenally talented younger brother, Mick. However, rather than resent this fact, Jamie actively encourages this. The Olympic bronze medalist casts a big shadow, but this shade suits the more understated Conlan well. Intensely close, the pair share a relationship that most mothers could only dream of for their sons.

“It’s always been the two of us,” reflects Conlan. “When I moved out of my mum and dad’s, Mick came with me – and my fiancée. We all moved into the one house together. He’s the younger brother and the brother I would have brought everywhere I went. I’ve always said that I would sacrifice my career to see him do better, and in the [2009] Ulster Elites I went pro to allow him to move on. I’ve always believed in him more than I believed in myself. It’s paying off a bit now, but it’s not done yet, he has a long road ahead of him, a lot to learn.”

For two so close, their personalities are quite different. One craves the spotlight while the other actively avoids it. Away from their obvious talents in the ring, people have been drawn to somewhat opposing traits. Jamie is considered, responsible, almost world-weary – while Mick will admit that he is impulsive, occasionally strayed, and is intent on ruling the world.

 – Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the Horror of the shade 

Ever the older brother, Jamie is compelled to protect against a world which no longer lines up with his throwback tendencies.

“He’s still young,” Conlan says of his beloved brother. “He’s still impressionable and, in America, everyone is looking for a piece of you, they’re all trying to fuck you in some way. He needs his family around him, he needs people to shelter him from all the shit that goes on.”

“When you’re in the boxing game, you know that, at the top, it’s only really a small percentage of people that make enough money to retire on. The society we live in nowadays, it’s all false – and boxers are no different, they live on social media putting out like they’re making millions, but they’re not. At the end of the day, and this is the reason I got so into MTK because they realise how much a boxer gets fucked about, the boxer is always the one that gets fucked, everyone makes money off the boxer. They profit off you, and you’re the one in the ring taking punches.”

“You realise it’s a dirty game. I’ve always said it’s not a sport, it’s a business. The business side of things, you try and shelter the boxer away from it as much as possible, but of course be open and honest – so many boxers are sheltered in the wrong way, they don’t realise how much is going on, how much they’re losing financially. MTK, it’s the first time I was ever able to walk in and everything was open and honest, everything is there, you know what you’re earning, what’s going on, and you’re part of everything. It’s the boxer first – and that all comes from the way Macklin was treated, with GGG and all,” he added before discussing where he fits in in ‘The Conlan Revolution’.

“He says he should be fighting for world titles already – he shouldn’t, he has to learn, he’s young, he has to develop and grow both as a man and as a boxer, the same way Carl did, the same way any boxer does. It’s a long road ahead of him. If you speak to him, he’s calling out world champions straight away, but he needs someone like me, my dad, and the lads to clip him on the ear and tell him ‘wise up, you’ve got to learn in the ring, you’ve got to learn in the gym, you’ve got to grow’. It’s a long road, and it’s going to be bumpy, the way everything is – but I’m delighted to be around it, going to all these different places, being around everything and making sure it’s all alright.”

“In America it’s ruthless, it’s cut-throat, it’s arrogant, it’s ignorant, in-your-face, and if they’re not happy they’ll tell you straight away. So being here, at the front, taking the hits, whatever he has going on, I’ll go and sort it. Even stupid wee things going on, and you realise how ruthless it is.”

“When we get back to the changing room, everyone else is cheering, but I’m the only one that will point out his faults and bring him back down to Earth – and I think he always will need that there. You’re never the complete article, which is something he does understand, but you must constantly remind him that you can always get better, you can always improve, and that things are going to get tougher.”

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– And yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find me, unafraid 

He may not take too much pride in his own performances, but Conlan positively beams when talking all things Mick, describing how “I remember before he was even in the Olympics, he actually lost in the Ulster Senior finals in the Ulster Hall, and I was telling everyone that he was going to go to the Olympics and he was going to do brilliant in the Olympics… I was telling people he was going to win in the Olympics in London and he hadn’t even qualified, he hadn’t even really done anything on the international scene. Every time I see him, he does something different that makes me go ‘fucking hell, that’s brilliant’.”

“The initial platform was London, it grew, it exploded in Rio, and then when Top Rank came on board it grew again. There’s not many Irish boxers who can walk down a street in New York, who can walk down a street in California, who can walk down a street in Arizona and people will stop them – and not Irish people, American people, Mexican people, Puerto Ricans. It’s mind boggling to me – and I’m his brother!”

“The difference between Mick and myself, and any other boxer – the difference between say Mick and [Carl] Frampton, Frampton wasn’t under the scrutiny of the media like Michael. He [Frampton] was able to learn on the job, go through tough nights without any of this media scrutiny where they nitpick on everything. He’s more under the microscope, every wee thing they pick up on.”

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Jamie may have missed out on the world title, but he is more certain than anything that Mick will pick one up.

That certainty though, the almost incomprehensible rise, backing, and platform, the obvious world class talent, none of it stops a big brother from being his natural stuff

“I’m pretty cool, but when it comes to it I’m always a bag of nerves. At the end of the day, he can be as good as he wants to be – but he’s still my younger brother.”

You can call him The Mexican, The Irish Gatti, a warrior, but deep down that is the reason we love Jamie Conlan.

The famous fights work almost as a contrast to what he is – a ‘regular’ person, a family man from Belfast, and a genuine guy who has made his way in a world that all too often swallows up this sort of goodness.

 – I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul

dpg

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie