P1000437

A Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man

When we watch prize fighting, we see only the final external product of the two protagonists, and the feats or flaws we witness in the ring are almost exclusively physical in nature.  But at the elite level of boxing, a point where athletic excellence and intense dedication are a given, internal factors are often what differentiates the combatants: it is what they have or feel on the inside that determines victory or defeat.  Yesterday in Dublin, I went in search of that mysterious fighter’s instinct.

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“This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.”

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P1000444I’m on my way to Joyce country.  A flight to the Irish capital and then a bus ride to a hotel in the southern suburbs, just a long-arm jab away from Rathgar where the greatest scribe Erin ever produced began his journey.  But it’s flesh and bone fighters, not the ghost of fallen writers, I’m chasing today.

At first glance, it is a bustling hotel lobby like any other in Dublin on a Saturday afternoon.  Each drawn-out ding of the elevator releases a parade of the stereotypes you expect to encounter in such surroundings.  The American mother, father, son and daughter team, tanned, tall and healthy looking, always dressed as if they are walking to the first tee for their daily family fourball.  The well-to-do, sixty-something British city break couple, a superfluous apology forever balanced on the tip of their tongues, settling down for yet another cup of tea.  The hear-them-before-you-see-them hen party, inexplicably raucous so early in the day, their garish garb screaming out their sole raison d’etre this weekend.

But on closer inspection, I see I’m in the right place.  As I pull up a pew to wait for my subject, I spy Barry Jones, ex-featherweight champion of the world and now respected boxing commentator, deep in conversation at an adjacent table.  I scan the room and more evidence to confirm my whereabouts emerges.  A posse from Macklin’s Gym Marbella, including flash young Irish lightweight prospect, Declan Geraghty, is lazing in the corner of the bar.  The hyperactive Manchester junior welterweight, Kofi Yates, is chirping about and the tall lightweight, Michael Rooney, strides past, as serene as Yates is restless.  Geraghty and Rooney are fighting tonight, Yates is not.  I wonder whether the former two are making a conscious effort to harness their nervous energy while Yates is free to burn his with wild, profligate abandon.

P1000456The elevator doors sidle open once more and Jamie Conlan danders out.  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.  He has a handsome face with high cheekbones and features now sharpened from weeks of abnegation to make weight.  Save for some scar tissue partially buried under his left eyebrow, he looks largely untouched from his years trading leather.

They call the Belfast super flyweight the Mexican, a moniker born from a happy amalgamation of his fighting style and supposedly swarthy appearance.  A warm-weather camp in the south of Spain has admittedly darkened his skin tone a shade or two, and any Mejicano would be proud of his head of jet black hair, but still, to me, he looks like he’ll bleed Celtic blood when cut.

Conlan himself is happy to embrace the nickname, however.  He’s a little big man, a warrior fighting from the trenches in the lower weight classes, a world where a Mexican is invariably king.  He grew up feasting on the exploits of Barrera and Morales and Marquez.  As a child, dreaming and boasting with his younger brother Michael, the current golden boy of world amateur boxing, Jamie imagined winning 12 round wars whereas Mick acted out first round knockouts.  Same cloth, different cut.  There is undoubtedly some Mexican mixed with the Irish in Jamie’s soul.

He greets me in a soft voice and eases into an armchair.  Every movement appears deliberate and considered, as if delicately planned out in advance: like handling a sleeping baby while in mortal fear of waking her.  In about eight hours’ time, he will be in the midst of a savage physical confrontation live on television.  I guess that right now he just wants to take it easy.

P1000440I question the Manchester City training top he’s wearing but it’s not his team.  For his sins, he’s a Villa fan like his old man.  This is the same unfortunate logic which begot my own allegiance to a less than successful English football team and I secretly rejoice at the common ground we’ve quickly stumbled upon.  The truth is I feel a little uneasy taking up Conlan’s time today so I’ll cling to anything that can normalise the experience.

At one point I actually divulge my nerves at writing this piece but a cloak of sheepishness immediately swaddles me.  It is the first moment to put things in stark perspective.  The worst I have in store is my work of words being rejected and a brief surge of embarrassment for having failed.  Defeat tonight would seriously derail Jamie’s entire career. I try to stop my mind wandering towards worst case scenarios in the ring.

But Jamie was born to do what he is doing.  Not only is he from fighting stock, he’s from fighting Irish stock.  From Best to Higgins to McCoy to O’Driscoll to McIlroy, the Emerald Isle is blessed with a long list of bona fide sporting geniuses, yet it is the beautifully defiant and violent romanticism of the boxing man that demands a special place in the heart and social consciousness of the country.  While the Maoris have their rugby union players, the Japanese their sumo wrestlers, and the Brazilians their soccer players, the Irish have always been represented by their fighters.

P1000454Conlan is from a tough part of a tough city.  Though it would be an exaggeration to suggest he grew up fighting every day, he recalls many a scrap outside the school gates, often in defence of a younger brother.  It was a sibling’s cold feet minutes before an amateur bout that presented Jamie with his first opportunity to climb between the ropes, in fact.  He didn’t hesitate.  He had it from day one.  Whatever it is inside each professional fighter that allows them to do what they do, he had it.  I’ve no idea what the intangible it is, but it can’t be genetic.  It must be deeper than that.

Throughout our conversation, barely five minutes ticks over without a passer-by pausing to wish Conlan luck and repeat the exact same question.  Yeah, camp went perfectly and I’m feeling great, he answers patiently and affably.  What else is he going to say?

“I look about and see people going to work or going about their daily life and I think that they’ve no idea what I’m about to put myself through.  It’s funny.”

This is just one of many little insights he allows me into the mind of a boxer as a fight approaches.  Outwardly at least, he appears remarkably calm, totally devoid of any hint of the nervous energy I expected to witness in a boxer this close to the climax of two months intense preparation.  Particularly one headlining a televised show, in his first fight with a new trainer, after nine months inactivity.

“I’ve prepared so well that my mind is clear.  I’m ready and I know I’m going to win,” he assures me before adding with a wry smile, “but every now and again, even as I am thinking like that, a little what if appears.”  It is the type of honesty that makes Conlan such an intriguing subject.  I also read it as a good sign that he is mentally positioned on the right side of confidence and complacency.

I’m not sure whether to talk about what is ahead or not so we dance about different topics, only occasionally drifting back to boxing.  Wimbledon is on and we discover our Grandmothers’ shared love of Rafael Nadal.  That leads to marvelling at how the Spaniard plays every single point like it’s his last.  It must resonate with a prize fighter I think, when every single second in a ring could genuinely be the last.  Books, school, family, the spelling of his surname, and more football chat pepper the rest of our conversation.  At one point I wonder if he is thinking about the fight at all.

“It comes and goes,” is his enigmatic response.  Clearly it is still early to be fully focused on hitting and not getting hit.

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“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” 

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P1000452I’ve been watching boxing from a distance all my life.  In recent years I’ve moved nearer, visiting training camps, interviewing boxers, watching the action from ringside rather than the cheap seats.  I’m studying old fight footage, devouring documentaries and reading anything I can get my hands on.

Today is about getting closer still.  I want to see the emotions in those quiet hours between all the physical work being done and the first bell chiming.  Conlan and his team have granted me that privilege.  I’m a fly on the wall with a voice and a pen and a notepad.

While I retire to the bar to scribble down some thoughts, Jamie takes a walk with his girlfriend, Tracey, before sitting down to a pre-fight meal with his parents, Teresa and John.  Pasta and grilled chicken breast: carbs and protein.

The beaming Teresa is the picture of the proud mother, heart swelling almost visibly every time someone casts her son an admiring glance.  John, high performance director of the famed Irish amateur boxing team, is more adept at concealing his emotions which must surely be mixed every time one of his sons lace up their gloves.  Tracey appears the most nervous at the table and she later confides that she hates watching her man fight.  The only thing worse, she tells me, is sitting at home waiting on a phone call.  She therefore agrees to attend the fights with the caveat that they don’t sit her too close to the action.  I try, but I can’t imagine being in any of their shoes.

P1000449It is soon time to make the short journey along the canal to the National Stadium.  With John in the passenger seat, I sit in the back alongside Jamie and opposite three generations of the venerable Liverpudlian boxing family, the Vaughans.  Since the recent spilt with friend and mentor, John Breen, Danny Vaughan now trains Conlan at the MGM gym in Marbella.  His father George and nephew Dominic complete the corner.

Jamie’s two belts are also with us: the WBO’s European and Inter-Continental super flyweight straps.  They are heavy accessories and I joke that you wouldn’t want to have too many of those to cart about.  Of course, it is the exact opposite that’s true.  Conlan is unbeaten in 13 contests as a professional and, having been ranked as high as number four in the world, his sights are set firmly on a world title.  Two weeks ago in Marbella, Danny assured me that goal will be reached within two years.

As we arrive at the stadium, the heavyweight Sean Turner, all 20 stone of him, marches past us on his way to the ring.  He is sporting a Dublin GAA jersey with RIP Paddy Hyland on the back to honour the sudden passing of a hugely popular figure in Irish boxing circles.

Inside the changing area is a hive of activity as undercard fighters go through their routines.  Middleweight, Anto Fitzgerald, is blattering pads while Paschal Collins wraps super lightweight Stephen Ormond’s hands.  Deco Geraghty shadow boxes in the centre while Adam Booth takes his young charge, Belfast bantamweight Ryan Burnett, into a quiet corner to impart some words of wisdom.

P1000442It’s a largely jovial atmosphere and as news of comfortable home wins filter through from the arena, Jamie remarks that he may be the only guy who has been given a real fight tonight.  We have no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be.  For the first time today he appears to be a little on edge.  “Maybe we arrived too early,” he mutters.

As others prepare, fight, win, shower and leave, the mood gradually changes in Team Conlan.   When Jamie sits to listen to instructions from Danny Vaughan, he gives me a pre-arranged nod to indicate the butterflies in his stomach have awoken from their slumber.

George commences the long process of wrapping Jamie’s hands.  After taking a measurement he begins tearing off strips of tape with his teeth and sticking them to the wall in preparation.  He is not the quickest but he is meticulous and known to be one of the best in the business.  I ask him how many he reckons he has wrapped over the years but he can only laugh fondly in response.  Tens of thousands is probably an accurate estimate.

The whole operation takes an age, 45 minutes or more, before a Boxing Union of Ireland stamp is applied to indicate adherence with the rules.  Referee Mickey Vann then calls in to issue pre-fight instructions with an accent and mannerisms that evoke the character Bricktop from the movie Snatch.  I will him to demand, do you know what nemesis means, but he sticks to reiterating the standard guidelines.  Jamie has heard it all before but he listens attentively throughout the formality.

P1000448Eight ounce gloves soon arrive and are suitably twisted and warped and softened up before Jamie tries them on.  He works the pads with Danny but something seems wrong.  His father offers a chair and a quiet word and at one point it looks like a private prayer is whispered into the wall.  Conlan’s stomach isn’t right: a mistimed final meal or the irritable effects of stress and nerves the likely culprit.

An official enters and indicates just 10 minutes until show time.  I don’t know why but I suddenly feel like I am on a movie set – it is pure theatre now.  Two weeks ago in Marbella Jamie told me that this is the part of boxing that he both hates the most, and knows he’ll miss the most.  It was the most perfectly illuminating contradiction I had ever heard.

There are no histrionics.  No punching brick walls or exaggerated yelps of encouragement or self-belief.  Vaughan, like John Breen before him, is a calming presence.  Jamie is not one for the contrived frenzies that some fighters need whipped into before going to war: he never has and never will fight angry.

There is almost complete silence now.  Even the effervescent Paddy Barnes, the soon to be triple Olympian and a close friend of the Conlans, quietens down.  Stablemates Derry Matthews and Tom Stalker are the only other fellow fighters still milling about.  They each offer final words or nods of support and encouragement before, one by one, they slip away to the cauldron next door.  Each departure accentuates the isolation and loneliness of Conlan’s current situation.

We all rise for the ring walk.  Every other Irishman on the bill has won.  Just another millibar of pressure added.  The curtain parts allowing a flood of noise and light to wash over us with Jamie at the front bearing the brunt of the inundation.  In a nod to Bernard Dunne, the great Irish super bantamweight and another fighter Jamie grew up watching, the Irish Rover signals his arrival.

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“Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system. Our eyelid closes before we are aware that the fly is about to enter our eye.”

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P1000438I take my seat at ringside along with the great and good of Irish boxing.  It is time to see the effects of the new regime.  The impact of the morning sprints in the Andaluz sun, the green tea and poached egg diet, the saunas and steam rooms and plunge pools, the nine weeks away from family and friends.

Looking around to take in the buoyant crowd I see Tracey a few seats to my left between Teresa and John.  We are all on the first row, substantially closer to the brutality about to unfold than Tracey would prefer.

I suddenly realise that this feels different to me as well.  I tend to watch fights from a removed and neutral vantage point.  I have my favourites, support my countrymen and sometimes develop soft spots for boxers I interview and write about.  But for the first time I feel truly involved.  Once more, I try but can’t imagine what it must be like for Tracey and Jamie’s family.

The National Stadium, the first purpose-built boxing arena in the world, is a mini Irish amphitheatre.  The ring sits proudly in the heart of the room and shallow banks of seats spread out from ringside to a ceiling so low you can practically touch it from the back row.  It is a claustrophobic and atmospheric setting, particularly when 2,000 souls, high on blood-lust, cram in.

OpponentThe fight needs many more words than I have to do it justice.  The opening three rounds are cagey and tough to score.  When I visited Jamie at his training camp he told me they were working on fighting off the back foot: that it didn’t always have to be pressure, pressure, pressure for three minutes every round.  He is dancing to this tune now but his foe, Junior Granados, clearly hasn’t been given similar advice.

The 22 year old Mexican is noticeably shorter than Conlan and has campaigned most of his career to date at flyweight, but he looks solidly built and intent on being the bully in the ring.  This is his first time fighting on foreign soil but unfazed would be an understatement.  His movement as he closes the space and approaches his prey is so natural and easy, and the wide unblinking eyes and expressionless countenance are somewhat unnerving in a fighter so young and so far from home.

I split stanzas one to three in the Irishman’s favour but they could each have gone either way.  Into the fourth and Conlan’s extra pedigree starts to shine through.  The jabs are crisper, and the left hooks to the body start to land cleaner.  A body, head, head combination comes off and pushes Granados back, but the boy from Yucatán merely smiles in response.  That most well-worn boxing cliché needs dusted off yet again: they breed ‘em tough down Mexico way.

As the seconds tick away I’m poised to mark it down as a Conlan round before one of Granados’ looping overhand rights lands flush.  The crack of the shot must be audible in the cheap seats.  Jamie backs off on momentarily unsteady legs and Junior jumps all over him.  There follows ten frenzied seconds in survival mode before Conlan fires back to halt the Mexican onslaught.  His senses look fully recalibrated by the bell but he now knows Granados can bang.

P1000436The fifth and sixth belong to Conlan.  He persists with a largely counter-attacking strategy but the balance is right now.  He darts in an out of range on light feet and repeatedly punishes Granados for every miss.  They aren’t necessarily hurtful blows but they are scoring blows and the frustration that accumulates in the receiver of such punches can often prove as valuable as a knockdown.  I relax a little at the end of the round: he’ll see this through comfortably enough behind his jab, I think.

Whatever Jamie goes on to achieve in his career, the seventh round against Junior Granados may prove to be the cornerstone of that success.  Granados, buffeted by a second wind perhaps, emerges from his corner with renewed bad intentions and bosses the action.  Another big right cuffs Conlan across the ear about a minute in, but it’s a whipping, scything shot into the flesh of Conlan’s torso with a minute to go that drops the Belfast boy and leaves both the fighter and the crowd gasping for breath.

On hands and knees he kicks the canvas floor with his feet, desperately hoping the lacerating pain of his spasming diaphragm relents before Mickey Vann’s count reaches ten.  It doesn’t, but he rises at eight anyway.  With elbows tucked tight to ward off a second, and perhaps fatal, body shot, Conlan then bobs and weaves for dear life as the Mexican unloads everything: 63 unanswered punches I later learn.  Throughout the fusillade, Vann remains poised to step in but, crucially, never does.  Jamie later tells me he was in greater control than it looked: that he saw everything coming and was simply praying that Granados did not target his liver and ribs again.

Finally, in the dying embers of the round, he spins off the ropes towards the heart of the ring.  But he is visibly exhausted and a left uppercut puts him on a knee before a lazy, tardy right topples him over.  He is bowed, but is he broken?  Vann’s numbers increase in value as Conlan’s blood drips onto the ring floor.  I have no idea if Jamie will get up.  I have no idea whether I really want him to.

ActionAt seven he bites hard into his gum shield.  At eight he beats the canvas floor in a mixture of agony, frustration and defiance.  At nine he rises.  At ten the bell rings to end the round and the crowd go ballistic.

Stories of fans constituting an extra man are a penny a dozen in sport but this is the first time I have witnessed an undeniable incarnation of the phenomena with my own eyes.  They roar themselves hoarse.  Jamie spoke later of shivers down his spine and tears in his eyes.  I may have wiped one away myself.  They lifted him, almost literally, and proved the catalyst for an eighth round revival that makes Rocky Balboa comebacks appear understated.

The rest of the fight is barely believable.  A second from defeat a minute previously, and his face swollen, cut and unrecognisable from 30 minutes before, Conlan stands up from his stool and dominates the remaining nine minutes.  He immediately lands a left right combination that draws a guttural bellow of approval from everyone who witnessed it.  People stand to applaud like it is the end of the final round.  Few bother to sit back down.

He wins that eighth and when Granados can’t land a single punch during the second half of the ninth, Conlan takes that one as well.  My seat is a yard from his corner and I hear Jamie ask his trainer, “Am I winning, am I winning?”  I can’t hear Danny’s response but, for what it’s worth, I have him a round up.

EmbraceThe referee, as is customary, motions for the two men to touch gloves to commence the final act.  Performances like this deserve grander gestures, however, and so the Irish and Mexican warriors embrace.  Both fighters could legitimately believe they are either winning or need the round.  The result is that no one is prepared to leave anything to chance.

And neither is the crowd.  Chants of “there’s only one Jamie Conlan!” break into cries of “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!”  If Granados wasn’t already confused by The Mexican emblazoned across the shorts of a fighter from West Belfast, he surely is now a Spanish singsong is in full flow.

Conlan somehow gives the impression of freshness as he bounces around clockwise, occasionally sniping into range to land a jab or straight right.  Granados continues applying all the pressure but his work rate has dropped considerably and he can’t catch his man.  They trade until the very end in a frenetic finale and the wide grins on both faces as they again embrace appear so quickly they may have begun amidst the final flurry of punches before the concluding bell sounded.

Both fighters deservedly celebrate like they’ve won while Vann, who at 71 years of age has seen more than most in the ring, shakes his head in mild astonishment and mouths, what heart, to someone at ringside.  I can’t top that two-word summary.

A couple of minutes later Vann raises Conlan’s hand in unanimous triumph.

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Now that the play was over his nerves cried for some further adventure.”

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P1000435I expect euphoria back in the changing area but the overriding emotion is more disbelief and admiration.  Young fans, press and fellow pros jostle each other to secure a photo with the champ.  The doctor takes a careful look and despite a bloody nose, half-moon incision on his cheek-bone, and grossly swollen right eye and top lip, there is nothing broken and four stitches will suffice.

A makeshift press conference breaks out before anyone even has a chance to wrap a towel around the fighter, let alone get him showered and changed.  He is asked what he was thinking while down in the 7th round: “Don’t lie down, get up.  Just get up.”  Was this the coming of age of Jamie Conlan?  “No, I made a lot of mistakes tonight.  It was a learning fight not a coming-of-age fight.”  Did the Dublin crowd help you?  “I wouldn’t have got through it without them.”  On and on in this vein it goes until, finally, his dad manages to usher him into the sanctuary of the shower room. There, the heat expands and reopens blood vessels and claret flows for an age onto the tiled floor.

Back in the hotel, people rise to greet the boxer’s arrival as they would royalty.  The Boxnation team, who broadcast the fight live, are the first to surround him and Barry Jones unofficially crowns the contest, fight of the year.  “There won’t be better this year,” declares Jones confidently, as Jim Rosenthal and John Rawling nod along in agreement.  There might not be better for many years.

Jamie, his father and I then share a lift with Granados’ trainer.  In Spanish he tells me that he can’t believe what Conlan has just done.  He mentions heart and gestures to another part of the body that is universally known to represent bravery above and beyond the call of duty.  His own fighter is physically fine but naturally disappointed with the outcome, he says.  I consider engineering a post-fight embrace between the two warriors, but then think better of it.  So I simply ask if they consider Jamie a true Mexican now.  “Si, si,” he laughs, “es un Mejicano.”

P1000434We head to the seventh floor and Jamie’s girlfriend Tracey.  Remembering her desire to be far enough away from the violence to sanitise it somewhat, and knowing she was actually placed ringside for the bloodiest battle of Jamie’s professional career, I expect an emotional wreck.  But when the door opens all I see is love and pride and a desire to hold her man.  I feel like a voyeur standing there but I can’t leave without trying to learn something more from Jamie.  I just don’t understand how he made it from the seventh round onwards.

A message comes through from his brother Michael: it’s a combination of respect, admonition and a physical threat to never put him through that again.  He forces a smile with aching teeth through inflated lips while reading it, but Jamie is clearly subdued now that the adrenalin has been fully exhausted.  He appears preoccupied by the negatives of his performance and mistakenly interprets his dad’s concern and love as disappointment and anger.  It is classic Irish father and son, sullenness and miscommunication being the default setting.  It is like a scene from a Brian Friel play.

Technically, and perhaps tactically, he was a little off tonight but I tell him he showed the world something else, something that can’t be taught in the gym.  And in fifty years’ time, when another Irish fighter does something similar in the ring, I can’t wait to scoff and say, “I was there when Conlan got up twice to beat Granados – now that was heart.”

“Was it really that good?” he asks innocently?  I can only smile.  He genuinely has no idea what he has just done.

3 comments on “A Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man

  1. I’ve never read an account like thus ever,,, true warrior Jamie conlan,,, a massive well done,,, to you team conlan

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