On Saturday night, having just watched the Belfast super flyweight Jamie Conlan stop South Shields’ Anthony Nelson midway through the eighth round of a barnstorming Commonwealth title fight, I felt moved to tweet that we Irish and British fight fans now have our own Arturo Gatti to enjoy, a boxer seemingly determined to produce movie scripts every time he climbs through the ropes.
Gatti’s heroics in the ring endeared himself to boxing aficionados across the globe. A two-weight world champion, he is probably more famous for the four times Ring Magazine declared his bouts to be the best of the year. He actually lost the decision in two of those but in terms of his legacy, those defeats, just like the other seven on his record, don’t matter a damn. Quite simply, Gatti is universally revered for the manner in which he fought. Or more precisely, the manner in which he decided to fight. He was one of a dying breed, an elite-level boxer who chose to be a warrior. And how we loved him for it.
Conlan’s performance at the weekend echoed some of Gatti’s great nights. He put Nelson down in the first and had him all but out of there in the second. But the champion never stopped pressing forward and he dropped Jamie in the third before a relatively cagey fourth. A big right sent Nelson onto the ropes in the fifth, his pupils lolling drunkenly about the whites of his eyes, before the Geordie remarkably recovered to win the sixth.
In the seventh, the champion appeared to take control of the fight as he decked Conlan twice, the first of which was subsequently ruled too low to count. The sum of all those frantic parts was 65-65 on my scorecard as the bell tolled for the eighth. Thirty seconds later we had a new Commonwealth king when a cutting hook snuck under Nelson’s bottom rib and left him gasping in agony on the canvas floor, unable to beat the count.
It was all so good that the referee Marcus McDonnell, a veteran of 633 bouts, asked Jamie how he had done it before later declaring it the best fight he’d ever had the pleasure of officiating. It was undoubtedly very special but, incredibly, also somehow entirely predictable. For Conlan, known as the Mexican, has made a habit of embroiling himself in such fistic extravaganzas over the past couple of years.
On the night Carl Frampton was crowned a super bantamweight champion of the world at a frigid Titanic Quarter, I sat in the seat behind Jamie’s brother Michael and watched a ten-round dust-up between Conlan senior and Jose Estrella from Baja California. Michael is perhaps the best amateur boxer on the planet, a slick, skilled and aggressive fighter expected to return from Rio with gold this summer. But when big brother is in action, he is reduced to an excitable bundle of nerves, incapable of remaining on his seat, living viscerally every punch thrown and received in the ring.
That night, Jamie won an ultimately comfortable ten-round decision, but not before enduring the six most awkward minutes of his pro career in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Estrella opened a cut over his man’s eye and, as the blood trickled into Conlan’s cornea to temporarily blur his vision, the scent of the claret wafted into the visitor’s flaring nostrils and startled him into a prolonged and raging attack. Jamie survived the assault but it set the tone for what was to come in future contests.
Someone with a particularly sadistic sense of humour flew over another stereotypically tough Mexican for Conlan’s next outing, a ten-round bonanza of blood and thunder in Dublin’s National Stadium. I was privileged to spend the day of the fight with Jamie, up to and including the ringwalk, and then sit ringside in a seat vacated by Michael enjoying a well-earned rest in the Algarve sun.
It remains, by a distance, the greatest boxing match I have witnessed live. I have re-watched it on multiple occasions and the seventh round is still barely believable. I’m still not convinced he’s going to get up as he bites his gum shield, beats his gloves on the canvas, and times Mickey Vann’s count with the drops of his own blood hitting the floor. It still raises the hair on the back of my neck when he does and I imagine it always will.
A couple of hours later, a text came through from Michael in Portugal. It was equal measure respect, admonition and physical threat not to put the family through such an ordeal again. Yet fast forward nine months and there Mick was on Saturday night in London, repeating the exact same message in person: a plea, not for a battle-scarred brother to quit fighting, but simply to quit fighting in such an apparently reckless manner.
And here we return to the crux of why boxers like Conlan and Gatti enjoy that glorious blend of love and awe and devotion from fight fans. Jamie and Arturo don’t need to fight the way they do. They aren’t crude brawlers for whom flattened noses and cauliflower ears were an accepted occupational hazard from the moment they first laced a glove. They actually have an enviable command of the skills required to hit and not be hit, acquired in lengthy and decorated amateur careers.
Conlan was raised a boxer, not a fighter. When he wants, he proves that in contests, bouncing in and out of range, expertly slipping the leather hurtling towards him and instantaneously punishing opponents with snappy and bracing counters. More often than not, he could eke out safe points victories, avoid toss-of-a-coin exchanges and toe-to-toe wars, and go home with his handsome face unscathed.
And that is what he trains, plans and intends to do. Right up until the opening bell chimes and the first punches are traded in anger, that is what he expects to happen. But something in his soul then clicks and fires a desire to seek contact and overpower it. Like Gatti, he is cursed with an abnormally big heart that propels him chin and fists-first into wars when a more circumspect approach would suffice. It is as if he is subconsciously predisposed to find an enemy trench and battle from there. Like he has been hardwired to take one to land one, to fight like a man, as the old saying goes. To the dismay of his family and team, the performance suddenly rivals the result in his priorities and he innately seeks to thrill and reward and entertain every single person who has paid to watch him.
It is a mind-set that fascinates me and, speaking to Jamie a couple of days later, I ask him about Saturday and how or why it immediately morphed into a fight of the year contender. It turns out that his MGM Marbella stablemate Derry Mathews must assume some of the blame.
“It was supposed to be easier,” he begins with a laugh. “But then Derry went and chose the Irish Rover for my ringwalk. That’s the same song I used for the Granados fight. I looked to Danny and the last thing I said to him was that it all has the same kind of feeling as that one.”
Danny is Danny Vaughan, Conlan’s trainer for the past year. All camp he had drilled two specific instructions into his fighter’s head: don’t allow Nelson the space to take two steps forward and gain momentum, and don’t move to the left because he has a good right hand. It was part of a game plan that would see Jamie box his way to a comfortable victory. So then what happened?
“It’s hard to explain,” Conlan tells me. “As soon as I looked across at Nelson I knew what was going to happen. It was a small ring and a spongy canvas and I just knew what was coming. I dropped him early and the game plan went out the window. I started loading up, trying to knock him out with every punch, but his powers of recovery were unreal. Then I did the two things I’d been told not to do and got dropped myself!”
I wonder then whether he is conscious of being in a boxing war as it unfolds, whether he senses in the moment that something potentially special is taking place.
“Not really,” he says, “that’s only after when people are talking about it. During it, like in the sixth and seventh on Saturday, all I’m thinking is, please get through this. My left eye was closing fast and there were drops of blood on my eyelashes constantly distracting me. In the corner the endswell getting pressed against the swelling did something to my nose and I could hardly breathe from the third onwards. When he was pressuring me I was wondering if it was ever going to end. You start feeling a bit sorry for yourself, doubting what you are doing in there.”
“But then I came out for the eighth and touched him with a left to the body and he winced. I knew that was the shot. I had to move to the left and risk taking his overhand right, but I was waiting to slip it and sink the hook in. I’d practised that call camp as well. When it landed I knew he wasn’t getting up.”
What is the feeling then, forty-eight hours later once the swelling in the hands has receded, the headaches have disappeared, and the black and purple eyes look worse than they feel?
I find it an astonishing admission and can’t help posing an entirely hypothetical scenario to test his resolve. Given the choice before a fight, would he prefer to win via a first round knockout, a twelve round, one-sided points decision, or an eight-round war like we saw in the Copper Box at the weekend?
“Of course I don’t want to go through that every time,” he admits, “and I hate putting my family through it, but now it feels like I’ve really earned it and any plaudits are deserved. I’m from a working class family and when you graft for something it is much more rewarding. It’s just a totally different sensation winning that way. I’ve won other fights and I just think, okay, next. But when you go through a situation like Saturday night, you feel something much deeper. I feel proud right now.”
I tell him then about my Gatti tweet and he shows me a message in a similar vein from the US promoter Lou DiBella. I already knew that Jamie grew up idolising Mexican warriors like Morales and Margarito, but I wasn’t sure how he would take these Gatti comparisons. I needn’t have worried.
“He was the man in my house growing up, my dad’s favourite. I remember coming home from holiday and we all watched a replay of the first Ward fight. And funnily enough, in this training camp I watched a lot of his early fights again.”
“It is the vulnerability of Gatti that always appealed to me,” he then continued after a momentary silence. “He wasn’t some hard-headed guy. It hurt him all those times he was down. You could really see it in his face. And then he’d get back up…”
And there it was, in a couple of sentences Conlan had revealed what it is that we all truly loved about Arturo Gatti. It was never just that he volunteered for wars and chose our entertainment over an easier way to do his job, he also opened himself up in front of millions and hurt in more ways than we will ever know while doing it.
As I write this, I now wonder about Jamie’s pregnant pause before he spoke of Arturo’s vulnerability. Was I intruding on an emotive moment of self-realisation? I don’t know but I do hope that Conlan does see some of himself in Gatti, a shared spirit at the very least. For if so, it means he has a sense of how appreciated and, in time, loved he will be by fight fans everywhere for generations to come.