Fifteen weeks after the first knockout defeat of his life, Irish featherweight Michael Conlan returns to the ring for his first sparring session, writes Elliot Worsell
ON Monday, June 27, Michael Conlan sparred eight rounds for the first time since March and would later describe what would seem, on the face of it, a normal experience for any professional boxer as precisely that: “Normal.”
It was perhaps normal in the way driving a car would be deemed normal for a qualified driver, or normal in the way a first date would be deemed normal for an adult male or female eager for company. Only, in this instance, the perceived normality of what Michael Conlan was doing this particular Monday was under threat simply by virtue of it being the first time he had sparred – thrown punches, received punches – since he was knocked out in the 12th round of a fight against Leigh Wood on March 12 in Nottingham. This detail, far from insignificant, made the featherweight’s afternoon drive his first since writing off his previous car in a motorway pile-up. It made his date the first since a recent and acrimonious divorce. It made the eight rounds of sparring, if not abnormal, at least different.
“There were no after-effects or worries of being hit,” Conlan said. “I was back in with Harlem (Eubank, a super-lightweight) and mixing it with the boys. Shots were landing and nothing was affecting me. It was good.
“It’s (the defeat) not something that will hang over my head. I didn’t feel nervous or worried or anything. I wanted the boys to land some shots because I wanted to know how I would react.
“When I came out (of the ring), I said to Adam (Booth, trainer) that I felt a bit off at times, but Adam was like, ‘No, I’m delighted. I was looking to see how you would react in this situation or that situation and there was nothing to concern me. You were normal. Everything was good.’
“I knew I would be fine, but it was good to hear it looked that way from the outside.”
Until it happens, of course, you never know. You never know how a boxer will react to being knocked out for the first time, just as you never know how a seasoned driver will react to being involved in a terrible accident for the first time. There is, in surviving such an experience, now a natural mistrust of all you once took for granted, sometimes even a mistrust of others around you, and only will the strongest individuals carry on as before, changed solely in ways considered beneficial.
For Conlan, too, there is that battle of contradictory thoughts at play, with him on the one hand pleased with his performance against Wood three months ago, yet, on the other hand, devastated by the result.
“It was definitely my best performance to date and it showed everything I am capable of,” Conlan said. “I was really happy with that aspect of it, but there were still small mistakes which caused what eventually happened and that’s what I have to deal with.
“Although it gave me a lead, the early knockdown (in the first round), for example, was probably, looking back, the worst thing that could have happened. I started to just try to take him out after that and used up too much energy.
“But if it happened again, would I change what I did? No. I’d go for it again, 100 per cent. You couldn’t blame me for going after him and trying to win by stoppage. If it were to happen again, yeah, I’d probably be a bit smarter with my energy, but I’d still try to take him out. It was there on a plate. It was only his toughness, determination and grit that got him through it. He showed all of those things on the night and you’ve got to give him credit for that.”
As odd as it sounds, there is an argument to be made that the fighter easy to hit is, to some degree, a fighter difficult to fight. This rings true only if the fighter easy to hit is a fighter also capable of taking whatever they happen to receive, but, if able to offer that kind of resistance, the opponent doing the bulk of the hitting will then be left with no choice but to tailor their approach accordingly. They cannot, for instance, just continue hitting their opponent until they have expended all their energy. Nor can they get greedy or, to coin a phrase favoured by Conlan’s coach, Adam Booth, “Drunk on their own success.” Do that and trouble inevitably follows. Do that and the boxer easy to hit will soon find themselves in the ascendancy, ready to capitalise on the inability of their opponent to finish what they started.
“I’ve no real worries about fitness,” said Conlan. “That’s another thing that annoyed me about the fight, people going, ‘Oh, those f**king Booth fighters, they lack fitness.’ I’m sorry, but no c**t trains harder than I do. You can ask anybody and they’ll tell you how hard I push myself. It was nothing to do with fitness, that loss. It was a collection of all these little things throughout.”
One such “thing” was the 11th round knockdown scored against Conlan, which, though nobody knew it at the time, would have the same effect as someone tilting a game of table football following a shout of “next goal wins”.
“On my kids’ lives, it was a slip,” Conlan said. “Leigh Wood was f**ked as well at that point, by the way, but because that slip got given as a knockdown it changed the momentum in an instant. Before that, I’m destroying him in that round, beating the s**t out of him, and the slip changed the whole energy of the fight. He got a second wind, credit to him, and my own energy was sapped massively. He came out like a brand-new human being in the last round and I felt this energy from him that wasn’t there before and that helped him get the job done. It all played a part.”
Often before the fight Leigh Wood was mentioned in the same breath as Carl Froch, though usually only in the context of them both hailing from Nottingham and being involved in ‘world’ title fights held in their hometown. Rarely were similarities ever drawn between the two, at least in terms of styles and mentalities, which appeared an oversight all the more galling given the way Wood, Froch-like, inadvertently cajoled Conlan into trying to finish him early before coming on strong down the stretch and outlasting him.
“I wouldn’t say he has the chin of Froch but he definitely has the same grit and determination,” conceded Conlan. “I’m not a noted puncher and I flattened him in that first round. It became too easy at times to hit him and that was one of my problems. I was being drawn in too much because I was able to hit him at will. It was so easy and, to be honest, I don’t think there’s much he can do to change that. He couldn’t do anything to defend against me as a southpaw.
“When I look back at that fight, it was all on me, the defeat. The shot that I got hit with when I dipped down to the left was a defensive move I do in the gym but I tend to stay there a bit too long at times. I’m supposed to break off and that’s something Adam has been shouting at me to do for a while, but you just get drawn back into old habits. I had to learn the hard way, I suppose.”
To lose is one thing; Conlan, a decorated amateur, is clearly no stranger to setback. Yet to lose in the manner in which he did, by knockout, when doing so well until that point, was perhaps the bitterest of all the pills the Irishman would that night have to swallow.
“It was my first time being knocked out,” he said, “and it was horrible. What a horrible feeling. It’s the most exposed you can ever be as a fighter and as a person. You’re exposed to the world; naked to the world. When you’ve just been knocked out, you are at your most vulnerable, and people can just throw s**t at you when you’re on the ground. They can talk s**t, laugh, and make GIFs of you and, as a sportsperson, you just have to be thick-skinned and take everything. You have to take the bad with the good and just roll with it, I suppose. But it was hard. I didn’t give a f**k what people were saying but it was hard to face up to the fact I had lost and been knocked out for the first time in my life.”
At first, all he had were the feelings: of being knocked out, of being disappointed, of being in pain. The result itself, meanwhile, was to be defined by an absence of everything else. An absence of a belt. The absence of an explanation. The absence of memory.
“After being knocked out your memory is foggy for a while,” said Conlan, who went to Portugal for four weeks with his family after the fight. “You get concussed, so it takes a bit of time for everything to start clicking back into place. It did after a few weeks for me, but my short-term memory wasn’t great.
“Immediately after the fight, when I was in the hospital, I put the fight on and started watching bits of it. I just wanted the f**king rematch at that point. It was in my hands, the win, and I let it go. It was gutting to watch it back.”
Another absence in the aftermath of a knockout loss is sometimes that of information. Certainly, in the case of Conlan, someone who one moment was bravely battling an opponent in the middle of the ring and the next was nowhere to be seen in this very same ring, an absence of information only exacerbated the feeling of disaster at the bout’s conclusion.
“It was so silly,” he said of the reaction to him falling out of the ring in round 12. “It was overdramatised, the whole thing. It kind of annoyed me after, seeing the reaction and stuff. It wasn’t handled well. I was awake when I was on the ground and was trying to get the f**king oxygen mask off because I had my gum shield in.
“We could have put a pin in it right there, but then I later find out everybody thought I was dead. ‘What a horrible knockout,’ they said. But it wasn’t. Not really. If that was in the middle of the ring, I either would have got up or been knocked out and then just been brought over to my stool. But because I was against the ropes when the shot landed it obviously caused it to look a lot more dramatic. It was more annoying than worrying, though, from my point of view.”
Annoying, too, were the three judges’ scorecards revealed after the fight. All three had Conlan ahead at the time of the stoppage, only each of them had him winning by scores (105-102, 104-103, 104-103) indicative of a fight considerably closer than the one Conlan believed had taken place.
“The scorecards were disgusting,” he said. “I was thinking I was up 8-3 when I was in the ring. I don’t think he won many rounds at all. I was in cruise control for a lot of it. Towards the end he pulled himself back into it, but I still felt in control.
“Every time I hit him to the body, he was making these noises, like moaning. I thought, This is easy. I was beating this guy up. He was landing shots of his own as well, and punching as hard as he could, but it was not affecting me. I felt like I was walking through them. There were no noises coming from me. I was just getting on with the job.
“To be honest, I really didn’t think he was as big a puncher as he was made out to be. It’s probably funny me saying that, after being knocked out, but it’s just the truth. He hit me with bigger shots than the one that finished the fight and there was no impact whatsoever. I didn’t feel them.”
Such is the nature of a defeat, any defeat, Conlan will be forced to carry around and sleep with these thoughts and will, wary of the response, have to tread carefully whenever expressing them. For if winning the battle with himself can be achieved with time away and a period of contemplation, winning the battle with the naysayers, those who saw Wood’s power ultimately triumph in the final round, is likely to be a task trickier to achieve without demonstrating his beliefs inside the ring. For that, Conlan, 16-1 (8), requires a second chance.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said of the possibility of fighting Wood again. “I wanted the immediate rematch, I think Eddie Hearn (Wood’s promoter) wanted the immediate rematch, and DAZN definitely wanted it. But I don’t think Wood and his team wanted it. I’ve seen him say in recent weeks that the rematch will happen and a lot of other bulls**t, but it’s one of those fights where an immediate rematch makes sense and is what everybody wants. He says he wants to have bigger fights and achieve bigger things than just fight me. I think he knows he got lucky, though. I even heard him say in an interview that he would take less money to fight someone else than fight me in a rematch. That says a lot.”
Conlan, too, has said a lot over the years, fine talker that he is. Yet now, at the age of 30 and with his first professional loss behind him, he will accept that the key to future success lies less in his ability to talk and more in his ability to learn and to think, two things almost as important as his next move. (An August 6 return against heavy-handed Colombian Miguel Marriaga, by the way.)
So far, the signs are good, with Conlan, a smart, philosophical type, admitting, “When I look back on it (the loss), it’s probably the best thing that’s ever going to happen to me because I’ve learnt so much from it. I won’t make that f**king stupid mistake again. I’ve made that mistake many, many times in training and just got away with it. That won’t happen again.”
He added: “I’ve had to reset my mindset a bit. Before, my path was straight-ahead. It was there in front of me. Now I have to reroute and go a different way. Now I’ll fight any of the champions. I don’t care. I suppose that’s what a loss does. It makes you that bit hungrier. I have no fear of losing anymore. It’s happened. Now I will go in there and fight anyone.
“The loss was a sickener, and a bitter pill to swallow, but the more I think about it the more I have come to understand that these things happen. Everybody has obstacles put in their way. Let’s be honest, until this point there were a lot of people saying about me, ‘He’s had it f**king easy. His pro career has been no problem for him.’ And they were right, these people. Even though there was a lot of stuff going on, and I’ve had some hard fights and moments, as a pro it has felt like it’s been plain sailing for a while. Then, bang! Reality hits you.
“I still believe I will become a world champion, but the path to get there just looks a little different now.”
Later that Monday, hours after successfully completing his first sparring session since March, Michael Conlan made another return, this time to the world of Twitch streaming. It was there, on that platform, as he started up a game of Call of Duty, he allowed himself to once again be exposed to the general public and their baseless opinions, doing so not in search of attention or praise but rather this: normality.
“I streamed for the first time since the fight and I had all these people asking me questions about it,” he said, laughing. “What about this? Why did this happen? Why did that happen? How are you feeling? I wanted to just say to them all, ‘F**k off, I’m trying to play a game here! I don’t want to talk about that f**king fight! But I guess that’s all part of it.”
Winning and losing.
Praise and criticism.
Normality and abnormality.
In the end, these are the dualities not just of games, but of life, a truth discovered only one way: the hard way.