This article was originally published on FIGHTLAND
It goes without saying that Madison Square Garden is something special. Michael Buffer standing in the ring and giving his spiel – "Live, from the Mecca of Boxing!" – has a terroir, a sense of place that few sports can match. Fighting in the Garden is a big deal. For Irish fighters in particular, few things can matter more.
To the majority of fight fans, Madison Square Garden is known as the venue for two Ali-Frazier fights, for Duran vs. Buchanan, Holyfield vs. Lewis, Joe Louis vs. Rocky Marciano, LaMotta vs. Sugar Ray... I could go on. The first historic boxing TV show was called Famous Fights From The Garden and it was broadcast in 1952. I mean, 1952. You get the point being made here.
For Irish fighters, however, this is secondary. It's hard to understate the importance of New York to Irish culture: it's the 33rd county, the concrete embodiment of the big-time, the proof of having made it off a rural island and onto the world stage. Great Irish boxers might fight just once at New York's top table – Jack Dempsey only managed a single appearance – but Michael Conlan, billed as The Fighting Pride of Eire, is going one better than anyone has managed before. He's making his debut there. On St Patrick's Day. As the headliner.
It goes without saying that Michael Conlan is no ordinary Irish fighter. He comes from the very heights of the amateur ranks, with gold medals at the World and European Championships in 2015 and the Commonwealth Games in 2014, plus an Olympic bronze from 2012. Plenty of boxers have good unpaid performances, mind, but few can have left the amateur scene in such a blaze of glory and publicity as Mick Conlan has managed.
His Olympic dream died in Rio under a cloud of controversy that is still to rise. That he was cheated out of a medal is a no-brainer: he battered Vladimir Nikitin, his Russian opponent, so badly that he was unable to fight the rest of the tournament, but the judges failed to award him a single round. The ref had to stop the bout to mop blood from Conlan's face – Nitikin's. Many ringside observers stated that it should have been stopped before the final bell, but at the end, it was the Russian's hand that was raised.
Conlan's rage was such that it went viral around the world. It bears repeating in full, though feel free to go to YouTube and enjoy the man himself in full Belfast flow: "AIBA cheats, they're fucking cheats. That's me, I'll never box for AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) again, they're cheating bastards, they're paying everybody. I don't give a fuck about cursing them on TV. I was here for Olympic gold but that dream has been shattered now. I have a big career ahead of me, but these are known for being cheats. And they will always be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks – from the core right to the top". He left the ring with a double middle-finger salute to the judges. Later, Conlan tweeted Vladimir Putin, asking simply "How much did they charge you bro??".
His words were not wasted. AIBA suspended all 36 judges from the Rio Olympics, stating that "decisions that were not at the level expected", though the results were not changed. The tournament Executive Director was "reassigned", though nobody really knew what that meant. Later investigations resulted in a meandering 1,000 word statement that pointed to an "unwelcome axis of influence" that had benefitted Russian boxers both in Conlan's fight and in the heavyweight division, where Kazakhstan's Vassily Levit was widely considered to have been robbed. Little good it did for Mick Conlan: by the time it came out, he was long gone.
Almost as soon as he returned from Rio, a deal with Top Rank was on the table and Conlan was all too happy to sign. The symmetry with a few previous names on Bob Arum's stable has been noted. De La Hoya is the obvious starting point: an amateur star who entered the pro ranks straight from the Olympics with a huge fanfare and an inbuilt audience. What Oscar did for Mexican boxing fans with his Cinco de Mayo fights, Top Rank would like Conlan to do for St Patrick's Day, so much that they've provisionally booked the Garden for each of the next five. In-ring comparisons to the Golden Boy might be a little far-fetched for a debutant, but the push that Michael Conlan is getting is unmatched since De La Hoya turned pro in 1992.
A better role model might be with his Hispanic namesake Miguel Cotto. The Puerto Rican made MSG his home venue over the course of his career, fighting nine times there in ten years. Their styles, too, are similar, with Conlan showing the high work rate and boxing skills that bring success in amateur fighting. If he can add the necessary power to make it in the pros, then plenty more appearances at the Mecca of Boxing are assured. He starts this Friday with a gimmie against 4-4 Tim Ibarra over six rounds, and will likely fight another six times in 2017.
Whatever the result on St Patrick's Night – though given that Conlan is currently 1/500 to win, let's not get too bogged down in details – the commercial potential of the fight has already been realised. The New York Irish will be out in force, supplemented by a travelling crowd of around 2,000 from Belfast, assuming the ongoing Storm Stella breaks and the flights can arrive.
The precedent for St Patrick's Day fight success is there – De La Hoya and Canelo Alvarez made Cinco de Mayo their own, and John Duddy had a run at the Garden in the mid noughties – and Top Rank have pulled out all the stops. No less than Conor McGregor will carry the Irish flag to the ring. As the Dubliner likes to say: "We're not here to take part, we're here to take over". That journey starts for Michael Conlan on Friday night.