By Paul Gibson- follow Paul on twitter @BallsOfWrath
The folly of conflating the combatant and non-combatant shades of a boxer’s character is regularly lost on those not involved in the sport. That fighters can be so brutal inside the ring and so gentle out is still viewed as a delightful paradox by many who, I can only presume, believe that boxers live a life of barely restrained violence, always on the brink of converting latent pent-up rage into manifest hurt and pain.
In reality, of course, boxers this side of the Atlantic have a tendency to be amongst the more humble, amicable and accommodating of professional athletes. Like the naturally shy and retiring lead singer of a band, or the inherently loud and wild small-town librarian, fighters don’t take their work home with them in this respect. Any hint of menace or braggadocious savagery tends to be shed the instant they step out of the ring or gym and back into civilian life.
But even so, when speaking with Belfast super flyweight Jamie “The Mexican” Conlan, a man who has rendered four others unconscious in the last 18 months, it is impossible not to be slightly taken aback by just how genuinely nice he is. On the eve of the biggest fight of his life, I ask him for 10 minutes and he gladly gives me an hour in which he appears as interested in my opinions as I am in his. The only trouble I had was trying to keep him talking about himself, so keen was he to big up his Commonwealth gold medal winning brother Michael, stable mate Marco McCullough, or bill-topper Carl Frampton.
There is a feeling that the 27 year old contender is now on the cusp of moving into the upper reaches of his division. “It’s hard to believe really,” he tells me with a smile, that after a couple of years that were in his own words, “slow and stop-start,” he is now “knocking on the door for bigger things.” The hard to believe comment is nothing more than standard Conlan self-deprecation. In truth, anyone who recognises talent in the ring will attest to the fact that the only thing strange about where Jamie finds himself right now is that it took this long to get there.
The belated career catalyst has been his signing with Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions and the opportunity to fight on five big Belfast bills in succession. Conlan has repaid the faith shown in him many times over with a serious of knock-out victories that have propelled him to number three in the British rankings, number eight and rising with the WBO, and on the radar of world level fighters.
“Hopefully now we’ll get this belt (WBO Inter-continental) and then push on for something else because I always like to progress, I don’t like to stay at the same level.”
Does that mean looking at numbers one and two in the UK, Paul Butler and Khalid Yafai, or further afield? “Cyclone are trying to push on down the WBO path and go for the South American / Asian route because we’ve had trouble getting the British title on the line. So we’ve said we’ll do things our way and, so far, it seems to be working.”
It seems to be working is more classic understatement from a man 24 hours away from fighting in front of 16,000 people for a WBO belt. The WBO route he speaks of most likely means Argentinian, Mexican and Filipino opposition and potential fights in their back yard. After so many home fixtures, how does Conlan feel about long haul flights and performing in a foreign land?
“Either way, the ring is the ring,” he responds. “I’ve travelled the world as an amateur and enjoyed taking in the experience. Everybody has two legs, two arms and a head and until I meet someone with three arms, I won’t be worried.”
Conlan is not the type to get ahead of himself, however, and is fully focused on the job in hand, a ten rounder against Jose Estrella, a short, tough Mexican brawler he describes as like a mini Kiko Martínez.
“He’s a really dangerous opponent, a live opponent, especially dangerous in the first four rounds. He’s a big puncher, constantly aggressive, throws good left hooks to the body and, like a typical Mexican, doesn’t mind getting hit.”
The plan, he says, will be to “fight him with my footwork for the first two or three rounds, box around him, and then when I feel I’m stronger than him, press on and work my own power. Our styles should gel well and produce a very exciting fight for the fans.”
This is the first Mexican Jamie will face and I wonder if Estrella and his camp have questioned why a Belfast boy has “The Mexican” emblazoned on his shorts and robe, a loyal band of followers donning Sombreros at every fight, and mariachi music accompanying him along each ring walk. “He has,” he laughs, “he told my trainer John Breen that we’d find out on Saturday night what it feels like to be punched by a real Mexican.”
Needless to say that the prospect produces zero concern in Conlan’s voice for talk is just that, talk. Nationality has no bearing on a boxing match and, having double checked that Jose does indeed have only two arms, Jamie has no reason to worry nor believe anything other than, this time tomorrow night, he’ll be 13 and 0 and another step closer to a world title challenge.
With the sun reluctant to do its job, and a frigid breeze from Belfast Lough picking up the slack, the temperature at the first bell was fresher than anything they experience down Tijuana way. This was Jose Estrella’s first fight on anything other than his native soil and, watching him bounce and shimmy in the ring whilst awaiting his opponent’s arrival, I half expected his trainer to pass him a shot of tequila to ensure the blood was still pumping hard enough to reach the extremities.
The unfamiliar climate perhaps contributed to an opening round that was relatively quiet by Mexican brawler standards and it was the second before he showed his true colours. All the textbook Mejicano qualities you would expect were evident, but Estrella also had enough head movement to indicate he was much more than a punch bag with arms.
He’d need to be to compete with Conlan, a boxer of deceptive power and lightening combinations that appear to increase in accuracy as a fight progresses. There was little in the opening exchanges but the home fighter probably landed enough clean shots to nick, or at the very least not lose, the first three rounds. But the frequent smiles and nods of the head from Estrella were telling and very early on I scribbled a note along the lines of, this is going the distance.
By the fourth, both the fight and Estrella had fully warmed up and Conlan endured the six most uncomfortable minutes of the contest, and probably his professional ring career. Though never in mortal danger, a cut was clearly visible above his left eye and his face adopted the hue of a man who had spent the spent the day on an Acapulco beach and left the sun cream back in the hotel room. Estrella’s pace at this point was clearly unsustainable, but while it lasted it gave Conlan plenty to think about.
By the seventh, Jamie’s brother Michael at ringside was shouting that Estrella was gassed. That may have been overstating it but certainly the intensity levels and pressure coming from the little Mexican had dropped slightly. The extra half second of time, or couple of inches of space, was all Conlan needed to take control. A reasserted jab and more confident and accurate combinations took him away from trouble and into a final round that Estrella knew was todo o nada.
A Mexican stand-off was the only appropriate way to end a contest between these two and the final three minutes contained enough action, served up within a subtle ebb and flow, to warrant such a description. It was Conlan who came out blazing before Estrella somehow mustered up a fifth or sixth wind to claim 30 seconds or so of his own. They were trading until the end and the wide grins on both faces as they embraced appeared so quickly they may have begun amidst a final flurry of punches before the concluding bell rang.
The judges scored it 97-93, 97-93 and 99-92, all in favour of the local Mexican. The victory was fully deserved and seven rounds to three is pretty accurate. But there is no contradiction between making that statement and then declaring that it was a lot tougher than the scorecards would suggest. More importantly, it was exactly the type of fight Jamie Conlan needed at this point in his ascendency up the boxing food-chain.
Conlan was buoyant at ringside immediately after, like a kid just off the pitch having scored a hat-trick. “I loved it in there, he was good, he gave me a test and they’re the fights you love. I’m buzzing right now.” He was also quick to praise Estrella and acknowledged he was even better than anticipated. “I hit him with some cracking right hands and he just nodded at me and smiled. He hit me hard, he pressurised me well, he found the range well, and he boxed well which we didn’t think he could do.”
But though still only 27 years old, Conlan is wise enough to appreciate the benefit of a fight turning out to be more testing than expected. “I thought if I hit him he would go over but I’m glad I got tested like that. You don’t want someone who’s gonna fall down. I don’t need my ego massaged, I want someone to hit me back and test me mentally and physically.”
Such level-headedness bodes well for when even bigger challenges inevitably arrive. And what of Estrella’s pre-fight promise that Conlan was going to find out what a real Mexican punch feels like? Another laugh as his team begin to usher him towards the warmth of the dressing room before he shouts, “He felt what a real Irish Mexican feels like!”
Three nights later we speak again. “I’m bored already,” he admits, “it’s only Tuesday and I’m already bored.” Conlan is not the type to idle the days away. As a qualified mechanical engineer and tiler, he’s as handy outside the ring as he is inside. He tells me that normally “the missus” has jobs in the house for him and in the past he’d work in his dad’s tiling business. But since John Conlan became the high performance coach of the Ulster Boxing team, that work has dried up for Jamie too. “That’s why I usually go back to training straight away, but the missus has mentioned a holiday instead this time.” I think he’s earned one.
We talk once more about the fight, now that he has had time to review the tape and consider his performance with adrenaline levels significantly lower than at ringside on Saturday night. He is open and refreshingly honest in an assessment that mirrors how I read the fight from the comfort of a front row seat. As with all perfectionists, he first focuses on the negatives, losing rounds four and five and struggling briefly with an awkward cut over his left eye, before astutely drawing the positives from the experience, reasserting authority in a fight in danger of getting away from him and remaining calm despite blood trickling into his eyeball with every blink.
He reiterated again that he is fully aware things are only going to get more difficult from here on in and the ten rounds with Estrella will stand him in good stead. The WBO were impressed with what they saw, describing his work as a “statement performance”, and he could be as high as third in their rankings at the end of the month. If a fight comes his way before Christmas, he is happy to take it. If not, then he is fine with early 2015. Two or three good wins next year and a world title shot would not be out of the question.
A couple of hours after Conlan’s victory in the Titanic Quarter, and with Jamie huddling ringside holding two cups of tea for warmth, Northern Irish boxing crowned its first world champion in 18 years. Looking up, the cold, black, starless night sky reminded him of the only other time he had fought outdoors: an amateur tournament at the foot of the Austrian Alps. A certain Carl Frampton, then an injured member of the same Irish squad, worked his corner throughout the duration of that competition. How Jamie would love to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious friend and one-time spit bucket holder.