Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year: Michael Conlan on growing up in a family of fighters and how daughter changed his life
Last Monday night Michael Conlan was crowned Sports Star of the Year in the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards 2016. Here the world amateur bantamweight boxing champion tells Declan Bogue about growing up in a family of fighters, how his daughter Luisne has changed his life... and why mum Teresa is the real expert on the fight game
John Conlan has a million things to do. He has a squad of Russian boxers coming in the morning and he has phone calls to answer in his role as high performance coach for Irish boxing.
This is one of those precious evenings that he gets home to Cavendish Street in west Belfast. In a row of terraced houses, his stands out. Painted a brilliant white with black reveals, the door lies slightly open, as it does all the time.
Then he starts to talk about his life, his family, his sons, Brendan, Jamie, Sean Paul, and, of course, the World Amateur Bantamweight Boxing Champion, Michael. Time flies because of his charm and magnetism.
His wife, Teresa, comes home. They haven't seen each other in days and greet each other with a kiss. This isn't your usual stable for boxers. They are meant to come from broken homes with hurt buried deep down.
Yet this couple have reared three Irish champions. Jamie is a professional, currently training in Spain, and Michael is a Gold medal hope for later in the year in Rio. Brendan decided he had done enough after winning a few Irish titles.
It's Michael we have come to talk about - his beginnings, his origins. But to trace Michael, we have to trace John.
As a child growing up in Church Street in the north inner city of Dublin, John's father, Terry, was the big influence. As a lathe operator, his job was to make tools for the Dublin Corporation. He could also make golf clubs for his boys.
A soccer player for Shamrock Rovers in his youth, he played every sport. His sons did, too.
On Monday night last, John found himself in the company of Willie John McBride and Pat Jennings when Michael was picking up the Sports Star of the Year Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. He could have pinched himself. That love of all sport was something passed down from Terry.
"We were always encouraged to play stuff. When we were young, it was a very tough, inner-city place. One of my friends, his sister had married a German and he came over and started a cycle club. We all borrowed bikes and then went cycling up into the Dublin mountains," recalls John.
"We always watched the Olympics, which is why Michael understands the dynamics of it, because we watched it when we were young and then I transferred it to them.
"My love of sport kept me out of a lot of trouble. I know this myself, because I grew up in a tough area and they had a lot of problems, crime and stuff. I missed 99% of that stuff, because I was always training in the gym. Some of my friends went onto the dark side. But looking back, sport was really good to me and I enjoyed it, so I always tried to do that.”
He played some soccer. A bit of Gaelic football for Good Counsel, who could point to Kevin Moran as a local boy made good. But boxing was always his favourite.
When he was a young man, he met Teresa Strong of Belfast. Ambitions to emigrate to Australia were put on the back-burner as they started a family.
Boxing was his first love and, although he had taught his boys the basics, he knew he had to step it up.
“I went out the door one day and Jamie went flying in the gate and had this big lad chasing him. They went at it in the garden. Only kids really.
“But I said: ‘Look, I am not having this any more. You are not fighting in the street. If you want to fight, we will go to the gym.’”
With his big brothers making names for themselves, Michael wanted to come along to the Bosco club. He learned fast.
Eventually, a coach called Sean McCaffrey got John to arrive a bit earlier each time and stay a little longer, until he was there for the duration of the session.
It began a coaching journey that has taken him from working in the building game to being an international coach, part of a boxing programme that is the envy of many and the man tipped by some to eventually replace Billy Walsh as head coach of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.
The Bosco club went through a few changes of venue and identity, but the Conlans kept winning. In one session, Brendan, Jamie and Michael all won All-Ireland titles, something never done before or since by three brothers.
Their greatest achievement, however, is the happy home they live in.
“They had a very happy childhood and we have been very lucky. We made a thing of giving them a good holiday every year; being cross-community, we always made sure that they didn’t get stuck into the rut of this place,” explains John.
“They went and saw other cultures, holidays abroad and everything. We never talked politics, we don’t drink in the house. Never.
“I know that goes on, because I am a boxing coach and I hear from young lads coming in, they are wearing the same clothes and have no money. You know things aren’t going well, so you are a social worker as well as a coach in some cases.”
Boxing has been the saviour of many in an area devastated by drugs, alcohol and suicide. Little wonder that from the bottom of the Falls Road to the Kennedy Centre, seven boxing clubs are located along the stretch.
John has learned to live with watching his son in the ring, taking that punishment, giving it out. “I have been through that when they were beaten with close decisions. I have had the rants. I have lost my cool. I have shouted at referees and judges,” he says.
“I have kept quiet when I don’t think they have deserved the win. I have come home in the car when they have cried all the way home.
“All that emotional attachment that comes with it over the years has got me into trouble at times. But, then, the longer I have been with them, I realise it doesn’t help the situation. It makes things worse, it clouds your judgment. I am no use to them if I am ranting and raving.”
Michael and John might even tell you that the real boxing obsessive in the house is Teresa. Earlier this month, John was in Poland at the European Championships and called home.
“She wasn’t giving me the attention I was expecting on the phone. I asked what she was doing and she said she was watching the Canelo (Alvarez) fight — it was a re-run and coming to the good part. ‘Would you ring me back?’ she asked. “She has been around boxing since they were kids. She probably thinks she knows more than she does, because she is a big boxing fan.
“She knows the people around it, she is the most inspirational person around Michael in terms of his attitude and his mental preparation. She is a very strong girl, helped him develop that self-belief. His mam would be the big player there.”
Last year, Michael went through the biggest change of his life. In March, he and girlfriend Shauna were blessed with a little girl, Luisne.
“I think it has made me a lot more mature,” he reflects now. “I was an immature person, a selfish person and I had to be for my sport. I did everything for myself to make sure I was doing the best for myself. Now, I kind of expanded it a bit more and I have become more thoughtful of Shauna and of my parents and what they have done.
“What Shauna goes through on a daily basis when I am away, because I know how tough it is for them. In a sporting sense, it has made me a better athlete, too. It drives me on to be the best I can be, to give my daughter the best life possible.”
The three of them are living now in Mallusk. It might only be seven miles from Cavendish Street, but it’s a culture shock nonetheless.
When he and Jamie moved from his homeplace around the corner to Dunmore Street a few years back, the decibel level increased by “100%”.
“At four or five in the morning, you would hear screaming. Women kicking husbands out of houses, house parties going on all hours of the morning. You just get on with it and get up in the morning to go and train.”
Now, in Mallusk, he can’t sleep because of the lack of background noise.
“There are very young families, they all have young babies and it’s going to be good for Luisne growing up, as well. It’s kind of cross-community as well, there are Protestants, the people beside us are Polish. That’s what you want.
“In my area growing up, you were 100% republican Catholic and meant to hate people. That’s the way it could come across.
“In my house, it didn’t work like that. We were told from a young age it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from. You are still a person with feelings. A human being, not better than anyone.”
Just down the street on the corner of Cavendish and Violet Street, there is a mural of Michael in his boxing singlet and medals from the London 2012 Olympics. At the start, John was pumped by it. Then slightly embarrassed. Now proud again. Michael just embraces it.
“It’s great. The odd time you get recognised as you are walking past it, you notice people saying, ‘There’s him there.’
“I was just amazed by it the first time I saw it. Like, normally the only people that get that are dead people, ex-prisoners. Republicans have their faces on the walls. To have my face on the wall, at the age of 20 — it’s good.”
There is a level of expectation on the likes of Michael, on Paddy Barnes and Katie Taylor, that they are going to arrive home with armfuls of medals from the Olympics in Brazil.
Already, Michael and Paddy are talking like it is their destiny. It is distinctly unlike people from this corner of the globe.
“We have earned the right to be this confident,” Michael will answer.
“I have been reading The Secret and this is all about my self-motivation. I believe everything I am doing has been meant to happen. And I am helping myself. Positive attracts positive, like attracts like. I really believe that works.”
Who recommends his reading?
“My mum. She is a very positive person and always sending me links and stuff, videos and how to prepare for things.
“I don’t really watch them all the time, but coming up to a fight I would watch them, because she sends me something every single day.
“She does love it and sometimes it annoys me that she loves it that much, because I don’t want her to be involved that much, because she is my mum. I am the boxer here, you can’t tell me.
“But she does love the sport and knows more than a lot of boxers. She is a great influence in my life and she is probably the strongest woman I have ever known.”
What goes into the making of a champion? A love of sport. Devotion to the craft. Willpower.
John Conlan gave Michael and his brothers the basics. Showed them the ropes and planted a love of activity, of the world around them and of other people.
Their mother gave them the mental tools, the intelligence to figure things out.
Not your average environment to bring up boxers?
On reflection, the perfect environment.