Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Olympics: Classy Conlan in box seat

Michael Conlan (Ireland) celebrates victory over Nordine Ouballi (France)

Michael Conlan jumped for joy in the centre of the ring and his face lit up the Excel Arena with a beaming smile.

Barely out of his teens, he had just become an Olympic medallist.

What a story. What a result.

The Belfast boy is coming home with some souvenir from his trip to London.

We don't know what colour it will be just yet, but if he produces more big finishes like the one he delivered last night, there is every chance it will be gold.

What is certain is that Conlan, the 20-year-old from the Falls Road is, at worst, assured of bronze following a 22-18 quarter-final victory over tough Frenchman Nordine Oubaali.

The contest was tied after the first round and the second, but Conlan turned up the heat in the third and final round as Oubaali tired amid a blistering pace in the ring and a frenzied atmosphere in the stands.

The Irish are having a great boxing tournament — with John Joe Nevin and Katie Taylor guaranteeing themselves medals earlier in the week.

And it got a whole lot better last night thanks to Conlan who, in his first Olympics, has made the semi-finals of the flyweight division.

“It was a hard fight. It was always going to be tough beating him. I had to dig deep,” said a proud Conlan afterwards.

Boxing experts in London will tell you that the Northern Ireland fighter has all the skills to be a champion.

It's his movement that impresses me most — quick feet and hands — and he has a sharp mind too, pouncing when he spots a gap.

He's brave as well and was content to mix it when he needed to before that last bell rang with his right hand scoring the points that won the contest in the dying stages.

This was the third time that these two gladiators had met. Conlan beat Oubaali 20-17 in the World Championships last October, when he qualified for the Olympics, and |19-16 in a four nation tournament in June.

It was just as competitive last night with Conlan fighting as a southpaw, as opposed to the more orthodox style.

This kid's so talented he can do both. Well.

There was an onslaught from the Frenchman right from the off. He started so fast I thought he was in the 100m sprint not a nine minute boxing match. Oubaali was firing off shots all over the place, but not all were connecting. Even so Conlan was fortunate to be level at 5-5 at the end of round one.

The second round began with chants of “Conlan, Conlan, Conlan” echoing around the acoustic arena. The Irish fans were here in numbers. They were roaring Michael on. So too were the British supporters. There was fabulous noise.

The second round was similar to the first with Oubaali coming on as strong as possible. Others may have folded under the pressure. Not Conlan, who hit the target just as much. That round was scored 7-7 leaving it 12-12 with three minutes left.

Conlan, the sixth seed, knew the Frenchman wouldn't give him the fight with an Olympic medal on the table, so he reached out and grabbed it with a fantastic display of boxing in that final round. Time after time the Belfast flyweight caught Oubaali who simply had no answer.

Conlan was getting better the longer the fight went on with his right hand doing most of the damage. Had this gone into round four the margin of victory would have been even greater. As it was 22-18 (10-6 in the final round) was more than enough.

Both men raised their arms in triumph, but only one did it with confidence and that was the Falls Road hero who had just won medal number 15 for Irish boxers in Olympic history.

Not bad for a fella who lost at the Ulster Championships last year.

Once the five judges had checked their cards and the outcome was confirmed the roar from the crowd was a mighty one.

And it was time for Conlan to celebrate.

There could be more to come.

On Friday in the semi-finals the 20-year-old St John Bosco fighter will now take on Cuban Ramirez Carrazana who shocked big British hope and No.2 seed Andrew Selby.

Conlan will happily take the Cuban on. His quest for a medal has now become a quest for gold.

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