Belfast Telegraph

Jim McDowell: Why the only knockout blow Michael Conlan scored was to his reputation

In Northern Ireland the fight game has, ironically, always been about peace - until the Belfast featherweight became mired in the 'Up the 'Ra' controversy, writes Jim McDowell

Michael Conlan in the ring at the weekend in New York
Michael Conlan in the ring at the weekend in New York

Michael Conlan made boxing history at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. But for all the wrong reasons.

Now the boxing authorities should bring him and his entourage to book if they had any involvement in, or input into, that pre-fight pro-Provos charade chorused by a cabal of bigots.

And if it is found they had, they should be banned, at least for a period, from the boxing ring.

Because if ever there was a case of bringing a sport into disrepute, this was it.

And boxing of all sports? Especially boxing in Ireland, and in Northern Ireland in particular.

There is no other sport here that rises from predominantly working-class roots and which has done so much to bind people together.

And still, if that infantile and imbecilic rabble of so-called boxing 'fans' in New York had roared out their "Ooh, aah, Up the 'Ra" mantra at the Ulster Hall or the SSE Arena in Belfast, there would have been a riot.

It would have been investigated for incitement to hatred. Because what it amounted to was a hate crime.

Now, I don't care what terrorist gang of murderers - IRA, UDA, UVF, INLA - any such chant was aimed at eulogising.

And on that score, there seems to be a notion that only unionists are appalled by what happened at the fight night.

Not a bit of it. Many real nationalists will feel sickened, too. Not least the many who are real boxing fans.

I'm a boxing fan. I well remember watching the rise of Barry McGuigan to his world title under the tutelage of his late, great trainer Eddie Shaw and his then-manager BJ Eastwood.

And I fondly recall reporting on how that trio bound the wounds of this society when all of the paramilitaries were trying to blow it apart at the seams.

They packed the Ulster and King's Halls with thousands of fans from both sides of this community or none, among them some of the 'hardest chaws' who ever walked the streets of Belfast, Derry or anywhere else.

From the shipyard, from the docks, from Mackie's foundry and up the Shankill and down the Falls.

Boxing was then the beautiful game, unsullied by bigotry.

Conversely, the fight game was about peace.

It was when the McGuigan entourage opted for healing rather than hurt.

Then, the flag that was carried into the arena in front of the aspiring champ was neither a Tricolour nor a Union flag, but the flag of the United Nations with the insignia of the white dove of peace.

Those were the halcyon days of the hardest game, when two warriors took to the ring seeking triumph. Not triumphalism. And certainly not the terror-linked triumphalism witnessed in Madison Square Garden on, of all days, St Patrick's Day.

On a day commemorating a saint who we all - Catholic and Protestant - share.

But, then again, I have no doubt that the vitriol of the "Up the 'Ra" chant was fuelled by a sizeable posse of those faux 'Oirish-American' punters who have always paid lip service to, and dipped into their pockets for the dollars to fuel, the 'freedom fight' and 'the boys back home' and, of course, 'the cause'.

And who've also never been within a beagle's gowl of Ireland, north or south, to witness the consequences.

As it is, the noble art of boxing has, down the years, served its own noble cause.

Not least on those nights when the King's Hall became a crucible of banter and bonhomie which KO'd, if only briefly, the barbarity and bloodshed on the streets outside.

That was the true spirit of the sport, both inside and - crucially, given the current Conlan controversy - outside the ring.

The vile bile spewed in New York may have besmirched boxing. But it hasn't delivered a knockout blow.

Although Mr Conlan, unbeaten as a professional and, at 27 years of age, aspiring to become another Lord of the Ring (like Rinty Monaghan, Freddie Gilroy, Johnny Caldwell and Carl Frampton before him), may well have made boxing history in the USA.

By delivering a knockout blow. To himself. And his reputation.

Belfast Telegraph

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